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Reformed Ecclesiology: Sine Qua Non of Healthy Gospel Ministry

16 October, 2009

IMG_1294At my church, we have been reading through Stuart Robinson’s The Church of  God (COG) for our catechism class. Robinson lived from 1814 to 1881 and was licensed and ordained in the Greenbrier Presbytery in the western mountains of Virginia (COG, p. 7). He edited the True Presbyterian, which was suppressed by the Federal Government for reasons unknown to me (when I find out, I will update the post).  His comments on the biblical unfolding of successive covenants anticipate the insights of Geerhardus Vos.

The central concern of his book was that the church would lose its distinctiveness because so many ministers were allowing the political (think Civil War) to influence the church–so much so that one could not maintain the spirituality of the church. Robinson claimed that the doctrine of the Church was the most important theological problem of his day. In fact, he reads church history in four epochs believing that he lived in the fourth:

1. Theology: the earliest church controversies were over the nature of the Godhead which closed with Athanasius (COG, p. 27).

2. Anthropology: the next controversy facing the church had to do with the nature of man, whether his will is free or not. According to Robinson, the defining theologians of this period were Augustine and Pelagius.

3. Soteriology: this controversy was over the work of God in salvation, and he evokes Calvin and Luther as evidence of this stage.

4. Ecclesiology: Given the providence of God toward the American Church, the final controversy is over the spirituality of the church.

He wants to defend a Calvinistic ecclesiology (or Reformed). And here is his most provocative claim: the only way to maintain Reformed theology is in the context of a Reformed ecclesiology.

In this view of the case is found the reason for the fact that a Calvinistic theology cannot long retain its integrity and purity save in connection with a Calvinistic ecclesiology, and for the general fact, already referred to, of the intimate connection between wrong theology and wrong views of the Church (COG, p. 35).

In Robinson’s estimation, we cannot consistently hold the first three epochs if we do not have a proper covenantal context in which to view them. In other words, without a proper ecclesiology the church cannot retain the Gospel as conceived by the Reformers.  I think Robinson is entirely right: without the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, the Gospel would be lost on us. How many churches today preach a wrong Gospel because they have a wrong view of the church, or how many misconstrue the Gospel because of their faulty view of the church? In light of the present-day ecclesiastical controversies—the Federal Vision, New Perspective on Paul, theonomy, transformationalism, the Young Restless and Reformed, etc.—we would do well to read and listen to Robinson. When we misconstrue Reformed ecclesiology, we lose the Gospel. Considered this way, the Church is essential because the very Gospel is at stake.


  1. 17 October, 2009 5:53 pm

    Your post is worth chewing on and I salute you for caring about such things. But your post title is totally extreme and just as dangerous as any of the threats of the so-called “Federal Vision” or “New Perspective on Paul.”

    Luther got mad at Eck for claiming the belief in the supremacy of the pope was necessary to salvation, even though Luther had not yet renounced the actual doctrine. He was just upset that Eck was claiming that generations of Eastern Orthodox were going to hell. You blog title reminds me of his outrage. To repeat, I’m not attacking your post, just asking if you could make the post title better reflect the (in my view) much more reasonable content.

    • 20 October, 2009 5:23 pm


      Thanks for taking the time to read this post and for sharing your concern: but I do not think that the extreme title of my post is at odds with the more reasonable content. Robinson (nor am I) was not suggesting that salvation is ultimately dependent on the Church but that it is ordinarily the essential condition (the sine qua non) for the Gospel to be preached and protected. You see, I am inclined to connect evangelism and the Gospel ministry more closely with the Church than many would feel comfortable. And thus the title is provocative because the content is provocative. To say that the Gospel can only thrive in a covenantal (Reformed) ecclesiology is to say that the Church is essential for the protection and proclamation of that very Gospel. Is this not true? If a church has an improper understanding of the covenants of redemption, grace, and works with its inextricable doctrines of election, justification, imputation, active and passive obedience, sanctification, preservation, the sacraments etc., then the possibility of muddling the gospel is great. And is this not a far cry from saying that salvation is dependent on a papal mediator or that legions of the Eastern Orthodox are going to hell? Even in a bad ecclesiastical context, people will be saved by the powerful Gospel–but this should be an extraordinary circumstance instead of an ordinary one.

      Robinson understood that all of theology is systematically linked. If one has a bad soteriology, one will have a bad theology and anthropology. It does not seem revolutionary to add ecclesiology to the system, especially since the Church’s task–as ordained by God–is to safeguard sound doctrine. People that come to Gospel faith in churches that are not Reformed are saved in spite of a church not because of it. Ecclesiology is a critical and vital doctrine that so many in our day discount.


  2. 17 October, 2009 9:02 pm

    Wow. I hope Josh gets back to you Mark. I salute you on your well stated and gracious critique. Pretty refreshing in the Ref’d blog world.

  3. 22 October, 2009 3:33 am

    Well, I think “sine qua non” would indicate that one’s errors in ecclesiology are errors in one’s profession of faith–i.e. that one cannot be saved if one does not profess correct ecclesiology.

    I quite agree that ecclesiology is of vital importance and is related to the gospel. And I am also certain that you don’t mean to communicate what I think the blog title communicates.

  4. 22 October, 2009 3:39 am


    I see what you are saying. Do you think that it would be better if I titled it: Reformed Ecclesiology: A Sine Qua Non of the Gospel?


  5. 23 October, 2009 2:48 pm


    I tweaked the title a little bit more to match more clearly what I am trying to say. What do you think?


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