Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

My Photo
Location: United States

I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Monday, October 29, 2007

More on the California Wildfires (II)

This morning (10.29) helicopters are still flying overhead in an attempt to get the wildfires fully contained. The one closest to our home is 50% contained, which is the good news. The bad news is that today will once again be hot and breezey with the additional prospect of the Santa Ana winds kicking up again by mid-week or by Friday. Please pray that this does not occur since there are still many hot spots that could flare up and do more damage.
As we begin to clean up and get back to "business as usual" out here the list of suspected arsonists grows. It is now believed that the Malibu fire was started by a downed electrical wire and, quite possibly, the rest were the work of arsonists. The San Diego fires were started, in part, by those who wanted to create a diversion so more illegals could pour across our already porous borders. They succeeded!
Its more than just a little ironic to observe how the fires are now being politicized. Our illustrious gaggle of Democrat elected officials have long since forgotten that they are elected officials. They typically ignore the citizen unless, of course, the citizen agrees with them. If you call their offices, you get some "kid" who takes the call, acts annoyed that you disagree, and promises to pass your comments along. Right. Fortunately, our elected officials have backed off from the "the fires were started by global warming" mantra, but they are still, no doubt, Bush's fault.
There's always a sympathetic ear for the illegal aliens (usually called--even by some PCA pastors--undocumented workers) that it's somehow our fault that they're coming here and we're just wrong for not extending to them every conceivable welfare opportunity. But it's not just us: a number of states on the East Coast wants to issue driver's licenses (you know, the kind you can use to board airplanes loaded with jet fuel) as do our Democrat officials out here on the Left Coast. What price a vote?
The upshot of today's "office memo" is a request for your prayers for the weather and also a prayer for the well being of our state. We are affluent, self-centered, self-absorbed and don't realize how truly poor we are. To make matters worse, the so-called spiritual leaders who "talk" to tens of thousands adherents every Sunday only make matters worse.


Friday, October 26, 2007

More on the California Wildfires

Friday, Oct. 26th

This morning I awoke to the sound of three large fire helicopters flying overhead moving to the Silverado Canyon area fires. Even though Orange, CA is out of danger and the fires are moving towards Riverside, there is a layer of smoke that burns the eyes and makes it very difficult to see when you're driving. I was out early this morning and all of Orange and Villa Park is shrouded is smoke. Visibility is very low and it staggers the imagination how little you can actually see. Sore throats and coughing are the orders of the day.

One arson was shot and killed by law enforcement officers when he fled the scene where he was attempting to start another fire. A chase ensued and the arsonist rammed the police cruiser, which, in CA, is grounds to use lethal force. As the news unfolds it is being discovered that there are a number of arson suspects, which means that a number of the many fires raging in Southern California was started intentionally. You really have to wonder what motivates a person to do such a thing!

This raises the ethical issue of whether arsonists ought to be charged with more than mere arson in light of the untold damage done by their deed, the inordinate man hours spent battling the blazes, the loss of personal property, and the loss of life. Given the situation it seems that the charges ought to include murder and attempted murder at the very least.

The death toll continues to rise as firefighters are now finding occupants in their burned homes. It remains to be seen how many actually perished either refusing to leave their homes or who were unable to get out in time.

There is also the "environmentalist wacko" part of the equation. Big Bear has been a tender box for years. Some hardcore environmentalists have lobbied to keep foresters from thinning out trees destroyed by the bark beetle on the grounds that it would disturb nature's equilibrium to do so. Their actions are just one more evidence that Americans have been intimidated into "caving" when it comes to the unreasonable demands of these folks. But they have an agenda and even a catastrophe of this magnitude cannot dissuade those who have imbibed of the Kool-Aid. These fine folks have so much influence that they have prevented the United State Marines at Camp Pendleton from performing certain training exercises because of the unrest they might cause to the eco-balance of certain sea birds. When you pass by Pendleton on I-5 you'll see a sign that states that the Marines are contributing to preserving the ecology of Southern California. Personally, I'd like to see something along the lines of "Training Marines to kill the enemy and protect Americans," but that's just me.

There will be more than ample opportunity for us to provide Deaconal assistance to those who have suffered loss. This will provide us with a true "hands on" experience and will separate those who merely talk about mercy ministry and those who don't talk about it so much, but when the chips are down actually do something about it.

The damage to Southern California in the aftermath of these fires has yet to be calculated. Damage is in the millions of dollars and the clean up will take quite a while. Outside of our house--and we were not in the line of fire this time--looks like a war zone. Drinking water has been affected in the hardest hit areas and those who want to get back to see if their homes are still standing are being prohibited. Trees are down, snapped like toothpicks in the near hurricane force winds, fences are down, and virtually everything is covered with soot and ash, even in the unaffected areas. Air quality is awful. Even when you're used to air you can chew as we are out here, it is evident that our air is contaminated exponentially.

Please continue to pray for Southern California and those who are in leadership. Our illustrious Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi has proved--once again--his incompetence by ascribing the wildfires to global warming. Several noted scientists said he was nuts. I'm thinking about running for LT Governor of California next year. It seems like a cushy job where you don't really have to do much except get paid to make ludicrous comments.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Church of Christ (VIII)

The Marks or Notes of the Christian
The beauty of the description of the Church in the Belgic Confession is that it doesn’t merely give us definitions and then send us on our way. There is a personal aspect or facet to this and other Reformed confessions that many today overlook. Some overlook it because they are bent on pointing out how cold, sterile, and doctrinaire they are and others simply because they are so concerned to cull out the doctrine that they either forget or overlook the personal and pastoral warmth that is waiting to be discovered.
Recently, I had the privilege of addressing the Torrey Honors Class at Biola University on the topic of the Heidelberg Catechism. As part of my introduction, I focused their attention on the first question of the catechism: What is your only comfort in life and in death? I showed them how at the outset the authors were concerned to put their booklet of comfort into the personal category. What is your only comfort in life and in death? The remainder of the Heidelberg Catechism is not merely pastoral/personal but gives us biblical ground under our feet. If you haven’t read it and then studied it, you owe it to yourself to do so.
Anyway, the B.C. possesses similar characteristics. I recall how some people I’ve met were “hardcore” on Article 29; so hardcore that they questioned whether anyone outside of their particular church affiliation was even saved. They were gung-ho when it came to the first two paragraphs, but would become angry if you tried to press the claims of the third paragraphs upon them. So what does the third paragraph say to us? Let’s take a few moments and listen to what the B.C. says.
“With respect to those who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians, namely, by faith; and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. But this is not to be understood as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in who they have remission of sins through faith in him.”[1]

What is Faith?
B.B. Warfield once said that not everything that passes for Christianity is Christianity. Today, the same is true in spades. I’m sure we have all heard some of the most outlandish statements coming from those who are ostensibly Christians as well as some pretty squirrelly and funky “doctrines.” Personally, I’ve heard statements that were supposedly Christian in content that contained as many errors as words. I’m not coming down on new Christians by saying this. I have all kinds of patience with and for them. My concern is someone who has been in the Christian Church for quite a while and still is at the proverbial square one; who cannot begin to articulate the basics of the Christian faith.
The discerning reader will recall that in the last issue I raised the issue of the young man, who had just been baptized, coming back and doing a cannonball into the baptistery. What I’m about to put in quotes is in the public domain and was added by someone responding to me on my blog site. Here is the kind of drivel that passes for spirituality in modern evangelicalism: “As for the little guy jumping into the water. I recognize our desire for the solemn and holy. Yet it also seems entirely appropriate to jump into the water after baptism. There must be some sort of celebrating among the heavenly hosts with each baptism. Perhaps a cannonball would be appropriate after each baptism to recognize God among us! Just a thought that puts a different biblical perspective on the case in point.” I want to thank the jolly blogger for making my point for me. If you don’t believe that this is an actual quote, you can check it out on my blog site. With this kind of shallow thinking is there any wonder the modern Church is in such deep weeds?
So to the point: what is faith? It seems so simple until you try to put it into words. This is precisely where Scripture and reliable confessions can be of immeasurable help to and for us. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q/A 86) asks, What is faith in Jesus Christ? and answers in this manner: “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.” (Emphasis mine.) The caveat is that we cannot fabricate a Jesus to our liking, but we must settle for the Jesus who is offered to us in the Good News. The content of that Good News is found in Scripture that comes to us with divine authority. He alone is our salvation and we are to rest upon him and receive him as he comes to us in Scripture.
The Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 7, Q/A 21) gives us a definition that was common during the Reformation when in answer to the question What is true faith? Olevianus and Ursinus say, “True faith is not only certain (or true—RG) knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also an assured (or firm—RG) confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.”[2]What are we told? Faith has at least two aspects, components, or facets: knowledge and confidence. One references the head of the Christian and the other the heart. If either one is out of balance, we do not possess biblical faith.

[1] Joel Beeke & Sinclair Ferguson (eds.), Reformed Confession Harmonized, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), p. 193.
[2] Ibid., 94. Italics mine—RG. See John 6:69; 17:3; Heb. 11:3, 6; Eph. 3:12; Rom 4:16, 20-21; Heb. 11:1; Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:21; Acts 16:14; Matt. 16:17; John 3:5; Rom. 10:14, 17; Matt. 9:2; Rom. 5:1; Gal. 2:20; Rom. 3:24-26.

The Southern California Wildfires

For the last week we have been following the horrific wildfires that have swept across Southern California. In the thirteen years that we’ve lived out here, these are the worst fires we’ve experienced. There are a number of factors that contributed to the damage and destruction caused by these fires, not least of which is the fact that we have only had approximately two inches of rain this year. Everything was dry and a veritable tender box. All that was needed was one spark with a little wind and the damage would have been done. What we received, rather, were lots of “sparks,” some set by arsonists, and a lot of hurricane force Santa Ana winds. That was a recipe for catastrophe. When you couple those conditions with high, high temperatures and near single-digit humidity you’re in trouble.
To date, over 315,000 acres have burned and nearly 1,000,000 people had to evacuate their homes. As of Thursday 25, 2007 there are still six fires burning in San Diego County and at least 1,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed. In the Lake Arrowhead area there are still two fires burning, 300 homes destroyed, 10,000 homes threatened, and 6, 000 acres burned. In Orange County, at least 9 homes and buildings were destroyed, 43.000 residents were evacuated, and 22,000 acres burned. Some are just returning to those homes today or to what used to be their home, but what is now merely charred ashes. It will take a long time to clean up the mess, but there are opportunities for us both within the household of faith as well as outside of it. President Bush was in California today and took a helicopter reconnaissance of the worst hit areas. He promised government aid, for which we can be thankful.
When the dust, smoke, and “smaze” clear, however, the Lord will provide us with many opportunities to be of aid—once matters start getting sorted out. I know of at least one PCA family in San Diego that lost their home and there could well be others. Our Presbytery emailed back and forth during the worst part of the fires to try to perform a kind of “collective check” on each other. I was also able to communicate with PCA headquarters in Atlanta as well as with Dominic Aquila, who is the editor of PCA News.
We received an email from Pastor Ken Han at Grace Presbyterian Church (Fallbrook) and there was concern about members’ houses as well as for the church building. To date, I haven’t had a follow-up report from him, but I have heard that the building where they meet was spared. It also appears that none of the PCA churches in San Diego were endangered, although Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido had to evacuate, then got an all clear, and then had to evacuate again. Apparently, there was roof damage to a house literally across the street, but WTS remained unscathed. The last I heard they have electricity and are waiting for permission to get back to the campus. There were a few professors whose houses were threatened, but to date I don’t have any confirmation.
Today (10.25) I received an email that a representative from PCA Disaster Relief will be arriving in Southern California soon to access the damages and begin relief efforts. This is the same organization that orchestrated the Katrina relief efforts and they did an exemplary job.
Without minimizing the loss that many of our fellow Californians have experienced I wonder if there isn’t a larger, more spiritual angle to these fires. For anyone with a spiritual conscience it does seem that the Lord has been trying to get America’s attention for a while. Across the “fruited plain” we’ve had reports of tornados, Katrina, the I-35 bridge collapse, and a severe drought in the South (In a phone conservation recently one of my friend and colleagues in South Carolina told me that his city has enough water left for 49 days!).
Now we’ve had the fires. Is there a message to our country from God? Have we even stopped to ponder that question? I don’t expect the (neo)-pagans to, but it would certainly behoove the Christian Church to reflect upon the spiritual side of this natural disaster. Few will reflect upon Amos 3:6 (Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?) For the longest time Christianity has been mocked and that by those who call themselves ministers of the Word. For the longest time people have accumulated possession and wealth; they lived the “good life;” and they trusted in their social status and affluence. Perhaps it’s time for them and us to perform some spiritual inventory. This has been a momentous and chilling week in Southern California.The headline on the front page of The Orange County Register Thursday the 25th read: Lives in Shambles. For the Christian, that headline can never be true. They can face a number of great difficulties and trials, but because of Christ our lives are never in shambles. Truly, they were before the Savior made us his own, but there is a lot more of a devastating character in life than losing a house; what if you accumulate all the “stuff” but your soul is not saved? In addition to the Amos text, I’m also reminded of Romans 8:28. That text might anger many today, but it should be our greatest comfort in this time of need.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Church of Christ (VII)

The Marks or Notes of the Church (II)
We are examining what the Belgic Confession relates to the Christian Church about what the “marks,” “notes,” or “distinguishing characteristics” of Christ’s Church are. The Belgic is doing this for a very spiritual and pastoral reason, namely to give Christians some guidelines regarding what they ought to be looking for as they seek a church home. By way of a quick review, here is what the author included in Article 29 of his confession: “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.”[1]
Last week we outlined what is meant by the “preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel,” so now we’re going to progress to the proper administration of the sacraments and church discipline.

The Pure Administration of the Sacraments
There are few things sacrosanct in the modern Church anymore. Someone sent me a film clip recently of a United (or Untied) Methodist church celebrating what was ostensibly the Lord’s Supper. All the adult recipients were dressed in clown costumes, which, given the United Methodist mindset, was probably appropriate. That debacle gave new meaning to the song Send in the Clowns. There were smiles and laughter all around during that ludicrous display. The female pastor appeared to be enjoying it most of all. There would not have been a complaint if God had zapped them all then and there. The next day’s headlines could have read: “If it weren’t an act of God, it should have been!”
In another unrelated clip I received, a 12-year-old boy was being baptized in a Baptist church. The sacrament was administered and the boy disappeared off camera. As the pastor began to make some concluding comments, the young boy came back into the range of the camera as he performed a cannonball into the baptistery. There was a huge splash, soaking the pastor. The entire church roared in laughter. The pastor was obviously surprised and shaken by the unexpected event and made some nervous impromptu comments, smiling and giggling. As I watched that desecration I was livid. That young boy should have been read the riot act then and there for the manner in which he despised God’s sacrament and made such light and sport of it. Ample time should have been taken, once the pastor regained his composure to explain to all who laughed why this was no laughing matter.
I’ll grant that these are two extreme examples; I’m willing to let them stand as exceptions and not the rule. Nevertheless, the modern Church could most definitely “tighten up” its administration of the sacraments. When de Brès penned these words, he was directing his words primarily against the Roman Catholic Church and to another degree the Remonstrant’s Church as well. The doctrine of transubstantiation is unbiblical and is to be rejected. In other words, de Brès taught that both transubstantiation and the mere “remembrance meal” were not biblical; they were wrong. There’s a novel thought for the 21st century Church: there is such a thing as right and wrong; such a thing as what is pleasing to God and what isn’t.
Several years ago, when I was a pastor in Toronto, Canada, our family had traveled for vacation to the island off the NC coast where my parents lived. After two wonderful weeks of warmth and sunshine, we drove inland to Charlotte, NC, where Sally’s parents lived. We attended church with them on Sunday—it was the Sunday before Resurrection Sunday (otherwise known as Easter). It was an evangelical congregation and the pastor announced that at next Sunday’s service the Lord’s Supper would be served. He went on to say that it really didn’t matter to him if you were Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Pentecostal, or whatever other denomination, he was going to ensure that you would be comfortable and that he intended to make it a meaningful experience for you. I leaned over to my wife and whispered that I wished we could stay over, if for no other reason than I’d like to have seen how he was going to pull it off.
If you don’t know the decided differences between, say, Roman Catholic and Reformed and Presbyterian views on the Lord’s Supper then you are probably a product of public schools and of a “community” church. (Don’t go getting testy! I’m joking—sort of. I’m the product of the public school system, but in the pre-politically correct era.) There are major differences and we should clearly delineate them because those differences are substantive and far-reaching. It is our duty to know those differences and know why we believe what we do.

A Brief Word to My PCA Colleagues
When I first came into the PCA in 1995 our Session at Grace studied the celebration of the Lord’s Supper together. It was an enlightening study, to say the least. One of the tools I used was a study by the Dutch Calvin scholar, W.F. Dankbaar entitled Communion Practices in the Century of the Reformation (Communiegebruiken in de eeuw der Reformatie). Dankbaar chronicled how each of the various Reformed pastors on the continent celebrated the Lord’s Supper with their respective congregations. There was a lot of overlap in the manner of celebration, but there were also differences. That led us to conclude that within the boundaries of Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and our Book of Church Order we were given some latitude, which is a good thing.
We then focused on the elements used in the Holy Meal. Our investigation of Scripture determined that wine was used in the celebration. When we moved from Scripture to the confessional statements we discovered the same thing: wine. Finally, the BCO also prescribed wine. Therefore, we settled in on wine. “But what about those who are allergic to wine or who are alcoholics?” some might ask. Well, when we fence the table of the Lord one of the logistical announcements is that a portion of the tray contains grape juice for those, who for whatever reason, cannot partake of wine, but the remainder is wine. Clearly, it is not a badge of Christianity that we don’t ever drink. At the first Christian Pentecost when Peter and the others were accused of being drunk, he reminded his accusers that it was only 9:00a.m. Note well: he didn’t say, “We don’t drink.” He simply pointed to the fact that it was too early.
But it does seem to me that to be in keeping with what our Lord, the Westminster divines, and the compilers of our BCO were teaching, the emphasis should be on celebrating the Lord’s Supper in the biblically prescribed manner. Could you ever celebrate the Lord’s Supper with a cracker and a soft drink? Well, if that were all you had, then maybe so. But if we have the means to celebrate it as Scripture tells us we should, why would we want to celebrate differently?

Church Discipline: Who Does That Anymore?
This aspect of what de Brès says about church discipline sounds like the Lamisil® commercial. Just as we Americans are intolerant of an athlete’s foot cure that takes longer than two weeks (we really are an instant gratification nation, aren’t we?), we are horrified at any attempt at or notion of church discipline. This is due, in part, (but only in part) to our lack of understanding of the nature and essence of the Church of Jesus Christ. Decades of garbage tend to mount up and block our view of the real deal. One of the unintentional outcomes of the mega-church movement was to aggravate the already rampant individualism in the United States and North America. The net result, therefore, was a joyful anonymity in the masses that met to be entertained each Sunday. The larger the gathering, the higher the degree of anonymity is.
Besides, with the pastor preaching his brand of “feel good” religion, few were ever being convinced of sin and an unbiblical lifestyle. Being one of the faceless attendees in the sea of the audience, both public and secret sins went undisclosed. Then as well as now, pastors shied away from the “s” word: sin. That word was not considered either chic or upbeat. Attendees tended to fall away rather quickly if pastors didn’t accommodate themselves to positive messages. Compromise with biblical truth became the order of the day. Pastors came to understand intuitively what attendees would tolerate and stand for and what would send them flying for the exits and seeking a place that was less offensive and more in keeping with what their consumer mentality demanded. Truth was definitely “out” and positive messages were “in.”
Since few of the “sermonettes” were directed to specific sins and the need to repent from them and be conformed more and more to the image of Christ, mega-church attendees could live like pagans—which many did—and get their spiritual fix on Sunday. That, and the rise of lawsuits in our litigiously obsessed culture, led a number of churches to abandon any attempt at even the simplest forms of church discipline such as a pastor telling an attendee that he or she shouldn’t live in a particular sin or sins. If pastors ever dared to venture into that territory they quickly encountered the “Butt Out” mentality. Therefore, they became spiritually gun shy and, wanting to keep the “numbers” up, turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the sins of their congregation. On the other hand, some didn’t even have a clue what those sins were because the pastors were too aloof and too important to spend time getting to know their congregants by name—which is a daunting task when you’re dealing with large numbers of people. Finally, since these pastors had long since decided not to preach on sin it was a foregone conclusion that they probably wouldn’t have to be dealing with any such circumstances.
One example will suffice here. I came to know about a blatant case of adultery and abandonment involving the wife of a friend of mine. They both attended an evangelical church in the area. I called the senior pastor there and was told by the church secretary that I could just tell her what I wanted. I made it very clear to her that I was not about to tell her, but rather that I would be put through to the senior pastor, who, by the way, had a serious problem going on in his congregation. Attila the Hun was put through. I told the man the problem and his only reply was, “What would you do in a case like this?” I was flabbergasted, but explained as calmly as I could the steps that I thought should be taken.
A few weeks later I saw my friend and he told me what had happened as a result of my call to his pastor. My friend’s wife showed up at church the following Sunday with her new live-in stud and my friend pointed her out to an Elder of the church. He said he would bring the matter to the attention of the pastor. Being good to his word, he conferred with the pastor I spoke to on the phone and came back to my friend with this bit of church discipline: Your wife looks pretty happy; why don’t you look for another church? I’ll bet she was happy! The new stud had just received his order of Enzyte® and she was all smiles. I wonder if his name were Bob?
What was dismal in the mega-church movement regarding church discipline is non-existent in the Emergent chitchat. With all the “pomo” emphasis on tolerance, relativism, the lack of meta-narratives, the positive uses of other religions, and the like, you would insult the Birkenstock label to even hint that a particular type of unbiblical behavior might be censurable. The Emergent deviants have some semblance of appreciation for “community,” which is the opposite of the mega-church, but if the “community” where to exhort you to live a more biblical life you’d be laughed out of Starbucks, the pub, or wherever else “worship” was being held that day.
So it all boils down to this: What is it that you truly are looking for in a church family? Once you’ve answered that question, take some time and answer this one as well: Is what you want what God wants? Are you looking for all the right things or are you looking for all the wrong things? How essential is it to you and for your family (if you have one) that you make the right choice? How crucial is your choice to your own spiritual growth and that of your loved ones? Did you choose your current local church out of convenience rather than because it was the truest church you could find after seriously seeking out and finding a place of true, biblical worship?The Second Helvetic (Swiss) Confession of 1566 chimes in with similar words to what the Belgic Confession summarizes when it says, “…we do not acknowledge every church to be the true Church which vaunts herself so to be; but we teach that to be the true Church indeed in which the marks and tokens of the true Church are to be found.”[2] Sunday is only a few days away. Where will you worship on this Lord’s Day?

[1] Joel Beeke & Sinclair Ferguson (eds.), Reformed Confession Harmonized, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), p. 192-193. Emphases mine.
[2] Ibid., 192.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Church of Christ (VI)

So What Should We be Looking for?
Last time we listened to Article 28 of the Belgic Confession where we were told that there is no salvation outside of the true church and that “all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it…”[1] Real Christians are to submit to the doctrine and discipline of the church and to bow their necks under the yoke of Christ.[2] Article 28 ends with these words, “Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.”[3]
That being the case, Article 28 begs the question: So what should I be looking for when I look for a local church? Or, If I’m in a local church that does not correspond to a true, biblical church, how do I begin investigating where I should be? To many, these are not important questions. As I’ve pointed out before, the modern, 21st century Christian is more concerned to have his or her needs—real or perceived—met. Precious little time and attention is given to whether the preaching is biblical, the liturgy is according to Scripture, or whether what is sung has any significant biblical content. Article 29 deals precisely with “The Marks of the True Church, and Wherein She Differs From the False Church.” It might appear to be an oddity that the B.C. even pauses to ponder the possibility of “the False Church.” What? We watch TV evangelicalism almost totally unreflectively and uncritically. Does it ever occur to us that the congregation down the street that our teenager dearly loves might be a false church? How should we go about determining this important matter? How much have we investigated what is being taught in the youth groups? What kinds of materials are being used? What is the theology behind the material?
“Oh, there’s no theology being taught,” you say. “Our congregation doesn’t believe in teaching doctrine or theology.”
Of course, that’s the biggest lie of all. Every congregation from 1960s hangover and druggie feel good congregation of Anne Lamott to the computer generated people listening to Bob Schuller with a southern accent, Joel Osteen, have a definite theology. Most are not willing to share it with you because they would prefer to play their cards close to their chests. Here is how it works in the practice: Intuitively they know that if they actually told you what they believe even the most muddleheaded minds in the congregation would probably strongly object. Therefore, they just give it to you in bits and pieces and know that you probably won’t ever connect the dots.
Is our only concern that our teenagers are happy or that our wife likes the feminized atmosphere where we attend?
Please don’t get me wrong: I am not opting for a macho-church. At the same time, I am also not suggesting that I’d rather have a church that caters to women and leaves the men on the periphery. It is true, however, that a number of churches today have never extricated themselves from the feminization of the church that took root in the Second Great Awakening with Finney and friends. There was a time when the Church looked like the Church and not some second-rate, vain attempt at a night club. The B.C. hearkens back to such a time in history. So at the risk of offending the megas and Emergents—and a lot of other people—I want to walk you through what Article 29 relates to us. Even if you reject what de Brès wrote, I’m asking you to reflect on what he says and ask yourself if it is biblical and if it makes sense. If it does, then I’m asking you to consider how you might put this into practice for yourself, and, if you have them, your wife/husband and children.

Diligence and Circumspection
Article 29 opens with these words: “We believe that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church.”[4] In other words, the first thing required of any serious Christian is both diligence and circumspection in dealing with what Scripture teaches about God’s Church. This might take a little while. Diligence and circumspection are not instant commodities. They require…well, diligence and circumspection. To put it in school categories, they require that we do our biblical homework. There is a presupposition in this article of the confession that people are acquainted with the truths of the Bible. Keep in mind that this was written in 1561 during the time of the Reformation and those who were attending Protestant churches had only recently had the scriptures in the vernacular. De Brès’ thrust then is this: get a Bible, read it and study it diligently and circumspectly, and become familiar with its contents. Remember: the Roman Catholic Church kept its members ignorant of biblical truth and told them that Scripture was too hard for them. By keeping them unacquainted with Scripture the Roman Catholic Church could play all its superstitious and unbiblical games. The church folk in the Middle Ages had an excuse: they couldn’t read Latin and there were no Bibles available. Now things are quite different. Don’t you keep yourself in the dark!
The Reformers were not fearful of being compared to other churches. In fact, they both welcomed and encouraged interaction with their congregations and a searching of Scripture. Why was that? In part, it was due to the fact that the Reformers themselves delved deeply into Scripture and were convinced that anyone looking for a truly biblical Christian congregation would know the difference. In fact, the last sentence of Article 29 reads: “These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.”[5] In the 21st century, however, our powers of biblical discernment are substantially diminished and, as often as not, if you question someone’s church choice they want to know what all the fuss is about.
It is precisely our study of the Bible that provides us with the necessary insights not only to ascertain how God wants to be worshiped (few today ask that question) and what a true, faithful congregation of Jesus Christ looks like. Again, in our society, it almost invariably boils down to preference and entertainment value. We might also add that what many modern Christians are seeking is a sermon that doesn’t threaten them, tell them that they need to change their lives and lifestyles to a holier standard, and that they are sinners in need of the only true Savior, Jesus Christ, but rather one that is nice. This way, men can remain bored out of their minds but thankful that their wives are blissfully happy and not bugging them about being real spiritual leaders in their homes. Besides, if men ever did decide to lead, it would not be in the saccharine way and in the dulcet tones that they hear in church on Sunday. More on this in a moment.

An Important Distinction
De Brès makes a necessary and important distinction at this point in Article 29. He reminds us that he’s not speaking about the hypocrites that make every covenant community a “mixed bag.” He comprehends the concept of the tares among the wheat; the difference between a “lamb” and a “goat.” There is, he insists, a distinction between being externally in the Church and yet not of it.[6] This is a necessary point to ponder, especially for the modern Christian. The Church of Christ is not a more or less loosely connected aggregate of people who just “happen” to be there. They are gathered around the Word of God by the Holy Spirit and given the mandate—in the midst of their diversity—to be one in Christ. It will not do merely to be “pasted” on to a local congregation in a Nestorian-like fashion. Christians are, rather, to be active and integral parts of “the body and communion.”
Here is de Brès’ more complete definition: “but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects who call themselves the Church.” He is making a plea for Christian discernment to be able to judge what is true, right, and pleasing to God and what is a mere counterfeit. Not to possess these faculties of discernment might very well spell disaster for you and your family. And yet, this is one of the begetting sins of the modern Church. Few are concerned with scriptural doctrine and its application; other matters occupy them. There are even some pastors who openly ridicule biblical doctrine and tell their congregants that they don’t need to bother and/or busy themselves with doctrine because it is a waste of time and only causes dissension.
Is it any wonder that many modern Christians have a spiritual I.Q. that is barely in the single digits? It’s shameful when a disproportionately large percentage of Christians cannot tell you what the Ten Commandments are, cannot tell you where to find them, and cannot tell you about foundational, fundamental doctrines of the faith. What is all the more disconcerting is that these folks wear their blatant lack of knowledge and discernment as a badge of honor and look down their noses at other Christians who refuse to join their ranks. The call here is, however, for a biblically discerning mind and heart. These remarks must be taken seriously if we do not want to leave ourselves and those God has entrusted into our care in the lurch.

The Marks of the Church
In order to facilitate our search, de Brès provides us—albeit in summary and outline form—with a list of the "marks" or "notes" of the Church so that we can get a handle on what we’re looking for. He writes, “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.”[7]
The wording here is both simple and yet highly profound. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get a good flavor of what Christians ought to be looking for in a local congregation. Of course, the caveat is that the Christian must be armed with adequate discernment and Christian maturity to be able to check on the purity of the doctrine being preached. That is to say, he ought to have a “Berean” attitude, i.e., “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (cf. Acts 17:11). In order to perform such a necessary procedure the modern Christian is going to have to put away his or her copy of The Message and trade it in for a good translation of the Word of God. Then they are going to have to resolve to make a detailed, systematic, and regular study of the Bible coupled with prayer for illumination.
From that study—always being and becoming a student of the Word—our skills of discernment are to be trained and honed so that we discover what the will of God is, “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Allow me a word to the women here. If your husband begins such an undertaking, let him proceed; don’t hinder him. If you want him to lead then let him lead and be prepared to follow his leadership. I mention this because there is such a tendency in our overly feminized churches for women to “run the show” from behind the scenes. I have known wives who have actually given their husbands leather bound copies of The Message. That is not a good idea. The Message is a paraphrase and a bad one at that. I have also known women who clamored for their husbands to start acting like spiritual leaders, which is a good thing. Once their husbands started down that path, however, and started looking for a new and better, more biblical church the wife suddenly realized that she was no longer calling the shots and she dug in her heels. Once hubby decided to attend a local church where there was more meat and less fluff, where there was more of a balance between masculinity and femininity, the wife insisted on leaving and getting back to her comfort zone.
Wives, if this is you—or close to you—don’t carp that your husband won’t lead you. Just be honest and say that your husband tried to lead you but that you let him know in no uncertain terms who really wears the pants in your family. Here is the cardinal point: Every Christian needs the pure preaching of the Word of God in his or her life. This is the means of grace God has instituted for the instruction and encouragement of his people. So in your search for a church home, this question must be foremost in your thoughts and minds: Does this church truly preach the Bible? There is a lot today that passes for preaching that isn’t. Preaching is not a fireside chat; it is not an informal discussion; and it is not a mode of entertainment and sunshine peddling. That is not the meaning of the New Testament word for preaching. It is proclamation with a particular content. It is not a string of anecdotes, a Christian variation on the latest political or pop-psychology book or TV show, or the fad du jour. It is the preaching of Christ and God’s will for our lives. This is the first thing we must look for. Now go out and do it.

[1] Joel Beeke & Sinclair Ferguson (eds.), Reformed Confessions Harmonized, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), p. 190.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 192.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., 193. Italics mine.
[6] Cf. Matt. 13:22-25; 2 Tim. 2:16-20; Rom. 9:6.
[7] Beeke & Ferguson, RCH, 192-193.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Church of Christ (V)

A Weighty Responsibility
We continue this week in our study of the nature of the Church of Jesus Christ by turning our attention back to the Belgic Confession (1561). Article 28 of this confession is entitled, “Every One is Bound to Join Himself to the True Church.”[1] Following a description of the nature of the universal Church of Christ, Guido de Brès, the author, now moves us in a related but slightly different direction: our obligation as Christians to ensure that the local congregation we join is the most biblical one we can find. Note that during the Reformation it was not enough to be a mere attendee, but Christians were expected to join—become a member of—a local church.
De Brès’ opening salvo cuts to the heart of the matter and contains a number of key elements that we need to examine. First, the Church is defined as the assembly of those who are saved. Surely we need to minister to the lost—that’s biblical—but simultaneously we ought to keep in mind that the essence of the Church is comprised of those who are saved. Here’s the first clause of this article: “We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself to live in a separate state from it.”
Some of this might sound shocking and some of it might actually be shocking to us. Some respond to the words “and out of it there is no salvation” as sounding terribly Roman Catholic. In actuality, however, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is true that Rome taught that outside the Roman Catholic church there was no salvation possible, but that is quite different from saying that outside of the true Church of Jesus Christ there is no salvation.
This is a clear warning to those today who find their “church” in a para-church organization or even in a good, effective Sunday school teacher. A para-church organization—as the prefix “para” makes plain—is not the Church. Some donate to good para-church organizations, but those organizations don’t baptize or administer the sacraments, or where necessary, exercise church discipline. Nonetheless, some today insist that a given para-church entity is a substitute for them going to a local congregation. Dead wrong. Such an attitude manifests how far the modern Church has devolved.
I spoke to a man not long ago who had not had the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for over five years. His Sunday school teacher, he explained, was a “gifted” teacher so Sunday school was his “church.” Dead wrong again, but as often as not, this type of muddleheaded thinking prevails in the 21st century.
John Calvin calls chapter one of Book four of the Institutes: “The True Church with which as Mother of All the Godly We must keep Unity.”[2] In his opening remarks, Calvin informs us that what he is about to say is nothing more than an extension of what he taught in Book Three on faith and salvation.[3] He states, “As explained in the previous book, it is by the faith in the gospel that Christ becomes ours and we are made partakers of the salvation and eternal blessedness brought by him.”[4] Moreover, because of our “ignorance and sloth…we need outward helps to beget and increase faith within us, and advance to its goal.” Therefore, “God has also added these aids that he may provide for our weakness. And in order that the preaching of the gospel might flourish, he deposited this treasure in the church.”[5] In other words, the focus of the true church is upon the preaching of the Word of God.
Calvin continues and articulates that the Church bears a particular stamp. It is Christ’s Church “into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.”[6] Stating his case more strongly and giving a more full-orbed description of the Church as “mother,” Calvin says that it is necessary that each believer be a member of Christ’s Church. “For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels.”[7]
My question to you at this point is simply this: Does any of this describe the lengths to which you went in choosing a church home for yourself or—if you have one—your family? What motivated you to attend where you are currently attending? If you are a male of the species, who made the choice to go to the church you now attend? I ask that because the modern Church bears all the marks of feminization as much as if not more than our society does.[8] Are we aware today that no person—no matter who they are and how much money they have—ought to withdraw him- or herself from a true church of Jesus Christ and live in a separate state from it?
Second, de Brès opined that regarding the Church of Jesus Christ, “all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it.” There is an obligation/duty enjoined upon true Christians to join a true congregation of our Lord and unite themselves with it. In other words, we are not merely to join and then disappear into the ranks; as true believers we are to “unite” with that local body. We are not to remain aloof or sit on the sidelines, but rather we are to become living and active members, sharing our spiritual gifts and sharing in and nourishing the spiritual gifts of others.
Third, by so living, we are to maintain “the unity of the Church.” This unity, which is precious to congregational life, recognizes that being a member of a local congregation goes hand in glove with being united with Christ in that spiritual, mystical union by which I am conformed more and more to his image.
Fourth, we are reminded that when true Christians join a true church of Jesus Christ that they are then to submit “themselves to the doctrine and the discipline thereof.” This no doubt comes as a huge surprise to many modern, individualistically minded church-goers. It’s a surprise that anyone would even mention the fact that biblical doctrine is important to our church choice. To far too many, the reality of biblical doctrine is one of the farthest things from his mind when modern man is contemplating where he (and his family) might worship. When you couple this with the fact that some pastors openly denigrate doctrine, telling their congregants that they not only don’t need it, but that it’s actually detrimental to their Christian walk to get entangled in doctrine’s pernicious web, is it any wonder that many modern Christians are all but totally bereft of scriptural truth?
As if the concept of doctrine were not surprising enough, however, the concept of church discipline sounds like de Brès was from the planet Zork. There is no such thing as church discipline in the mega-church movement—they don’t even know who their attendees are. Can you imagine Rick Warren or Bill Hybels announcing to their audiences that they were preparing to initiate excommunication on the fornicators and those committing adultery in their midst? And the closest thing to discipline I’ve heard about from the Emergent Tribe is some guy calling Mark Driscoll to tell him that he feels badly because he watched porn and Driscoll telling him not to do it anymore. No, the modern Christian has precious little knowledge of biblical doctrine and none regarding discipline. The stock reply from the 21st century Christian to the possibility of church discipline would be “It’s none of your business, so butt out!” or “You’ll get a call from my lawyer!” Is there any wonder that the level of holiness in the modern Church is so low?
Fifth, when seeking out, finding, and joining a church, we are to be willing and prepared to bow our “necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ.” What does de Brès mean by that? Quite simply it implies that we are to submit to the Word of God. It means that we will comply with what is found in Scripture even if or especially if it cuts against the grain of what we want or expect. We must, therefore, understand that there is a difference between what I might encounter in my secular job and what God prescribes for Christ’s Church.
If we would but pay attention to this truth the modern Church could benefit greatly from its instruction. For example, this would entail that a CEO or CFO might not be at all suited to serve as an Elder in Christ’s Church. The biblical instruction is not that the congregation looks for a “high roller” or “power player,” but rather a biblically qualified man. This also has great advantages for women as well. As they comprehend that even though they might be on a “career track” in the world—that’s allowed, but certainly not the biblical prescription—that there is not a one-to-one correlation between the world and the Church, so that God forbids them to be Elders.
Positively, bowing our necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ entails being conformed to his image. It also means that the Word of God has pre-eminence in our lives.
Finally, once we have sought out, found, and attached ourselves to this congregation, we are not to sit back and be entertained. There is something required of us. Here is how the B.C. explains that obligation: we Christians are to serve for the edification of our their fellow-brothers and –sisters in Christ, “according to the talents God has given them.” In short, we are duty bound to locate this true church and then to become living, active members of it. It is not enough to be a member and to stay out on the fringes of church life. Since the Holy Spirit has given us spiritual gifts, we are to employ them for the good of the whole. You cannot worship God at home (The Church of the Innerspring) or somewhere out in nature (The Church of the Canyon), but should maintain constant attendance with your local (true) church. In the subsequence subsequent article, we will be informed about how to judge a true church from a false one, but for the present the B.C. is concerned that we understand that we are to use our gifts and to receive the benefits of the spiritual gifts of the others in the congregation.
It is easy to see that this description is quite different from that of a para-church organization, even though biblical para-church organizations can serve a very good function. I’ll mention just one such organization to give you a flavor of what I mean. Ligonier Ministries is a para-church organization that has done enormous, incalculable good in the Christian community. There are numerous very helpful books on a wide variety of Christian topics to aid the Christian in his or her walk of faith. They sponsor a number of conferences that provide solid biblical teaching. Their monthly periodical, Tabletalk, contains highly helpful articles as well as devotions for each respective month. In short—and I’ve only scratched the surface of what Ligonier Ministries provides—, Christians can make good use of their material. But what L.M. will emphasize to you repeatedly is that they are not the Church. This is an essential distinction to keep in mind as you seek out, find, and attach yourself to the purest biblical congregation you can find.
I understand that this might very well sound very unusual to the modern Christian. Yet, it’s the old dead guys, like de Brès, who were in the midst of the battle, who thought through the issues clearly, and who can still guide us today. You really don’t have to revise the confessional statements to have them be relevant. There are some voices today who cry out that our confessions are badly outdated and need to be revised to bring them into line with the “findings” of the Federal Vision, the (so-called) New Perspective on Paul, and the place of women in modern society. If we started down this road, we would eventually end up with a monstrosity that was ungainly, unreadable, un-learnable, and subject to every whim and fad that came along.Isn’t it biblically true that there really is nothing new under the sun; that what is being done has been done before? Those today who are constantly insisting on revision of the confessions would, in all likelihood, be incensed if someone like, say, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton said that the Constitution is a “living document” and needs to be under constant alteration. The Constitution is a fallible document that still serves us very well in America. Analogously, our Presbyterian and Reformed documents are also fallible, but have both stemmed the tide of error and heresy as well as positively edified God’s people throughout the ages. Why don’t the detractors to the Constitution and the Presbyterian and Reformed confessions simply go elsewhere and leave us to appreciate the dead guys?

[1] This is the heading given by Joel Beeke & Sinclair Ferguson (eds.), Reformed Confessions Harmonized, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), p. 190. Others use “Of the Communion of the Saints in the True Church,” “Everyone’s Duty to Join the Church,” or words to that effect.
[2] John T. McNeill & Ford Lewis Battles (eds.), Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 1011.
[3] An example of connecting the doctrine of salvation with the doctrine of the Church is also found in the writings of the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. He opens his section on the doctrine of the Church with these words, “But this benefit of glorification is one which we cannot yet discuss, because we have first to pay some attention to the way in which, or the route along which, Christ brings the benefits of calling and regeneration, faith and repentance, justification and adoption as children, renewal and sanctification, into being in His believers on earth, and sustains and reinforces them. We have already noted that He grants all those benefits by means of His Word and His Spirit, but have still to see that He also grants them also only in the fellowship which binds all the believers together…. The believer is born from above, out of God, but he receives the new life only in the fellowship of the covenant of grace of which Christ is the Head and at the same time the content…. From the first moment of his regeneration, therefore, the believer is, apart from his will and apart from his own doing, incorporated in a great whole, taken up into a rich fellowship; he is member of a new nation and citizen of a spiritual kingdom whose king is glorious in the multitude of his subjects (Prov. 14:28).” (Our Reasonable Faith, [Henry Zylstra (trans.)], [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), p. 514.)
[4] Inst., 1011.
[5] Ibid., 1011-1012.
[6] Ibid., 1012.
[7] Ibid., 4.1.4, 1016.
[8] See Mark Noll, America’s God, From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, (NY: The Noonday Press, 19982); Mary Kassian, The Feminist Gospel, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1992); & Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), especially chapter 12, “How Women Started the Culture War.”