Recently a group of CRC pastors has called for a Third Way in the CRC under the banner of “Better Together.” This is a serious call that is worthy of serious reflection. This post is the third in a series of reflections on that call (read the first post and the second post).
Having reflected on what the CRC might look like if we consistently allowed a variety of belief, teaching, and practice on “non-salvific ethical issues” I would like to revisit the idea that the matters considered and decided (re-affirmed) at Synod 2022 regarding human sexuality are non-salvific.
As to sin in general, we might say both that sin is non-salvific and also salvific in categorization. How so? As to its non-salvific nature, we can all agree that the very act of sinning does not endanger a believer’s salvation.
“No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:18)
“None is righteous, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10)
Paul struggles with his natural tendency to sin in Romans 7 yet does not end in despair but in the resolution of Christ’s sacrifice and perfect righteousness. So we can boldly claim that we are righteous through Christ, and our indwelling sin that persists against our will does not endanger or make us question our salvation. This is consistent with our teaching around the Lord’s Supper and as found in the Fifth Main Point of Doctrine in the Canons of Dort.
But that is not the end of the story. What if we were to behave as if we are not saved? What if we persist in sin unrepentantly? What if the old man of sin still reigns and the new man does not drive us to repentance?
Belgic Confession Article 29 teaches that one of the marks of the true church is that it “practices church discipline for correcting faults.” What is the nature of these faults if not sins, and what it is the need for correction if not unrepentance? It is often thought or loosely said that the church disciplines because of sin, but that leaves out an important qualifier. The church disciplines unrepentant sin.
No church discipline should ever be started that could not be ultimately carried to excommunication. Such is the seriousness of unrepentant sin. The CRC form for excommunication states the following:
“In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hereby exclude (name) from membership in the church of our Lord, knowing also that God himself excludes him/her from fellowship in Christ and all his blessings as long as he/she persists in his/her unrepentance.”
Is the CRC extra-biblical here? Should we not rather suffer unrepentance among us for the sake of welcome, knowing that we are all sinners by nature? We can answer this question from scripture. What is the action and reasoning of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 concerning unrepentant sexual sin in the church?
Paul uses his apostolic authority to excommunicate a sexually immoral man from the church. Paul uses the dramatic language that the church was to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” to the end that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Are we wiser than Paul? Of course we know that this is not just Paul speaking, but God himself. Are we wiser than God that we would say some sin in the church is not important enough to teach against consistently and to repent of regularly?
Allow me to apply this to myself, because I hear someone thinking “What about greed? What about coveting?” Suppose I am generally a nice person, I serve faithfully in the church, I work well with others, I generally demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, and I profess faith in Christ. But suppose that I maintain that I am justified in my idolatry. I really believe that idols help me understand and worship God better and I feel closer to God when I use idols for worship. You may rightly quote to me I Corinthians 6:9:
“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men.”
We know that these words cannot mean anyone who has ever committed any of these sins, else none would be saved of all humanity. It must refer to those who live these ways as a pattern, or unrepentantly. So, if I unrepentantly live as an idolater despite God’s word to me and despite the admonition and instruction of the church, this verse clearly indicates that I will not inherit the kingdom of God.
It doesn’t matter that I’m a nice, well meaning, or active church member; I'm giving evidence that my heart is not changed by my lack of repentance from idolatry. If the church left me in that place, or even encouraged me to explore and develop my practice of idolatry given how meaningful it was to me, she would be derelict in her duty.
Joyfully, on the CRC website and in our hymnals right after the Form for Excommunication is the Form for Readmission. In the Form for Readmission we read:
“We now thankfully and joyfully announce that our brother/sister has shown true repentance and has expressed his/her desire to be restored to full fellowship with the Lord and his people.”
Again we see that repentance is the key. If I am put out of the visible church for the sake of my soul because of my unrepentant idolatry, I am welcomed back when and if I repent of that sin and begin to strive against it.
The CRC has decided again and again that a proper understanding of Scripture must include the condemnation of premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex. How then can we live together in unity while allowing some to remain in these sins unrepentantly? How can we consider these sins, when not repented of, to be anything less than soul-destroying? Will we call God a liar and insist that we can live as we want and inherit the kingdom of God?
The answers to these questions rule out the acceptance of unrepentant sexual immorality as a non-salvific matter that we can simply set aside as negotiable or optional.
In a fourth installment I hope to think about the idea of the CRC as uniquely positioned or qualified to make a middle path work.