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A Review of A Defense of the Church Institute


A Review of A Defense of the Church Institute: Response to the Critics of Bound to Join
David J. Engelsma
Reformed Free Publishing Association
Jenison, MI, 2012
Hardback, 139 pp.

My language in Bound to Join was deliberately restrained, in comparison with the forcefulness of Calvin’s language. My restraint was not due to disagreement with Calvin’s vehemence. It was tactical. I wanted Bound to Join to get a hearing in this hyper-sensitive, soft-soaping age (44).

Bound to Join, a book which urgently, and properly, urges all believers to join true, instituted churches of Jesus Christ—churches with the three marks and with lawfully called office-bearers—was bitter medicine to some, who vehemently and angrily criticised Engelsma as an extremist, a denier of salvation by grace alone, unloving and lacking in pastoral care, a twister of Calvin and the creeds, and a crypto-Romanist.

Engelsma’s response is to increase the dose in this new book!

In so doing, he answers his named and unnamed critics—"those at ease out of Zion," Kevin Reed (who, irony of ironies, was the publisher of Calvin’s Come Out From Among Them: Anti-Nicodemite Writings; and, whose critique, sadly, was promoted by Rev. Connors, EPCA), and the "Red Beetle" (an internet "Calvinist" whose scurrilous video attacking Engelsma is still available on YouTube). He also interacts with two overall positive reviews (Rev. David Higgs, EPCA; and Rev. John Bouwers, URC) of Bound to Join, with a final chapter devoted to Harold Camping, the anti-ecclesiastical false prophet and charlatan of Family Radio.

This new book proves without a shadow of a doubt that the historic Reformed position is that believers must be members of an instituted church with their children because this is exactly what the Reformed creeds and the Reformers (especially Calvin) taught. It is not the Reformed (and Biblical) position that believers may remain aloof, neglecting, despising and scorning the church institute while piously praising the universal, invisible body and bride of Christ. Such an attitude was unheard of in the Bible and abhorred by the Reformers. Engelsma notes very early in this book: "About Calvin, whom they [the ones "at ease out of Zion"] claim to revere, they are silent. They protest only against Bound to Join and abuse only its author" (22).

One might insist angrily that the Reformed confessions are wrong­—and thus relinquish the right to the title Reformed—but one cannot deny that this is what they teach. The evidence Engelsma marshals is impressive, but it is really basic ecclesiology, about which sadly many Christians are woefully ignorant. Some of the most important arguments are these. First, the invisible body of the elect always takes visible form in history as the institute" (6; see I Cor. 1:2, 12:27; II Cor. 11:1-4); second, to the church institute alone Christ gives the means of grace and the keys of the kingdom (56; see Eph. 4:11; I Tim. 3:15; 4:16); third, only in the church institute can believers keep the Fourth Commandment by worshipping God according to His Word (57); and fourth, it is clear that, when the Belgic Confession, other Reformed creeds and Calvin himself say that outside of the church there is no salvation, they mean the church institute, because one cannot join, live separately from, or refuse to submit to the authority of, the invisible universal church of the elect (55).

The chapters in which Engelsma demolishes Kevin’s Reeds "house church" movement with an avalanche of quotes from Calvin; and in which he crushes the "Red Beetle" are devastating to these two critics. The "Red Beetle" is simply one of those many internet pests (the internet is "an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies" quotes Engelsma [83] from a Chicago Tribune columnist) who stand aloof from the church, carping at her from the outside, claiming to be true Calvinists. Writes Engelsma concerning the "Red Beetle," "[He] supposes he is a Calvinist because he has the Five Points of Calvinism rattling around in his head and because he likes to argue about them on the internet" (99). "The Red Beetle" praises the Reformation but despises everything it stood for. Calvin was not primarily concerned about salvation but the glory of God and the welfare of the church: "Calvin, like the other Reformers, purposed the recovery of the gospel on behalf of a re-formed church—a re-formed church institute ... This was Christ’s purpose with the Reformation. The Reformation was the lover in the Song of Solomon seeking his bride. Had Calvin been confronted by the notion that the Reformation was merely about recovering five points of doctrine, and not about a re-formed church institute, his first reaction would have been stupefied astonishment. His second would have been a tract against those peddling this notion that would have been far more severe than is this response to the Red Beetle" (100).

This is a strident defence of an already strident defence of membership in the church institute. If anything Engelsma’s statements are even stronger and his quotes from Calvin and other Reformed sources are even sharper. This book will most likely offend many, but the offence is not Engelsma. The offence is Christianity, as summarised in the Reformed Confessions. The offence is Christ Himself, who saves through the church institute, and whose Spirit binds Himself to the means of grace used by the church institute.

I end with a quotation from Engelsma in which he appeals to those outside of Zion to consider what they lack: "I remind those who are content, or determined, to live apart from the instituted church of what they are lacking, or in some cases despise and reject. They lack the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel—the living voice of Jesus Christ, speaking peace to his people. They lack the sacraments—mighty instruments of the confirmation of faith and of the increase of holiness. They lack the oversight of elders—necessary means of Christ’s watchful, shepherd’s care of his sheep, prone always to wander. They lack ... the participation in the compassionate Christ’s ministry of mercy to the poor in the office of the diaconate ... They lack the communion of saints. They forego the close fellowship of the people of God who do in fact share one spirit and life. They deprive themselves of the help of those who love them with the love of God in Christ" (19-20).

What a privilege to be, and always to remain, a member of the church of Christ!