New Horizons

Skipping Chapel

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

I am sorry to hear that you may be removed from the Honor Roll because of your failure to attend chapel. As you might expect, your mother was a bit agitated by the way your transgression may affect your academic standing. Granted, you did not understand the consequences of your actions, and I hope that by perfect attendance for the rest of the semester and perhaps a little extra volunteering in the Student Services Inner-City Project you will earn back your status on the Dean's List. At the same time, I have to admit my own disappointment.

Of course, when I was in my last semester, I was not immune to the temptation to which you succumbed. Seniors do lots of stupid things, thinking that school officials cannot possibly enforce penalties because those graduating will no longer be under the school's oversight. But in this day of computers and bar codes, school administrators have figured out that overdue library books, poor chapel attendance, and parking fines can be processed as part of graduation. College students tend to overestimate their ability to outwit seasoned college staff.

I will concede that chapel is not always appealing. Again, in my day the services may have been boring, but at least we sang a hymn, heard Scripture, and listened to a brief meditation on the Bible. The music, the talks and promotions, and the emphasis on inspiration over indoctrination in today's chapels at Rutherford give me real reservations about the usefulness of chapel to students who regularly attend church services.

But even if your objections to chapel are valid, as part of your belonging to Rutherford you should attended the required number of services.

Still, I think you are correct to take exception to the dean of students calling you and the others skipping chapel "antinomian." In my estimation, you did not think you were above the law, or else you would not be accepting your punishment and looking for legitimate ways to absolve your guilt. Nor have I sensed that you believe that Christian liberty gives you license to do whatever you want. Sometimes the word antinomian is thrown around recklessly.

In point of fact, Presbyterians have never been antinomian, at least on paper. Our Confession of Faith is clear in the chapter on Christian liberty that our freedom from the guilt of sin, God's wrath, and the curse of the law, is no warrant for practicing any sin or cherishing any lust. The real antinomians at the time of the Westminster Assembly were actually groups like the Quakers, who believed that because of their "inner light" they could dispense with all outward forms and rules. Presbyterians have never argued that they could do as they wished because of the gospel.

At the same time, the Reformed faith teaches that our doing good works or observing religious practices is not a condition for God to save us. Of course, Adam initially did need to obey the law to be saved. He failed. Only Christ has been able to do all that God required. But Christ did not merely suffer the penalty for Adam's sin and so put believers on a Garden-of-Eden playing field, once again under obligation to keep the law or else face eternal condemnation. Not only did Christ suffer the wrath and curse of God, but he also obeyed the law perfectly, so that anyone who trusts in him has Christ's righteousness as if it were his very own.

The technical terms for Christ's work are "active" and "passive" obedience, as I'm sure you remember from Mr. Reynolds's Sunday school class. Because Christ met every obligation of the law, and because we are righteous by faith alone, we are tempted to think that our keeping the law is inconsequential to our salvation. The appeal of that logic explains why Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 6, "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?" Of course, his answer is, "By no means!" But since Christ has done everything that we could not, what we do does not matter for making us righteous.

For that reason, the law's place in the believer's life is one of conforming more and more to the image of God, so that our lives reflect the very righteousness we possess in Christ. As the Heidelberg Catechism helpfully explains—see, you should have taken that theology course with Professor Burns—"We do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ" (Question 86).

So we don't follow rules or obey the law in order to improve our standing with God. Nothing can make us more righteous than Christ's righteousness. That sounds antinomian. But it simply means we have a different motive for doing good works. As Paul explained in Galatians 6, we follow Christ's law to bear others' burdens. Because Christ has lifted our burden of guilt and death, we are now free to render service and worship, however imperfect, to God and to assist our neighbors.

I hope you can remember some of this if you get a chance to talk to the dean. Even better, I hope the chaplain decides to devote some of the services to basic Christian doctrine. It just might tempt seniors to attend.


Uncle Glen

"Uncle Glen" is a pseudonym for two Orthodox Presbyterian elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2010.

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