From Reformed Dream to Reformed Reality: The Problem and Possibility of Reformed Church Unity

An address to the thirty-eighth meeting of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) on November 13, 2012

Until we are revived, we will not have a new reformation. Until we are revived, we will continue to bicker, blog, and tweet carnally over creation days, the historicity of Adam, the relationship between justification and sanctification, law and gospel, how the two kingdoms relate to each other, the church’s witness and work in a dying culture, and a whole host of struggles we are having right now.


Dear fathers and brothers, I would like to play off Dr. W. Robert Godfrey’s “A Reformed Dream” spoken at NAPARC last year and speak tonight on “From Reformed Dream to Reformed Reality: The Problem and Possibility of Reformed Church Unity.” As one who became a Reformed Christian although not being raised or converted from within, I, too, am a dreamer and an idealist. Yet as a Calvinist church planter I know that dreams don’t always match reality. I’m also a student of history, so I know that nothing is as neat and clean as it sounds in textbooks when you actually read the sources for yourself. Whether it was post-Constantinian Christianity, outremer—the Crusader kingdoms—, or pre-Cromwellian English Non-Conformity and then post-Cromwellian English Dissent, I have learned to be a realist.

The Dream

We all know the dream. It is stated in the Constitution of NAPARC: “…hold out before each other the desirability and need for organic union of churches that are of like faith and practice” (art. II).

This “dream” is rooted in and is an application of the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ in John 17. I want to be clear, though. Jesus is not praying for “organic union of churches.” That’s our application of his words. He is praying for that union and communion that he had as the Son with the Father before time existed to be realized in a new way, after his ascension, between he as theanthropos, the God-man, and the Father: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed (v. 5). He goes on to pray for his immediate disciples to know that union and communion with the Triune God inasmuch as creatures can experience it: “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours…Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (vv. 9, 11). He finally prays for the catholic church extended through time: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (vv. 20–23). Notwithstanding D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ influential exposition of John 17,[1] since we find ourselves in a situation where believers are gathered into distinct communities as our denominations are, we can legitimately apply Jesus’ prayer in terms of the ecumenical imperative.

This dream is also rooted in and an application of Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:1–6. What a lofty calling we have: “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3). What is so interesting to note is that this exhortation comes not only in the ethical context of “walk[ing] in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have called” (v. 1) but also a doctrinal context. There is unity, and Paul expresses it in terms of a sevenfold, that is complete, oneness: there is one body of Christ, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, and God (vv. 4–6).

The Problem

This leads me to address the problem. The fact that Paul actually has to exhort those who already been “made…alive together with Christ,” who have already been “raised…up with him,” and have already been “seated…with him in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:5, 6), to then “bear[…] with one another in love” and to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit” with humility, gentleness, and patience (Eph. 4:2, 3), says something about us, doesn’t it? Paul’s exhortation is evidence that we do not do this anywhere near the level to which God demands and desires and that we need. Simul iustus et peccator is a living reality for the church. The problem of unity in the Reformed churches, then, is sin. That’s why on a bad day I would say that the Reformed churches are hopelessly divided in the spirit of Corinth: “’I follow Paul,’” or ’I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Cor. 1:12)

Let me press this deep into your hearts by saying something that I trust shocks you. We are so divided that we cannot have a Synod of Dort or a Westminster Assembly today. Not shocking enough? Here is why I believe this: we are too carnal and insufficiency spiritual for such an assembly. We are too carnal in holding up “distinctives” as virtually inerrant. We revel in famous dates in our respective histories, as if they are a direct line from the apostles through the Reformation to us. We hold up our church polity issues as being passed down from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Let me illustrate by speaking of my own churches. For those of us with Dort-esque church orders, do we really believe the consistory rules the church? Then are we willing to drop the canon law of a second service requirement for the sake of “weaker” brothers, many of whom even mirror our practice of two services yet do not see it as a biblical mandate? If elders rule; let them rule their people as they know best. We are too carnal with so much infighting over preaching. We cluster in our respective corners and raise our flags: biblical-theological, redemptive-historical, grammatical-historical, experiential, evangelistic, fallen-condition focus, and everything in between. We do this as if preaching methodology trumps what we all confess is the first and primary mark of the true church: preaching the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. And I say that as one who thinks Reformed preaching today needs to imbibe and apply William Perkins’, The Art of Prophesying!

Because of this we are insufficiently spiritual. We do not evidence the fruits of the Holy Spirit that reflect the high calling to which we are called (Eph 4:1). Therefore I believe our once legitimate historical, cultural, circumstantial divisions are now a discipline from the Lord upon our movement. Will we fall on our faces together in repentance? Will we arise and with open arms embrace in charity and humility our brothers who differ with us on lesser matters? Can we not follow the example of our forefathers? Are our distinctives and differences any more important than those that existed at the Synod of Dort? One example should suffice. On the issue of how to express the extent and intent of Christ’s satisfaction, there was diversity. Some said Christ died for the elect—period—and that the ancient sufficiency/efficiency distinction was useless. Others said that this distinction was useful since Christ’s intent was not to save the whole world, however, his death has an infinite and intrinsic value sufficient in extent to save the whole world. And there were even a few who affirmed an even broader sufficiency, saying that Christ died efficiently with intent to save the elect, but that he also died sufficiently for the whole world, with the intention of establishing a conditional covenant of grace such that everyone who believes will be saved.[2] And as you read the Minutes of the Westminster Assembly[3] what you learn is that in virtually every chapter of its Confession, there was a serious and significant debate. And I don’t mean just with the “Dissenting Brethren,” but amongst the Presbyterians, both the ius divinum and more moderates. On the broad context of unity and diversity within our tradition as exemplified by Dort and Westminster, we all need to read Michael Haykin and Mark Jones’ volume, Drawn Into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism.[4] Especially of note is Richard Muller’s opening essay in which he chronicles debates of non or sub-confessional issues such as supralapsarian-infralapsarian debates, non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalism, the imputation mediate or immediate of Adam’s sin posterity, the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, the nature of the keys of the kingdom, the millennial kingdom, the nature of Adam’s reward, the organization of covenant theology, justification from eternity, and elements of Cocceian theology.[5]

The Possibility

So where does this leave us? Hopelessly divided? Yes, if we continue to be carnal and immature. But with God all things are possible. I believe the possibility of Reformed church unity hangs upon the person and work of the Holy Spirit. In Matthew 6 and Luke 11 we read one of Jesus’ famous sayings on prayer, that we are to ask, seek, and knock for our good God’s good gifts. What is fascinating is that in Luke 11, our Lord Jesus Christ specifies that there is one thing we are to ask, seek, and knock for most specifically—the Holy Spirit. He is so key to what often feels to me our own version of ex opere operato—as long as we have the confessions, as long as we preach orthodoxy, as long as we have the means of grace, as long as we stick to the old forms—that somehow our bare external conservativism somehow makes us the true church. He is the key, as we must have everything I just said along with our reliance upon the Holy Spirit as the wind that blows the ship of our churches. I believe the possibility, then, of Reformed church unity comes down to our pleading and praying for the Holy Spirit himself to “rend the heavens and come down” (Isa. 64:1) to bring with him “the latter rain” (Joel 2:23), the sweet wine that drips from the mountains, the milk that flows from the hills, and the streambeds that flow with water (Joel 3:18). And when he comes in his gracious person and presence, he brings revival, which leads to reformation, which leads to reconciliation.


We need the Spirit to bring revival. I’m not speaking of revivalism, but of authentic, genuine, and true revival, which J. I. Packer once described as first and foremost “the sense that God has drawn awesomely near in his holiness, mercy, and might.”[6] We need the Spirit’s presence to grant us an awakening to our sins of arrogance, pride, and stubbornness. We need the Spirit’s presence to rekindle in us not only a diligent use of the means of grace, but an awareness and experience that they are means of the Holy Spirit. Caspar Olevianus said that the minister of the Word, and by extension the Word and the sacraments themselves, were Spiritus Sancti organum, organs, means, instruments of the Holy Spirit himself.[7] We need the Spirit to cause us to devour the Word as in the days of our forefathers, who traveled great distances and who stood for great lengths to hear the Word—not opinions—but the Word. We need the Spirit to cause us to long for Christ and his comfort through the sacraments. We need the Spirit to cause us to pray—I mean really pray—like the boiler room at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in Spurgeon’s day. We need the Spirit’s presence to lead us to pursue “the holiness without which no on will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).


We need the Spirit to move us to reformation. As God revives, the church reforms. The evidence of this is found in our confessional documents. When you learn of the history behind the men and the movements that led to these documents, you see the hand of the Holy Spirit leading them to respond to the Spirit’s reviving work in the church in confession of the truth. Until we are revived, we will not have a new reformation. Until we are revived, we will continue to bicker, blog, and tweet carnally over creation days, the historicity of Adam, the relationship between justification and sanctification, law and gospel, how the two kingdoms relate to each other, the church’s witness and work in a dying culture, and a whole host of struggles we are having right now.


We need the Spirit to lead us to reconciliation. I believe reconciliation is Spirit-wrought and leads us to acknowledge our already-existing unity on the basis of our publicly confessed faith—not exegetical differences, not extra-confessional issues, not historical and cultural boundaries, but the truth. We may not see that now through the clouds of our sins, but it is possible.

This brings me back to John 17. What we see here is that the unity between Father and Son (and Spirit) is the basis of what unites us. As the Spirit revives and as we reform we will come to experience that union and communion which Jesus prayed we would have with the Father through the Son. The fact that the one true God is Triune helps us to see that just as there are distinctions between the Persons, in the same way we are one, although with real distinctions that do not obliterate the union. And we can continually be so. The problem of sin is great. But the possibility in the Spirit is even greater. Amen.

Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad /Oceanside, Calif.

[1] The Basis of Christian Unity (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2003) and The Assurance of Our Salvation (Studies in John 17): Exploring the Depth of Jesus’ Prayer for His Own (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000).

[2] W. Robert Godfrey, “Tensions within international Calvinism: The Debate on the Atonement at the Synod of Dort, 1618–1619” (Ph.D. dissertation: Stanford University, 1974).

[3] Chad Van Dixhoorn, The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643–1653, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[4] Drawn Into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism, ed. Michael A. G. Haykin and Mark Jones (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011).

[5] Richard A. Muller, “Diversity in the Reformed Tradition: A Historiographical Introduction,” in Drawn Into Controversie, 11–30.

[6] J. I. Packer, God in our Midst: Seeking and Receiving Ongoing Revival (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1987), 26.

[7] Olevianus, De substantia, 2.33, cited in R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ, Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005), 192.