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Review of What is a Reformed Church?

Feb - 21 - 2012
Richard Barcellos

What Is a Reformed Church?,

Malcolm Watts

(Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011, 164 pages),

reviewed by Richard C. Barcellos

 

Malcolm H. Watts, minister of Emmanuel Church in Salisbury, England, has written a concise book defining a Reformed church. Its seven chapters are entitled: 1. The Distinctives of a Reformed Church; 2. The Great Emphasis of Reformed Doctrine; 3. A Right View of Worship; 4. The Government of the Church; 5. Reformed Church Discipline; 6. Reformed Evangelism; and 7. Maintaining the Reformed Faith. The essential ingredients of a Reformed church are “biblical doctrine, pure worship, right government, spiritual discipline, and faithful evangelism” (1). With the recent rising interest in Reformed theology this is a timely book. I found it a treat to sit at the feet of one who has ministered in the same church for over thirty years and who seeks to implement what he has written in this book. It reminded me that Reformed theology necessarily includes ecclesiology and produces distinct fruit in the lives of those who embrace it and in the churches where it is proclaimed and believed.

Chapter 1 begins by providing a discussion of the historical context from which the term “Reformed” evolved (1-4). Watts then identifies and discusses common distinctives arising from the Reformation and post-Reformation era held by various early Reformed churches (4-27). These common distinctives are held by all Reformed churches of all ages. The first distinctive held by Reformed churches old and new is “Scripture alone.” Watts says, “A Reformed church must acknowledge Scripture, God’s written Word, as the sole authoritative expression of the divine will for all aspects of church life” (4). A second common distinctive is “God’s Transcendence.” “A Reformed church emphasizes the divine sovereignty, majesty, and glory, and therefore the great gulf between God in His transcendence and man in his sin and misery” (9). A third distinctive is “The Way of Salvation.” “A Reformed church proclaims God’s scheme of salvation, which is plainly set forth in the doctrines of free, sovereign and distinguishing grace” (14). Watts gives a brief exposition of the five points of Calvinism. The fourth distinctive is “God’s Covenant of Grace.” “A Reformed church understands that covenant is at the heart of God’s relationship with man” (20). A brief discussion of the covenants of works and grace is presented. A fifth distinctive is “Proclamation of the Gospel.” “A Reformed church is committed to the work of bringing the gospel of salvation to the unconverted, not only in its own vicinity but also in other areas of the country and in other parts of the world” (25). The final distinctive is “Consecration of life.” “A Reformed church will encourage the spirit of true devotion, which will find expression in lives wholly consecrated to God” (26). Watts constantly reminds us that Reformed doctrine produces holy living. There are several reminders that truth bears the fruit of piety in the souls of those who embrace it.

Chapter 2 discusses “The Great Emphasis of Reformed Doctrine.” Watts expounds the doctrine of God, his unlimited power and might (28-30), his infinite superiority (30-31), his freedom from obligation (31-32), his never-failing will (32-33), his glorious and perfect will (33-35), and the means of displaying his sovereignty in creation, providence, and redemption (35-36). He then discusses God’s sovereignty in salvation (36-40) and closes with a discussion on the right response – “Worshiping with Reverence” (41), “Submission to His Authority” (41), “Reaching the Elect” (42), “Fellowship and Love for the Saints” (42-43), “Contentment with Providence” (43-44), and “Hope in the Promises” (45). Again, an experiential vein runs throughout these discussions. A Reformed church bears biblical fruit in its corporate life and in the lives of its members.

Chapter 3 is entitled “A Right View of Worship.” Watts states his understanding of the implications of Reformed theology for worship very clearly.

 

Reformed theology declares that only God has the right to determine the true and proper mode of worship. He has clearly prescribed this in His Word. The law of worship is that only what God has prescribed in Scripture may be introduced into His worship, or, to put it in another form, what Scripture does not prescribe, it forbids. (49)

 

The author gives a brief sketch of the Old Testament’s teaching on worship (49-54) and then the same for the New Testament (54-59). Of interest to this reviewer is how he understands the use of Hebrew 3:2 in the discussion of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). Watts says:

 

Our Lord, we read, was “faithful to him that appointed him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house [that is, in every particular of his house]” (Heb. 3:2). If words mean anything, this means that just as Moses prescribed every detail of ancient ceremonial, typical worship, so Christ has given precise instructions regarding every part of new covenant spiritual worship. Of course, the Mosaic institutions were “shadows” or “figures” of the good things to come, and, of necessity, they had to be set aside and to be superseded by new elements of worship more appropriate to the new order. Christ therefore delivered new laws and ordinances for the gospel church… (54)

 

Reading this reminded me of Nehemiah Coxe and John Owen. If old covenant worship was typical of that which is brought in by the new (or, put another way, if the new is the anti-type of the old), we should expect the new to bring in with it anti-typical or new elements of worship. Just as the old covenant had its regulations of divine worship (Heb. 9:1), so with the new covenant. The old covenant’s worship was revealed through Moses; the new covenant’s worship is revealed through Christ, the only law giver for his church. But how does Christ reveal the elements of worship for his church? Watts’ answer is (and I think he is right) primarily through the apostles (56-59). “Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted worship for the whole Christian era. He did this immediately during His own public ministry and mediately through the subsequent teaching of His apostles” (58). Positive laws for worship are covenantally conditioned and revealed to us via divine revelation. If elements of covenantal worship went with the old covenant, then we are left with the expectation that along with the new covenant will come positive laws for worship. Watts identifies the elements of new covenant worship as “the singing of psalms; reading from the Old and New Testaments; prayers of thanksgiving, supplication, and intercession; preaching of the Word of God; blessing in the name of the Lord (the benediction); and the observance of the two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper” (58). No detailed exegetical arguments are given at this point, though we should assume Watts has such arguments. Not everyone will agree with his view of psalms only, but all Reformed believers should appreciate his insistence on mining out the elements of new covenant worship from the New Testament.

Chapter 4 takes up the issue of “Church Government.” As in worship, so in government, argues Watts – Christ is the only lawgiver in the church (61). He argues that the basis of church government stands upon Christ’s headship (61) and the fact that he has established a government in the church (63). Under the heading “Church Authority Belongs Only to Some” (63), Watts argues that the execution of church power and authority is limited to “regularly appointed officials” (64). I think the heading would have been better stated this way: “Church Authority Executed by Some.” This better reflects the fact that Christ “hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their [local churches] carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which He hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power” (2nd LCF 26:7). Not every church member has the same power and authority to preach the Word, for instance, but each church has been given the necessary power and authority to carry out its Christ-instituted responsibilities.

Watts argues for a distinction between ruling elders and teaching elders (70-72). He leans heavily upon 1 Timothy 5:17, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine” (KJV). According to Watts, this verse implies that some elders give themselves to ruling and the public ministry of the word, while others give themselves to ruling alone. Other texts used by Watts to support this distinction are Romans 12:8, 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, Hebrews 13:7 and 17. He also argues that the early churches were patterned after the Jewish synagogue, which had several elders with one presiding elder or chief ruler (73). The teaching elder “will always be recognized as the “pastor” (Eph. 4:11)” (73), the one sent to preach (Rom. 10:15), or the minister of the Word (72).

Chapter 5 discusses church discipline. Watts distinguishes between preventative and corrective discipline (84). There is much practical wisdom and pastoral warmth in this chapter. However, one vein of thought that runs through the chapter and was mentioned in the previous chapter on church government involves the execution of church discipline by the elders. Though Watts acknowledges several times that each local church has power and authority from Christ to execute its own discipline, he does not appear to allow for congregational suffrage in issues related to public discipline. In fact, when referencing Matthew 18:17, “tell it unto the church” (KJV), he follows with these words: “this verse teaches that the problem should be laid before the local church’s governing body” (90). It is clear in the context of the discussion that he is referring to the elders. The elders “are responsible for all admissions and exclusions” (92). They “are the ones responsible for church discipline” (92). I would have liked to see some discussion of 2 Corinthians 2:6, “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man” (NKJV). The verse is not cited in the Scripture index nor is it discussed anywhere in the book. In the context of the Corinthian letters this verse is most likely referencing back to the issue of immorality discussed in 1 Corinthians 5 and the church’s execution of discipline. This verse seems to indicate that church discipline was enacted by the church (see 1 Cor. 5). This seems to be what Matthew 18:17 implies. Church discipline is an act of the church by the church. Certainly it is appropriate for the elders of the church to lead the process but it appears to me that the New Testament teaches congregational suffrage when it comes to enacting public church discipline.

Chapter 6 is entitled “Reformed Evangelism.” It opens with a series of historical examples of evangelistic activity – Wycliffe (108), Huss (109), Tyndale (109), Calvin and Geneva (109-110), the Pilgrims of New England (110), Eliot (110), the English Parliament of 1649 (110), the Church of Scotland in 1647 (110-111) and William Carey (111). Watts, citing Philip Hughes, says that “in the single year of 1561 alone, 142 men left Geneva to engage in missionary activity” (110).

Watts begins the biblical section by pointing to the greatest evangelist ever – Christ (111-112). He sees the great commission as Christ transferring his evangelistic function to the church (112). The church is called to evangelize, especially its ministers (2 Tim. 4:2), but also “individual Christians or members…(1 Peter 3:15)” (113). He adds:

 

The church must never lose its sense of calling. As the Lord’s people, we are not to remain within the walls of our buildings, comforting ourselves with the Scriptures and glorying in the doctrines of grace. We must always be mindful of the fact that outside, there are thousands of Christless and hopeless souls. Surely, we have a responsibility to tell them of God’s salvation. What could we do? We could hold open-air services. We could distribute Christian tracts. We could gather children for Christian instruction. We could use all lawful means to save the lost. A church that ceases to evangelize is not obedient to God’s Word, and it is certainly not Reformed. (114)

 

This chapter is full of theological and practical advice on the importance and implementation of evangelism in the church. Watts discusses the theology of the gospel as well as the ordained means for its propagation. The discussion is filled with warm entreaties and pastoral exhortations of which we ought to take heed.

Chapter 7 discusses maintaining the Reformed faith. Once again, much sane advice is given. Watts lists and discusses the responsibilities of ministers. Ensure that they [ministers] possess orthodox Christian faith (147); preach and teach the grand truths from God’s Holy Word (148); proclaim all biblical truth (148-49); commit to lifelong study of the Word of God (149); preach to prevent corruption of the truth (150); spread the Word (150-51); and live godly lives (151). Then he gives a list of suggestions for members: pray (151); witness (151); live according to God’s Word (152); worship (152); give (152-53); exhort one another (153); and encourage your ministers (153-54).

What Is a Reformed Church? is an important and well-written book. It is important because it enters into a discussion that is taking place among many in our day – a discussion worth having about Reformed theology and practice. Though some will feel like Malcolm Watts is taking them back hundreds of years, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I am sure some readers will disagree with Watts at times, as I did. This does not mean the book is of no value – far from it! This book will challenge pastors and church members alike on various fronts. Probably the most challenging aspect will not be Reformed theology, but Reformed practice in worship and government. That is not to say that Watts’ discussion of Reformed theology won’t be challenging for some; it will. For example, he argues that covenant theology of the covenant of works/grace variety is of the essence of historic Reformed theology (20ff.). I agree with him. My hunch, however, is that the greatest struggle will be with his view of worship as he articulates the Regulative Principle of Worship. I am not talking about his view of exclusive psalmody either. Watts holds to the Lordship of Christ for new covenant worship in the sense that Christ alone is lawgiver for the elements of new covenant worship. This was discussed above. I think it is at this very point that many will struggle and, sadly, disagree. My hope is that Watts’ book will, at least, challenge those who hold to a different view of the Regulative Principle of Worship to reconsider their reformulation of this distinctive of Reformed theology and practice. We live in a day where Reformed theology and practice are being stretched in various directions to the point that it is hard at times to call them Reformed in any historical and/or biblical sense. May Watts’ book be used to call us back to the older, more proven way.

Here is a correction to my review from the author Pastor Watts.

9 Responses so far.

  1. Good review Richard, I enjoyed it. Knowing the solid and faithful ministry Malcolm Watts has had in Salisbury over the years I am glad to see someone of his stature writing a book like this.I am not in the same place he is with regards to psalms or government, does he deal in any substance with the elements/circumstance issue of the regulative principle?

  2. Richard Barcellos says:

    Robert, he does not. I think the book is comprised of lectures he gave at a conference so it lacks detailed discussions of thorny issues. I had the privilege of being with Malcolm and his dear people a few years ago. His church is what the book says. It was a delight to be there. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to the seventeenth century. 🙂

  3. Mike Waters says:

    “We live in a day where Reformed theology and practice are being stretched in various directions to the point that it is hard at times to call them Reformed in any historical and/or biblical sense. May Watts’ book be used to call us back to the older, more proven way.”

    Thanks, P. Rich. Very helpful review. I’ve begun to give this book to my non-reformed pastor friends. Excellent.

  4. Rich, I appreciate your review very much and concur with its substance. This book is full of pastoral warmth and zeal–a model for this kind of writing. Potential readers should understand it is not a detailed defense of its fine points. Considering how great and profound are our areas of agreement with Malcolm Watts in this treatment, “What Is a Reformed Church?” is worthy of hearty commendation and wide distribution. I hope to meet him in this world and worship with the congregation of his charge.

  5. Richard Barcellos says:

    Scott, he is a gracious man. We walked around Salisbury and he pointed out where they have had a street-preacher and others from his church passing out tracts for the last 20 years or so – I think every Saturday. At the end of the services, we stood at the back door. He knew every single person who attended – about 200. It was a great and humbling experience for me.

  6. Paul Wallace says:

    Good review Rich. Since this is rightly turning into Watts appreciation post let me add a personal note. We holidayed in the area a couple of years ago and worshipped on the Lord’s Day with them. I had heard Pastor Watts preach many times but had never met him. We had a very nice chat after morning worship where his humility and grace were evident. However I want to highlight his thoughtfulness and generosity. When we came back for evening worship he came to me and presented me with a sizeable parcel of books – some of which have very greatly helped me in my pastoring and preaching. One reads of such men in biographies – rare is the privilege of meeting with such.

  7. Malcolm H. Watts says:

    Hello Richard. Warmest greetings to you from Salisbury! Yesterday someone kindly sent me your sympathetic and supportive review. Thank you very much for it.

    If I may, I would like to clarify one small matter…Although I do believe the elders, or rulers, are responsible for the faithful exercise of church discipline, I do also believe that this, particularly the final censure of exclusion, should be administered with the concurrence of the gathered church. As you correctly state, this is required by 1 Corinthians 5:4,5,13 and 2 Corinthians 2:6.

    Concerning exclusion, I wrote in the book, “The elders will lead the church to inflict this fearful censure” (p. 104)and then a little later I referred to “the church’s authority to pronounce a person guilty and liable to exclusion” (p. 105).

    Our own Church Constitution states: “The Elders shall bring his or her name (i.e. the offender’s name) before the gathered church, in order that there might be exclusion from all the rights and privileges of membership…The church shall then proceed to the act of formal exclusion” (6.9.8). Our church here strictly adheres to this biblical rule.

    I am sorry not to have made this clearer in the book and I thought it therefore best to submit this brief e-mail.

    The church remembers your visit to us a few years back with great thankfulness to God. The Lord be with you.

    Malcolm H. Watts

  8. Richard Barcellos says:

    Malcolm, I knew I should have run the review by you first. Thanks for the clarification. I will post it to the blog and make sure I edit the review before going to print with it.

  9. Jeff M says:

    We had the privilege of having him preach at our church and then having he & his lovely bride Jill, over for lunch. I sought his advice on a particular issue and his insights and wisdom were greatly appreciated. I meant to ask him if he was a distant relation to Isaac Watt, but since he is a “Psalter only” man, I didn’t bring it up. (Actually, I forgot to ask him!) 🙂

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