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Creed in Chaos: Reflections on Foster Care, Seminary and the Practicality of Being Confessional

11 June, 2008

joshFrom C or C’s Josh F.

By day, I’m a seminarian.

By night, my wife and I work with foster youth, who have experienced some of the most terrible deeds of sinful mankind – all of which are too graphic or personal to share in detail on the Internet. I’m sure that you can imagine some of the situations that these kids have suffered and endured.

To give you some sense of my setting, my wife and I care for 8 teenage boys. They all come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds: there are three Caucasians, two African Americans, two Hispanics, and one who is both Hispanic and Caucasian. Add to the environment my Caucasian wife, my son, and prenatal daughter. My experience is never boring and never unchallenging. We are responsible for feeding them, helping them with their homework, disciplining them, and giving them guidance in everyday life issues. Now join that together with me, a 28 year-old Caucasian, who in many ways feels unprepared for such a task. In my analysis, these amalgamated ingredients all have the making for imminent disaster and formidable chaos.

That’s where Westminster Seminary California comes in and its commitment to teach me the ecumenical creeds (read: Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, and Definition of Chalcedon) and the Reformed confessions (read: Westminster Confession of Faith, Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, and Belgic Confession), which have become my creed in chaos.

Notice that I did not emphasize the things that the world and, in many cases, churches would emphasize. Many of them are looking for new measures, methods, and techniques. In most cases, doctrine isn’t critical. According to Westminster faculty, the doctrine drives methods and techniques. I’m not going to be pretentious. I don’t have any exciting stories of these boys accepting the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ on account of my training at Westminster, but I can say with confidence that the Reformed confessions and Westminster Seminary’s explanation of them have given me something to confess in the midst of chaos-something that stabilizes me personally and gives me a means to think theologically about my daily difficulties at work. The creeds, confessions, and systematic theology are practical to any profession. They are not solely for the ministers of the church, a common but false assumption of the average churchgoer.

I’ll just offer one dominant way in which Westminster has helped me in my job (maybe, I will share more later). Every doctrine in some fashion or another practically helps me-even though there may be varying degrees of practicality, depending on the particular situation. The notion that learning systematic theology and studying the creeds and confession somehow destroys any real possibility of loving and helping others is patently false.

I once heard it said that I needed to be real careful of systematic theology and the Reformed confessions (a ‘paper Pope’), because they make one condescending and arrogant towards others. I do understand that some Reformed Christians are this way, but my experience with the students and faculty at Westminster has directly contradicted this claim. As I have grown in my understanding of biblical dogma, I have increased in my love and patience for those who don’t yet trust in Christ as their only hope and salvation.

The popular position of many evangelical churches (at least the ones that I grew up in) is that if people believe that others are utterly sinful and that there is not even a little bit of good in them, then this belief will inhibit loving others genuinely. The argument is that it will make a person careless. This is wrongheaded. Paul says that we are by nature children of wrath and that we are sinners on account of Adam’s rebellion (Romans 5:12; Ephesians 2:3). I never really understood the significance of sin until I was exposed to a Reformed take on anthropology (the study of humanity). It literally revolutionized my biblical paradigm. Once I realized that the holiness of God far surpassed anything that I could ever attain, I began to realize-much like Luther in his Anfechtungen (inner trials and conflicts)-that I could no longer look inward for peace and fulfillment. All of my striving, all of my efforts were in vain. Having been taught that the gospel was sanctification, I grew in despair. I believed that I needed to be righteous in order to prove that I was truly a Christian, but I could not be righteous like Christ. I could not follow him the way that ministers in the pulpit urged. I continually failed. I could not meet my end of the deal by showing God how thankful I truly was in my practice of holiness. I really needed an exterior righteousness, a perfect righteousness to be credited to me as if it were my own (imputation). I learned that Christ died for me while I was a sinner and that he justified me on the basis of his merits. I didn’t have to pay God back for the free gift. It was paid-in-full.

Corresponding to this realization, I really began to appreciate the magnitude of his love in sending his Son to purchase an alien (exterior) righteousness for me. So why is this important to my job? Simply put, I have a greater understanding of the sinfulness of man and how undeserving I was to have received Christ’s meritorious benefits in his active and passive obedience to the law of God. As a result, I don’t have unrealistic expectations of sinful people, because I have a biblical view of people. Westminster has made me ever aware of what it’s like to be simul justus et peccator (simultaneously a righteous person and sinful person). I haven’t forgotten what it is like to be enthralled by sin. I haven’t forgotten my Egypt. The law of God is so grand and my competence in fulfilling its demands is so weak. Thank God for the gospel, and Westminster has made me increasingly conscious of my need for it.

The Reformed faith constantly teaches me to proclaim the gospel as my solution and the boys’ solution to the problem of sin. Man-made methods, medicines, and the boys themselves cannot change the disposition of their heart. I have additionally learned to follow in the footsteps of the apostles and Christ how to love sinful people-and genuinely love them at that. I’m usually never shocked at their depraved behavior, probably because in some way or another I have desired similar things. I don’t try to cover up the boys’ darkest sins, and I don’t give them spurious platitudes about how they can overcome their various lusts if they work hard. I don’t simply think that all the bad that they do is a result of their terrible past, although I surely don’t want to overlook its adverse affects; it surely has convoluted the situation. The biggest problem that they face is their ethical standing before God. In Adam, they have violated God’s holy law and, as a result, they can never be in right standing before God. Thus, they aren’t free from the curse of sin.

The social workers always contradict my claims. They think that altering the boys environmental and behavioral setting will be the catalyst for authentic change, and, while certainly an important component, it doesn’t solve the deeper problem that the kids have. The social workers also appeal to their moral character as a means for a better life, but I appeal to the image of God that is engraved on their human nature. They are endowed with the moral law, and I see evidence of it on a regular basis. They usually know right from wrong and are searching for a perfect life. Generally, they believe that by doing good, they can attain it. The problem is that they believe that they can attain it. I’m trying to curb that belief. Until they stop striving for a better life, they will not have it (Matthew 10:39). They are aware of some concept of God’s holy law (the paradigm is the covenant of works: ‘Do this and live’). My function is to use the 10 commandments to make the force of the law more poignant and to use it as a schoolmaster to drive them to Christ. There is no better life for them unless they are in Christ, who is a mediator of a better covenant-the covenant of grace (‘trust and live’).

Yet because I know the greatness of God’s love towards me in Christ, I can offer them mercy and temporal forgiveness in the same fashion that our Lord and the apostles did to the unloved, the sinful. I can also exemplify the need for mercy and forgiveness to them, because I fail and sin regularly. Whereas I may not have been willing to admit my faults when I was an evangelical (I always tried to make myself seem better than I really was), I’m now willing to confess my sins more openly. I’m not so wrapped up in living the gospel, because the gospel can’t be lived. It can only be believed (confessed). I don’t tell the boys to look to me to find Christ (a common error among the broader church), but I try to tell them to look to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Apostles. The gospel is news for us, not deeds for us. It’s a proclamation. So when I get a chance to share that news, I’m not going to deliver it as something that is to be done, but something that needs to be trusted because it’s true.

The boys frequently hear and believe that they just need to work harder and they will have a better life (the utopian dream). That’s a message that’s intuitive. I want to tell them that if they want to come to Christ, they have to stop striving and simply believe-unlike the rich young ruler. His problem was mainly that he didn’t understand the point of the gospel. He wanted to inherit the kingdom of heaven by keeping the commandments (Luke 18:18-30). Jesus gave him a commandment that he consciously couldn’t keep. Jesus wanted total obedience. The realization that he couldn’t be totally obedient should have driven him towards Christ, not away from him. But trusting and valuing his riches more than his salvation, he rejected a far richer Redeemer. Only God can convince people not to trust in their own efforts. Until we are completely undone in ourselves, we will never stop navel-gazing (Luther’s term). We will never stop looking to ourselves for a solution to our sin. The law cannot fulfill. Only Christ can. It’s about time Christians start savior-gazing.

The Westminster professors’ faithful explanation of the classic Reformed faith is teaching me to do just that. As a result, I have a creed to confess-a Christ to cling to-in chaos. The alternative, as I’m sure you have deduced by now, is chaos without a creed. The end result is, of course, more chaos. I’m confidant that the boys have it better because of my understanding of the ecumenical creeds and Reformed confessions, even though I’m not perfect by any means. My practical advice would be this: memorize the Reformed confessions. If you intend to become a minister or you, like me, need a better understanding of biblical theology for the daily struggles of life, then come to Westminster Seminary California. There are few places in the world that will teach you what you will learn here, as clearly and powerfully as they teach it here.

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15 Comments
  1. 11 June, 2008 3:32 am

    Interesting post. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. 11 June, 2008 8:27 am

    Excellent! This inspired me.

  3. 11 June, 2008 1:43 pm

    Thanks Josh!! Great post covering the practicality of many of the Reformed loci!

  4. 12 June, 2008 10:53 am

    “Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them, (for what can they merit?) nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Article 24, The Belgic Confession of Faith.

  5. Gil permalink
    12 June, 2008 1:07 pm

    Why do you have to point out their different ethnicity?

  6. 12 June, 2008 3:12 pm

    Gil~

    Good question. At the risk of putting words in Josh’s mouth, I’d say because:

    1) He’s not really able to give much info about the kids (I’ve had a similar job), and that’s a good descriptor without being too descriptive.
    2) I think he’s trying to point out the diversity and complexity of their situation and the kids’ backgrounds in order to describe why it feels like ‘chaos’ sometimes.

    Josh can chime in on this answer if he wants.

    Thanks,
    ~B

  7. creedorchaos permalink*
    13 June, 2008 10:25 am

    Gil,

    Brannan is exactly right.

    Thanks for reading,
    Joshua

  8. 13 June, 2008 11:24 am

    What a great article Josh, on how you relate to these kids with the practicality of being reformed. I did not know all that your work entailed and with Erin also…see ya at church Sunday.

  9. 14 June, 2008 9:07 am

    Nice, Josh.
    Seems like you’re getting practical experience that many Mdiv’s might covet. That coupled with your training at WSC makes for some powerful churchman skills. Maybe an Mdiv in addition to your current discipline?
    Do feel any call to the ministry? Or would you like to continue working with foster youth?

    Good read, brother!

  10. 21 June, 2008 6:42 pm

    Dear Josh

    The purpose of these remarks is not publication and its not a comment about what you wrote. Its about permission to publish this article.

    I would like to have your permission to publish Creed in Chaos / Forster Care on our congregational website, under articles, with all the acknowledements to you and to creedporchaoas as would be fair and appropriate.
    Go to http://www.centurionwest.co.za , choose Resources and then choose Articles. Thats where we will publish it, apart from using it in our congregational hard copy news letter.
    Our Confessions are to be found under “We Believe”.

    I believe this topic is extremely relevant and important. The attack on being confessional often is about the fact that it “is not relevant or practical.”
    You without any doubt show the truth and what makes it a strong testimony is the human side / human interest side to it that speaks so clearly.
    I am a Presbyterian minister for more than 30 years here in South Africa. This multi-cultural congregation has just more than 100 members, coming from 8 different language groups – but we minister in English which we all understand. The website is widely read in South Africa and even abroad.
    Yours is a message I believe should have a bigger audience, particularly within the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa – as well as within the Reformed community here.

    Keep up the good work and never stop rejoicing in the grace of our Lord.

    Andries Combrink
    Minister
    Centurion West Presbyterian Church

  11. Joshua permalink
    23 June, 2008 6:16 am

    Dear Mr. Andries Combrink,

    Thanks for your response and your passion for the ecumenical creeds and Reformed confessions. I would be honored to have you put my essay on your website and your hard copy news letter.

    Thank you also for your faithful ministry and proclamation of the gospel. May the Lord grant you great success.

    Kind regards,
    Joshua

  12. 27 June, 2008 7:07 am

    Dear Josh

    Thank you for allowing me to publish your essay on our church’s website!
    Have a look at http://www.centurionwest.co.za/articles.htm.

    May many read, learn, believe and be encouraged!

    God’s blessings surround you and your wife, as you do this important Kingdom work!!
    Thanks for everything published on Creed:Or:Chaos. It is helpful and insightful – I learn so much from you.

    Kind regards

    Andries.

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