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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Essentials of the Faith
February 21, 2013

Do you sincerely receive and adopt
the essential tenets of the Reformed faith
as expressed in the confessions of our church
as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do,
and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

What a mouthful we promise in this, the third ordination vow! It passes our lips and flits through our minds far more quickly than it ought, and that to our peril both as individuals and as a church. We will be taking a close look at this vow over the next couple of weeks.

Tammy and I are taking some golf lessons this winter. I have to admit that I’ve golfed for decades without having ever taken a lesson from a certified instructor. I’m entirely self-taught – with the help of some magazines, videos, and a few golf companions willing to critique my technique. I’ve developed a passably decent game over the years, so when we decided to take some lessons this winter I assumed the instructor would find a few things to tweak in a swing that was basically sound. He began by recording my swing on video; we analyzed it together in slow motion, and I was all set for him to fix the flaws here and there that we had discovered. But our subsequent lessons have been far different from what I had expected. We spent the entire next lesson on how to grip the club. Nothing about the swing at all. Then the subsequent lesson was all about how to stand while preparing to swing. Still nothing about the swing I was so eager to fix! Why dwell on the basics that novices learn their first time out on a golf course?

I was dismayed to discover that some of my basics were in disarray. The way I gripped my club and the way I stood while preparing to strike the ball were both in need of repair. I had developed deeply ingrained habits that messed up these core essentials, and my swing couldn’t be improved until I set those underlying basics straight. Amazingly, without any attention to my swing at all, I found myself beginning to hit the ball longer and straighter. You can’t play the game properly if the essentials are not securely in place.

If that is true for something as trivial as golf, how much more true is it for something as important as Christian life and service! As an ordained officer of the church I make a solemn promise to “receive and adopt” the essentials of the faith proclaimed by the church I serve. I not only “receive” them passively, but “adopt” them actively. I consciously own them, even as in Christ they have claimed me.

So, what exactly are those “essentials”? This question has precipitated many of the church’s splits – not least those we are encountering in our own place and time. We defend our divisions by claiming that those from whom we are divided have denied or disregarded something essential to what it means to be a good and faithful Christian.

All too often we go to the mat fighting over secondary things while paying scant attention to what Jesus called the “weightier” matters – justice, mercy, and faith. (Matthew 23:23) John Calvin named just three doctrines so essential that their denial would justify ecclesial separation: 1. God is One; 2. Christ is God; and 3. Our salvation rests in God’s mercy. (Institutes IV.1.12) Alas, we may – and often do – divide over lesser things. We must ask ourselves searchingly whether such divisions are justifiable before the Lord who prayed earnestly that we may be one just as he and the Father are one. (John 17:11, 22) Is our agreement on lesser things the glue that binds us together? If so, when those agreements break down, so does our unity.

A saying adopted by our early Reformed forebears goes like this:

In essentials, unity.
In non-essentials, liberty.
In all things, charity.

What are the essentials about which we must remain united? In what matters ought we to grant one another latitude in doctrine and practice? How do we handle our disagreements on things that matter deeply to us, even if they are not truly “essential” to Christian faith? These questions have pressed hard upon the church ever since the days of the New Testament. We should not be surprised that we still struggle with them today. I pray that we might negotiate them with the Lord’s grace, so that our handling of our disagreements may not lead the world to dismiss the credibility of the Gospel that we proclaim, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself – and thereby reconciling us to each other. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

Yours always in Christ,



The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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