What it means to pray for one’s enemies, and to bless those who are cursing you. The ANC’s mass action campaign commenced today. Mark, we need your prayers especially for those who are losing hope, temper and perspective. Many black Christians are being intimidated not to go to work. and they live in precarious conditions with little or no infrastructure as a direct result of this so-called “freedom struggle for democracy.” His letter calls for prayer for those who may be losing hope and perspective. South Africa is one of those many places where there is currently a struggle between opposing worldviews, between various belief systems. While communism may be officially discredited in many eastern European countries and in many African countries communism (or Marxist-Leninism) remains a lively force in South Africa. Furthermore, in Africa in general, and especially in northern Africa and Europe, Islam also poses a powerful threat to the world-and-life view which we know as Christianity. As the 20th century comes to a close, does Christianity still retain the vigor and vitality to confront Islam, or the lure of communism, or the subtle destructiveness of western secularism?
Before I returned to the USA this past June, several of my friends had noted in letters to me that I would be returning to a country and a denomination, the Christian Reformed church, that was quite different than the country and denomination I left back in June 1990, I sense that such is the case. While I’ve been away, a war was fought in the Persian Gulf and the Soviet Union is no more. An American president has risen to 90% approval rating and then plummeted to one of the lowest approval ratings in recent times. As for the Christian Reformed church, it has debated the questions surrounding women and ecclesiastical office, creation and evolution, and its synodical decisions have left many unhappy and unsettled. Some CRC congregations or parts of some CRCs have severed relations with the CRCNA. Yes, things are different in this world, this country and in the CRC, to mention only one denomination.
It is in this context that I speak to you this evening on the topic of “The Saints’ Service and the Seminary’s Work.” I do so, as many of you can well guess, basing my remarks primarily on God’s word in Eph. 4:11–13 . Open your Bible to this portion of God’s Word with me, if you will. Paul is noting the gift nature of the people who minister, who serve the Word of God to the people of God. Now many of you know me as a preacher and teacher, and I realize that I run the risk of preaching a sermon at this point; but please indulge me somewhat as r point out some of the significant aspects of this passage and the bearing it has on the topic at hand.
Ephesians is a letter that begins with a doxology. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). Why the praise for God? He has elected us in Christ before the foundation of the world. This choosing is always in Christ, in love. This electing love comes to expression in history with the purpose o f bringing “all things in heaven and on earth together under one head , even Christ” (1:10). We hear the Word of truth, the “gospel of your salvation” (1:13). With this hearing, God gives us, His own elect, faith to believe this gospel. Paul continually prays for the church to experience God’s great power, the power of the resurrection (1:20) of Jesus Christ Himself. Everything is under the fee.t of Christ “for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1:22–23).
God is rich in mercy and saves us by the same electing, sovereign grace so that we may do good works (2:8–10). He is building the church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ being the chief cornerstone. This church is composed of believing Jews and Gentiles, brought together by the Holy Spirit through the blood of Christ. This union of the elect in Christ is the great mystery, kept hidden in the past but now revealed by the preaching of the Gospel. Note 3:12: “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” We’ll return to that later. In a concise way, Ephesians 1–3 is a grand statement of the Gospel.
In Ephesians 4 comes the application: “Walk worthy of the Gospel. Be a church that confesses one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:5–6). Christ distributes various gifts to His church so that the whole may function well as each part does its part. This is the grand context in Ephesians for my remarks on Ephesians 4:11 f. “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” The NIV translation hides the original too well in 4:12. Literally it says that Christ’s gift of these various ministers of God’s Word are given with one goal in mind: equipping “the saints” for a work of “ministering/service.” Where the NIV says “God’s people” the original speaks of “the saints.” And that wording of the Bible is significant, it seems to me.
The word “saint” has a way of unnecessarily frightening us. It connotes a person of extraordinary piety and devotion, some person who seems to float on clouds unconcerned with mundane affairs of this poor earth. But the Bible does not understand “saint” in this fashion. A saint is a holy one, one who has been separated from the sin of this world and given access to the presence of God, something like a priest in the Old Testament. That is the teaching, unknown to the Reformed branch of the Reformation. All believers have an approach to God that is direct in Him, that is, in Christ Jesus. Therefore, they have a freedom, a confidence, even a boldness to come to the throne of grace whenever they have need.
This freedom, confidence and even boldness reminds us of our first parents Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were the first priest-rulers over the creation of God. Although we do not have the time to develop this thought here, I would submit to you that the Old Testament office of the priest was God’s way of embodying in the history of redemption, in the context of the old covenant believers, the original office that man held. The calling, the vocation, the office if you will, of being human, made in the image of God, is to present oneself before God, perfect and spotless, with gifts of creation ruled and subdued, facing God without shame, not empty-handed, but joyfully laying offerings of love before Him who rules alt things. This was Adam’s task; this was the priests task (on behalf of Israel); this was the second Adam’s task; this is now the Christian’s task—saints’ service. This service includes coming before God in corporate worship with willing and joyful hearts, but also throughout the whole universe of life, offering to God gifts, tooled out of the resources of creation, but presented to Goo out of hearts that are readily offered to Him.
All of this is suggested in Ephesians 4:11–13. Again the NIV hides something of the grand crescendo that these verses express in the original Ianguage. The saints, God’s people, are engaged in a work of ministering/service, unto building the body of Christ, unto the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, unto the perfect man, unto the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Do you sense the crescendo, the buildup? Paul returns to this in 4:18. From the Head, Christ. comes the growth and edification when every part does its part. Christ. like a second Adam, is the “perfect man,” the mature man, and He gives the growth to the whole and every single part of His body, the church.
Someone recently said to me in a joking fashion, “Now I know why God said that we should subdue the earth. If we don’t subdue it, it will subdue us.” Because of the fall into sin, that has now become true. The service which you, God’s people, saints, are to render, occurs in a society that steadfastly refuses to be ruled by the Word of God. And that means that Christians in political, business, educational and ecclesiastical life are subject to open and brutal assault or subtle, alluring temptations to compromise and -go along-with the current trends. Thus all the gifts of God which we try to present to Him are always tainted by sin; and we need, even for our best efforts, the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood. The service to be offered by you the saints, occurs in this world of growing Islam, subtle secularism and discredited but not yet entirely dead communism. Also, we Christians that are Reformed according to the Word of God, face the sweet call of fundamentalism and dispensationalism which tells us that this world is about over anyway; let’s wait for the rapture, maintain good doctrines but keep away from involvement in this dirty, vile world.
But that’s not so easy. The issues of the day have a way of constantly pressing themselves upon us. We cannot leave this world. The dominion covenant mandate-rule and subdue this world for the glory of God—a mandate given to the original priest-king in the Garden of Eden, is given new impetus in the great commission of our Lord Who calls us to disciple Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, through Christian baptism and Christian obedience to every thing Christ taught us.
What are the issues of the day? Colonel Doner in his book, The Samaritan Strategy (1988, p. 201) mentions just some of these issues of the day. “Exploitation, poverty, AIDS, the elderly, abortion, alienation, war, oppression, justice, righteousness these are the issues of the nineties…America is an empty, drifting nation. Americans are alienated from them· selves, from God, from their leaders. We are starving for vision. America is suffering an unprecedented crisis of confidence in its leaders and its institutions…A global vacuum is being created as God: continues with His plan to draw all nations to Himself, and as man’s best efforts are revealed as increasingly futile.”
The body of Christ has also been struck with the virus of sin, and there are things which ail us. Is there racism in the world? It’s also in the church. Is there tyranny in the world? There is sometimes tyranny practiced in the courts and assemblies of the church. Is there anarchy in the world? There are moments when rank and file Christians are also lawless, acting in anarchy. Is there abortion, people who are poor and sick unto death in the world? Yes, but abortion is also among us: the poor are still with us, and those dying of diseases, sometimes incurable, are also close to us.
Thus the saints face a great task, speaking the truth in love, but also living out the truth in love. Actions give flesh to the words we speak, while words explain the deeds we perform. And here is where the Reformed, Biblical. Christian faith comes in and offers to the world ultimately, but to all Christians primarily, that well-rounded answer that alone restores this sinful, broken, desperate world. The Reformed faith can be promoted in the marketplace of life, that place where ideologies of the left and the right battle for the heart and soul of this age and world. The Christian Right was big news ten years ago, but what has really happened? The Christian Right faded, some Christian thinkers believe, because it promoted its own agenda with passion, not Christ’s agenda with compassion. “Single-issue” campaigns tend to lose steam, even credibility. The Reformed faith is not a “single-issue.” One cannot combat secularism, Islam or any other “ism” with a single-issue cause. The Reformed faith has produced people who stand up to all tyrants and dictators in both church and state. It has produced saints who build Christian schools, hospitals, homes for the aged, abortion counseling services and a whole host or institutions which must and should seek to demonstrate the life of the kingdom of God. Professor M. Noll says this (Strategy, p. 124):
Reformed attitudes toward life in the world have had an immense effect on American history. Calvinistic convictions about living all of life for the glory of God led to the remarkable experiment of seventeenth century New England where Puritans created the freest. most stable and most democratic society then existing on earth. In the eighteenth century the Puritan passion for public justice provided, if not the specific ideology, at least much of the energy for the American Revolution and the creation of a new nation. During the nineteenth century, Protestantism fueled immense labors of Christianization and civilization—subduing a continent, democratizing a people, evangelizing at home through revival and abroad through missions, reforming practices, and surviving a civil war that ended with the prohibition of slavery.
Do you sense it? Saints have this task: to further God’s great glory throughout the whole universe of life. What a task! What a challenge!
If we ever think that we saints are left orphanless, then we must remember and believe what Paul says in Ephesians 4:11: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers…” He does not say that He gave gifts to be apostles. Nor is the apostolate (in the abstract) the gift. The reference is distinctly personal: He gave apostles, He gave prophets and all the other Word-bearing officers of His church.
To be sure, some of these people have passed away. The New Testament apostles and prophets are dead, but their function did not lapse. Their words are in Scripture. They are foundations, and foundations are laid only once (2:20). Once that foundation has been laid, then we may only build on it, not try to lay any new foundation.
All of these people mentioned in verse II deal with the word of God. Evangelists reach those people who are outside the church so that inside the church they may be pastored and taught. The Gospel which must reach those outside the covenant community is the same Gospel which must nurture and instruct the saints, the priest/rulers of this creation, in their task. Paul says in 4:12 that they are to “prepare” or to “equip” the saints for the work of ministering/serving. Thus the task of a pastot/teacher in the church is to equip. What is equipping, preparing? Patzie (p. 219) defines it as “a harmonious development in which all parts are brought to a condition of being able to perform according to their created purpose” (Cf. II Tim 3:17). Doesn’t that remind you of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?
God has instituted the office of the ministry of the Word and sacraments because He is in history and in time and space restoring the office-bearers, the priest-rulers of creation. When a person is in Christ, he or she is restored to office. Every office has a task, a calling, a vocatio. Because even an apostle must run the race with the other members of the church, we realize that the ministry of the Word must and should occur within the congregation of the Lord and for the congregation of the Lord. Thus the pastorate is not erased as a distinct office in this day and age, but its character is established, defined and given boundaries. The minister of the Word of God, the Verbi Dei Minister, is a minister—a doer of the lesser things. He is not a magistrate, one who lords it over anyone. He is one of the congregation, given by the Lord for the congregation, for the task, which saints have.
Mid-America Reformed Seminary is born out of a vision that is rooted in this Biblical perspective as Paul spells it out. Mid-America arose out of the ranks of the church but for the church, the people of Goo, you saints who have your own particular callings.
Mid-America Reformed Seminary began with a firm commitment to the Reformed confessions of the continental Reformation, along with a deep appreciation for and a willingness to acknowledge as Reformed, the confessions of the Scottish and English Reformation. Therefore as the years go by, and God in His mercy continues to bless us in ways beyond our control and even beyond our imagination, Mid-America gains more and more friends and recognition within not only the CRC, but also the RCUS, the OPC, the PCA, the OCRC and several other Reformed congregations which are currently independent of denominational affiliation. Loyalty to the Reformed faith, as that comes to expression in the great confessions, enables us todo this. Commitment to the Reformed faith with its inherent ability to address all the issues of this day, enables us at Mid-America to serve a student body that comes from a variety of church backgrounds. That’s exciting! It’s challenging as well because of the currents which on the one hand, threaten to dissolve denominations but on the other hand, serve to bring together Reformed believers from that variety of backgrounds into new, living relationships. Confessions are statements of unity that bring believers together on one platform: they express what lives in the hearts and lives of those people who stand under them. We at Mid-America covet your prayers and encouragement so that we may enthusiastically maintain that Reformed confession.
What is the Seminary’s work? First of all, we (and you with us) must receive these men who have come to study with us as Christ’s gifts to His church. Do they have all of the gifts necessary to be good, Reformed pastors and teachers? We at the Seminary look for this: but the churches, pastors, elders and believers also look for such gifts. Pastoring, teaching and presenting the Word of the Gospel is not a cold profession: it is an art in which the gifts of Christ in each one of these men are molded, shaped, given form and clear purpose. Why do we do this? Because the glorious body of Christ must have nothing less than this. Saints have challenging tasks amongst themselves and brutal opposition in the world. Don’t let them down!
Therefore, at Mid-America Reformed Seminary we have stressed (and I pray will continue to stress) a redemptive-historical understanding of God’s covenantal grace which moves steadily forward in history, redeeming men and women in this world for service in God’s kingdom. We will teach that in the Biblical courses. We will continue to teach correct handling of the Word of God. We are committed to giving our students the tools necessary for bringing new and old treasures out of the Bible faithfully every Sunday. Saints need to be taught the Gospel again and again, but in fresh ways, with the texture and flavor that every text contains. Mid-America students will be taught the great system of truth, Reformed teaching, that lies over and within the whole of Scripture. They will learn how God has caused His church to grow and spread over all of this world. They will be exposed to ethics, other religious systems, pastoral care of the saints, how to preach—and on and on. Of course, these subjects are taught in other seminaries, but at Mid-America it is my fervent hope and prayer that these will be taught to these students, these gifts of Christ, from the Reformed perspective, taught with competence and enthusiasm.
At Mid-America we are glad when our students leave. Does this sound strange? It’s never easy to see students leave after graduation who, with their families, have become good friends in Christ. But it is good to see them eager to get beyond the classroom to enter the Reformed churches and pulpits to announce the good news of the Gospel of God’s kingdom. In that sense we are glad when our students leave us. God bless all of them as they prepare God’s people for works of service.
The greatest thing we can do for the church in this country and in this world, is not to try turning out men who are everything for everyone, but rather men who know the Lord, who know His Word and who have the tools and the desire to use the tools to equip the saints, to prepare them to grow as the body of Christ. to present their lives as living sacrifices in this world and in this country, this community where the opposition to the Christ and His Kingdom is still so strong.
At Mid-America we are not perfect. We sometimes make mistakes. But we carry on to serve God, teach His Word and prepare those ministers who will leave us to equip the saints, men who will prepare God’s people for works of service.
I invite your continued prayers, your warm support, your words and deeds of encouragement as we try this year and in the future to better train these men, godly men, so that they may better train you. “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament. grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Eph. 4:14–15). We can’t stop, and we won’t stop, until the whole church and every individual within that church are awakened to the glorious calling as priest-rulers, fully and joyfully committed to that apostolic message of life and service in the kingdom of God.
Rev. Vander Hart is Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Orange City, IA.