Saturday, February 20, 2016

Pentecost in Four Geographical Stages

Lately I've been studying Luke and Acts. In Acts 1:3-5 the risen Jesus teaches his disciples about two things: (1) the kingdom of God and (2) the coming baptism of the Holy Spirit. Then we read in Acts 1:6, "So when they had come together, they asked him, 'Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?'" They view the kingdom as Jewish dominion in the Promised Land. Jesus responds by announcing a key distinctive of the New covenant era. The kingdom will advance beyond the Land into the whole world through the Spirit-empowered preaching of the gospel. We read in Acts 1:7-8, "He said to them, 'It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.'" This geographical advance is the organizing principle of the book of Acts. Ch. 1-7 have to do with the advance of the kingdom in Jerusalem. Ch. 8-12 have to do with its advance in Judea and Samaria. Ch. 13-28 have to do with its advance to the end of the earth. But what about the various Spirit baptisms in Acts (i.e. ch. 2, 8, 10, 19)? How do they fit? Are they somehow related to the geographical advance of the kingdom?

Sinclair Ferguson makes this connection in his excellent book The Holy Spirit. Ferguson considers the pouring out of the Spirit at Ephesus in ch. 19 to be of a different kind than the previous three. Thus he proposes a three stage Spirit baptism from Jerusalem (ch. 2, Jews) to Samaria (ch. 8, Samaritans) to Caesarea (ch. 10, Gentiles, "end of the earth"). The weaknesses of this view are the disqualification of the ch. 19 event and the discontinuity with Acts 1:8 with respect to the kingdom's advance into "all Judea."

R.C. Sproul sees things differently. In a recent lecture he proposes a four stage Spirit baptism based on four kinds of people: (1) Jews, (2) Samaritans, (3) God-fearers, and (4) Gentiles. In ch. 2 the Spirit is poured out on the Jews. In ch. 8 he is poured out on the Samaritans. In ch. 10 he is poured out on the God-fearers (i.e. Cornelius's household). And finally in ch. 19 he is poured out on the Gentiles. The weakness with this view is that it is not entirely clear that those who received the Spirit in ch.19 were Gentiles, and, if they were, that they shouldn't be considered God-fearers like Cornelius. After all, they had already received John's baptism, a baptism that was preached specifically for the Jews and only applied in Judea. It seems much more likely that these men were Jews who had encountered the ministry of John during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem some years earlier.

I think there may be a simpler explanation. Perhaps the four stage Spirit baptism aligns with the four stage geographical advance of the kingdom laid out in Acts 1:8?

The first stage is easy to identify. The Day of Pentecost is Jerusalem. The second stage is easy to identify. Ch. 8 is Samaria. The fourth stage is easy to identify. Ephesus becomes the center of Paul's mission to the Gentiles, so ch. 19 is "the end of the earth." But what about the third stage? What about Caesarea where the Spirit was poured out upon Cornelius's household? Could Caesarea represent Judea? If you look at the maps in the back of your Bible, you wouldn't think so. But those maps represent a Jewish understanding of the regions in question. What if Luke is thinking about them from a Gentile point of view? The Roman region of Judea was much bigger. It extended further north and included Samaria and Galilee. Caesarea was a capital city for the region. This is why Paul was eventually sent from Jerusalem to stand trial before Felix in Caesarea. We see more evidence for a Gentile rendering of Judea in Luke's gospel. Luke 4:14-9:50 focuses on Jesus' ministry in Galilee. But we read in Luke 4:44, "And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea." Now, if Luke intends to refer to the region of Judea as the Jews conceived it, this verse is out of place. In 4:43 and 5:1 Jesus is in Galilee. Why would he all of a sudden be 60 miles south in v. 44? Interestingly, there is a textual variant at this point. Some later manuscripts replace "Judea" with "Galilee." Could this be a scribal attempt to clarify Luke's Gentile usage of the term? I think that is likely.

So now the third stage of the geographical advance of the kingdom is in alignment with the pouring out of the Spirit in Caesarea. Thus the four stage "geographical advance/Spirit baptism" is as follows:
  1. Jerusalem- Ch. 2
  2. Samaria- Ch. 8
  3. Judea- Ch. 10
  4. The end of the earth- Ch. 19
Now, one might quibble with the ordering of (2) and (3). Acts 1:8 says, "in all Judea and Samaria." Why are they now out of order? One possible answer is that Samaria was part of Judea as the Romans conceived it. So, perhaps we should render Acts 1:8, "in all Judea even (or including) Samaria." The samantic range of kai certainly allows for this. In that case we would expect the advance of the kingdom into Samaria to precede its advance into all Judea.  

Friday, October 9, 2015

More on Leviticus 18:5 and Romans 8:13

A friend asked a good question in response to my recent article. I contended that Lev. 18:5 simultaneously teaches the pedagogical (first) and didactic (third) uses of the law. This helps resolve the tension between Lev.18:5 in its immediate context, which seems to emphasize the law's didactic use, and Paul's pedagogical use of it in Rom. 10:5 (and Gal. 3:12). But, my friend asked, if we go in that direction, what about Paul's teaching in Rom. 10 that Moses is teaching two opposing principles in Lev. 18:5 and Deut. 30:14? Wouldn't this seem to limit Lev. 18:5 to the pedagogical use alone? This led me to an interesting discovery.

Paul does indeed teach two opposing kinds of righteousness in Rom. 10. There is the righteousness based on the law (Lev. 18:5) and the righteousness based on faith (Deut. 30:14). Deut. 30:14 says, "But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." And earlier in Deut. 30:6, we read, "And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live." Here we see a focus on the Spirit's prior work of grace in the heart, which presumes sola fide. This means that Deut. 30:14, like Rom. 8:13, only teaches the law's didactic use. There is no works principle in the text whatsoever. It is all grace. However, Lev. 18:5 has no such limitation. While it seems to primarily emphasize the law's didactic use in its immediate context, it also includes the law's pedagogical use. It simultaneously condemns all those who rely on their own self-righteousness, driving the elect to trust Christ as he is shadowed forth in the sacrificial system for their justification before God, AND teaches those who have been justified sola fide the way of life (i.e. ongoing communion) with God. Therefore, we see that the dual use of Lev. 18:5 in no way mitigates the contrast Paul develops in Rom. 10 between the righteousness based on the law and the righteousness based on faith. And we also see a clear OT example in Deut. 30:6 of Paul's teaching in Rom. 8:13.

Relating Leviticus 18:5 to Romans 8:13

I've been thinking about how Lev. 18:5 and Rom. 8:13 relate. Lev. 18:5 says, "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD." Rom. 8:13 says, "For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." Both texts appeal to the "do this and live" principle of the law, but in Gal. 3:12 and Rom. 10:5, Paul teaches that sinners cannot "do this and live," while in Rom. 8:13 he teaches that they can. How can this be?

In the Bible the principle "do this and live," which always accompanies the law, has two applications. First, it applies with respect to justification according to the covenant of works in Adam. Sometimes we call this the works principle. In the estate of sin and misery this is what we refer to as the law's pedagogical use. It condemns and kills all who rely on it for justification before God. It serves in conjunction with the gospel to drive us to the mercy of God extended to us in Christ. Second, the same "do this and live principle" also applies with respect to sanctification according to the covenant of grace in Christ. This is what we refer to as the law's didactic use in the estate of grace. There is no works principle here but only grace.

In other words, for Adam in the estate of innocence, the law only functioned according to the works principle, which of course became its pedagogical use in the estate of sin and misery. But for those in the estate of grace, the law not only has a pedagogical (i.e. works principle) use, reminding us of our constant need for the obedience and satisfaction of Christ on our behalf, it also has a didactic use. Having been raised from death to life by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, we may now also "do this and live," not in the sense of union with Christ but in the sense of communion with Christ. In other words grace says, "Live" (be united to and justified in Christ by faith alone) AND THEN "do this and live" (be progressively sanctified unto the enjoyment of communion with Christ). This is the "do this and live" we see in Rom. 8:13. It only applies as a consequence of having already received life sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus. So the works principle says "do this and live." The grace principle says "live and do this and live."

In Lev. 18:5, God repeats the "do this and live" principle of his law. It is simultaneously of use pedagogically and didactically, both with respect to justification and sanctification. It is of use in justification insofar as we understand that we are hopelessly condemned by our works. It is of use in sanctification insofar as we understand the priority of sola fide per the covenant of grace in Christ (cf. Gen. 15:6; Hab. 2:4). The circumcision party in Romans and Galatians misapplied the "do this and live" principle of Lev. 18:5 by teaching that it actually held out the hope of justification by works. They confused the pedagogical use of the law for the original use of the law and therefore also completely missed its didactic use.

So what does this mean for republication? Well, notwithstanding the typological kingdom-in-the-land of the Mosaic covenant, which is a specially ordained republication/reenactment of Adam in the garden under the covenant of works (old creation) but through Spirit-wrought obedience, we also see that the eschatological kingdom-to-the-land (new creation) of the same covenant included a republication of the works principle for pedagogical use. Of course the law in the Mosaic covenant simultaneously had a didactic use, and in that sense there was no republication whatsoever since the works principle was supplanted by grace. So it's a both/and rather than an either/or. The works principle of the original covenant of works is BOTH republished under Moses for typological and pedagogical use (i.e. unto justification) AND not republished with respect to its didactic use (i.e. unto sanctification). The law's didactic use is a completely new consequence of the covenant of grace instituted after the fall.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Ten Commandments: God's DNA

This Sunday we began a new morning series at Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church entitled The Ten Commandments: God's DNA. Having spent the Spring in Paul's letter to the Galatians, which emphasizes the moral law's pedagogical use (i.e. its use with respect to our justification), I thought it would serve us well to examine the law with a particular focus on its didactic use (i.e. its use with respect to our sanctification).

Here is a worksheet for the first sermon:

Text: Exodus 20:1-2, "And God spoke all these words, saying, 'I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.'"
Thesis: Because God is the LORD, and our God, and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all his commandments (SC 44).

Moral law (Ten Commandments) (the law narrowly considered):
  1. You shall have no other God's before me.
  2. You shall make no graven images.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness.
  10. You shall not covet.
First Table (1-4)- Duties to God
Second Table (5-10)- Duties to man

Threefold division of law (the law broadly considered):
  1. Moral law (Ten Commandments)- Regulating all of life. 
  2. *Ceremonial law- Further regulating worship. Human-to-God relations. 
  3. *Civil law- Further regulating society. Human-to-human relations. 
*These laws were unique to the Mosaic covenant. Since the first coming of Christ, they have ceased to be directly applicable to us.

Threefold use of the moral law:
  1. Pedagogical (Disciplinarian)- The law serves to uncover and condemn our sin that we might flee to the mercy of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:20; 7:7-12; Gal. 3:21-24). 
  2. Civil (Common)- The law serves to restrain evil in the world among all men in common, especially at the level of human-to-human relations (second table) (Gen. 9:6; Rom. 2:14-16; 13:1-7). 
  3. Didactic (Moral instruction)- The law serves as a rule of thankful obedience on the part of the Christian (Matt. 5-7; Rom. 12:8-14; Gal. 5:13-24). 
Sermon Divisions: 
  1. The LORD’s Law (Covenant)- "And God spoke all these words saying, 'I am the LORD...'" The Hebrew word translated LORD is Yahweh. This is the personal name of God revealed to Moses in Ex. 3:13ff. It is uniquely associated with his covenant. The moral law is part of God's covenantal dealings with man, beginning with the covenant of works between God and Adam and his posterity in him in the garden prior to the Fall and continuing into the covenant of grace between God and Christ and his elect in him outside the garden after the Fall. 
  2. Our God’s Law (Creation)- "...your God..." The Hebrew word translated God is Elohim. This is the word used in Gen. 1:1 for God. It is uniquely associated with his work of creation. The moral law is revealed to all humanity by nature as part of the image of God into which we were created. It uncovers and condemns us in our sin according to the broken covenant of works in Adam, and it works to restrain evil among all men in common until the end. 
  3. Our Redeemer’s Law (Redemption)- "...who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." As Israel was freed from the oppression of the Pharaoh, so we are freed from the curse of the moral law through the person and work of Jesus Christ that we might therefore obey it, "not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind” (from WCF 20.1).  

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Talking about the Federal Vision Controversy on the Heidelcast (Part 2)

The second part of my conversation with Dr. R. Scott Clark on the Heidelcast is now up. Here's the blurb from the Heidelblog:

For those who are outside the Reformed churches, the so-called (and self-named) Federal Vision movement probably seems like a tempest in a teapot. For those of us, however, who worship in Reformed churches, the FV is no theoretical discussion. There have been actual Federal Visionists in pulpits preaching their errors. As a result. some believers have been robbed of their assurance through a corruption of the gospel and through the FV corruption of the doctrine of apostasy. Others have been led into a false view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (e.g., paedocommunion). The FV errors have led to a series of ecclesiastical trials. Most believers, even those in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, have probably never seen an ecclesiastical trial. In these two episodes we’ve been able to get a behind-the-scenes view of one such FV-related trial. 
Here is part 1 of the interview with Pastor M. Jay Bennett with links to background materials. 
Here’s episode 54.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Talking about the Federal Vision Controversy on the Heidelcast (Part 1)

This week I had the privilege of discussing the Federal Vision controversy with Dr. R. Scott Clark on the Heidelcast. Here's the blurb from the Heidelblog:
The self-described and so-called Federal Vision movement has been troubling the confessional (NAPARC) Reformed and Presbyterian denominations since before it had a cool name. It presents itself as Reformed theology but is only Reformed in the way that Arminius was Reformed. He was a Reformed minister. He was never convicted of error yet his theology was soundly rejected by the Reformed Churches at the Synod of Dort. The FV has been rejected by most of the NAPARC denominations in assemblies and in study reports. Nevertheless, that rejection has not always translated into successful prosecutions on the ground, most notably in three cases in the PCA. In cases in the Pacific Northwest, Siouxlands, and in the Missouri Presbytery the prosecution of particular Federal Vision cases has failed. So, what happened? That’s a good question and the Rev. Mr. M. Jay Bennett, pastor of Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Neon, KY joins us in this episode and the next to help us understand what happened in one high-profile case....
Here’s episode 53.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How Has God Revealed Himself? (Part 4)

In Part 3 we looked at the teaching of the Westminster Standards on the supernatural revelation of God (1) broadly considered and (2) narrowly considered in the doctrine of Holy Scripture. Today we will take a look at the doctrine of the canon as it is presented in WCF 1.2-3, LC 3, and SC 2.

WCF 1.2-3 reads:
Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments, which are these: [then it lists the 39 books of the OT and the 27 books of the NT]. All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life. 
The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.
LC 3 reads:
Q. 3. What is the Word of God? A. The holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.
SC 2 reads:
Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? A. The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.
It is one thing to say God has revealed himself through Scripture. It is another to actually identify those texts. The doctrine of the canon serves to identify particular texts as Scripture. 

The word "canon" means rule or standard. Those texts identified as canonical are therefore the rule of faith and life. No other texts have this status. No other texts are inspired (i.e. God-breathed, 2 Tim. 3:16). No other texts carry the authority of God.

We agree with Eastern Orthodoxy (EO) and Roman Catholicism (RC) in recognizing the 39 books of the OT and the 27 books of the NT as canonical. We disagree with them in recognizing any other texts as canonical. In 1546 RC's Council of Trent defined 12 additional OT books as canonical. These 12 books are commonly referred to as the Apocrypha. In 1672 EO's Synod of Jerusalem defined 4 of the same 12 books as canonical. We expressly reject the Apocrypha as canonical. 

The doctrine of the canon is of fundamental importance for the church, because Christ establishes and governs us by his Word and Spirit (WCF 8.8; LC 67). If we get this doctrine wrong, then the rule of Christ over us will be hindered at best and usurped at worst. This could happen in two ways: (1) the omission of canonical texts thus hindering Jesus' rule and (2) the addition of non-canonical texts as canonical thus usurping Jesus' rule. The former is an accusation RC and EO make against Protestantism. The latter is an accusation Protestantism makes against RC and EO. Protestants believe that the teachers of RC and EO have usurped the rightful headship of Christ by binding the consciences of their members to the opinions of men. This is a violation of the doctrine of the liberty of conscience, which is spiritual tyranny. 

In 1521 at the Diet of Worms the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther defended himself against the accusations of the papacy by citing the doctrine of the liberty of conscience:
Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, not embellished: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand. May God help me, Amen.
Apart from the doctrine of the canon, Luther could not have made this defense.

In Part 5 we will look at WCF 1.4 and the doctrine of the authority of Holy Scripture.

But by Some Voluntary Condescension

This week we began a new Sunday School series at Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church. For the next few weeks we will be studying Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) Chapter 7 "Of God's Covenant with Man." WCF 7.1 reads,
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
Essentially what is being taught in this section is God's relationship to man in terms of obligations. Man is obligated to God by nature (i.e. by virtue of the ontological distance that exists between God the Creator and his creatures). But God cannot be obligated to man by nature. God can only become obligated to man by some voluntarily condescension on his part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant. So we see two aspects of God's relationship to man: (1) natural, by which man is obligated to God and (2) covenantal, by which God has obligated himself to man.

This same distinction is made in Larger Catechism (LC) 17 and 20. Man's obligation to God is a work of creation. God's obligation to man through covenant is a work of providence.

It is also assumed in Shorter Catechism (SC) Q. 1., "What is the chief end of man? A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." Here we see the two distinct aspects of our chief end: (1) glorifying God and (2) enjoying him forever, which reflect the distinction established in WCF 7.1 between the natural and covenantal aspects of God's relationship to man, respectively.

Glorifying God
Our obligation to glorify God is established by nature. Creatures owe their Creator all honor and thanks (Rom. 1:21). But even if Adam had glorified God perfectly, apart from God's special revelation through the covenant he could never have obligated God to himself. This underscores God's holiness or otherness.

Enjoying God
Our calling to enjoy God cannot be established by nature. It is established by God's voluntary condescension through covenant. God covenanted with Adam in the beginning, obligating Himself to him on condition of perfect and personal obedience, so that man might enjoy Him (i.e. "have...fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward"). This underscores God's love or personal nature.

Think about some of the astounding conclusions we must draw from this teaching:
  1. If God had never entered into covenant with Adam, Adam may have been perfectly obedient and yet God would never have been obligated to reward him in any way. God could have scrapped the whole creation at any moment without any injustice regardless of Adam's actions.
  2. While Adam could never obligate God to himself, he was nonetheless obligated to obey God and forbidden to disobey under the threat of condemnation.
  3. God has obligated himself to us through His covenant, limiting His freedom with respect to His creation. He could no sooner deny his covenant than he could deny himself (i.e. cease to be God).  
  4. God is not an impersonal tyrant in the sky, commanding us from a distance. He is personal, and He has chosen to condescend to us by way of covenant in order to dwell and commune with us that we might enjoy him forever as our blessedness and reward. How wonderful is this?!
  5. John Piper's (a pastor-scholar that I appreciate and admire) suggestion that SC 1 should be rephrased, "Man's chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever," (Desiring God, 1996 Edition, p. 15) fails to account for the distinction between the natural and covenantal aspects of God's relationship to man as taught in WCF 7.1, resting, as it does, on the assumption that man's glorifying God (which he was obliged to do by nature) required his enjoyment of God (which he could only do by covenant). This belies a weakness in the baptist hermeneutic with respect to God's covenant with man.  
  6. WCF 7.1 rests on the assumption that Adam was obligated to God by nature prior to the establishment of the covenant of works. However, natural (or general) revelation is nonetheless dependent on supernatural (or special) revelation for its true understanding, interpretation, and application. This fits with the doctrine of natural law taught in Rom. 2:14 and LC 17. By God's providence he uses this natural law to restrain evil in the world today among all men in common. But it cannot be understood, interpreted, and applied truly (i.e. with a view to glorifying God) apart from a saving knowledge of Holy Scripture. 
  7. Therefore Holy Scripture is the only rule to direct us in glorifying God (SC 2). Before the Fall Adam could not have glorified God apart from God's special revelation in the covenant of works. Likewise, sinners after the Fall cannot glorify God apart from a saving knowledge of the gospel (i.e. the covenant of grace), which is given in the Holy Scriptures.     

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How Has God Revealed Himself? (Part 3)

In Part 2 we looked at the Westminster Standards' teaching on the natural revelation of God, which is primarily given in WCF 1.1a and LC 2a. God gives natural revelation in two distinct but unified ways: (1) within humanity and (2) without humanity. That which resides within humanity is called the "light of nature." That which resides without is called "the works of God," which are further defined as "the works of creation and providence." This natural revelation sufficiently and efficiently reveals the one true and living God, but it is "not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation." Instead, it is only sufficient "to leave men unexcusable." But natural revelation not only condemns humanity, it also temporarily preserves it through the restraint of civil evil (WCF 19.6).

The Westminster Standards also teach about another kind of revelation, supernatural (or special) revelation. We see this in WCF 1.1b-1.10, LC 2b-5, and SC 2-3. Let's begin with WCF 1.1b and LC 2b.

WCF 1.1b reads:
Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
LC 2b reads:
Q. 2b. How doth it appear that there is a God? A. ...but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.
Here we encounter the doctrine of supernatural revelation broadly considered and then more narrowly considered in the doctrine of Holy Scripture.

Supernatural Revelation Broadly Considered

First notice the "therefore." The divines predicate supernatural revelation (insofar as they address it here) on salvation. Natural revelation is insufficient to save, therefore it pleased the Lord to reveal himself supernaturally.

Unlike natural revelation, supernatural revelation is not a universal constant. Instead, it has been given at "sundry times and in divers manners." While the Confession doesn't specify, these divers manners include theophanies, audible voices, angels, visions, Holy Scripture, and the incarnation.

The Confession teaches the Lord was pleased "to reveal himself" (i.e. who he is) "and to declare his will" (i.e. what he purposes for us). As we saw last time, natural revelation includes these same two subjects. It reveals the one, true, and living God (who he is) and that he should be worshiped and obeyed (what he purposes for us). Supernatural revelation goes further than this, teaching us about the mercy of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (who he is) and the covenant of grace whereby we might be saved (what he purposes for us). So LC 2b says, "his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation."

This supernatural revelation is given by God "unto his church" as its special possession. This is why the Apostle calls the church, "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15b). God gathers and perfects his chosen people through this supernatural revelation. It is given to, through, and for them.

Supernatural Revelation Narrowly Considered in the Doctrine of Holy Scripture      

After thousands of years of giving supernatural revelation "at sundry times, and in divers manners," the Confession says it pleased the Lord "to commit the same wholly unto writing." Notice what has been committed wholly unto writing is "the same" as the other. In other words, Scripture is the same kind of revelation as the theophanies, the audible voices, the messages delivered by angels, the visions, and even the incarnation. There is no essential difference between those ways of revelation and Holy Scripture. When we read our Bibles we encounter essentially the same kind of revelation that Moses encountered in the burning bush. When we hear the Bible preached we encounter the same kind of revelation that the disciples encountered in beholding the person and work of Jesus Christ. What a wonderful truth!

That the Lord has committed supernatural revelation "wholly unto writing," implies two things. First, it implies that all other ways of supernatural revelation have ceased. Second, it implies that the Lord has now (since the cessation of the other ways) given all the supernatural revelation he is going to give until the Second Coming. With regard to the cessation of the earlier ways the framers teach explicitly, "those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased." And since the only supernatural revelation available today is Holy Scripture they say it is "most necessary."

The framers give four reasons for the Lord's committing supernatural revelation wholly unto writing. The first two have to do with the revelation itself. They write, "for the better preserving and propagating of the truth." The truth of supernatural revelation is less likely to be corrupted, and if it is corrupted, it is more likely to be discovered and corrected. Further, to be able to hand a person the completed canon of Holy Scripture all at once expedites its propagation. The other two have to do with the effect of the revelation. They write, "for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world." The Lord has committed supernatural revelation wholly unto writing for the good of his church. That it might be better established and comforted in the face of its threefold opposition: the world, the flesh, and the Devil. What a gift of grace the Holy Scripture is to us!

In Part 4 we will look at the doctrine of the canon in WCF 1.2-3, LC 3, and SC 2.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Has God Revealed Himself? (Part 2)

In Part 1 we introduced our topic and gave a brief historical account of the Westminster Standards. In Part 2 we will begin to explore how the Westminster Standards answer the question "How has God revealed himself?"

Westminster Confession of Faith 1.1a reads:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.
Larger Catechism 2a reads:
Q. 2a. How doth it appear that there is a God? A. The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God.
Here we have the totality of the Westminster Standards' teaching on the doctrine of natural (or general) revelation. Natural revelation is defined positively (i.e. what it is and does) and negatively (i.e. what it isn't and doesn't do).

What Natural Revelation Is and Does

The Westminster Standards teach that there are two distinct but unified ways of natural revelation: (1) "The light of nature," which the LC further describes with the prepositional phrase "in man" and (2) "the works of God," which the WCF further describes as "the works of creation and providence" (cf. WCF 3-5; LC 14; SC 8).

This raises an important question. Isn't the light of nature itself a work of creation? And if so, why do the Standards distinguish between them? It appears that the Westminster divines are distinguishing these ways with respect to their relationship to man. The light of nature is that aspect of natural revelation which resides  within man as God's special image bearer. 

Natural Revelation Within Man 

The locus classicus for this doctrine is Romans 2:14-15. The text reads, "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them." Here the Apostle teaches that the Gentiles who do not have the law (i.e. the special revelation of God) nonetheless do what the law requires "by nature." He calls this aspect of human nature "conscience" (con "with," science "knowledge"). It is located within man (i.e. the immaterial part). It is "on their hearts" and in their "thoughts."

The "light of nature in man" is that aspect of human nature that is commonly called conscience. To be human is to have knowledge of God by nature. This knowledge is one sphere of natural revelation.

Natural Revelation Without Man

"The works of God," which are his "works of creation and providence," are natural revelation that resides without man. Both works are the execution of God's eternal decree (cf. SC 8).

Ps. 19:1-4a teaches, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." Further, Rom. 1:19-20 teaches, "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse."

In these two passages we see that the creation reveals the God who made it. The psalmist says, "the heavens declare," and "the sky above proclaims." Moreover, the Apostle teaches that God's invisible attributes are revealed "in the things that have been made."

We also see that God reveals himself in the work of providence (i.e. his upholding, directing, disposing, and governing his creation). So the psalmist says, "Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge."

This natural revelation of God, both within man and without man, declares "plainly that there is a God" (LC 2). But lest we think that it only declares some generic concept called God, WCF 1.1 teaches that it manifests specific attributes of the one true and living God, namely "the goodness, wisdom, and power of God." 

What Natural Revelation Isn't and Doesn't Do

Natural revelation has its limits. It teaches all humanity that the one true and living God exists and should be obeyed and worshiped. Moreover, since we don't do this, it teaches us that we are sinners who justly deserve his wrath (cf. Rom. 1:18ff.). But it doesn't teach us what God has done to save sinners (cf. Rom. 3:21ff.). To put it another way, natural revelation teaches us about the law but not the gospel. It teaches us about God's justice but not his mercy. It teaches us about the covenant of works but not the covenant of grace (cf. WCF 7; LC 20, 22, 30-36; SC 12, 16, 20). Only supernatural (or special) revelation teaches us about the covenant of grace. Therefore, WCF 1.1 teaches that natural revelation is sufficient "to leave men unexcusable" for their sin, but it is "not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation."

But natural revelation doesn't just condemn. It is also temporarily preserves humanity through the restraint of civil evil. WCF 19.6a reads: "Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly."

In Part 3 we will begin to look at what the Westminster Standards teach about the supernatural revelation of God.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

How Has God Revealed Himself? (Part 1)

In this series I'd like to explore how the Westminster Standards answer the question "How has God revealed himself?"  But before we dive into the Standards a few words about them are in order.

The Westminster Standards are documents that were produced by the Westminster Assembly in 1646 and 1647. The Assembly was a group of 119 ministers called together by the English Parliament on June 12, 1643 for the purpose of "settling of the government and liturgy of the Church of England, and for vindicating and clearing of the doctrine of the said Church from all false calumnies and aspersions" (Alexander Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly, 108-9, cited in Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly30). Most were English Presbyterians. All were Non-conformists, also known as Puritans. They met in London at Westminster Abbey (hence the name) for nearly six years from July 1, 1643 to February 22, 1649, though official business was concluded on March 25, 1652. The documents that make up the Westminster Standards are the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), the Larger Catechism (1647), and the Shorter Catechism (1647). The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) are contemporary U.S. denominations that include the Westminster Standards in their constitutions.

The Standards have undergone several revisions among Presbyterians since the founding of the United States. In 1788 the Presbyterian Church in the USA revised WCF chapters 20.4, 23.3, and 31.2, properly distinguishing the power of the state from the power of the church. It also removed the phrase "tolerating a false religion" from LC Answer 109 and replaced "depopulations" with "depradation" in LC Answer 142. In 1887 the teaching that forbade marriage to the close kindred of one's deceased spouse in chapter 24.4 was removed. For better or worse more revisions were made in 1903. The version of the Westminster Standards adopted by the OPC in 1936 includes the 1788 and 1887 revisions. It also includes two of the 1903 revisions, i.e. the removal of reference to the pope as the Antichrist in chapter 25.6 and the removal of the teaching that forbade refusing to take an oath when imposed by a lawful authority in chapter 22.3. Revisions have also been made to the proof texts appended to the Standards, though the proofs have never been considered part of the Standards.

The teaching of the Westminster Standards on how God has revealed himself has remained unchanged since it was first laid out 365 years ago. We find that teaching in WCF chapter 1, LC 2-4, and SC 2. We'll begin an examination of that teaching in part 2.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is Church Membership Important? (Part 4)

In part three we looked at the necessity of visible church membership for the reception of the Word and the sacraments. We learned that an individual might receive the benefit of the Word preached for a time without joining the church. But he cannot receive it in that condition perpetually, because the Word itself teaches the necessity of church membership. Therefore if one is benefiting from the Word read and preached, he will join the church. One way we see this is with regard to the sacraments. The Bible teaches that participation in the sacraments requires visible church membership.

In part four we will examine what the Bible teaches about church discipline and membership.

In 1 Cor. 11:27-31 we see church discipline connected with the reception of the Lord's Supper. The Apostle explains that there are worthy and unworthy manners of receiving the sacrament. Worthy reception amounts to the maintenance of the credibility of one's profession of faith (i.e. discerning the body). Therefore there are times when the Supper should be withheld from a person if the credibility of his profession is in question. This would constitute an act of church discipline. And since receiving the sacraments is dependent on visible church membership, therefore in this respect so is church discipline.  

Further in 1 Peter 5:1-5 we read, "So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."

In this text the Apostle Peter exhorts his fellow elders (presbuterous) to be proper shepherds over the flock (i.e. "those in your charge"). They are undershepherds of the chief Shepherd. Christ rules his church through these men (Matt. 16:19; 18:17-18; John 20:21-23, cf. WCF 30.2). Further he commands individual believers to submit to the government of elders who have charge over them, saying "be subject to the elders."

This relationship between elders and congregants is only possible for those that have voluntarily associated with one another (i.e. believers) or are under the headship of one who has (i.e. their children). The elders could have no charge over anyone apart from this, since their rule under Christ is declarative and ministerial rather than legislative and magisterial. They declare God's word in service to his people. They DO NOT legislate their own words or force obedience.

And what is the goal of church government? 1 Pet. 5:6-11 concludes, "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen."

Through church discipline God protects his covenant people from evil so that they may continue to be nourished in the faith unto eternal life. Therefore visible church membership is of vital importance.


In Eph. 5:25-30 we read, "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body."

The Lord Jesus Christ loves the visible church. It is his bride. It is his body. How can a person claim to be united to Christ, and not also be united to his body? Just as a man nourishes and cherishes his own body, so Jesus nourishes and cherishes his church. He does this through the Word, the sacraments, and church discipline.

Much more could be said about the importance of visible church membership, but my prayer is that these short articles will help orient us to the fundamentals of the Bible's teaching, and that having been so oriented we might better love her and participate ever more faithfully in her worship and service.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Is Church Membership Important? (Part 3)

In part two we set out the historic Protestant view of the three marks of the visible church, namely the Word, the sacraments, and church discipline. We also saw that while each mark is essential to the being of the church, there is a functional hierarchy among them. The Word is primary. The sacraments are secondary. Church discipline is tertiary. These are ordinary means whereby God creates and confirms saving faith in the hearts of his elect unto eternal life. Visible church membership is vitally important because the church is the place of the means of grace.

But couldn't a person just attend the church's worship services and get the same benefits without actually becoming a member? Is official membership really necessary?

One could indeed receive the benefit of the Word preached for a time without becoming a member. I say for a time because if he was truly benefiting from the Word preached he would recognize his obligation to receive the sacraments and church discipline, neither of which can be received apart from membership. Let's begin with the sacraments. What does the Bible teach about the sacraments and church membership? 

Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A. 162 offers this fine definition of a sacrament: "A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without." 

Notice that it says a sacrament is an ordinance "instituted by Christ in his church" for the benefit of "those that are within the covenant of grace... to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another, and to distinguish them from those that are without." In other words, the sacraments are NOT given to individual believers, but to all those within the visible church.

The LORD gave the OT sacrament of circumcision not just to Abraham but to his children throughout their generations (Gen. 17:9-14). He gave the OT sacrament of Passover not just to Moses but to all Israel (Ex. 12). When Jesus instituted the NT sacrament of baptism, which replaces and perfects OT circumcision, he not only gave it to the disciples but to those who would become disciples in all nations (Matt. 28:19), because as Peter preaches to Israel, "the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the LORD our God calls to himself" (Acts 2:39). And when the Lord Jesus instituted the NT sacrament of the Lord's Supper in Matt. 26:26-28, he not only gave it to the disciples but he said of the cup, "this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." So the Apostle Paul will later write to the church in Corinth, "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you" (1 Cor. 11:23a).   

Clearly the sacraments belong to the visible church for the benefit of all those that are within the covenant of grace. They do not belong to any individual. Therefore by definition one must join the membership of the visible church in order to enjoy the benefits of the sacraments. 

Jesus has instituted two sacraments in the NT church: (1) Baptism and (2) The Lord's Supper (WLC 164).

Baptism is a rite of solemn admission into the membership of the visible church (WLC 165). Therefore if one is to receive it he must become a member, which happens by being born to believing parents or by conversion.

With respect to the Lord's Supper, the issue is a little more complex. While one must undoubtedly be a member of the visible church to partake, the necessary proximity of that membership is debated. Some churches practice closed communion, meaning only those who are members of that local church can receive the Supper there. In the branch of the visible church in which I minister, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, one need not be a member of the local church in order to receive the Supper there. But one must be a communing member in good standing of some local church where the gospel is preached in order to receive it.       

Jesus has instituted the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper in his church. They belong to the visible church as a whole, not to any individual. One must be a member in order to receive the sacraments by which God so graciously nourishes and strengthens us in the faith. Therefore visible church membership is vitally important. 

In part four we will take a look at membership and church discipline.     

Monday, May 14, 2012

Is Church Membership Important? (Part 2)

In part one we defined the church as the assembly set apart by God to be his treasured possession (Deut. 7:6). We also learned that the Bible speaks of the church in two different senses. Sometimes it refers to the whole company of the elect. This is what we call the invisible church. Other times it refers to those throughout the world who profess the true religion and their children. This is what we call the visible church. Not all members of the visible church are members of the invisible church, and not necessarily every member of the invisible church becomes a member of the visible church prior to his death. But while deathbed conversions may be possible, they are clearly extraordinary in God’s work of salvation. The visible church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2, emphasis added).

So what precisely is the visible church and why is it so important?

The historic Protestant tradition defines the visible church according to three marks:
  1. The Word rightly administered. 
  2. The sacraments rightly administered. 
  3. Church discipline rightly administered. 
These three marks are comprehended in the Westminsterian term “the true religion” (WCF 25.2). They are defining characteristics of the church. All three are equally important, but there is a functional hierarchy among them. The Word is primary. The sacraments are secondary. Church discipline is tertiary. We see this hierarchy in both the historia salutis (i.e. the “history of salvation” or salvation accomplished) and the ordo salutis (i.e. the “order of salvation” or salvation applied).

In the historia salutis God has given his people sacraments as signs and seals of his covenant (i.e. his Word). Moreover, the actions God institutes as sacraments are prescribed as such in that same covenant. The sacraments are meaningless apart from what they signify and seal, namely the covenant promises, and they have no being apart from their institution. This is why their significance should be taught and words of institution should be read during their administration.

In the ordo salutis the covenant promises are applied to us by faith alone, and "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). Saving faith comes through the Word. It does not come through the sacraments (cf. Rom. 4:10-11). The sacraments are the means God uses to confirm the faith already created by the Word. [This doesn't mean the covenant sign can only be applied to believers. After all, Isaac was circumcised before faith. It means that the covenant sign only fulfills its function as a seal when it is joined to faith.]

With respect to church discipline, we see the same. Discipline is only rendered according to the Word, and it presupposes the prior covenant promises signified and sealed through the sacraments and received by faith alone.

Therefore looking at the three marks of the church through the lens of the historia salutis and the ordo salutis, we see a clear hierarchy among them. The Word is primary. The sacraments are secondary. Church discipline is tertiary. All three are necessary in their proper order.

The  visible church is the place of the means of grace whereby the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—creates and confirms saving faith in the hearts of sinners unto eternal life. First, saving faith is created and confirmed by the administration of the Word. Second, it is further confirmed by the administration of the sacraments. Third, it is further confirmed by church discipline. Therefore church membership is of vital importance.

But can’t a person just attend the visible church and receive these benefits without becoming a member? In part three we will take a closer look at the first and second marks of the church, getting to the very heart of membership.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is Church Membership Important? (Part 1)

It is a joyful time at Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church. We are about to receive four communing members and three noncommuning members into the fold. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Lately I’ve been thinking about church membership. Why is it important? Does Jesus want us to be members of his church? Would it be sinful to refuse membership in a local church? In considering these and other questions we first need to define the church.

“Church” is the English translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which means “assembly.” The church is the assembly set apart by God to be his treasured possession (Deut. 7:6). The Bible speaks of the church in two different senses. Sometimes “church” refers to the whole company of the elect. We call this the invisible church (WCF 25.1). Other times it refers to those who are assembling together in various locations under the same doctrinal confession. We call this the visible church (WCF 25.2). This distinction is clearly taught in Romans 9:6b, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” In other words, not all members of the visible church (i.e. all those throughout the world who profess the true religion and their children) are members of the invisible church (i.e. the elect).

But what about the reverse? Must all members of the invisible church also be members of the visible church? Do the elect always enter into visible church membership before death? 

In response to this question many appeal to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43). Assuming the thief was converted from pagan idolatry just moments before his death, he would have been a member of the invisible church but never a member of the visible church. But the text does not tell us whether this man is a new convert from paganism or not. Here’s what we know from the text:

  • He was a thief enduring the death sentence (v. 39).
  • He feared God (v. 40).
  • He understood his punishment at the hands of men was just (v. 41a).
  • He understood Jesus’ punishment at the hands of men was unjust (v. 41b).
  • He saw the kingdom of God by faith in Christ (i.e. he believed the gospel) (v. 42).
  • He was elect (v. 43).  

We do not know the timing of his conversion or his involvement in the visible church up to this point. It is possible that he was a circumcised Hebrew, born to believing parents into the visible church. It is also possible he had already professed faith in Christ as a member of the visible church prior to his crucifixion. Is it really unthinkable that a true believer could commit such a crime? So while it is possible the thief is the only biblical example of a deathbed conversion, we cannot say that with certainty.

Nonetheless, we must at least acknowledge the theoretical possibility of such. God can save a man who is outside the visible church on his deathbed. This is beyond dispute. But even in acknowledging such a possibility we confess that the visible church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2, emphasis added). In other words, the ordinary experience of those whom God has chosen to save (i.e. the invisible church of the elect) includes membership in the visible church (i.e. being assembled with others who profess the true religion). To believe with one’s heart ordinarily includes confessing with one’s mouth and joining one’s voice with others of like confession (Rom. 10:10).

In part two we will define the visible church more precisely and begin to look at why membership in it is of such vital importance.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Keeping Christ Out of Christmas

An essential doctrine of Reformed Christian worship is a derivative of the Protestant tenet sola Scriptura called the Regulative Principle. Simply put, the Regulative Principle teaches that God alone has the right to institute the acceptable way of worship. We find this doctrine in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 which reads, "The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture."

The basic thought is this: Worship is fundamentally prostration before God. In worship we seek to be submitted to God's holy word, receiving the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as our blessedness and reward in accordance with his covenant of grace. But being submitted to God in worship not only includes submission with regard to what and who we worship but also with regard to how we worship. In other words, worshipping God in a way he has not prescribed is tantamount to worshipping a false God. Or put another way, worship that is not regulated by God cannot be worship that is glorifying to God. It is what the framers of the confession called "will worship," since the human will is exalted to a position of authority over God.

Just as God himself is set apart as the only acceptable object of worship, so also God has set apart peculiar means, a peculiar manner, and a particular time for his worship. We see these aspects of worship in the first table of the moral law (i.e. The Ten Commandments, Ex. 20, Deut. 5):

1. OBJECT set apart for worship. You shall have no other God's before me.
2. MEANS set apart for worship. You shall not make any graven images.
3. MANNER set apart for worship. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
4. TIME set apart for worship. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.

These basic principles are rooted in the character of God. They are unchanging. They are revealed to us for his glory and our good.

With repect to the when of worship, in Old Testament times God prescribed the weekly sabbath day (i.e. the fourth commandment) along with other holy days. The fourth commandment is essentially moral, prescribing the one-day-in-seven Sabbath. But it also has a ceremonial aspect, namely the prescription of Saturday. In New Testament times the ceremonial law has been abrogated, and the ceremonial aspect of the fourth commandment has changed from Saturday to Sunday. But the moral essence of the fourth commandment (i.e. one day in seven) continues forever. The Christian Sabbath, Sunday, the Lord's Day, is the only day set apart as holy in the New testament era. God has graciously given his church this day alone for regular public worship. Public worship on any other day, which is certainly permissible, should be extraordinary, irregular. In other words, the Christian calendar is a weekly calendar--six days you shall work and one day you shall rest. It is not yearly (or beyond) as in Old Testament times.

So, with respect to Christmas (Christ-mass), the problem is not that Christ is being taken out of Christmas as is often suggested. The problem is that he was never there to begin with. It's not taking Christ out of Christmas that troubles me; it's putting him in it.

I think it's great for families, schools, workplaces, and nations to set apart times in which people can come together, exchange gifts, and feast. I do things like that with my family and others every year for Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. I also think its fine for churches to meet irregularly for public worship on days other than Sunday. But we should be very careful not to presume to be more wise than God when it comes to observing holy days. We shouldn't presume that any day or season has religious significance if God has not given it such. God alone has authority to set apart days as holy, and he has not seen fit to do that with any day but the weekly sabbath since the coming of Christ.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Should Christians Keep the Fourth Commandment?

In a word: YES!

Justin Taylor posted an excerpt from Dr. Tom Schreiner's forthcoming book 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law on whether keeping the fourth commandment (i.e. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," Ex. 20:8) is required for New Testament Christians. Dr. R. Scott Clark responded by pointing out the fundamental hermeneutical/confessional assumptions that have historically separated the baptists from the Reformed on this and other issues (like baptism). Nick Batzig responded by posting part of Francis Turretin's excellent section on the fourth commandment. What follows are a few of my thoughts on the topic.

Each year I pick a topic as an emphasis for private study. Last year, sparked by reading Dr. R. Scott Clark's Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice and having recognized the need during my ordination exams, I chose to study Reformed worship. That immediately led me to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). The RPW states that "the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture" (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1). In other words, in order for worship to be acceptable, it must be regulated by God's word. God should only be worshiped in the way that he has prescribed. No other worship is acceptable.

As you can see, the RPW cannot be properly understood without distinguishing worship from the rest of life, that which is sacred from that which is common. Otherwise we could only do what the Bible prescribes in all areas of life, which is neither taught in Scripture nor practically possible. This distinction between the sacred and the common led me quite naturally, so to speak, to a study of the Sabbath. If a particular action is set apart by God as sacred (i.e. worship), why not also a particular time (i.e. the Sabbath day)?

My first serious exposure to the doctrine of the Sabbath came by way of R. Scott Clark's Recovering the Reformed Confession. Next I read, Dr. Richard Gaffin's excellent article "Westminster and the Sabbath," which may be found in the first volume of The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century edited by Ligon Duncan. From there I read Dr. Gaffin's excellent master's thesis on Calvin and the Sabbath: The Controversy of Applying the Fourth Commandment. Then I turned to Dr. Iain Campbell's On the First Day of the Week: God, the Christian, and the Sabbath, followed immediately by Dr. Joseph Pipa's The Lord's Day. Next I read The Westminster Directory of Public Worship and Dr. Jon Payne's excellent book In the Splendor of Holiness: Rediscovering the Beauty of Reformed Worship for the 21st Century, which includes an appendix on the Sabbath. I also read some excerpts from Jonathan Edwards, which helped me to see the vital connection between the first table of the moral law and the Reformed worship/sabbath doctrine. Next my friend Nick Batzig introduced me to Francis Turretin on the fourth commandment. Finally, I read Lane Keister's "The Sabbath Day and Recreations on the Sabbath: An Examination of the Sabbath and the Biblical Basis for the 'No Recreation' Clause in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.8 and Westminster Larger Catechism 117" published in volume 5 (2009) of The Confessional Presbyterian.

I am so thankful for all these works on the Sabbath. Each author has his own emphases and ways of arguing that have helped me tremendously. But Francis Turretin has shown me the source of the confusion surrounding the fourth commandment better than anyone else: The fourth commandment is essentially moral, but it includes a ceremonial aspect. The essence of the commandment is "one day in seven." The ceremonial aspect is the particular day, whether Saturday or Sunday.

Here's why this is the source of confusion regarding the Sabbath:

  1. If one understands the fourth commandment as wholly ceremonial, he will believe it was abrogated with the coming of Christ. This is the typical baptist view, which Schreiner holds. One major problem with this view is that the ten commandments become nine.
  2. On the other hand, if one understands the fourth commandment as wholly moral, he will be a seventh-day adventist. The problems with this view should be obvious.
  3. But if one understands the fourth commandment as essentially moral with a ceremonial aspect he will believe that the moral essence continues to be binding forever, while the ceremonial aspects were abrogated with the coming of Christ. This is the Reformed view.

Only the ceremonial aspect (e.g. Saturday observance) of the commandment was abrogated with the coming of Christ, along with all the ceremonial law. This is what Paul argues against in Col. 2:16-20, Rom. 14:5-6, and Gal. 4:9-11. But the moral essence of the commandment remains. In the New Testament this law is no longer applied on the last day of the week but on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2), the day of Christ's resurrection (Jn. 20:1), the Lord's Day (Rev. 1:10).

Dr. Schreiner's view represents the most popular view in the U.S. today. It is the view I was taught in the baptist churches in which I grew up. It is also the view adopted by the neo-Calvinists that Collin Hansen has labeled "young, restless, and reformed" (YRR). I love my YRR brothers, so I'm happy to share this piece of good news from the Reformed confession: You need not be restless! God has appointed one day in seven for a holy rest. Obey him for your good and his glory.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Rule and Norm of Every Doctrine

"While [pagan philosophy] proceeded, on the subject of the soul, as far in the direction of supposed implications as the thinker pleased, we are not entitled to such license, namely, of affirming whatever we please. For we make Sacred Scripture the rule and the norm of every doctrine. Upon that we are obliged to fix our eyes, and we approve only whatever can be brought into harmony with the intent of these writings"--Gregory of Nyssa, ca. 350 A.D. (quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan's The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), p. 50, emphasis added).

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How Doth It Appear that the Scriptures are the Word of God?

The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the Word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very Word of God (Westminster Larger Catechism Q.4).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Francis Turretin: On the Difference between the Natural Law and the Decalogue

Francis Turretin's Institutes of Elenctic Theology was THE text used to train generations of Presbyterian and Reformed pastors from the late 17th through the mid-19th centuries. He is a prime example of what Richard Muller has categorized as the "high orthodoxy" period (ca. 1640-1685-1725) of Protestant scholasticism (see Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics vol. 1 Prolegomena to Theology). Last year, as I studied the doctrine of the Sabbath, a friend recommended him. Turretin was most helpful, giving me precise categories with which to properly understand the biblical doctrine of the fourth commandment. Just the other day another friend encouraged me to read Turretin on the law of God. I began last night. Turretin's biblical insight and well-reasoned precision are wonderful. Here's what he has to say about the difference between the natural law and the decalogue:

If it is asked how this natural law agrees with or differs from the moral law, the answer is easy. It agrees as to substance and with regard to principles, but differs as to accidents and with regard to conclusions. The same duties (both toward God and toward our neighbor) prescribed by the moral law are also contained in the natural law. The difference is with regard to the mode of delivery. In the moral law, these duties are clearly, distinctly and fully declared; while in the natural law they are obscurely and imperfectly declared both because many intimations have been lost and obliterated by sin and because it has been variously corrupted by the vanity and wickedness of men (Rom. 1:20-22). Not to mention other differences: as that the natural law was engraven upon the hearts of men, the moral on stony tables; the former pertains to all universally, the latter only to those called by the word; the former contains nothing except morality, the latter has also certain ceremonials mingled in it.

Hence is easily gathered the reason why God wished to recall that law by Moses, to deliver it to his people viva voce, and proclaimed it in a solemn manner, committing it to writing and comprehending it in the decalogue. For although in upright nature there was no need of such promulgation, still (after sin) so great was the blindness of mind, such the perversity of will and disturbance of the affections that only remains of this law survived in the hearts of all (like rubbed pictures of the same, which on that account ought to be retouched by the voice and hand of God as by a new brush) (11.1.22-23a).

I'm sad to report that I've not read much Turretin. But I plan to remedy that soon.