"In the Way of Obedience"
Updated: Apr 13
The third featured article in the Fall 2021 issue of the PR Theological Journal (pp.31-43) is the text of a speech Rev. Joshua Engelsma (2014 PRTS grad; pastor of Crete PRC in Crete, IL) gave at an officebearers' conference in Crete, IL in September of 2021. In his article Rev. Engelsma addresses the Reformed believer's personal and practical experience of God's covenant fellowship in light of the Bible's calling to walk in holiness. He contends that it is only "in the way of obedience" that the Christian experiences the nearness of God and the blessing of His friendship and fellowship.
That is, it is only as the believer has a life marked by grateful godliness that he/she experiences God Himself in all the riches of His mercy and grace. Of course, God's grace and mercy are ever first and foremost when it comes to the source and order of our salvation. Yet, when we talk about living in our covenant relationship with the Lord (as His saved people), then the Bible makes plain that it is "in the way of" walking in the Lord's way (path of holiness) that we experience the blessedness of this relationship. Which means, oppositely, never "in the way of" defiance of the Lord and in disobedience to His commands. In that "way" we only experience His displeasure - the frown of our sovereign Friend and not His smile.
That expression "in the way of" may not seem at first glance to be unusual or even controversial to the casual reader. But in recent years it has become a significant expression in the PRCA - though it is a long-standing phrase in her preaching and teaching - even to the point of leading to a serious breach and a sad schism in her midst.
But, as Rev. Engelsma explains, "in the way of obedience" is a necessary expression - a Reformed and biblical one. Here is a portion of his defense of this expression; follow the link above to read his entire article.
"The reason for raising the subject of obedience in relationship to fellowship with God is that the Scriptures make a certain connection between obedience and experience. Our theology must not be imposed upon Scripture or established apart from Scripture, but must arise out of Scripture and be subject to Scripture.
"Here are just a few of the passages that make the connection between obedience and the believer’s experience. Psalm 1:1 says, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” In Psalm 128:1 we read: “Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his ways.” Proverbs 12:28 says: “In the way of righteousness is life; and in the pathway thereof there is no death.”
"What is the proper way to explain this connection?
"Our obedience is never a prerequisite of, or a condition unto, or the basis for, or an instrument/means unto, or the way unto covenant fellowship. Good works never obtain, gain, or get covenant fellowship and experience. We ought never to speak of obedience as being the means or the basis of enjoying covenant fellowship with God.
"Good works are the inevitable fruit of faith. When by faith we experience covenant fellowship, that faith then shows itself in good works of gratitude. We cannot but respond in good works of gratitude. Obedience is the way of grateful conduct in the enjoyment of fellowship with God. Enjoying fellowship with God by faith, we will live lives of good works.
"Let us not forget that these good works are themselves a blessing of salvation earned by Christ and a gift of God given to us in grace. Ephesians 2:10 says: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
"To express this truth regarding the connection between obedience and experience, we use the phrase “in the way of.” We enjoy and experience covenant fellowship by faith, on the basis of Christ, and in the way of good works. Older theologians had at times used the word 'condition' in explaining these truths. But in the controversy over the unconditional covenant in the PRCA in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Herman Hoeksema saw the dangers of using that term and proposed dropping it altogether and instead using the phrase “in the way of.” He wrote, '…we are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, and therefore, we are saved through the instrument of faith, and in the way of obedience. That, and that only, is Reformed language.' Later in the same series of articles he wrote, 'But let me suggest that instead of the Pelagian term ‘condition’ we use the term "in the way of." We are saved in the way of faith, in the way of sanctification, in the way of perseverance unto the end. This term is capable of maintaining both the absolute sovereignty of God in the work of salvation and the responsibility of man.'
"Many examples of this language could be given from Protestant Reformed writers through the years. Here is just one example: 'In addition, the if/then statements in the Old Testament called the believing Israelite, who was freely justified by faith in the coming Messiah, to thankful obedience to God’s commandments as the way in which he would continue to receive and enjoy God’s covenant salvation. These statements called the godly to their part in the covenant, establishing their covenantal responsibility.'”