The Joy of the Reformed
I wasn't born and raised in the Reformed church. In other words, I am a Reformed immigrant. Like many people in the Reformed church today, I migrated out of broad based evangelicalism and non-denominationalism. Many of my friends, both ministers and laypeople, have had similar immigration experiences.
Recently, at the funeral of my father-in-law, I had the opportunity to get reacquainted with many of my Reformed immigrant friends. Much to my surprise, I found myself having a very similar conversation with this group. They shared with me that they felt like something was missing in their Reformed experience. While they were all satisfied with the doctrine, worship and government of the church they spoke of a missing intangible element. They had trouble articulating the exact nature of this missing element. I suggested a variety of terms to give it a name and the one that seemed to come closest was "joy." These immigrants perceived the Reformed church to be suffering from a deficiency of spiritual joy.
These conversations got me thinking. I did my own assessment of my Reformed experience and, I must admit, I had to agree that "joyful" was not one of the first adjectives that came to my mind to describe it. Then I began to contemplate why the Reformed church seems to be lacking in the joy department. My contemplation yielded two main reasons.
First, I think the Reformed church is joyfully deficient because of the immigration wave of which I am part. Over the past twenty years the Reformed church, particularly through the efforts of men like R.C. Sproul, has been very successful in drawing people out of evangelicalism and assimilating them into the ranks of the Reformed. What attracted these immigrants were the things that they perceived as woefully deficient in evangelicalism. These included things such as irreverent worship, imprecise doctrine and sloppy to non-existent church government. In other words, most of the immigrants to the Reformed world made their migration because they were dissatisfied with evangelicalism. They were evangelical malcontents. This means that many people in the Reformed church today fought their way into it. They entered into the Reformed church with strong convictions and bearing the bruises of their evangelical exodus. This type of soil is not naturally enriched with joy. This type of soil requires joy to be cultivated and we've not been doing a great job at it.
Second, I think we are joyfully deficient in the Reformed church because we are perpetually circling the theological wagons. The Reformed church seems continually occupied with the task of theological preservation, a struggle that resembles Tolkien's battle at Helm's Deep. We are simply forever consumed with survival and we don't have time to focus on neglected, but seemingly less vital, topics like joy. For example, when it comes to the topic of worship we don't spend our time pontificating on the joy of worship, but rather we exhaust ourselves, appropriately so, with topics like the regulative principle. When it comes to the topic of justification, we expend our resources, again appropriately so, in defending its forensic nature rather than on the joy which flows from it. The end result is often joyfully deficient theological precision.
So how do we remedy this deficiency of joy in our ranks? We do what the Reformed have always done-we turn to God's holy Word. There is no doubt that the Scripture emphasizes joy in the life of the believer. This is not the namby-pamby joy of the world, but real spiritual joy that can only be experienced by those who are in Christ. The great Dutch Puritan, Wilhelmus a Brakel, defined this spiritual joy as follows:
This spiritual joy consists in a delightful motion of the soul, generated by the Holy Spirit in the heart of believers, whereby He convinces them of the felicity of their state, causes them to enjoy the benefits of the covenant of grace, and assures them of their future felicity.
Note that Brakel's definition directly links this joy to the "benefits of the covenant of grace." Exposure to God's covenant Word and covenant deeds should yield joy in God's people.
This is exactly what happened in the days of Nehemiah.
In Nehemiah 8 we are given the privilege of witnessing an ancient worship service which was celebrated after the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt. The people begged for God's Word and they listened to it attentively. The congregation of God's people felt the piercing power of his Word and they also felt the weight of their sins. This led them to mourn and grieve.
But then something quite extraordinary happened, Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites commanded the people to stop their mourning. Nehemiah told them why they must do this, "Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10, emphasis mine). With these words the worship service ended and the Scripture records what the congregation did next, "Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them" (Nehemiah 8:12, emphasis mine).
This account from Nehemiah demonstrates that spiritual joy flows from a proper understanding of God's covenant Word. But this text also teaches us that the ministry has an important role to play in encouraging that joy among God's people. When ministers read and preach God's holy Word, particularly God's law, we must always speak to God's people like Nehemiah. We must say to them "Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10). We must remind them of the source of their joy.
In the Reformed church we need to do a better job of emphasizing this spiritual joy in our own lives, in our congregations and in our pulpits. We must remind our people that, just like our righteousness, spiritual joy is not something we can create or produce. It is an alien joy. It comes from our communion with God and it is only made possible through the propitiation of Jesus Christ. We must remind God's people that it is God who sovereignly bestows this gift upon his children. We must tell them that this joy is so powerful that it can be experienced even during our trials (James 1:2) and at all times (Philippians 4:4). We must commit ourselves to proclaiming to God's people the "benefits of the covenant of grace." This is exactly what I plan to do in 2010. I plan on emphasizing this Reformed joy in my preaching in 2010. I hope you will consider joining me in reminding God's people that the joy of the Lord is their strength!
Anthony T. Selvaggio is presently serving as a Teaching Elder in the Rochester Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA), Rochester, NY. His published work includes The Prophets Speak of Him: Encountering Jesus in the Minor Prophets, (Evangelical Press, 2006), What the Bible Teaches About Marriage (Evangelical Press, 2007), A Proverbs Driven Life (Shepherd Press, 2008) and 24/7 Christian: Expository Thoughts on James (Evangelical Press, 2008). He also edited and contributed to The Faith Once Delivered (P & R Publishing, 2007).