Results tagged “Doctrine” from Reformation21 Blog

Is the PCA Becoming More Unified?

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Some years ago, our friend Terry Johnson (senior pastor of Savannah's Independent Presbyterian Church) wrote an article suggesting an opportunity for constructive dialogue in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Terry classified the two main PCA camps in positive terms, seeing some brothers as more evangelistic (ME's) and others as more Reformed (MR's). Not that neither camp was evangelistic or Reformed; these labels could be given to both sides. Rather, the two camps could be distinguished as being more of one than the other. Terry argued that if we learn to trust one another, the ME's could be restrained from unbiblical innovations by the MR's and the MR's could be stimulated towards a Reformed piety that more greatly emphasized gospel outreach by the ME's.

At no time since Terry's article have I thought such a positive scenario to be more plausible than after this year's 2018 PCA general assembly. Recent history has conditioned us to expect combat between the two main camps, widely understood as progressives1 and confessionalists (or conservatives). Going into this year's assembly, however, the absence of highly contentious overtures was noticeable. Moreover, the most likely candidates for assembly warfare proved to be sources of cooperation and widely-held agreement. First was our unanimous affirmation of the Racial Reconciliation Study Committee report. Next came substantial agreement that the Bible's teaching of male-only eldership effectively bars women from serving as voting members of GA committees. Perhaps most notable was the nearly unanimous vote to grant full constitutional authority to the Book of Church Order language limiting marriage to only the union of a man and woman. Moreover, both in committee meeting rooms and the hotel lobbies, would-be progressives and confessionalists were seen conversing as friends and even forging agreements that would produce a greater consensus.

All of this is to ask, "What is happening to our beloved PCA?" Hopefully, I would suggest, something very good. Might this year's GA signal that we are moving close(r) to a new and functioning unity? As one who has often departed from the PCA general assembly in near despair, I must confess that I returned this year with hope that, Yes, perhaps we are closer to unity that I earlier had thought.

Even as I write these words, the groaning from supposed enemies and (even more so) from loyal friends rings loud in my ears. So let me be clear that I have not yielded to sentimental fantasies. I know quite well the significant number of matters on which unity does not exist in the PCA. Why, even the GA worship services are usually divisive (especially to oft-horrified confessionalists like me), replete with ruthless virtue signalling and finger-pointing sermonic warfare. Meanwhile, the fringes of both main camps regularly speak and act in such a way as to prompt spontaneous combustion on the other side. Yet it still seems that the PCA middle is growing larger in number and clearer in its commitments, and with more participation from partisan players (like myself). Therefore, in the spirit of Ephesians 4:3, which urges us to be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," let me explore two key avenues for the PCA to move forward in a new functional and spiritual unity.

First, unity in the PCA will require a clear doctrinal consensus on contested matters. It speaks to our times that PCA members are divided not so much on matters of confessional theology but on contested cultural hot spots. I would identify three main topics in which a future unity in the PCA will require a strong consensus: women's ministry, creation v. evolution, and homosexuality. So what would a ME-MR constructive unity look like when it comes to these subjects? Let me offer the following, not in terms of demands from one side or the other but simply my own view of what unity would require:

  • Women's Ministry. In order for the PCA to have unity, it will be necessary for ME's to accept our denomination's historical commitment to the Bible's teaching of male-only elders and deacons, involving not only ordination but also the functions of those offices. Meanwhile, MR's will need to show a broad embrace, within the above bounds, of women exercising their gifts and partnering with men in the work of the gospel. Given the clear stance of the 2017 Women's Ministry Study Committee report in agreement with both of these sides - against ordination to elder and deacon and for wide-ranging ministry - there is reason to be optimistic. This year's denial of the overture to admit women as voting members of general assembly committees is even more encouraging to those concerned about a liberal drift. Still, the coming years will tell the tale, and if progressives become resolved to achieve women's ordination then all hopes of unity in the PCA will be dashed.
  • Creation v. Evolution. PCA unity on this topic requires MR's to accept that not all of our brothers are going to hold a strict 24-7 view of Genesis 1. But it will also require ME's clearly to accept that evolution has no place in our denomination, including end-run theories like old earth progressive creationism. If we can continue to agree on the biblical portrait of a historical Adam, clearly exclude evolution, and accept diversity within those bounds, the PCA can maintain our functional unity. Conversely, attempts to foster acceptance of evolution or to impose a 24-7 creation view on the denomination will lead to further division.
  • Homosexuality. At the heart of our division on this subject is whether or not to define same-sex attraction (SSA) as a morally neutral status that does not require repentance. PCA progressives seem to have asserted such a sub-category beneath sinful desire (essentially adopting the pre-Reformation concept of concupiscence).  PCA conservatives hold with the Reformers against concupiscence, urging that the Bible does not meaningfully distinguish between "orientation" and "desire" (see James 1:13-14). Can we come to an ME-MR agreement on this topic? I was encouraged in this regard by comments made during the general assembly by Mark Dalbey, president of Covenant Theological Seminary. While conservatives may quarrel with details of Dalbey's configuration, his statement that "attraction to the same sex must be mortified by the means of grace and the support of the people of God,"2 is at least close to the conservative view regarding same sex attraction. Moreover, MR's are convinced that expressions such as "gay Christian" are incompatible with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 as a wholesome description of a believer. For their part, ME's are concerned for believers struggling with homosexual desire to be granted their full human dignity and embraced with loving gospel ministry in the church. Can we reach an agreement that brings both sides together? This remains to be seen, although I was encouraged in this hope by the experience of general assembly.

As I have indicated, I left this year's PCA general assembly with a strengthened hope that we may achieve a constructive doctrinal consensus on cultural hot topics. But, second, unity in the PCA will also require a renewal of trust between the long-contested parties. Can we move from progressive-confessional conflict to a constructive ME-MR dialogue? The answer will require us to think better of one another than our fears might counsel. It will mean seeking to understand as well as to be understood. Unity will require us to face the question as to where our actual aspirations lie: against one another or together in renewed unity? I do not deny that I, for one, have often despaired that the two sides of the PCA have enough agreement to ever really walk together again (Amos 3:3). Undoubtedly, the upcoming general assemblies will tell this tale. But 2018 suggests that maybe we do want to walk together and maybe we can. Perhaps the real question asks if we are willing to agree? To be sure, it will be through a shared commitment to truth that we will recover our trust. But the dynamic works both ways: if we are willing to trust one another, this will greatly aid our shared pursuit of truth.

The stakes are high. What a blessing it would be if our energies were no longer directed to inner-denominational conflict but together in a shared (or at least compatible) vision of Christ's reign through the gospel in our sin-scarred world. Truth first, then unity. But, for both, let this year's PCA general assembly prompt a renewal of trust, or at least in the hope of trust. For we are, both ME and MR, "his people, and the sheep of his pasture" (Ps. 100:3), and we both love and serve the same Good Shepherd whose "steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations" (Ps. 100:5).

1. So named by Bryan Chapell, "The State of the PCA," By Faith, 5/12/2015.

2. See the video recording of the Thursday PM session, starting at 2:09:05.

Fences and Fellowship

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I've tried not to be, but I can't help it...I'm a Baptist. I've read all I could about pedobaptism, I've talked to many friends, I've prayed for wisdom and clarity, and in the end, I've been all the more convinced of Baptist principles (of the 1689 London Baptist Confession variety). The truth is, Reformed Baptists (or Particular Baptists, if you prefer) have far more in common with confessional pedobaptists than we often do with others who identify as Baptist. We share a very similar confessional heritage and an overwhelming percentage of our doctrine is identical. There is no good reason why confessional Baptist and confessional pedobaptist brothers and sisters cannot enjoy intimate ecumenical fellowship with one another.

I have several friends with whom I cannot fellowship. Some of my friends aren't Christians, and others are acquaintances whom I have not had the opportunity to invest much time. Fellowship is only fellowship when friends are committed to a common cause or goal, and it flourishes through our common pursuit of that cause or goal. For the Christian, the shared goal ought to be the glory of God and the proclamation of the gospel. Without a conscious effort to utilize our God-given relationships to achieve such an end, we may have friends, but we don't have fellowship. However, I don't believe true fellowship exists only among those with whom we share complete agreement on every issue. Baptists and Presbyterians can, and should have true fellowship with one another (in addition to other relationships with Christians in other faithful circles).

A lot of reformed believers seem reluctant to use the word ecumenical, and often for good reason. We are confessional for a reason: we don't abide by the namby-pamby spirit of everyone just getting along for the sake of getting along. Our distinctions really do matter. What we believe to be true from Scripture is worth maintaining and standing on. Every Christian's conscience and every church needs to be conformed to the truth as we understand it. It would be wrong to assume that fellowship requires a Baptist to baptize their infants, or a pedobaptist to withhold what they believe to be a sign of the covenant for their children. Our authority is the Bible and we must submit to it lest our actions not proceed from faith (Romans 14:23).

Fences Make Good Neighbors

Anyone living in a neighborhood understands the blessing of a fence. We can have the best neighbors the world has to offer, but without a fence, we can sometimes run into difficulties. Where does one person's property end and the others begin? Who's responsible for the patch of grass between the two, and what happens when one neighbor wants to plant a new tree but we don't know where the property line is? Boundary markers are useful and important, but the distinction between what's mine and what's yours doesn't mean we can't love each other, don't care about what's going on in each other's homes, or won't lend a hand to our neighbor just because their yard isn't ours! It is because we have boundaries that we can be better, more loving neighbors without reason for discrepancy or upset.

Reaching Over Fences

The desire for ecumenical fellowship sometimes exists, but working through it practically may be difficult. How do we foster healthy, ecumenical relationships between churches? In most instances, the most probable avenue is through healthy ecumenical pastoral fellowship. Some of my best pastor friends do not share the same confession of faith with me, but our hearts beat together on most matters. As a result, we've been able to engage in various endeavors together: Preaching at each other's conferences or special events, pulpit swaps, or even joint vacation Bible schools or youth camps. We've even had others join us in some evangelistic efforts in the city. I've benefitted greatly from being able to talk to other pastors face-to-face about members who have left our church to go to theirs or visa-versa. It has been a blessing to be able to share resources and ideas with men who aren't entrenched in my context. Every Lord's Day, I am sure to pray publicly for a church in our network (Reformed Baptist Network) from other states and nations, but I'm also sure to pray for other faithful local churches and their pastors. When God's people can follow a pastor's leadership and shed territorial spirits, there is greater opportunity for unity and less church swapping and accountability avoiding in the entire community.

We should work toward fellowship when we share the common goal of God's glory, even though doctrinal disagreements exist. We know where the line is, so instead of spending our time determining who needs to rake the leaves, we can focus on the things that unite us. With all sincerity and love, we should be able to say to other brothers and sisters in different, yet very similar churches and denominations, "We thank God in all our remembrance of you, always in every prayer for you all making our prayer with joy, because of our fellowship in the gospel of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:3-5). No doubt, there are churches that are only churches in name, but there are others who are deeply committed to the things that matter. We don't need to change what we believe to join together in meaningful ways to bring the gospel to our communities.

Can you and do you give thanks to God for your brothers and sisters in Christ, not just in your local church, but around the world? Throughout your community? Fellowship is not easier outside the local church than it is inside, but it's worth the effort for the sake of God's name, for the health of His church, and for the growth of His people.

Private and Personal or Public and Ecclesial?

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God calls His people to be truth-loving and truth-speaking people--which is why it's disheartening to see many self-professed Calvinistic and Reformed ministers downplay doctrinal teaching, preaching and transparency. Many years ago, a pastor of an Evangelical and Reformed Presbyterian Church intimated to me that the church he pastored reserved teaching on the doctrine of election for adult Sunday School classes. He said, "We believe that more mature Christians need to hear about those doctrines. The Worship service is for a much larger group of people, including a large number of new believers, seekers or unbelievers. We wouldn't want to run them off by teaching about doctrines that are for mature believers." Sadly, the doctrine of election was rarely--if ever--taught in an adult Sunday School class in that church. Not all that long ago, a pastor of a large community church--who professes to be a Calvinist--told me, "Our people don't need a sermon on limited atonement; they need to know how to have a better marriage." Statements like these reveal that for many pastors biblical doctrine is functionally a private and personal matter rather than a public and ecclesial matter. 

To be sure, there will always be stage-cage Calvinistic pastors who annoyingly manage to make almost ever sermon they preach fit a five point outline that follows the five points of Calvinism. There will always be those who, by the emphasis they place on the Westminster Confession of Faith and Heidelberg Catechism, functionally put them on par with Scripture. However, in the grand scheme of things, it is unfathomable that anyone who has spent any amount of time in any church anywhere on the planet could ever conclude that the great problem in most pulpits is that there is too much doctrinal teaching, preaching and transparency. I have never had a congregant visit another church while on vacation only to come back and say, "You know, they were just too doctrinal in their preaching there." In fact, the opposite has always been the case. 

In part, the phenomenon of a private and personal approach to Calvinistic doctrine belongs within the realm of what D.A. Carson calls "The Underbelly of Revival"--associated with the 'Young, Restless, Reformed' (YRR). Though a movement that gloriously helped fuel a God-centered view of the world, a Christocentric hermeneutic, Calvinistic and Reformed doctrine and the importance of local church membership, numerous dangers and undesirable consequences have accompanied the YRR movement. 

For many, the allure of the YRR movement and its related churches was the fact that "this isn't your grandpa's religion." The caricature that Calvinists were stogy old men in three-piece polyester suits who never evangelized went out the window. Myriads of hip young men with beards and flannel shirts--who had grown up in Arminian churches--zealously started flocking to professedly Calvinistic churches that had high energy, edgy praise bands. The YRR movement had as much a cultural draw as it had a doctrinal appeal. The problem? D.A. Carson has aptly noted, "when things seem to be going swimmingly, the church is likely to attract more people who want to go along for the ride." When that happens, there will always be numerous undesirable consequences. One such inescapable consequence is the relinquishing of widespread discernment. Many assume that if a pastor professes to be Calvinistic, his teaching and preaching must necessarily square with whatever others have defined as "biblically faithful preaching." Many rushed into church and put their imprimatur on self-professed Calvinistic pastors. They loved the pastor's personality and cultural normality; therefore, affinity and assumption started to cloud discernment. As Carson again concludes, "when people are eager to join the people of God and identify with them is precisely when more discernment is needed, not less." 

For many in YRR-related churches, a profession of belief in Calvinistic doctrine has begun to become more and more a private and personal matter and less and less a public and ecclesial matter. Add to this the fact that many of the YRR churches were associated with baptistic fellowships which were stridently opposed to Calvinistic doctrine. It has not been uncommon for Calvinistic ministers in these fellowships to convince their people that there was a need to be more careful about what doctrinal terminology was promoted from the pulpit. There was no need to "wear it on your sleeve when you can wear it in your underwear" (as one well known SBC pastor once told me). A culture of walking on doctrinal eggshells leaves the door wide open for pastors who keep most of their doctrine private and personal. In turn, many who think that they are sitting under Calvinistic and Reformed preaching and teaching are, in fact, sitting under preaching and teaching that is high on pragmatism and low on biblical doctrine. 

In many cases, those who have genuine concerns about the lack of doctrinal teaching and preaching in their church allow those concerns to be alleviated by the fact that their pastor claims to be Calvinistic or Reformed. I've repeatedly witnessed the process used to alleviate those concerns. Someone is bothered by the lack of doctrinal preaching in their local church. They talk with their pastor about it. He convinces them that they do not want to run out all the newer converts with hyper-intellectual preaching like that which occurs in tiny, confessionally Reformed churches. The concerned member then starts to think to himself or herself, "I really wish the preaching was more substantive, but the church is growing, people are being converted and we're not like those inbred, doctrinally nit picky churches full of homeschoolers and anti-vaccers." The metamorphosis from public and ecclesial doctrinal commitment to that of private and personal has begun. 

After one has begun to entertain the idea that the church's doctrine can be private and personal rather than public and ecclesial, they then become susceptible to being convinced that it is, in fact, actually charitable to keep doctrine a private and personal affair. It sounds sweet to the ear when someone insists that it is more important to be loving than to be right. It sounds warm-hearted to downplay what many see as "divisive" in favor of what seems to always makes for peace. However, Jesus wasn't crucified for downplaying doctrine. Everything that Jesus taught and did was doctrinal in nature--and was intended to be utilized for public and ecclesial purposes. When his opponents challenged him about his teaching, Jesus said, "I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret" (John 18:20). In what is arguably his greatest evangelistic sermon, Jesus boldly taught the doctrine of election (John 6:37, 39, 44). 

This is no license for ministers of the Gospel to be cold or brazenly mean-spirited in their presentation of biblical truth. A central teaching of Scripture is that pastors are to be "gentle to all," "forbearing," "patient," "nurturing" and "humble" in the way in which they propagate truth. However, this is not in opposition to the biblical call for ministers to be "sound," bold," "unwavering," "zealous," "unashamed" and "fervent" in their proclamation of the pattern of sound words that God has revealed in Scripture--especially in so much as it concerns the preaching of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. In fact, when the Apostle Paul was in prison, some were spitefully preaching Christ in order to "afflict him in his imprisonment" (Phil. 1:17). When he heard about their motives, he didn't say, "Guys, we need to be loving. Nobody cares about what you say about Christ. They just need to see how charitable you are." Instead, he wrote, "only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice" (Phil. 1:18). 

The best way for us to go forward in carrying out our doctrinal commitments in public and ecclesial ways is to go back to the Scripture and see the way in which God always calls His church to hold fast to the pattern of sound words in Scripture (2 Tim. 1:13). The consistent expositional, doctrinal and exegetical preaching of God's word in our pulpits is certainly one of the best ways for ministers to build into the minds and hearts of God's people the dire need that we have for public and ecclesial doctrinal commitment. This was the way of the Reformation and the Puritan movement of the 16th and 17th centuries. The great ecumenical Protestant Confessions and Catechisms (e.g. the Westminister Standards, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort, etc.) were the fruit of the prayerful and diligent biblical study and preaching of those men who were zealous to see the people of God holding fast to the pattern of sound doctrine taught in Scripture. What might God again do in the church if we would commit to such an unashamed adherence to His word? All of this, of course, must be fueled by deep and persistent love to Christ and love for his people. May God give us the grace to be a people who are deeply committed to a loving public and ecclesial--not simply private and personal--propagation of His truth. 

Formulating Doctrine

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"It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 4.1)

The Savoy Declaration (1658) and the Second London Confession of Faith (1677/89) contain very similar statements. Our triune God is the Creator of all things (i.e., "all things" other than Himself, of course).

Formulating Christian doctrine, especially as it relates to the doctrine of the Trinity, is not as simple as counting texts which use the same words. Biblical texts ought to be weighed to determine their importance. Weighing texts is especially important when considering creation in relation to the Creator. If only one text of Holy Scripture informs us about a crucial element of the divine act of creation, that text is of great importance. This is the case because creation involves everything in relation to God. The doctrine of creation, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, is a distributed doctrine. John Webster's words capture what is meant by creation and the Trinity as distributed doctrines. He says:

"...the doctrine of creation is one of the two distributed doctrines in the corpus of Christian dogmatics. The first (both in sequence and in material primacy) distributed doctrine is the doctrine of the Trinity, of which all other articles of Christian teaching are an amplification or application, and which therefore permeates theological affirmations about every matter...The doctrine of creation is the second distributed doctrine, although, because its scope is restricted to the opera Dei ad extra [i.e., the external works of God], its distribution is less comprehensive than that of the doctrine of the Trinity. Within this limit, the doctrine of creation is ubiquitous. It is not restricted to one particular point in the sequence of Christian doctrine, but provides orientation and a measure of governance to all that theology has to say about all things in relation to God."1 

Because both creation and the Trinity are distributed doctrines, it is of utmost importance that we allow the Bible to speak on these issues, even if it does not speak as often as it does on other issues. We do not need a plethora of biblical texts indicating the work of the Spirit in creation, for example. One text would suffice, and its truth would extend to the entirety of Christian thinking on creation, conservation, re-creation, and consummation.

Formulating Christian doctrine is also more involved than a rehearsal of redemptive history. Though the study of redemptive history (i.e., biblical theology) is a vital aspect of the theological encyclopedia, it concerns itself with the revelatory process presented to us in Holy Scripture. Its method is not designed to conclude its work by presenting full statements on the various places of systematic theology. Unlike biblical theology, systematic theology is designed to collate various aspects of revelation under pre-determined headings (i.e., Scripture, God, creation, providence, etc.).[2] When systematic theology does its work properly, each topic's statements are formulated by a canonical consultation, a consultation of Scripture as a finished product of divine revelation, and in conversation with historical theology. Systematic theology reduces all the truths of Holy Scripture concerning given topics to propositional form. Similarly, confessional formulations seek to reduce large swaths of biblical truth into brief compass (e.g., 4.1 quoted above). In order to do this successfully, these formulations must weigh texts in order to ensure the formulations are brief, though comprehensive, enough to accurately convey the major emphases of Holy Scripture.

It is important to remember that the confessional documents mentioned above are confessions of faith. They contain, in summary form, what subscribers to them believe the totality of the Bible teaches on given subjects. The confession is not merely a reference point from which one subsequently develops doctrinal conclusions; it is the doctrinal conclusions on the subjects that it addresses. Because the confession summarizes what the Bible teaches on given subjects, this means the whole of the Bible is considered in the formulation of chapter 4. You can see this by noticing the Scripture references (and their order) at 4.1 in the WCF: Hebrews 1:2; John 1:2-3; Genesis 1:2; Job 26:13; Job 33:4; Romans 1:20; Jeremiah 10:12; Psalm 104:24; Psalm 33:5-6; Hebrews 11:3; Colossians 1:16; and Acts 17:24. Citing Scripture references indicates to readers that the members of the Assembly formulated the doctrines, in part, by the fruits of previous exegetical work in the biblical text. In other words, this is not some form of simplistic proof-texting. Stefan T. Lindblad helps us understand the rationale behind the practice of citing biblical references in the confession. He says:

...To call this a "proof-texting method" in the modern derogatory sense is misleading. By citing specific texts in support of their statements, the authors of the Confession were indicating their adherence to methods of biblical interpretation and doctrinal formation that was characteristic not just of Reformed orthodoxy but also of the whole sweep of pre-critical exegesis. The texts cited...are regarded as the primary seat of the doctrine, the primary (not exclusive) place in Scripture where the doctrine was either explicitly taught or "by just consequence deduced."3 By citing...texts the [Confession] was not arbitrarily appealing to texts out of context. Rather,...the [Confession] was drawing on the interpretation of these texts as argued in the biblical commentaries and annotations of the era. The statement of the Confession is thus a doctrinal result resting on the foundation of Scripture and its proper interpretation. The biblical texts cited thus point in two directions: back to biblical interpretation and forward to doctrinal formulation. Such texts, the dicta probantia or "proving statements," function as the necessary link between biblical interpretation and doctrinal formulation. A confession was not designed to reproduce the work of biblical interpretation, but to affirm its fruit, given that Scripture was the only authoritative and sufficient foundation for every doctrinal topic and for a system of theology as a whole.4

The texts cited are not the only scriptural bases from which the confessional formulations were derived. Also, the formulations are not mere recitations of the words of Scripture. Doctrines taught in Scripture must be formulated into words other than Scripture in order to explicate their meanings for us.

Finally, WCF 4.1 assumes all that comes before it. It assumes the doctrine of Scripture (along with a working hermeneutic [cf. 1.9]), God's attributes and triunity, and the decree. These doctrinal formulations provide background and context for the statement in 4.1. For example, the Creator at 4.1 is the same triune God confessed in chapters 2 and 3. He does not refashion Himself in order to create or while creating. If that were the case, 4.1 would contradict previous assertions of the confession.

Far from displaying a simplistic proof-texting method, the confession evidences a careful methodological approach. This includes exegesis of texts and synthesizing various scriptural emphases, as well as the assumption of doctrinal formulations previously contained in the confession.

 

1. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 117.

2. We must not think that these pre-determined headings come from outside of Holy Scripture, imposed upon it to make sense of it. The doctrinal places of systematic theology come about due to contemplation upon Scripture.

3. This is a citation from Nehemiah Coxe, Vindiciae Veritatis, or a Confutation of the heresies and gross errours asserted by Thomas Collier in his additional word to his Body of Divinity (London: for Nathaniel Ponder, 1677), 9.

4. Stefan T. Lindblad, "'Eternally Begotten of the Father': An Analysis of the Second London Confession of Faith's Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son," in By Common Confession: Essays in Honor of James M. Renihan, eds. Ronald S. Baines, Richard C. Barcellos, and James P. Butler (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2015), 338-39.

 

Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.

The Need for a Ministerial Break Down

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"We keep our preaching basic because we have so many new believers. If we give them too much doctrine, they won't be able to understand it." I can't remember how many times I've heard church planters and pastors say such things. Sadly, as their ministries begin to grow numerically, mature believers in the congregation are left to languish in spiritual malnourishment and discouragement. On the other hand, there are those churches (though significantly fewer in number) in which ministers seem to wear their academic interests on their sleeve in the pulpit. They burden the congregation with highly nuanced theological subjects or phraseology in the name of faithfulness. Whether it is compromising ministers diluting God's word to the spiritual malnourishment of the congregation or ivory tower pastors caring little about bringing along new believers, one of the great needs of our day is for preachers to learn how to break down, rather than water down, the truth of God's word.

We find this important principle at work in the ministry of John Calvin. On the whole, Calvin tended to reserve his more academic prowess for the institutes and his commentaries--rather than for his sermons. In his essay, "Calvin's Sermons on Ephesians: Expounding and Applying Scripture," Randall C. Zachman helpfully observes,

"[Calvin's] sermons differed from the commentaries both in terms of their audience and their objective. The commentaries have, as their audience, the future pastors...with the goal of revealing the mind of the author with lucid brevity. The sermons have, as their audience, ordinary Christians within a specific congregation with the goal of expounding the intention or meaning of the author, and of applying that meaning to their use, so that they might retain that meaning in their minds and hearts, and put it into practice in their lives."

Calvin sought to adjust himself in different ways to his readers and hearers--distinguishing between what he wrote for the academy and what he proclaimed from the pulpit. A brief comparison of his commentary on Genesis and his sermons on Genesis serve to demonstrate this difference of approach. To be sure, it is a task of no small difficulty.

In our day, when ministers water down God's word they almost always do so from behind a missiological smokescreen. Insisting that a robustly theological ministry is a detriment to reaching the unchurched, they introduce a number of serious problems. First, they--perhaps inadvertantly--give the impression that the ability to impart spiritual understanding lies within the power of the messenger rather than in the working of the Spirit and word of God. In essence, they suggest that the outcome of their teaching is commensurate with the supposed intellectual ability of the hearers. This not only denies the sovereign working of the Spirit of God through the word of God--it levels an intellectual insult at the people to whom they minister. Second, such reasoning carries with it the faulty presupposition that everyone grows at the same slow spiritual pace. Such ministers forget that most of the weighty Apostolic letters were written to new Gentile converts who lacked much, if any, familiarity with the Old Testament. Yet, the Apostle Paul wrote some of the deepest and most profound truths to new converts in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, etc. These letters included appeals to oftentimes less familiar verses of the Old Testament as well as to some of the most difficult and nuanced theological argumentation in all of the Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Those ministers who fail to break down God's word for His people usually do so from behind an ecclesiastical smokescreen. They treat each member of the congregation as if he or she should be at the same spiritual place in understanding by virtue of the fact that they are members of the church. This is often driven by unrealistic and undistinguished spiritual and intellectual expectations of every believer. They too have faulty presuppositions that everyone will grow at the same spiritual pace---failing to factor in the spiritual infancy of new believers.

Those who water down the truth will often appeal to 1 Corinthians 3:2--where the Apostle Paul wrote, "I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able;" and, ministers who fail to break down the truth will almost always point to Hebrews 5:12-14, where the writer rebukes the congregants for their spiritual immaturity when he says, "For though, by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." So, how can we reconcile these two truths of Scripture that seem to lay in stark contrast with one another?

Calvin's comments on 1 Corinthians 3:2 are exceedingly helpful. First, Calvin explained that the minister must learn to "accommodate...to the capacity of those he has undertake to instruct." He wrote:

"Christ is at once milk to babes, and strong meat to those that are of full age, (Hebrews 5:13, 14,) the same truth of the gospel is administered to both, but so as to suit their capacity. Hence it is the part of a wise teacher to accommodate himself to the capacity of those whom he has undertaken to instruct, so that in dealing with the weak and ignorant, he begins with first principles, and does not go higher than they are able to follow, (Mark 4:33,).

He then went on to warn ministers against watering down the truth in preaching:

"[We must] refute the specious pretext of some, who...present Christ at such a distance, and covered over, besides, with so many disguises, that they constantly keep their followers in destructive ignorance...their presenting Christ not simply in half, but torn to fragments...How unlike they are to Paul is sufficiently manifest; for milk is nourishment and not poison, and nourishment that is suitable and useful for bringing up children until they are farther advanced."

How important it is for ministers of the Gospel to, at one and the same time, avoid that theological dilution by which we fail to bring up children "until they are farther advanced" while rejecting that ecclesiastical elitism that refuses to "accommodate to the capacity" of those we are instructing. Rather, it must be the goal and aim of our ministries to be faithful to the call to break down God's word "until we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ" (Eph. 4:13-15).
Tim Challies, a good friend of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals recently posted this piece over at Challies.com. As it was smack dab in the middle of what the Alliance dwells on, so we asked Tim is we could share it. If you are not checking in on Challies.com, you should be.


6 Great Reasons To Study Doctrine

I love doctrine. Doctrine is simply the teaching of God or the teaching about God--the body of knowledge that he reveals to us through the Bible. I guess I'm one of those geekly people who loves to learn a new word and the big idea behind it. But I hope I do not love doctrine for doctrine's sake. Rather, I strive to be a person who loves doctrine for God's sake.

Today I want to give you 6 great reasons to study doctrine.

Doctrine Leads to Love

Doctrine leads to love--love for God that then overflows into love for others. 1 John 4:8 makes it plain: "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love." To know God is to know love; to know God is to equip yourself to act in love. Your love for God is limited by your knowledge of him, so that you can really only love him as far as you know him. As the depth of your knowledge grows, so too does the depth of your love. This is why the study of doctrine cannot be the pursuit of dry facts, but facts that lead to living knowledge of God and growing love for God. When you know doctrine, you prepare yourself to live in ways that express love to him and to others.

Doctrine Leads to Humility

Second, doctrine leads to humility. A little while ago I saw a YouTube video of a man breaking the world record in dead lifting by lifting a nearly unbelievable 1,015 pounds. I know that if I tried to lift even a fraction of that amount I'd slip a disc and be in bed for a month. The distance between that person and myself makes me face my own weakness. And that is just a glimpse of what happens when you see God as he reveals himself. You see the infinite distance between his power and your weakness, between his holiness and your sinfulness, between his unchangeable nature and your fickleness. And as you see it, you are humbled. You cannot see God and be proud. You cannot know God and be arrogant. When you see God as he really is, you must be humbled by his sheer magnitude and you must be humbled by your inability to box him up, to understand him all the way. The greater your knowledge of God, the greater your humility.

Doctrine Leads to Obedience

Third, doctrine leads to obedience. And here is what I mean: Just like you can only love God as far as you know God, you can only obey God as far as you know God. As you get to know God more and deeper, you are able to obey him better. Think here of the Old Testament and how often God reminds the Israelites of who he is and on that basis commands their obedience. He does this again and again: "Here is who I am, here is what I have done, and therefore you owe me your obedience." And think of the New Testament which constantly points to Jesus Christ and calls us to conformity to him. What you learn of God and what you learn about yourself through the Word of God leads you to live a life that honors him. Again, theology is not a cold pursuit of facts, but a red-hot pursuit of the living God, and it works itself out all over life.

Doctrine Leads to Unity

Fourth, doctrine leads to unity. I once attended a church where I heard a pastor use that old phrase, "Doctrine divides." He told the church that the path to unity was to hold a very low and basic level of doctrine, because he was convinced that knowledge would breed arrogance and division. But he was dead wrong and that church splintered because of lack of unity--a lack of unity that flowed directly from a lack of sound doctrine. Churches are bound together by the beliefs they share. Of course there will be certain minor variances in a church on lesser matters, but the greater the shared beliefs on the essentials, and the greater the emphasis on the essentials, the greater the degree of unity. In Ephesians 4 Paul talks about the way God gives leaders to churches and says they are given, "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes." He draws a clear connection between doctrine or spiritual growth and unity between believers.

Doctrine Leads to Worship

Fifth, doctrine leads to worship. Doctrine is meant to amaze you with the sheer power and magnitude of God. It amazes you with the sheer sinfulness of mankind. It bewilders you with your own insignificance before God, and yet your sheer significance in his plan of redemption. It moves you with the incredible mercy of God as expressed in sending his Son to die for you. The more you know of God, the more you can worship God and the more you will want to worship God. What you learn of God should always motivate your worship. And again, the more you know of God, the warmer the heart behind your worship and the deeper the expression of your worship. It is at the end of his long theological reflection on God that Paul says, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways" (Romans 11:33). His knowledge of God led directly to worship of God.

Doctrine Leads to Safety

Finally, doctrine leads to safety. It protects the church. In Titus 1 Paul says an elder "must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it." When you know doctrine, you are able to rebuke anyone who wanders from it, and you are responsible for doing so. When you know doctrine, you are able to defend your church from those who would want to lead it astray. A church that cares little for doctrine, and a church without people who know and love doctrine, is a church that will necessarily be blown and swayed by every wind and wave of doctrine.

So there you have six good reasons to value doctrine, to study doctrine, and to know doctrine.

Thank you Tim!

Text link - http://www.challies.com/articles/6-great-reasons-to-study-doctrine?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzEmail&utm_content=5575&utm_campaign=0