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Volume 9, Issue 1: Presbyterion

Festina Lente

Douglas Wilson

The form of this advice comes from Caesar Augustus--festina lente, which means "make haste slowly." As we confront the need for reformation in the church today, those who love the status quo are distressed that we are talking of making haste at all, while those who have gone around the revolutionary bend are distressed at our "compromise" in undertaking the work of reformation so slowly and deliberately. Both need to take these words from an old reprobate pagan to heart.

While the form of the advice comes from a pagan, the substance of the advice is thoroughly biblical. Because we have a perfect Word from God, we know exactly what direction we must go. Our goal in the church's ministry must be the same as Paul's--to present every man complete in Christ (Col. 1:28). Because our worship is to glorify God, and not to please ourselves, we must never rest content until we worship Him the way the twenty-four elders do. We must never rest until the church returns to the doctrine of Christ's efficacious death for the sins of His people, and the appropriation of that salvation by faith alone. We make haste because we still fall short of the perfection required by God's Word. Even in times of relative purity, the church needs constantly to reform itself according to the Word. How much more in times of corruption!
But because that same perfect Word also tells us to reject perfectionism, we must be patient as we labor toward this end. Impatience in the ministry is a sign of a revolutionary temperament, as opposed to reformational commitment. The revolutionary temperament is essentially impatient. The Christian church is called to disciple the nations over the course of centuries, not to be social engineers for the next three weeks, maybe four. Our message is the cross of Christ, not a systematic and doctrinal bundle of plastic explosives. Our approach must be patient, organic, biblical, and inductive, and never ideological, abstract, and deductive. When a revolutionary mind gets hold of an abstract ideological system (and it does not much matter whether he calls it Marxism or Calvinism), and conducts all "reforms" in terms of deductions made from his abstraction in the sky, he has become what Hoffer called the "true believer." The "truth" represented by the cause no longer matters, the cause does. People just get in the way.
The need for balance in this regard is crucial because the corruptions of the modern evangelical church are so great and obvious. But precisely because they are so pervasive, we must reject the temptation to acquiesce in those corruptions, and we must also reject the temptation of seeking "quick fixes." When a man has a body riddled with cancer his options are not limited to dying quietly or flying to Tijuana to get some apricot pit medicine.
Tragically, the modern evangelical church has become an existentialist hodge-podge of liberalism, random experiences, spiritual sensualism, and the blind pursuit of money in the name of Jeeeesus. InterVarsity Press, the flagship publishing house of the evangelical movement, is now publishing books which in essence deny the Christian faith. Their recent book, The Openness of God, has to be read to be believed. Christianity Today, with all its moderate religio-angst, has become too painful even to read.
But the historic, Reformed churches in our country are faring no better. They have long since left their biblical, confessional foundations and are inexorably drifting toward the falls of apostasy, and some of them are closer than others. The CRC and PCA are both beyond the help of ordinary means. Just as the PCUSA passed the point of no return decades before they defrocked Machen, so our modern decidedly Reformed churches have become just a shell of what their confessions promise. They have not necessarily ordained any lesbian Buddhists yet . . . but there is no way to stop it when they do. The only haste shown is that of trying to get away from the plain and obvious teaching of Scripture. Some "conservatives" within these churches lament the state of affairs. They disapprove of the sin, but they will never make an issue of it. This is a conservatism which has never successfully conserved anything. It is salt which has never made anything salty.
Some perfectionists look at this dismal state of affairs and conclude that what we need is an additional splinter group--another presbyterian denomination of three people, not counting the stated clerk. The stationery proudly proclaims that they are a continuing presbyterian church, that they sing psalms through the left nostril, unlike those hardy blasphemers down the street, that other splinter group, I forget their name.
In the name of reformation, schismatic revolutionaries do not present an alternative to the general corruption, but simply echo that corruption in a way which is harder to recognize. By calling for immediate (deductive) reformation now in a loud voice, they mask their refusal to reform themselves. In the work of reformation, they make haste, but not slowly.
The church is moribund. What is the duty of pastors and teachers then? We must make haste to learn, and learn thoroughly, the efficacy of the gospel; we must make haste to declare and preach it. We must speak slowly so the words will be understood.
There will be no reformation apart from the gospel preached.

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