In the previous three blogs in this series, I noted that the three basic similarities between Reformed and traditional Black spirituality are a high view of the Sabbath, a high view of the sacraments, and the necessity of the local church. Now we are going to discuss the major differences between Reformed and traditional Black spirituality. In my view, the first significant difference regards the means and nature of Christian holiness.
For many people, the question of how a believer may become more spiritual is actually a question of how a believer may grow in holiness. In other words, this is a question regarding the nature and means of our sanctification. In regards to the nature of sanctification, Chapter 13, Paragraph 1 of the 1689 LBCF states:
They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
Apart from the language regarding effectual calling, most devout Black Christians will affirm this statement. However, the real question that most people have is how does a believer become sanctified? It is here where significant differences arise because many devout Black Christians have been significantly influenced by the Wesleyan holiness movement (particularly those who were raised in Black Pentecostal churches). In Reformed spirituality, there is a strong emphasis on regeneration, union with Christ, and the ordinary means of grace as the principal avenues for internal transformation, allowing the believer to increasingly love and serve God. This indicates that God is the actor in our sanctification. This is seen in Q. 93 in the Baptist Catechism
Q. 93. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are His ordinances, especially the Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Prayer; all which means are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
It is my experience that most devout Black Christians view these as necessary tools for holiness, but they are not sufficient. In other words, the response to a Reformed view of holiness and sanctification would be “… that’s it?” From certain individuals, this view would be taken as license for us to not be actively engaged in our sanctification. In practice, most devout Black Christians have a Wesleyan view of the means of grace. On the United Methodist Church page, the means of grace are described in two broad categories: works of piety (such as reading, studying scriptures, fasting, evangelism, etc.) and works of mercy (such as visiting the sick, seeking justice, giving generously, etc.).
I believe that it’s important to compare and contrast these differing views. In the Wesleyan means of grace (which appears to be the default position for most traditional Black Christians), the emphasis is on our actions to God and God is pictured here as the respondent. In other words, God responds to our works of piety and mercy by sending grace. This is the reverse of the Reformed view in which our vital union in Christ produces the twin graces of repentance unto life and faith in the promises of God. Therefore, in the Reformed view of holiness, the emphasis is God’s action to us whereas we are the respondents.
These distinctions may appear to be minor, but there is a very important practical implication of this view. If it is the case that God is the respondent in our development of holiness, this usually implies that we must find extra ways to obtain holiness. In other words, the primary goal in Christian spirituality is to pursue holiness through various different means. Some say that the path is through extended periods of fasting; some say that it’s through “surrendering to God”; some say it’s through “abiding in Him”; some say that it’s through “maintaining an atmosphere of worship”; some say that it’s meditative prayer; some say that it’s through “breakthroughs in prayer”; and the list can go on and on. Since there are so many subjective and varied approaches to developing holiness, this means that there is no true ordinary way in which a convert can reach spiritual maturity and become “holy”.
By contrast, in Reformed spirituality, there is a distinction between our inseparable union with Christ and our abiding communion with Christ. Our communion with Christ is predicated on our union with Christ. This means that, in Reformed spirituality, the primary goal is to actively pursue our communion with Him through the means that He has appointed. In other words, to pursue God and to enjoy our communion with Him in grace and glory is to pursue holiness. This is the practical implication of Galatians 5 in which our Christian development is grounded upon the fruit of the Spirit’s working in our hearts.
In our discussion of holiness, we must also ask another question: how do we know if we are growing in holiness? What is our standard for holiness? This is another point in which there are significant differences between traditional Black spirituality and Reformed spirituality. In Reformed spirituality, the measuring rod of our holiness is the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and the third use of the law becomes vitally important in assessing Christian spirituality. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case for most Black Christians that I’ve met. Usually, the measuring bar of holiness is primarily through a person’s sincerity (i.e. whether their action is in concert with their love towards God), a person’s external behavior (i.e. drinking, drugs, profanity, fornication, etc.), or through spiritual habits that makes one appear more externally righteous (i.e. not going to movies, listening to certain styles of music, etc.).
This subjective measuring bar for holiness leads to some other practical problems. First, it underestimates the true nature of sin. With this type of measuring bar, a person can have numerous “victories” over sin. However, when they speak of victory, they are often referring to external behaviors that are not being committed and they typically fail to see that such external behaviors are only the fruit of the real sin and depravity lying underneath of it all. Sin involves the initial compulsion and minute desire towards a behavior that is contrary to God’s absolute moral perfection, not just the stifling of it once it has compelled us from within. Second, since this measuring bar tends to be subjectively established, it leads to a view of holiness that is akin to moralism. This is an aspect that I personally lived through since I was raised as a Black Pentecostal. I remember spending my early years in despair because I knew that sin was always present within me and there were also another category of behaviors that would make me worldly. Without the Law, there is no biblical way in which we can define holiness or worldliness. Ultimately, this means the worldliness and holiness becomes based on a person’s sensibilities and in reality, there are no concrete definition for these terms. In essence, for too many Black Christians, worldliness means “things that the world does”.
For these reasons, it is very difficult for many devout Black Christians who grew up in this background to understand and accept how the ordinary means of grace work in the lives of believers to produce Christian maturity. This means that this is a topic that must be discussed at a fundamental level if there is to be useful dialogue. In this blog, I introduced the concept of communion with Christ. In the next blog, I will go into more detail with this topic and this will lead to another significant difference between Reformed and traditional Black spirituality: the role of mysticism.