Legalism, Lawlessness and Pastoral Ministry (Nick Batzig)

In recent years, many have enthusiastically welcomed the resurgence of interest in the Marrow Controversy for the simple reason that there is no greater need that any of us have at any given time in our Christian lives than the need to learn to navigate the treacherous waters of legalism and lawlessness. The Gospel keeps us on the straight and narrow path of grace unto holiness in Christ alone. We are not received by God on the basis of anything that we do; neither are we left in a state of sin and rebellion once we have been made the recipients of God’s grace in Christ crucified and risen. This is not something that we learn once in our Christian life; rather, it is something that we are always needing to be reminded of as we make our pilgrimage to glory. Yesterday, I took time to read through the pastoral epistles. As I made my way from 1 and 2 Timothy into Titus, I noticed something that I don’t think that I’ve ever noticed before in these portions of God’s word. In giving his final words of instruction to Timothy and Titus–for the strengthening of the hands of these young ministers and for the equipping of future generations of pastors–the Apostle everywhere presses the need that the pastor has to guard against both legalism and lawlessness in doctrine and life. The pastoral epistles open somewhat abruptly, with Paul charging Timothy to understand that everything he is writing is meant to encourage “love that issues in a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” He then warned his young protégé about those who have “swerved from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” The rejection of teachers of the law then resurfaces throughout Paul’s first and second letters to Timothy, shedding light on some of the features of this particular brand of legalism. In 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Pau…

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Compromising the Truth in Love (of Self) (David Prince)

I fear that much, if not most, counseling in churches hurts people more than it helps them. Why would I say that? I say it because pastors want to be liked and perceived as caring shepherds. Often, that fact overrules the need to push back against what the person perceives to be their problem in order to challenge what needs to be changed in their thinking and actions. There are often long-standing underlying patterns of non-biblical responses to people and circumstances that must be exposed.

People rarely rightly identify their problem. What people perceive to be their problem is often not their actual problem. It usually takes time, effort, and intrusive questions to get at the real problem. In other words, effective discipleship counseling almost invariably involves pushing back at what the person thinks their problem is. Even when this is done with gentleness and respect, it is often met with a sense of offense and outrage.

Herein lies the problem. People come to be counseled assuming that you will accept their self-definition of their problem. If you do so, you will invariably give them advice that does not help them. Often, such advice will make their problems worse rather than better, but they will leave thinking of you as kind, caring, and compassionate. If you push to get at their real problems you’ll often be labeled unkind, harsh, and an uncompassionate shepherd. In fact, some people will get mad, leave the church, and find a church down the road where a staff person will be glad to superficially console them.

Every church has to decide whether or not they are really trying to help and disciple people or are they simply a public relations firm, maintaining the brand and image at all costs. Sadly, it is often the superficial pastors and staff, consumed with image and perception, who are often outwardly applauded as being kind and caring shepherds. This applause comes even though they are neglecting the real problems of the sheep and doing them real har…

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Is the PCA Becoming More Unified? (Richard D. Phillips)

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?” Hope…

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The Zwinglian Option (Terry L. Johnson)

You will have heard of the “Benedict Option” for coping with the culture wars. I would like to propose to Reformed Protestants the “Zwinglian Option” for ending the worship wars: eliminate all music from our public services. Zwingli, the outstanding musician among the Reformers, removed all music from the church in Zurich. We wring our hands over our worship divisions. The two ends of liturgical spectrum endlessly annoy each other. Think about it. Take away the music and we have little left to fight about. No more arguments about instrumentation. No more fights about types of songs. No more conflicts about the amount of time spent singing. Take it all away. No more music. No more songs. No more singing. This would be a very painful option for me personally. I love metrical psalmody. What is better than worshipping with a congregation that knows the Trinity Hymnal version of Psalm 51 to Redhead (“God Be Merciful to Me”) or Psalm 146 to Ripley (“Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”) or Psalm 23 to Crimond (“The Lord’s My Shepherd”)? It would be an equally painful option because I love classic hymnody. What is more moving than a full house of worshippers singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” to Nicea, or “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” to Hamburg.

The loss would be significant, yet the gains would be abundant. No more heartburn for traditionalists when the bongo drums and tamborines are unleashed. No more inward groans when we sing a mediocre modern tune with mediocre lyrics as led by unordained “worship leaders.” For the other side of the spectrum, we’d have to give up today’s favorite contemporary praise songs and modernized hymnody. But think of what we’d gain: no more dreary old hymn tunes to dampen the spirit. No more funeral dirges to inflict on otherwise celebratory services. Remove all music and nothing is left to distress anyone.

Unity in worship

What would be left? Only that upon which we can all agree. Reformed worship in all its beauty and simplicity would remain:

a …

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Praying Through the Scriptures: Judges 2; Acts 6 (Chad Van Dixhoorn)

Over the years it has been my practice, learned from others, to offer up praises and petitions framed by a passage of Scripture. Some of these passages were read in preparation for preaching, others offered material for meditation in daily devotion; still others were plundered specifically for the purpose of finding fresh material for prayer. As I continue to learn how to pray I have shared a few prayers with my family and friends for their use or adaptation. The Alliance has asked me to share some with you too. Here are the prayers we have considered so far followed by the next prayer in this meditative series:Genesis 1Genesis 2Deuteronomy 3Joshua 23Joshua 24; Acts 4Judges 2; Acts 6: The Covenant Maker”Father in heaven, you are a covenant-maker. You offer promises that you always fulfill; what you give you never take away; you are utterly trustworthy, and I come to you in worship of your holy name.
But Father, I am covenant-breaker. I am often distracted by the inhabitants of this world; sometimes more loyal to them than I am to you. I try to manage sin, to “handle it,” when I should flee from it. While you are ever faithful, I find myself on the edge of abandoning you, and serving the gods of this world. The fact that they are empty of any real promise only makes me ashamed that the temptation is so real. The fact that the danger is real only makes me more desperate for your help. Please forgive me Jesus’s sake, for he is the one who resisted all temptation; please help me in your Spirit’s power, for he is the one who can deliver me from danger.
I ask this, and then I am emboldened to ask more: in spite of my weakness, and the weakness of others whom I love, I pray that your Word would continue to increase, that the number of disciples would be multiplied greatly, everywhere, and that many who have struggles like my own would become obedient to the faith.  I pray that you would fill us with your grace and power, so that no one will be able to withstand the wi…

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A Psalm-Singing Resurgence (Joe Holland)

We are experiencing something of a Psalm-singing resurgence in our day. Resources abound online for people who would like to learn more about psalm singing. Churches are making strategic plans to train their members in singing the psalms. Blogs buzz with excitement over the Psalter. It is undeniable that the church is waking up to that which once marked it–the passionate singing of psalms. I am a child of this movement. As a seminary student at RTS in Charlotte, NC, I stood looking at the blue sign that said NTGreekIntro as it hung over neatly stacked volumes awaiting the next batch of seminary students. I was one of those students and it was my first visit to the bookstore. I read the list. Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek–check. UBS Greek New Testament–check. Trinity Psalter–huh?

I thought I was signing up for a class on New Testament Greek. Why was I being asked to purchase an Old Testament book in English? The words “required text” overpowered my confusion and I purchased my first psalter. I would soon discover that Dr. Cara’s Greek class, and all of his classes for that matter, began with the mandatory singing of a psalm. I became a psalm singer by requisite. 

So, how does someone set about the task of rediscovering the psalms? First, you must keep the benefits that God attaches to worshiping with the psalms before you. Second, you must decide practically how you will begin singing psalms in private, family, and corporate worship.

What benefits should you expect from singing Psalms?

When you sing psalms you sing the Bible. The hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is a moving meditation on the cross of Christ. No hymn matches “For All the Saints” in its contemplation on the communion of the saints. But neither of these hymns are the actual words of the Bible. They are reflections on it. Forgetting for a moment that we are not singing the psalms in Hebrew, we are still singing the very words of God. The versification, themes, and c…

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Understanding Theology Proper (Richard C. Barcellos)

With the first verse in the Bible, we are confronted with the necessity of the interpretive priority of theology proper (i.e., answering that and what God is) to account for the economy (i.e., answering that and what God does): “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). How are we to understand the meaning of “God” in this verse? Does the plural form of God in the Hebrew text (i.e., Elohim) and the singular verb (i.e., “created”) hint at a plurality of persons in the Godhead or not? How are we to understand the meaning of the word “created”? Similar questions arise when we consider the second verse of the Bible: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2; emphasis added). Who or what is this “Spirit of God” and how are we to understand the meaning of “hovering”? The same goes for the third verse in which we read, “Then God said…” (Gen. 1:3). God speaks? Does He speak Hebrew or some sort of divine language? In order to answer these and related questions properly, we have to understand that divine ontology precedes divine economy and conditions our interpretation of it.When divine ontology does not properly inform the divine economy in our interpretive process, we have a theological train-wreck in the making–a wreck heading to the junk-yard of heresy. How would one explain “Then God said” without more information about the One who spoke and said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3)? Without more information about the speaker, one might conclude that God (whatever ‘He’ or ‘it’ may be) must have vocal chords, a larynx, or voice box, and that He takes in air and it flows over throat organs which end up producing audible sounds that come forth from a mouth producing detectible and understandable words. Consider verse 26 as well: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26; emphasis added). One might conclude from these words a plurality of creators without more info…

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A Historic Day in the PCA (Nick Batzig)

Today was a historic day for the Presbyterian Church in America, as we elected the Rev. Irwyn Ince to be the moderator of the 46th General Assembly. Irwyn is the first African American to be elected to be the moderator of our Assembly. Irwyn serves as the as the director of Grace DC Institue for Cross-Cultural Missions. He earned a bachelors degree in electrical engineering from The City College of NY, and a masters degree in religion from Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, DC campus. Today’s actions coincide with the reception of the Ad Interim Committee Report on Racial and Ethnic Diversity. These are exciting times in which God is further uniting together a diversity of men and women who are already spiritually united to one another by virtue of their union with Christ. I praise God for His gracious work among us in these days. …

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A Fixed Hope (Gabriel Williams)

This summer, I have been greatly encouraged through reading the works of John Bunyan. In his work Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, John Bunyan concludes his Preface with the following thought:

“My dear children – The milk and honey is beyond this wilderness. God be merciful to you, and grant that you be not slothful to go in to possess the land.”

I’ve pondered this simple, yet profound thought over the past few weeks because it brings me back to a foundational Christian truth – the hope of redemption. A cursory reading of the Apostle Paul’s writings will show us that Paul constantly meditated on and lived in light of this truth. As sinners who have been justified by His grace, we are called to rejoice in this hope (cf. Romans 5:2, 12:12) and we are told to fix our hope and expectation upon this reality (cf. 1 Peter 1:13). From the perspective of the Apostles, this hope encourages us to be patient through tribulation (cf. Romans 5:3, 12:12), and this hope serves as a chief motivation to pursue holiness (cf. 1 John 3:3). Furthermore, meditating on the hope of our redemption produces a sense of urgency in the Christian life. We are exhorted to recognize that our salvation is near and thus, we should behave as those who are aware that the day of the Lord is near (cf. Romans 13:11-13). For this reason, our lives should be marked with sober-mindedness (cf. Ephesians 5:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 4:7) and patient endurance through suffering and affliction (cf. James 5:8; Revelation 13:10, 14:12).

A question that should be raised is whether or not many of us (as Western Evangelicals) have lost this sense of urgency. In recent years, I’ve rarely heard Evangelicals speak about the urgency in which we should live the Christian life; rather, I’ve heard more and more Evangelicals become very focused upon cultural engagement, typically using Jeremiah 29:5-7 as a justification. Although one’s view of eschatology does affect how one views the future, this should no…

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Can the “Welcoming Church” Speak the Truth? (Richard D. Phillips)

One feature of life in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is the unveiling of the annual buzz-word for our General Assembly. This year, the word is “welcoming.” So far as it goes, this is a fine aspiration for our denomination. We, of course, want our doors to be open not merely to certain kinds of people but to one and all. We especially want to embrace the heart of our Savior for lost souls of all kinds. We have good news to proclaim, and our gospel is one of welcome from a God of grace in the name of his crucified and resurrected Son.

Moreover, there is a legitimate need to emphasize “welcoming” in our national context of polarized worldviews. Far too many evangelical Christians look upon their political opposites as culture war “enemies” rather than as neighbors to be loved, served, and evangelized. If, for instance, proponents of sexual perversity and gender confusion are perceived as our enemies, then Jesus has told us what to do: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:44-45). Unlike tax collectors and Gentiles, who love only their own, let us heartily welcome perceived enemies as neighbors who need to hear about our gracious God and his gospel.

It must be pointed out, however, that the context for “welcoming” as our new buzzword is not the polarized cultural struggle but its corollary within the PCA. In this context, “welcoming” is the self-embraced label of the progressive camp, which has assigned “fearful” as the conservative/confessional label. Commissioners are being urged to vote for “welcoming” priorities, which will likely be those that take a soft stance on homosexuality, gender egalitarianism, and other progressive priorities. The upcoming “Revoice” conference in St. Louis is providing an advance screening of what this looks like. This PCA event, much lauded by our progressive friends, advocates an “LGBT Christian” category and speaks of “sexual minorities”1 an…

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