Though there is no shortage of disagreement over the sources of our current malaise, that we live in a decadent society is, perhaps, one of the few ideas that actually can unite many conservative and progressive Americans. What’s more, in the eyes of many Americans, Christianity is not positioned to help us navigate through decadence, but is rather an agent in its creation.

The way toward purpose, toward an existentially satisfying life that both provides direction in the midst of confusion and an anchor in the midst of pain is to move away from Christianity. Or, in other cases, it is not away from Christianity but at least away from evangelical Christianity—many seek deeper roots as a way to anchor them in a time of uncertainty and find themselves agreeing with Cardinal Newman.

In one sense, the idea that the reformed faith isn’t emotionally satisfying can be swatted aside without much trouble: simply introduce the person to the Heidelberg Catechism. But the objection often runs deeper. It’s not that the reformed tradition lacks poetic language—certainly anyone familiar with Heidelberg or the writings of John Calvin or the hymns of John Newton knows there is imaginative depth to be found in reformed soil.

Rather, the objection is that the theology itself is somehow lacking what I guess you could call climbing holds—sturdy places to hang on when you’re scaling a mountain (not an inaccurate picture of the life of faith) and are simply trying to keep from falling. One friend of mine, who converted to Catholicism not long after our conversation, spoke of the lack of practical resources that Protestantism offered to her as she was struggling to keep faith.

I thought of this struggle when I recently went back over a few sections of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Often filled with precise, scholastic language, the Confession is not the place one would think to go for warmth and humane piety. Even many reformed Christians will acknowledge the point, choosing instead to direct people to the Heidelberg Catechism. I have done this myself on more than one occasion. But the Confession will surprise you.

Consider this excerpt from chapter nine:

When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he frees him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by his grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he does not perfectly, or only, will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.

Another way of expressing that idea is simply that the process of conversion is precisely that: a process. What is said here parallels more widely used terminology to describe the moral life—the acquisition of virtue, the cultivation of habits, even Eugene Peterson’s idea of “a long obedience in the same direction.” (Peterson was, after all, a Presbyterian minister.)

Because the curse of sin still remains with us, even after we encounter God, we will still groan under its weight. We will fail others and be failed by others. This is the reality we all face. It is accurately describing a struggle that virtually every person has experienced. Speaking of this internal struggle, the Dutch Reformed divine Herman Bavinck said that, “these experiences do not merely exist but have a right to exist; they are inseparable from godliness.”

The Confession is naming this ordinary human experience in a way that also acknowledges our capacity to truly will the good with the aid of God. Thus none of this need lead us to despair, for it is, in one sense, normal. We aspire to love God and love neighbor perfectly and yet often we fail and then we must repent and carry on with the Christian life. This basic moral insight, though often forgotten in our day of public shaming, is sitting right there in plain sight in one of the most famous reformed confessions.

Similarly, when we turn to chapter 25 and headings four and five we again find this striking balance, this familiarity with ambiguity:

This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to his will.

Again we can see this simple assumption that failure is normal in the Christian life and in the life of the church. It need not crush us. What’s more, the chapter ends on a strikingly hopeful note: because of God’s work to preserve his people, there will always be a church on earth to worship God. “Always,” is an uncomfortable word to use during a day in which so little seems to endure—”all that is solid melts into air,” right? But in the sturdy faith of the Confession and the God it describes, we find grounds for using that hopeful word.

Certainly, we do not always live up to our confession. We attempt to manufacture a pure church via unpleasant, protracted debates over non-essential matters where even our own tradition is more ambiguous than many care to admit. We bear down on individual people and crush them rather than understanding their weakness. We struggle to realize the goodness of restoration with a person that has sinned against us.

But, of course, these are our own forms of the very thing the Confession anticipates. No church is wholly pure and, indeed, the inordinate lusting after purity is itself indicative of this fact because it represents an attempt to lay hold of a good that we ourselves cannot lay hold of but must instead trust to God. In other words, it is a form of unbelief, a refusal to trust God to care for his sheep. Similarly, no person is free of sin in this life, the overbearing person who heaps judgment on the person Scripture describes as “a bruised reed,” not least of all.

Though few think of the reformed faith as being emotionally satisfying, a closer reading of its historical documents suggests that it just might be—and if that is the case it suggests a very different path out of late modern decadence.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play. His first book, "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Age," will be published summer of 2019 by InterVarsity Press.

  • Chris Hutchinson

    Another example is WCF 5.5 on spiritual desertions, which is remarkable for a doctrinal statement, and very pastoral. I don’t know of any other confession which includes this doctrine, and perhaps the Puritans at their best:

    V. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for
    a season, his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption
    of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to
    discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness
    of their hearts, that they may be humbled;

    and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their
    support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future
    occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.

  • RightWingNut

    I don’t think this actually would address the underlying problem the RCC convert is experiencing. The RCC provides a lot of tangible reassurances to people through perpetual sacramental rites. One that I think is particularly comforting to people is the confessional. It allows people to go and get spiritual help on a regular basis for sins they struggle against and be assured that God forgives them.

    This stuff allows people to be constantly reassured of where they are and there is a very objective means of determining it (i.e., have you committed an unconfessed mortal sin?). Of course, this comes at a heavy cost in another sense: There can be no ultimate peace and you are constantly on this sacramental treadmill with no real final assurance.

    The way Protestants often address this is unsatisfactory. You either get no Ecclesiastical support or you get overwhelming amounts. You see this in small groups where often leaders ask what the “greatest sin” everyone struggles against. Then you get a bunch of people lying about how their greatest struggle is not praying hard enough or something equally banal and then you get the one guy who tells you something you really don’t need to know about them.

    So, what is the solution? I think Protestant ministers need to be more approachable with your spiritual issues and need to go by the strict code Catholic priests are supposed to uphold about it. It’s their job to reassure us of our salvation at the end of the day. Oftentimes the only way to get this kind of support in Protestantism is to literally pay for a Christian counselor.

    Of course, I’m an Anglican, so auricular confession is still a thing among Anglicans, though rarely used.

    • Greg Herr

      @ RightWingNut: Very perceptive comments.

      If I may address the ‘sacramental treadmill’ and ‘assurance’, if that’s not too selective.

      For the Catholics I know, it doesn’t work like that, psychologically or spiritually. I do suspect it does for some; but I ‘live and move and have my being’ in a Catholic milieu, and no one lives their life in Christ on a treadmill or without final assurance (please see here with NO/Imprimatur: https://www.catholic.com/tract/assurance-of-salvation).

      It would be more accurate to say that sacramental *consistency* is both like cultivation and perpetual nourishment for growth, not a treadmill (ie, going nowhere). In terms of assurance, it is true that we live with a different kind of assurance (psychologically) than many Evangelicals—I am a former Evangelical—but it would be most accurate to say that we live in perpetual and joyful hope. A lack of final assurance suggests we have ‘fear’ about our destiny, which we don’t. Again, some Catholics might, most don’t. And deeper immersion into the life of the community and catechesis helps with that misperception.

      Submitted with respect, on behalf of the Anglican Ordinariate (Roman Catholic), where we do have regular and routine sacramental Confession.

      • RightWingNut

        I appreciate that the full weight of the theology doesn’t really flesh itself out in the lives of the actual laity very often (though, there are some it does), but fundamentally the fact is that mortal sin confers upon the sinner an automatic excommunication and that excommunication can only be lifted through Penance. Furthermore, exctra ecclesium nulla salus, so by incurring an excommunication, you are outside a state of grace.

        It’s all just a bit too objective in identifying in the sacraments the sign and thing signified as completely one. Confession, absolution, and penance isn’t just a sign of God’s forgiveness for you, but actually is the absolution itself.

        • Greg Herr

          That’s fair. And you’re right, I was thinking of boots-on-the-ground among the laity. As noted, better catechesis would help. The reality among our Catholic community is a profound desire for life in Christ, and that includes the sacraments, joy, and assurance of salvation.

      • Cal P

        That’s because most 21st c American Catholics are post-V2 perrenialists who think all paths lead to Heaven, and that your experiences are heavily colored not from long-term or cradle Catholics, but from converts and those prone to LARPing. The lack of fear is because hell has ceased to be a judgement worth fearing. Maybe a little more fear would do Roman Catholics some good, considering all the pedos with indelible marks of grace.