Christian Assurance: Rome and Thomas Goodwin (Ian Hamilton )

In its theological response to the teachings of the Reformation, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) maintained that a “believer’s assurance of the pardon of his sins is a vain and ungodly confidence”. More pointedly the Council declared in Canon 16 on Justification, ‘If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema’ (The Council of Trent, The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Oecumenical Council of Trent, Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth, London: Dolman, 1848). Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, perhaps the greatest of the Roman post-Tridentine theologians, called assurance of salvation “a prime error of heretics.”1

According to the Church of Rome, a few especially holy men and women, through special revelation, may attain to assurance of salvation, but they are the exception and certainly not the rule. It is not hard to understand why Rome is so opposed to the doctrine of Christian assurance: If ‘ordinary’ Christians can, and should, be assured of their salvation, what need do they have of the church’s priestly, sacramental mediation?

For Protestants, the controversy with the Church of Rome over assurance was at heart a controversy over its failure to understand the nature of the holy Trinity, especially the grace of the Father’s love, the perfection of the Son’s atonement, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. Rather than leave his believing children uncertain of his love and uncertain of the perfect efficacy of the Saviour’s atonement, the Bible assures us that God, being the good God he is, wants his children to live in the joy and assurance of his love and his Son’s ‘It is finished’ (Jn.19:30).

Christian assurance was a major theme in the writings of Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), along with John Owen perhaps the greatest of the Puritan pastoral theologians. In his Christ Set Forth, Goodwin seeks to persuade us that we especially find assurance first, and supremely by looking to Christ and trusting in him and his finished work on the cross. He is not saying that we should not be encouraged by the gospel transforming presence of God’s grace in our lives. He is saying, however, that too many Christians ‘in the ordinary course and way of their spirits have been too much carried away with the rudiments of Christ in their own hearts, and not after Christ himself.’3

Later in life, Goodwin reflected on his own early struggle to find assurance of salvation: ‘I was diverted from Christ for several years, to search only into the signs of grace in me. It was almost seven years ere I was taken off to live by faith on Christ, and God’s free love, which are alike the object of faith.”4

Goodwin`s experience of God`s grace has much to teach us. Above all, that the believer’s primary focus is Christ, not himself. “I am come to this pass now,” wrote Goodwin to a Mr Price, “that signs will do me no good alone; I have trusted too much to habitual grace for assurance of salvation; I tell you Christ is worth all’. He writes, let us ‘see what matter of support and encouragement faith may fetch from Christ’s death for justification. And surely that which hath long ago satisfied God himself for the sins of many thousand souls now in heaven, may very well serve to satisfy the heart and conscience of any sinner now upon earth, in any doubts in respect of the guilt of any sins that can arise’.5

Do you grasp what Goodwin is saying? Our sins rise to condemn us. Our sins are many and not few. Our sins are wicked and deserving of God’s just condemnation. What good can be gained by looking in to ourselves? What do you see when you look into yourself? Paul told us what he saw, ‘O wretched man that I am’ (Rom.7:24). There is no comfort to be found looking in; we must learn to look out to Christ. The sin-bearing, sin-atoning death of Christ satisfied God. He accepted the Saviour’s sacrifice in our place, as our covenant Head. He was satisfied with his sacrifice. Now, Goodwin is saying to us, if God is satisfied, should we not also be satisfied? If all our sins were laid on God’s own Son and were forever put behind God’s back, buried in the deepest sea and remembered no more (Mic.7:19; Isa.43:25), should that not be our assurance?

The Christian’s God-planted graces may, through the lens of Christ (never apart from him), bring him a measure of comfort. But our graces ebb and flow, they rise and fall, they are here today and all but gone tomorrow. But Jesus Christ is ‘the same yesterday and today and forever’. He is at God’s right hand. He is our justification and our eternal acceptance with God (Rom.8:34).

Listen again to Goodwin: ‘Were any of your duties crucified for you?’6 Goodwin’s question is plain but profound, don’t look in, look out to your crucified Saviour who alone is your righteousness (1Cor.1:30). ‘Therefore’, says Goodwin, ‘get your hearts and consciences distinctly and particularly satisfied in the all-sufficiency of worth and merit which is in the satisfaction that Christ hath made’.7 For Goodwin, the Christian’s great need is to grasp what he calls ‘the transcendent all-sufficiency of (Christ’s) death’.8

This is no abstract doctrinal concern. Goodwin looks ahead to the day of Christ: ‘Now you will all be thus called one day to dispute for your souls, sooner or later; and therefore such skill you should endeavour to get in Christ’s righteousness, how in its fullness and perfection it answereth to all your sinfulness’.9

The Church of Rome wants to leave the believer tentative and uncertain. It wants to leave the child of God fearful and doubting, looking not to Christ and his finished work, but to the church and its priestly mediation. The Bible teaches us otherwise. In Christ we have a ‘living hope’ (1Pt.1:3), a ‘sure and certain hope’ (Heb.6:20). No Christian need languish in doubts and fears as to the assurance of the heavenly Father’s love. Trust the good heart of your Father, a heart that desires all his children know that they are his children. Trust the finished, atoning work of your Saviour, a work that has been accepted by the Father. Trust the indwelling Holy Spirit who has come to unite you to Christ, seal to you his salvation and give you the boldness to cry, ‘Abba, Father’ (Rom.8:15-16).

1. Quoted in J.C.Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth Trust ed., Edinburgh, 2014), 139 

2. Thomas Goodwin, Christ Set Forth (Banner of Truth ed. Edinburgh, 2015. First published 1642) 

3. Christ Set Forth, Introduction XV. 

4. Works of Thomas Goodwin, (Edinburgh, James Nichol, 1861), Vol. 2, lxviii 

5. Christ Set Forth, p. 43. 

6. Christ Set Forth, p. 43

7. Christ Set Forth, p. 50.

8. Christ Set Forth, p. 50 

9. Christ Set Forth, p. 51

Why We Are Still Protestant (Jonathan Master)

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This act in itself was relatively conventional: he was essentially initiating a debate about the use and abuse of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. But the pastoral concerns of this small-town professor set ablaze Europe with the flames of Reformation.

Within a short time it was clear that Luther’s concerns had implications far beyond indulgences and relics; they went to the heart of the medieval Roman church. In the years immediately following the publication of his famous theses, Luther had occasion to engage in other highly significant debates on some of these implications. It was in Heidelberg in 1518 that Luther made it clear that humility was the key to salvation and theology. In Leipzig, about a year later, Luther declared that the decrees of the pope and of the church deserved close scrutiny; some were indefensible.

In 1520, Luther wrote treatises challenging the church’s view on the sacraments, on justification and good works, and on the relationship between the civil authorities and the authority of the church. During the next year, Luther was summoned to appear before the Imperial Diet of Worms in a last-ditch attempt to get him to recant. He did not.

In further years Luther would turn his attention to the translation of the Bible into German, to the thorny problem of how a congregation freed from the grip of Rome should worship and operate, and to the perennial questions related to Christian work and the Christian family.

These kinds of questions and many more had to be addressed by Luther and the other early Reformers. This should remind us that the reform set in motion 500 years ago this October has a number of far reaching implications. While individual Christians might boil down the core of Protestantism to one or two major points, the reality was and is far more complex.

Over the next few weeks, across all of the websites of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, we’ll be surveying many aspects of the Protestant cause. Some of the articles will be historical in nature, giving further detail about the specific figures, events, and debates that shaped the early years after the break from Rome. Some will be theological, bringing clarity to the animating ideas that drove Luther and so many others to pursue the truth of the gospel at great personal cost to themselves. Some will be polemical, making the case explicitly that what was true then is true today.

Our hope is that this series will renew your interest in the Reformation and its implications. But more than renewing interest, we pray that the posts will awaken in you a greater conviction of the importance of this great work of God in the history of the church.

Sometimes the nature of Reformed theology has been summarized by the so-called five solas of the Reformation. These five Latin slogans could be translated as: the Bible alone; grace alone; faith alone; in Christ alone; to the glory of God alone. Ultimately this series of articles, and every article we publish, has one final end in mind: that God would be glorified. As we look back to God’s great and gracious work 500 years ago, may God be pleased to use this series to bring about a Reformed awaking in today’s church.

Wisdom Christology and the Bread of Life (Gabriel Williams)

When Calvin speaks of sharing the Lord’s Supper with Christ, covenantal concepts naturally arise, most notable when Calvin is discussing 1 Corinthians 10-11. Throughout his commentaries, Calvin frequently emphasizes that in the Supper we enjoy both the presence and the benefits of Christ. These are distinctly different lines of thoughts and they represent two different dimensions of Calvin’s theology of the Supper. Whereas the motif regarding the presence of Christ involves Pauline themes and images, the motif regarding the benefits of Christ involves Johannine themes and images. When Calvin deals with passages about feeding on Christ, we discover the influence of the Wisdom School. In particular, John 6, which presents Christ as the bread of life, is filled with sapiential themes so typical of the wisdom writers of the Old Testament.

Central to the development of the ideas found in John 6 is Proverbs 9:1-6 where Wisdom invites the faithful to a feast. The wisdom theology understood this banquet as a figure for the delight of sacred learn. Wisdom, according to this passage, has built her house, set up her seven pillars, arranged her table and now invites all to come and eat of her bread and drink of her wine. The Bread of Life Discourse picks up on this figure to show that Jesus is the Word of God upon whom the Christian feasts. However, a passage of Scripture that may have been more important for Calvin would have been Isaiah 55:1-3:

“Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price! Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in fatness.

Calvin explained that references to eating and drinking are taken as figures for receiving divine teaching and thereby entering into an everlasting covenant. The idea that the Word of God should be understood as spiritual food and that the bread and wine were signs of that spiritual food is embedded in the biblical wisdom tradition. Near the beginning of his commentary on the Bread of Life Discourse, Calvin says that its simple meaning is “our souls are fed by the teaching of the Gospel, the inner work of the Holy Spirit, and all other gifts of Christ.” If it is true that the Word of God is a sacred food and drink which nourishes unto eternal life, it is also true that this food is given both in the reading and preaching of Scripture and in the celebration of the Supper. In fact, according to Calvin, the Supper is a sign and seal that Christ is the Bread of Life for us today, just as it was a sign for the multitude of Galileans whom Jesus fed with loaves and fishes.

Even more important to the Bread of Life Discourse in the story of the feeding of the manna. The rabbis of New Testament times had richly elaborated and augmented the story of the feeding of the children of Israel with manna in the wilderness. We already find this in the Old Testament itself where manna is called the grain of heaven and the bread of angels (cf. Psalm 78:24-25) and in Deuteronomy the manna is understood sacramentally as a sign of the Word of God delivered on Mt. Sinai. God fed Israel with manna to teach them that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). The Law of Moses came down from heaven as a gracious gift from God to enlighten the people of Israel with sacred wisdom. Of this, the manna was the divinely given sign. However, the soul is fed now with earthly things, but God’s Word from heaven. Thus, a sapiential interpretation of the story of the manna demonstrates that the Word of God is clearly a heavenly or spiritual food. In the Bread of Life discourse, John contrasts the manna (which fed the bellies of the murmuring children of Israel) with the spiritual food believers receive from Christ in the ministry of Word and sacrament.

The last central theme of the Bread of Life Discourse is the Feast of Passover. At the beginning of John 6, John indicates that the event took place around the time of Passover. If we are to understand the sacrifice of Jesus in terms of Passover imagery, speaking of feeding on the Passover lamb comes quite naturally. Toward the end of his commentary on the Bread of Life Discourse, Calvin recognizes the paschal theme and stated: “It would be of no use to us that the sacrifice was once offered, if we did not now feed upon that sacred feast.”

This should make it clear that Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper had a place for feeding on Christ. At the Supper, as Calvin sees it, we feed on the paschal lamb whose sacrifice atoned for the sin of the world. Hence, the Word of God is the Lamb of God, who by His sacrifice takes away the sin of the world. The paschal themes alluded to in the story of the feeding of the multitude and the Bread of Life Discourse becomes patent in John 6:51-58. The Supper reveals that the wisdom which nourishes to eternal life is the cross.

Here, the Passover imagery is essential for an understanding of this passage. The vicarious suffering of the Lamb of God is the sacred food which enable those who believe to pass from death to life. Hence, the proclamation that the Lamb of God who died for the sin of the world and is alive forevermore is the Gospel of salvation, the divine wisdom which unmasks the wisdom of this world. When this Word is received by faith, it is a sacred food that nourishes unto eternal life. This is the great feast of the children of God – to feed upon the Lamb of God. It is a feast kept in faith and by faith, for it is faith that feeds upon the divine Word, the holy Wisdom from on High. 

The Lord’s Supper is not only a symbol of this truth. It is, to use Calvin’s words, “actually presented;” it is promised and sealed. When the bread and wine of the sacrament is offered, Christ is truly offered for salvation. When we accept it, the promise is sealed. The sermon and the Supper both proclaim the Lord’s death until Christ comes, and yet they are two distinct moments in our receiving God’s gracious gift of salvation. In the sermon, it is presented; in the Supper it is sealed. Thus, Calvin understands the Bread of Life Discourse to mean that in the worship of the Church, both in the sermon and the Supper, we feast upon the divine Wisdom – the wisdom revealed in the cross.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

To Confess Our Faith or Pledge Our Allegiance? (Brian Tallman)

The recent NFL controversy–which has spread to other venues too–concerning the appropriate posture during the national anthem has had my mind running in so many directions.

First, my mind went down the liturgical path. We are liturgical beings; and, therefore, we need structure, order and routine. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. It’s all around us. We need it. We crave it. As such the national anthem serves as the liturgical call to worship of all American sporting events. When we realize it, we are shocked by it.

Second, I started thinking about the nature of the national anthem itself–this cultural call to worship–and what protesting it signifies. Far more than a set of beliefs that one is called upon to affirm intellectually, the protests to the national anthems reveal that the American anthem that signals the beginning of the contest is actually a declaration of allegiance to the country. As one stands at attention, with hand over heart, one is not just listening to a song but pledging allegiance to the nation represented by that song. And hence the protests–“I won’t pledge allegiance to this nation”–and the response to the protests–“how dare they not pledge their allegiance to this nation?”

My mind was then drawn back to an interesting book I had read sometime ago by Matthew Bates: Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. Those reading the book from a Reformed theological perspective will find plenty to quibble over, but they will also find some fascinating insights and provocative suggestions. One such suggestions has to do with the use of the Apostles’ Creed in worship services.

I have written about the use of creeds generally and about the use and meaning of the Apostles’ Creed specifically elsewhere. I have usually done so from the perspective of a confession. In other words, this document is an expression of what I believe to be true. These are the facts of Christianity to be affirmed. And that’s good and right.

Bates, however, encourages us to take the use of the Apostles’ Creed a step further and think of the creed and use the creed in a manner akin to a Christian pledge of allegiance, “…the creed is not a mere statement of common belief,” he writes, “but is the allegiance-demanding good news” (p. 211). 

Each week children in the United States place their hand over their hearts, face the flag, and pledge allegiance. Other countries have similar allegiance ceremonies–and all of us who participated in such ceremonies as children…can attest to their power for creating and maintaining loyalty. The Apostles’ Creed needs to be mobilized so that it functions like a flag pledge–to become the Christian pledge of allegiance for the universal church (p. 210).

Rather than merely parroting some words passed down through the generations, our confession of faith is a pledge of allegiance to King Jesus. He is the One in whom we believe. These are the truths about Him and what we believe from His word. This is that for which we live This is that for which we die. This is that for which we stand. Used in this way, the Apostles’ Creed has the power to create and maintain loyalty to King Jesus and promote unity among his followers. Ironically, when we confess the truths of the Apostle’s Creed, we are essentially doing so on bended knees before the Savior. 

The Great Pope Within (Nick Batzig)

“I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, self.” Martin Luther almost certainly never made this statement (though many have falsely attributed it to him). It is, however, an accurate and quite helpful statement, as far as it goes. We all have a great pope within. By nature, none of us wants to submit ourselves to God and the sole authority of His word. All of us enjoy being a law unto ourselves. We’re all committed to laying out standards with which we are comfortable–standards that appear to benefit us. We go on to affirm our own standards by finding affinity with others who have similar standards. We then live in an echo chamber of a functional magisterium we have collectively formed. Of course, at the head of this functional magisterium is the pope of self. While this is certainly the mode of operation for unbelievers, it is not entirely eradicated when we are converted. In fact, aspects of this functional Roman Catholicism are ever manifested in the hearts of believers. Here are several ways in which this manifests itself in our everyday experiences. 

1. Penance. In the first of his 95 theses, Martin Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Luther felt as though this was necessary on account of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church had built an elaborate system of penitential satisfaction for the forgiveness of sins on a faulty translation of the word μετανοεῖτε. Rather than give it the natural translation “repent,” Erasmus had given it the Latin translation from which we derive the English phrase, “Do penance.” Luther preached his 1518 Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, in order to show to what great lengths Rome was willing to take the penitential system. Thomas Aquinas had articulated the doctrine of penance in such a way as to include indulgences–“together with vigils, working, [sleeping on a] hard bed, [wearing rough] clothes, etc.”–for satisfaction for sin. Johanne Tetzel, the great seller of indulgences and Luther’s principle adversary, defended Rome’s penitential system in his Against’s Luther’s Sermon on Indulgences and Grace

All who love the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement–the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ–will rightly revolt at the idea of Rome’s penitential system. However, we functionally embrace something of a penitential system when we try to quiet a guilty conscience with good works. There are a thousand ways in which we can fall into this trap. If we haven’t been fruitful in our outreach in the community in which we live, we go on a short term mission trip to make up for it. If we haven’t been faithful in gathering with the saints for Lord’s Day worship, we give more money to the church to cover for our delinquency in worship. No matter what shape or form it takes, we can seek to make satisfaction for our sins by doing more or by doing better, rather than recognizing that God has made satisfaction for our sins by offering up His Son on the cross. This is why we believe, with Luther, that the Christian life is to be one of repentance not penitence

2. Ritualism. Closely aligned to the idea of penitence is the idea of ritualism. Ritualism comes in many shapes and forms. The great danger of ritualism is that it perverts religious rituals that God has instituted in His word by investing in them an efficacy that they do not have in and of themselves. This is most fully exemplified by Roman Catholic sacramentalism. Geerhard Vos explained the nature of sacramentalism when he wrote: 

“Roman Catholics teach concerning a sacrament that it works ex opere operato [worked by the work]. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper of themselves do what they are said to do. The cross of Christ does not justify but merely opens justification, makes it possible, and hence the mass. It makes certain merits available that then, however, require a special application to become effective.”1

It may seem quite a jump to suggest that we can call into functional sacramentalism in Protestant churches; however, it is probably far more common than one might suppose. Many years ago, I was a member of a large Presbyterian church that celebrated the Lord’s Supper on a monthly basis. After a few months there, I began to realize that attendance was up approximately one-third whenever the Supper was being celebrated. I asked one of my friends why that was the case. He explained that some functionally treat the Lord’s Supper exactly the way Rome views the mass. Instead of seeing the word as the central means of grace–and as that which defines the sacrament–they convinced themselves that the Supper was something far more special. In doing so, they functionally embrace a form of sacramentalism. This is just one example of how we too can fall into ritualism. 

3. The Confessional. The Scriptures plainly teach us that we should confess our sins to one another (Matt. 5:24; 18:15; James 5:16) and that we should confess our sins to God (Ps. 51; 1 John 1:8-2:2). The Roman Catholic Church, of course, perverted the intention of this teaching by making the priest the agent of absolution and the confessional an element of penance. Once you go to the priest and confess what you have done, he gives you a series of penitential deeds unto absolution. Protestants have long seen the absurdity of such a perversion of the biblical teaching on confession of sin; however, we are ever in danger of turning our friends into personal priests–and, without going to the Lord in contrition and confession–functionally creating our own confessional. I can easily seek to unburden my guilty conscience by telling a friend what I have done sinfully without going to the Lord for pardon and cleansing (1 John 1:8-2:2). Instead, we ought to confess our sin to those against whom we have sinned, confide in a close friend or pastor with whom we can pray together, and–most importantly–go to God in brokenness knowing that we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One–the propitiation for our sin. 

4. Conscience Binding. Little needs to be said about how prevalent this is in the lives of those of us who attend Protestant churches in our day. How many of us haven’t made up our own rules about schooling, food and drink, television and movies, dress, etc. Whenever we subject ourselves to man-made rules and regulations, we are functionally doing the exact same thing that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing as an insitution for well over a thousand years. The doctrine of the liberty of conscience was one of the most precious doctrines to the Reformers for this very reason. It was on account of Rome’s perversion of it that the Westminster Divines dedicated an entire chapter to it in the Confession of Faith. There we read those great words: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship” (WCF 20.2). It was this doctrine that lead Luther to make his great “Here I Stand” speach.  

The Christian life is one that can only be lived in dependance on Christ as He is set out in the Scripture. The word of God is the sole authority by which we test all things and to which we hold fast in all matters of faith and practice. If we give him free reign, the great pope within will pervert the clear teaching of Scripture on matters of salvation, worship and the Christian life. We must constantly return to the Scripture to have our minds and hearts renewed in the knowledge of the God who is over all. We must be able to say with Luther, with great conviction and sincerity, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God…to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.” 

1. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, … K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 5, p. 247). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

The Quest for Biblical Worship (Part 2) (Terry L. Johnson)

Reformed churches not only have the regulative principle worship (RPW) to guide them regarding elements and forms, but they also, throughout their history, have had liturgies and directories. The liturgies were the more restrictive (e.g. Strasburg, Geneva, Amsterdam), the directories (Westminster Directory of Public Worship and the family of directories it spawned) less so, allowing more freedom, leaving more to the discretion of the minister. Yet a high degree of uniformity has always been the goal, even among Presbyterians.

The Directory and Directions

We might ask ourselves, what is the function of a directory if not to direct? What is the point of providing examples of prayer and descriptions of preaching and rubrics for communion and baptism if it is not for those examples and descriptions and rubrics to be followed? The aim of the original Directory was substantial uniformity, or “sameness,” with the past, in the present and for the future. The Westminster divines explained in the “Preface” to the Directory that they were “persuaded” that “our first reformers… were they now alive… would join with us in this work.” There is the connection with the past, with the first generation of Reformers whose work revived the worship of “the ancient church,” as Calvin claimed. 

Moreover, they understood themselves to be answering “the expectation of other reformed churches” abroad for whom, along with “many of the godly at home,” the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) “proved an offense.” There is uniformity with present-day Reformed churches, domestic and foreign. 

Consequently, they argued, their work of “further reformation” was required, bringing the churches of England, Ireland and Scotland into conformity with “the reformed churches abroad.” There is the goal of perpetuating their work into the future. Through the Directory they aimed to “give some public testimony of our endeavors for uniformity in divine worship” which they had promised in their Solemn League and Covenant, wherein they pledged to endeavor to bring about “the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church government, directory for worship and catechizing.” 

No one, from Bucer to Calvin to the Westminster Assembly to the late 20th century considered liturgical uniformity unusual, indeed the opposite. All thought substantial uniformity was necessary to (1) promote unity; (2) to guard the church from the introduction of unbiblical (as determined by the RPW) and therefore unauthorized elements into the services of the church; and (3) ensure that the authorized elements receive the attention they are due. Medieval novelties were removed by the Reformers; future novelties were barred. Our fear of uniformity, our resistance to conformity to historic liturgical forms is unprecedented and unbiblical. Unbiblical? Let me explain.

Today

How much “sameness” is enough and how much is too much? The devil, quite literally, is in the details. The Apostles expect a high degree of uniformity between the churches and demand a high degree of conformity. The same Paul who gave directions to the chaotic Corinthians for “when you come together as a church,” not just informally, casually, or ad hoc, but officially, “as a church” (1 Cor 11:18; cf 5:4; 11:32, 34; 14:26), also exhorts them, “We have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16; cf 1:2; 4:17; 14:33). He appeals to the uniform practice of the churches, and he expects aberrant churches to conform to that standard. The point of the historic Reformed orders of service is that of the Apostles: unity in worship and ministry. The radical sects might do whatever they perceived the Spirit was leading them to do, but Presbyterians have maintained standardized orders based on the elements and forms determined by the RPW. This meant substantial lectio continua reading of Scripture, expository preaching, the singing of psalms and (later) biblically sound hymns, a full diet of biblical prayer, and the simple administration of the sacraments. This also meant the elimination of all unauthorized elements, ceremonies, rituals, postures, and gestures that might disrupt the church’s unity in worship or might distract attention, time, and energy from the ordinary and authorized means of grace.

The goal of Reformed worship from the beginning, as repeatedly stated in Martin Bucer’s defense of the reforms implemented in Strasburg in 1524, Ground and Reason (Grund und Ursach), was to fill the biblical elements with biblical content: the word read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen (in the sacraments). Let this be enough. If we could agree on these few elements and forms, administered in simplicity, we’d still have issues to discuss. Yet such agreement would go a long way toward unifying the church at the hour of worship, promoting appropriate sameness without strangeness, that we might “together… with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6).

*This is the second installment of Dr. Johnson’s short series of posts on “The Quest for Biblical Worship.” You can find the first post in this series here

The Truth about the Rapture (Daniel Hyde)

“We…will be caught up” (1 Thes. 4:17) Soon after I was converted at age 17 my dad gave me three books–a King James Bible and two by a local pastor I had yet to hear of: Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth and The Rapture. For the next three years I was immersed in eschatology. I even started a Bible study on my college campus utilizing charts that laid out the entire scheme of the last days utilizing a verse here from Daniel, a verse there from Ezekiel, and a verse over there from Revelation. To say I am conversant with the pre-tribulational, pre-millennial rapture of the church is an understatement.

I now believe that the rapture is the Second Coming. There is no gap between them. 1 Thessalonians 4 makes this clear.

Several weeks ago as I continued to preach through the doctrines explained in the Heidelberg Catechism at my congregation’s evening service, I came to the final words in the Apostles’ Creed: “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Always trying to keep things fresh for those who’ve heard my preaching over the years, I went back and re-read many sources that expressed the rapture doctrine above. I knew what they said but it was a good exercise for my congregation. Then a few weeks later Dallas Theological Seminary had a sponsored post on Facebook for a free E-book by Dr. Mark Hitchcock on The Truth and Timing of the Rapture. I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t resist writing a counter E-book.

Thanks to my friends at the Alliance, we are pleased to offer the following free E-book and inexpensive booklet: Caught Up: 1 Thessalonians and the Truth About the Rapture. Download it; read it; share it.

Caught_Up_Cover_r21.jpeg

My goal is simple: show from 1 Thessalonians 4 that the rapture occurs at the Second Coming; there is no gap in time between these two events. If I can get brothers and sisters in Christ to see that, then they (you!) can move on to more heavy duty theological works I mention in the notes of the book.

Tolle Lege! Take up and read!

A Vital Call for the Vitals of Religion (Brian Tallman)

In the denomination in which I serve as a minister–The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)–we have confessional standards to which all our ministers voluntarily agree to submit, subscribe, and support. The language we use to describe this action is that of adoption. He must, our Book of Church Order requires, be “able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Fatih and Catechisms” of the church as “containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures” (BCO 21.4).

That fact being stipulated, the adoption of the documents as containing the system does not mean a jot and tittle adoption of every “statement and/or proposition” (BCO 21.4). To put it another way, one is not automatically disqualified from being able to minister in the PCA because of a difference with the Standards. Instead, ministers and candidates for the ministry may take exceptions–at the discretion and permission of a Presbytery–to any differences or scruples they might have with the official doctrine of the church as contained in the standards. When this happens each exception is weighed and examined by the court of the church. Some exceptions are deemed acceptable and thus approved; others are not.

Of course, all of this raises the following questions: “By what standard is an exception deemed acceptable or not? Is there another repository of truth which may be mined and appealed to in order to determine whether or not an exception is acceptable?”

The answer to the latter question is “Yes!” The litmus test used to determine acceptance and approval of exceptions to the standards is this: “The exception(s) must not be the kind that is either hostile to the system or strikes at the vitals of religion” (BCO 21.4). In other words, all exceptions are acceptable as long as they don’t strike at the vitals of religion. So far so good, right?

But this forces additional questions to surface. What are the vitals of religion? Where might one find the list of them? What types of exceptions are hostile to the system? Where might one find that list?

This is where things get quite interesting. The answers that I have heard to those questions, at least from my experience and in my opinion, is alarming. The vitals of religion evidently clearly exist. They are mentioned in the BCO, after all. But no one can seem to agree what they are or where they are codified. In the context of debate on the Presbytery floor, I’ve even asked for someone to articulate them! Many people seem to know what they are and where they are codified. But the problem is that often their particular lists differ from the list of their colleagues.

Evidently the vitals of religion are different for different people. And because different people make up different Presbyteries, they are, therefore, different for different Presbyteries. Furthermore, if history teaches us anything it’s that the vitals actually change over time as well. What was once a vital and struck against the system in 1973 is no longer a vital today and therefore acceptable. And we should expect the same evolution and progression to continue. What is a vital today will not likely be a vital in 50 years from now.

This undefined language of the BCO is, at this point, highly subjective and allows for the acceptance of anything so long as it is agreed upon by the majority who determine that the exception is not threatening a vital.

From this we can conclude that a vital is what the contemporary majority at the time of examination determines a vital to be.

The only way to remedy this is to come up wth a list of vitals–that is, acceptable exceptions–or require strict subscription to the original documents. There are simply no other alternatives. And when the list of vitals is produced, no doubt, a sub-set of vitals-of-the-vitals will emerge, and then we are back to square one. Apart from strict subscription, all other solutions will allow for the contemporary majority to determine what is acceptable or not in the denomination.

At the end of the day, Even if we come up with a list of vitals for the entire denomination now it will reflect the contemporary opinion of the majority. So, really, the only option is full subscription to the old confessional standards. If this is rejected the PCA will be, in 50 years, what the PCUSA is today.

Closely Connected Care (Nick Batzig)

With each cultural crisis or natural disaster, our minds are freshly flooded with a litany of images and calls to come to the aid of our neighbors who have been the victims of an injustice or who have suffered loss. One of the downsides of living in a media-connected age is that we can’t escape the constant barrage of information about all of the miseries of this life. Additionally, we have an overwhelming number of para-church ministries that, by virtue of the fact that they are specialty ministry organizations, often give the sense that their thing is the thing in which all should be invested. Many of us begin to feel undue guilt about not rising to the occasion, so to speak, when we become aware of all of the needs of those around us in the world. Surely, there must be guiding principles in Scripture that help us know when God expects us to help and when it is outside of our ability. Without wishing to fall into the ditch of undue guilt or the ditch of inactivity, here are three principles to to keep in mind as we are daily confronted with global scale needs. 

1. The moral proximity principle. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine articulated what has become known as “the moral proximity principle” when he wrote: 

“All men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you. For, suppose that you had a great deal of some commodity, and felt bound to give it away to somebody who had none, and that it could not be given to more than one person; if two persons presented themselves, neither of whom had either from need or relationship a greater claim upon you than the other, you could do nothing fairer than choose by lot to which you would give what could not be given to both. Just so among men: since you cannot consult for the good of them all, you must take the matter as decided for you by a sort of lot, according as each man happens for the time being to be more closely connected with you.”

In short, Augustine suggested that we have a greater responsibility to assist those who live more closely related to us by time, place or circumstance. You have a heightened sense of responsibility to come to the aid of those who are “more closely connected with you.” This means that we must start with our own family members (1 Tim. 5:8), neighbors (Luke 10:25-37) and residents of the community in which we live. The proximity we have to those with whom we are most closely connected determines the moral responsibility we have to assist others. As Paul Tripp notes, “A man…needs a clear sense of what God calls him to do as a husband, father, neighbor, relative, son, worker, and member of the body of Christ.”

2. The ecclesiastical priority principle. “The moral proximity principle” paves the way for the priority that we should place on caring for the members of the body of Christ–those in the local church in which we worship, first of all, and then, Christians in the wider church. This is clearly articulated in Scripture when the Apostle Paul wrote, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). A believer is to have a desire/commitment to assist those in the household of faith. Since we have limited time, energy and resources, we are to first and foremost focus our attention on how we can spend these talents in coming to the aid of our brethren. When there is a hurricane, we should think about the needs of the saints in the churches with whom we have ecclesiastical affiliations prior to thinking about other churches/community needs. We often begin to feel undue guilty as we are bombarded with calls to give to charities/networks. Instead, pastors should help guide their congregations with well researched and tangible ways that members of one congregation can assist members of another. This principle was exemplified by the Apostle Paul who took assistance form the Macedonian and Corinthian churches to the impoverished church in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8:1-3; 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 9:5). 

3. The collective provision principle. As believers seek to care for those who, within their moral proximity and ecclesiastical priority, have needs, it is important for us to remember that we can do a great deal more if churches work together to care for the needs of others. One of the great tragedies of the church in America is that there is often a pernicious territorialism that hinders a more widespread caring for others and co-laboring for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Each of our churches belong to Christ. Believers are members of one another on account of our union with Christ. Pastors should labor to create partnerships with one another so that collective care occurs in the hour of needs. This principle applies to supporting missionaries and should also help govern our efforts at local mercy and outreach. 

While seeking to act on these principles certainly helps us narrow our focus, unburden our consciences from unnecessary guilt and walk in the good works for which Christ has redeemed us, a great deal of wisdom is needed in pressing forward. Additionally, caring for others costs time, energy and resources. Yet, as we remember that Christ poured out his soul and offered His body for us in order to care for the deepest needs of our soul, we too should be motivated to seek to assist those in need. 

The Nashville Statement: A Test of Orthodoxy? (Rachel Green Miller)

When the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) released the Nashville Statement on biblical sexuality, there were immediate responses from almost every quarter. Reactions ranged from wholehearted endorsement to begrudging acceptance to outright rejection. Many of those who rejected the Nashville Statement have done so because they disagree with the content of the Nashville Statement–those who support or defend issues such as homosexual marriage, transgenderism, and homosexuality. It is not surprising that they would be strongly against the Nashville Statement. 

Most who strongly supported and quickly signed the Nashville Statement are those who share CBMW’s concerns over the wholesale rejection of biblical sexual ethics. They recognize that there is a need to speak up regarding what the Bible teaches on sexuality. And given the strong push in our country, and even in our churches, to reject the Bible’s teachings on sexuality and to embrace the world’s approach of “anything goes,” I believe that there is a great need for strong, biblical teaching on sexuality.

There has also been a significant amount of pushback by some who share the concerns addressed in the Nashville Statement but who disagree with various aspects of the statement. Some are concerned about what CBMW means by “divinely ordained differences between male and female.” Considering what CBMW has taught since its inception regarding male and female roles of authority and submission and the connection they have made with authority and submission in the Trinity, it’s a reasonable concern to have.

After the Trinity debate last summer, the official answer from CBMW was that to be a complementarian one only needed to uphold the Danvers Statement and that it was not necessary to hold to the Nicene teaching on the Trinity. Such a position appears to make the Danvers Statement more essential for complementarianism than Nicene orthodoxy. That is a very rocky foundation and a legitimate concern for many who have not signed the Nashville Statement.

Another concern has been raised over the use of “procreative” describing marriage in the Nashville Statement. Again, because of the well-known teachings of CBMW and its authors on the topic of marriage and procreation, it’s reasonable to ask exactly what they meant.

Others have expressed concern over the timing and usefulness of the new statement. They are concerned about the pastoral implications of such a statement. Will the Nashville Statement help or hinder efforts to reach and share the gospel with those in the LGBT+ community? Certainly it’s true that the Bible’s teachings on sexuality will be challenging and even offensive to many, but does the Nashville Statement add clarity or generate more heat than light? These are valid questions.

There have been a number of other concerns raised. Even some of those who signed the statement have addressed the reservations they have with the Nashville Statement. But in the push to defend the statement and to encourage others to sign it, there have been a number of articles that appear to make support of the Nashville Statement a test of orthodoxy.

In one article, an individual who supported the Nashville Statement comparea the Nashville Statement to separating the sheep from the goats. Another claims that to reject the statement is to reject the Bible. Yet another author stated that he had not seen anyone who supports historic Christianity that was opposed to the Nashville Statement. One defender wrote questioning the faith of those who disagree. These are serious claims to make and dangerous ones too.

As Christians and as the church, we must stand strong for what the Bible teaches, in all aspects of life. But we should be careful not to bind the conscience of other believers. The Nashville Statement, for however good it might be, is not the Bible. It is also not part of the confessional standards of my denomination. As such, even if it were a perfectly accurate representation of what the Bible teaches, I would not be required to sign it. Given the many valid concerns that faithful, honest believers have regarding the Nashville Statement, we should be very cautious about making support of it a test of orthodoxy.

As the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

“All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both” (WCF 31.4).

The Nashville Statement might be helpful, but it is not “the rule of faith, or practice.” It is not on par with the Nicene, Apostles’, or Athanasian creeds which the Christian church has accepted as representing the fundamental aspects of Christianity. Opposing or supporting the Nashville Statement is not necessarily a proof of heresy or orthodoxy. This is especially true considering that some signatories of the Nashville Statement continue to hold to beliefs about the Trinity that are contrary to the ecumenical creeds.

In expressing my concern over aspects of the Nashville Statement, some friends who were supportive of it told me that they felt they needed to sign it because they had to do something to show support for biblical sexual ethics. Others said that the statement might not be perfect but no one else was doing anything. While I understand and share their desire to stand for the truth, especially in the face of such opposition today, there is danger in being too quick to act.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we’ve seen many well-meaning people and organizations wanting to just “do something” to help. Sometimes it is useful. People are donating time, money, and resources that are dearly needed. Other times it’s not so useful. A friend shared a story about an organization that donated a crate of limes. What are we going to do with limes right now? I’m not sure.

In making a stand for the Bible in our society today, we need to be careful and measured in our actions. I’m not opposed to making new statements that respond to challenges to biblical orthodoxy. Such statements may be necessary. But I would like to recommend that first we consider whether or not we’re recreating the wheel.

As one writer pointed out, the Westminster Standards already address the very issues that CBMW attempts to cover with the Nashville Statement. Consider these excerpts:

On the creation of man:

“After God had made all other creatures, he created man male and female; formed the body of the man of the dust of the ground, and the woman of the rib of the man, endued them with living, reasonable, and immortal souls; made them after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it, and dominion over the creatures; yet subject to fall” (WLC 17).

On marriage and divorce:

“Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time” (WCF 24.1).

“Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness” (WCF 24.2).

“Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God has joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case” (WCF 24.6).

On sexuality:

“The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy, and all unnatural lusts; all unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections; all corrupt or filthy communications, or listening thereunto; wanton looks, impudent or light behaviour, immodest apparel; prohibiting of lawful, and dispensing with unlawful marriages; allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews, and resorting to them; entangling vows of single life, undue delay of marriage, having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce, or desertion; idleness, gluttony, drunkenness, unchaste company; lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others” (WLC 139).

What the Nashville Statement attempts to say has already been said and, in my opinion, said better by the authors of our historic Reformed confessions. Instead of a new statement, what we need as believers, especially those of us in confessional churches, is to teach the Scriptures and catechize our congregations so that we are well-equipped to answer the many challenges made to biblical orthodoxy. When society asks, “Did God really say?,” we will be ready to respond.

I do not object to my brothers and sisters in Christ who have signed the Nashville Statement. They have done what they thought best. I share their desire to make a strong stand for biblical sexual ethics. I pray more Christians will be willing to stand firm on the truth of the Bible. We can expect the opposition to become increasingly fierce. I simply ask that in defending our decisions to sign or not to sign the Nashville Statement, we do not make either a test of orthodoxy.