Second, Reformed doctrines are equipped to drive us towards holding doctrine in high esteem. If humanity's problem is a looking to self and a forcing of God into the dark recesses of one's heart and mind, then the knowledge - the true and accurate knowledge of God and his son Jesus Christ, revealed in the Word, through the Spirit, ought to be core to our conversion and continued sanctification. Reformed faith should drive us to seek the knowledge of God in our theology, because right theology ought to cause us to become more and more conformed to the image of Jesus, who is the perfect image of God.
One might be wondering at this juncture why I'm Reformed if it seems that the Reformed tend to fall so short, so often. Well, that's exactly why! Because this faith causes me to expect nothing less, yet equips me to pursue so much more. My goal in this post is not at all to be hard on those who are Reformed without also providing the hope such a group can have. As I said, I am Reformed and I find the system we have to be very beautiful and very well equipped to drive us to godly living. Therefore, I want to expound on just a small portion of how I believe we, the Reformed believers, should find our structure helpful in both causing us to do some serious introspection in humility, and then driving us to right action.
Q. 135. What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?
A. The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavours, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, Temptations, and practices, which tend to
the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defence thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, Cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreation; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and
courteous speeches and behavior: forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.
Q. 136. What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defence; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, Distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words; oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and
whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.
(Positive) Actions to be Taken: a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreation,
courteous speeches and behavior, comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.
(Negative) Actions to Avoid: the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words; oppression, quarreling,
If you can read these items without your jaw hanging open, you live a far different life than me and anyone else I know. The expectations of these two catechism items are immense.
Many times, I and my community are like the rich young ruler. We're faced over and over again by the Word of God in regard to our sin, yet we look at God and act as though, like the ruler assumed, we have kept the ten commandments. I haven't been a false witness, a murderer, an adulterer, and I have certainly not erected any graven images. Even if I assent to the idea that lust is like adultery and hatred like murder, I minimize the deep actions of the heart and emphasize only the evil of its outworking in the extreme manifestations. Jesus was just being hyperbolic when he compared these grave sins with the minor ones, right? So long as I can avoid the guilt of the tangible, I can live in the virtual innocence of the abstract. I may be a sinner, but I'm not that big of a sinner.
Yet in our catechism, the sins which the sixth commandment encompasses are many. The positive actions undone and the negative actions taken which constitute murder abound. If I am not soberly using my resources - catch that, my resources which I think I earned through my hard work - then I am liable for murder. To put it in Luke 3 terms, if I have two shirts and my brother or sister has none, I had better be giving one of those shirts away. My shirts are really God's shirts, and God's shirts are my brother's shirts. Were I to not perform such a basic act in the early church times, I would have been called a thief for stealing from my brother or sister, as all resources are God's.
James tells us that sin is born when desire gives birth. Our refusal to use our resources soberly while our brethren are wanting means that we may be held accountable as murderers either when our brethren die from our failure to do positive justice, or when they retaliate against us for the oppression our greed has laid upon them. Sure, others are also responsible for how they handle what they've been given or how they treat those who oppress them, but their responsibility doesn't negate our responsibility and guilt. Martin Luther, in his own catechism, makes a comment on the sixth commandment in a similar fashion, extending the expectation of positive justice even towards our enemies. Luther says,
It is just as if I saw some one navigating and laboring in deep water [and struggling against adverse winds] or one fallen into fire, and could extend to him the hand to pull him out and save him, and yet refused to do it. What else would I appear, even in the eyes of the world, than as a murderer and a criminal? Therefore it is God's ultimate purpose that we suffer harm to befall no man, but show him all good and love; and, as we have said it is specially directed toward those who are our enemies. For to do good to our friends is but an ordinary heathen virtue as Christ says Matt. 5, 46.
When I dwell on these teachings, I specifically think about the issue of racial injustice in our world. I have spent the past few years hearing so many in my community condemn and dismiss protestors and rioters - and rightfully so, at times. However, we have failed to ask the questions and make observations that even secular society could see as early as 1968. Hear the words from the Kerner Commission which was tasked to investigate racial unrest - unrest which was fomenting after the Civil Right's era was drawing to a close.
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal... What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
As I reflect on my own life and community, I'm left asking the question, "how can I/we be said to be protecting my/our sacred theology if I/we aren't practicing it?" Belief and action are inseparable, as James tells us. Orthodoxy without orthopraxy is vacuity. We're not conveyors of truth if we're not purveyors of justice. My hope is that I, and my community, will take what has so often been our half-hearted theology and make it whole - a task for which our catechisms more than sufficiently equip us. While many of us currently tend to use our doctrines to expect the worst of others and to judge those "out there," we are failing to see - or even look for - the worst "in here," and the sin which crouches at our own doorsteps. It's time that I and my community become known for a holistic gospel of faith and works, a holistic theology of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and a holistic conversion composed of belief with repentance. We ought to be the most humble, self-reflective people around. And if we can accomplish that, I think God will use such lives of contrition far more than rigid, judgmental condescension.
Right now, me and my group want to be prophets to our culture. We want to decry all the wickedness and evil we see in the world. But when you look at the prophets in the Old Testament, it's interesting to see that a large amount of their prophetic witness and condemnation were directed internally. Many proclamations of judgment and calls to repent were for Israel, not the wicked nations around it. The priority of the Bible is often that of witness, for it is witness which draws others in, not law and condemnation. Our changed natures are the testament to God's power and goodness, the testament by which God transforms others. I understand the modern church's desire to be prophetic to the culture, but we have to first be witnesses. We have to keep in mind that our job is to first judge those inside the church, not those outside the church - and the catechisms provide us with plenty of material to begin doing this. We'll never exhaust the judgment which we can do internally in the house of God, especially if we start with our own heart. The church as witness will never be a city on a hill if we try to build it with all the specks and splinters we attempt to pull from the eyes of those in the world. Instead, such a church must be built with the logs and timbers we pull from our own eyes. Our eyes can supply ample building material to erect an exemplary church to which the world will run for refuge, and the world will only run to such a church that has first become the people of God in both word and in deed. God doesn't want empty sacrifices, especially when those sacrifices are the lives of other and enemy which we're so readily willing to offer. He wants us to be living sacrifices, with broken and contrite heart that pursues justice and mercy, and are poured out for for the world.