Category Archives: Bible

Part 5 » An Appeal on Race in the Presbyterian Church in America

“Therefore my appeal is that the PCA re-focus on the gospel ministry of the church and make that its declaration rather than repeatedly making statements on race and its related issues.”

Moving Past the Issue

This series began by addressing three diagnostic questions as to where the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is in relation to racial sin. It is necessary to ask these due to considerable attention given to the issue of race in the denomination over the last number of years. These questions are:

  • Has the PCA made a clear and thorough declaration on the sin of racism?
  • Are there any new or extraordinary manifestation of this sin rearing its head in society or the PCA that would warrant additional teaching from God’s word?
  • Is the PCA neglecting shepherding of private or public unrepentant sins in this regard that should be addressed by church courts?

The first question is answered here; the second here; the third here. By way of summary, the PCA’s condemnation of racial sin is abundantly clear. There are no circumstances that justify revisiting previous statements. And as there are no appeals or complaints regarding racial sin moving up through the courts of the church, it is fair to assume that such sins are being effectively handled at a local level. For these reasons, the appeal of this series is that the PCA re-focus on the gospel ministry of the church and make that its declaration rather than repeatedly making statements on race and its related issues.

Other have spoken of the dangers of “mission creep” in the church. In other words, the church loses sight of its main gospel objective and thereby becomes ineffective. Is the focus on race “mission creep”? In the case of the PCA it certainly is. This sin has been clarified and condemned, and it is not controversial in the PCA. However, the PCA’s continued discussion on alleged acts of racism in or outside the church, outside of the actions of the discipline of the church, fosters an “us” and “them” mentality in the church based on race. Yet the church is one body (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:20; Eph. 4:4; Col. 3:15).

At the last General Assembly (GA) there was talk of majority and minority cultures, designations of “you” and “us” along ethnic lines, and justifications for public repentance in the PCA based on news reports from secular outlets. The language of majority/minority culture is foreign to God’s word. The Bible does not recognize the validity of “you” and “us” statements of difference in the body of Christ. These statements are derived from the philosophy of man.

In Fault Lines, Voddie Baucham critiques the social justice movement, especially as it appears in the church. In it he quotes a definition of Critical Race Theory (CRT) from the pen of one of its proponents: “CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture.”[1] Those are exactly the sentiments communicated through the language of majority/minority culture, or the “you” and “us” statements made during floor debate. Intentional or not, these terms reflect CRT and imports them into the PCA.

The notions of majority and minority culture seem to be driving the distinctions drawn in the PCA. However, when the Bible deals with differences in the church, they are not based on ethnicity as much as covenantal standing: Jew and Gentile. Certainly, ethnicity cannot be separated from that discussion, but it is accidental. The biblical point is always the inclusion of gentiles into the family of Abraham. But, for example, discussing Asians as a minority culture in a mostly Caucasian denomination divides up the Gentiles. The PCA is populated, by and large, by Gentiles. There are Gentiles with a variety of skin colors, but the PCA is mostly Gentile. All of the Gentiles have been grafted into the family of Abraham, have become the spiritual Israel. In Scripture there is no talk of a majority vs. minority culture. There are only sons of Abraham by faith. To speak of majority and minority cultures in the church is to deny 1 Cor. 12:12-13: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” The PCA must stop speaking of and championing the different ethnic varieties of Gentiles in the body of Christ, and return to being ambassadors of the whole of the Bride of Christ. So how is that done?

Color Blindness

First, the PCA must become “color blind.” Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Morgan Freeman (by no means a conservative, reformed theologian as far as I know) when asked about racial division in an interview with Mike Wallace stated the solution to racial difference was to stop talking about it. Wallace asked him, “How are we going to get rid of racism until…” Mr. Freeman cuts him off and says, “Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman.”[2] In other words, treat each other as people. This sentiment is even more compelling for Christians who have a  theological reason for it. The church should treat anyone according to the biblical understanding of man as created in the image of God, no matter where he was born or what his status is (James 2:1-4). But I have been told that color blindness is not possible. I disagree. It is possible, and it should be pursued.

My father grew up in Charlotte, NC during the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. He grew up with segregated water fountains. Fast forward to the 70’s when he moved his family to the Netherlands. Our family lived in a “diverse” neighborhood, and one of my friends was Jairaj. His skin was not pasty white like mine. In the course of our “friendship”, Jairaj stole every penny from my piggy bank. However, while walking me through this betrayal my father never once mentioned ethnicity. My father explained Jairaj was not to be trusted because he was a thief, and never mentioned that he was East Indian. His ethnicity had nothing to do with it. In one generation, and through the gospel, my father had learned to look at character and not color. That change transformed his family into a place where Christian friends from Australia, South Korea, Japan, Ghana, the Netherlands, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa,  Mexico and other places would regularly be welcomed. There was no discussion about majority or minority culture. Sure, there were some things they did that we thought was weird, just as some of the things we did seemed weird to them. Certainly there were cultural differences, but the thing that united was a common love for God in Christ and a desire to worship Him. That is where the PCA must land.

Living as One Body

Second, the PCA must intentionally and uncompromisingly live as one body. There are different members with different functions, but they make up one body. Unity is lived out through word and deed. That is the reason why the language of majority or minority cultures is so damaging. The task of the body of Christ is with one voice to bear witness to His works of creation and redemption. That work is accomplished through people fulfilling different tasks as hands and feet of the body. However, the discussion is not around what color the hands and feet may be. It is rather to mobilize all the different parts of the body to be faithful in carrying out the Great Commission of evangelizing and discipling.

At the 48th General Assembly, I spoke to a brother about overture 45, which sought the flourishing of Asian Americans. There was a significant difference in opinion about the value of that request from Metro Atlanta Presbytery. In the conversation he stressed the pain of a minority culture (in this case Asian Americans) living in a majority culture. At the time I didn’t have time to process through what he said, but the more I thought about it, the more the terminology bothered me.

The point is not that there is no pain in the Asian-American community. I would expect there is. The problem is the shift in discussing pain in terms of ethnicity rather than the sin and misery that is in the world through the fall. There should be no surprise that there is pain among Asian Americans, just as there is in black, white community, and Indian communities. All communities, also those marked by racial diversity, suffer pain because all communities are affected by sin. Sin causes pain and all face the pain of sin in their day because they live after the fall. The body of Christ is unified as it realizes that all have been rescued from eternal pain through the work of Christ as a substitute on the cross. And this truth must be championed.

Commitment to Truth

Lastly, the PCA must be committed to biblical truth as its unifying principle. Instead of making statements about the pain of one ethnic group over against another, the task of the church is to speak primarily of the singular solution to that pain: the Lord Jesus X. The world’s comfort from pain is found in Him. Unity is not found in easy-to-make declarations. They cost very little, especially when there is as much agreement on the topic as there is in the PCA. But sharing the gospel in the world, practicing hospitality generously, and encouraging each other toward love and good works in the church is the hard work of building unity and love in the church. The unity of the human race is based in its original creation (Genesis 1:28), and the Gospel is the message that restores the unity that has been lost by sin.[3]

So please, my brothers, let us be done with discussions on race at the General Assembly. If there are sins of that nature in our denomination, they should be addressed through formal process in the courts. The PCA cannot allow the hot topics of the world to become the cause for “mission creep.” Instead the PCA must re-focus on the gospel ministry of the church and make that its declaration rather than repeatedly making statements on race and its related issues.

It is my prayer this appeal will be received in the brotherly spirit in which it was written. It is meant to be an appeal. I pray that the Lord will use it for building the unity of His body.


Geoff Gleason is pastor of Cliffwood Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. His passion is to see the people of God grow in their faith, and those who are lost become numbered among the faithful. He has been married for 28 years and, usually, is the joyful father of 11 children ranging in age from 28 to 6, and two grandsons.

[1] Voddie Baucham, Fault Lines, (Salem Books, Washington, D.C.: 2021), p. xv.

[2] YouTube, Morgan Freeman on Black History Month, n.d. (accessed August 2, 2021), https://youtu.be/GeixtYS-P3s.

[3] Pastoral Letter on Racism, p. 6.

 

Part 4 » An Appeal on Race in the Presbyterian Church in America

“Therefore my appeal is that the PCA re-focus on the gospel ministry of the church and make that its declaration rather than repeatedly making statements on race and its related issues.”

Are We Ignoring the Issue?

At the start of this series the target was set: to answer three questions to determine whether it is helpful and good for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to continue to focus on the issue of race. The questions are as follows:

    1. Whether the PCA has a clear and thorough declaration on the sin of racism;
    2. Whether there are any new or extraordinary manifestation of this sin rearing its head in society or the PCA that would warrant additional teaching from God’s word;
    3. Whether the PCA neglects shepherding of private or public unrepentant sins in this regard that should be addressed by church courts.

These three inquiries form the diagnostic questions the answers to which will inform the recommended responses and conclusions.  The first question was answered here. The second question here. To summarize, the PCA has made clear and thorough declarations on the sin of racism, and there are no extraordinary or new manifestations of this sin that would require additional responses from the PCA. The only question remaining is whether the PCA, as a denomination, is ignoring the theology it professes by failing to address racial sin among its members. Assuming that the assertion of this series regarding the PCA’s theology is correct, the PCA as a denomination has come to the point where that sin must and should be addressed through the process of church discipline, not via declaration. Church courts should at this point address any unrepentant sins that arise.

Unrepentant sins of racism manifested in churches should be addressed pastorally as any other unrepentant sin. If a sinner will not be corrected, the church should walk through the painful but necessary and good steps of church discipline. This process should not look like the current response in the world. The church’s correction may not be punitive or overly harsh. Accusations should be made only against a person who sins, and not anyone else. That is because church discipline is practiced for the spiritual protection of the sinner, the preservation of the purity of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and for the glory of God.

Racial sin should not be permitted to take root in the church. To that end, congregants and elders must work to confront  and address it with individuals who continue to sin in this area without repentance. If the church does not act, pronouncements can be made ad nauseum without any effect. The church is purified from sin when it is not allowed to gain a foothold among God’s people. However, a continual restatement of well-established theological positions will only mean that sin will be highlighted and the more difficult part of shepherding under that truth will be ignored.

Implementing Significant Change

Making repeated pronouncement is actually easy and pretty cheap. It is much easier to point out the sins of grand-parents than it is to deal with the sins that plague the church today. In my experience, racism is not the primary ill that is plaguing the church. For the last twelve years I have been in the deep south of the US and have experienced one blatant instance of racial sin. The vast majority of PCA Christians love their neighbor regardless of ethnic background. During my time in Jackson, MS, I had the privilege of knowing a man who, as a white man, quit his job in order to be able to devote his time to disciple young boys who lived without a father. The vast majority of these children happened to be black. But he loved these children, and the whole congregation got behind him in support of it. However, it is possible that my experience does not reflect reality. It is possible that there are instances of racial sin in the PCA that I am missing. Perhaps racial sin is rampant in the PCA and I have simply missed it all. That does not appear to be the case, and this is why.

When a person engages in racial sin, those who observe it should first, in love, address it with the person one to one (Matthew 18:15-17). If that person refuses to listen, there should be another visit, this time with an additional witness. And finally, if the person remains defiant in their sin, the church is to get officially involved, with the possibility of censures should the need arise.

When a person observes sin and the church is unwilling to address it, the member has the right of complaint. A member who sees racial sin and whose elders are unwilling to address it may file a complaint against their elders, asking the next higher court to ensure sin is not allowed to remain unaddressed in the church. I am not aware of any cases involving racial sin being brought to the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). That means either elders are neglecting their duty or racial sin is being properly addressed at the Session level. Now the former is possible, but the latter is more likely.

However, even if the former is taking place, the hard work the PCA must do is not issue another statement, or produce another theological summary on the sin of racism. It must do the hard work of shepherding and working through the process of discipline to stamp out this sin. If this sin is as widespread as some would try to convince that it is, there must be action taken to address specific instances. As Paul says, “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:13).

So the answer to the third diagnostic question, where the silence in the church courts makes it unlikely that there is a festering underbelly of racism in the PCA, further demands a move away from the PCA’s current practice of declaration. If there is racial sin the church is obligated to do the difficult work of shepherding. Declarations and letters are the wrong tool to address an on-going sin issue.

The PCA has plainly repudiated racial sin. There is no new seismic shift in society or church that would necessitate revisiting this issue. And there are no active cases of neglected discipline being circulated through the church courts, which is the only measure denominations have to see if sin is being addressed within its membership. So let us leave behind these requests for recognition based on ethnicity and find a better way.

The PCA must cease from importing the terminology of secular sociology when it comes to examining the body of Christ, His church. No more cheap declarations about how sorry we are for the sins of others. If there is sin among us (also racial sin) let us address it. If there is disunity among us, let us unite as brothers under Christ and through fellowship and true Christian love overcome it. But enough of dividing up a primarily gentile church into many different gentile groups (white gentiles, Asian gentiles, black gentiles, etc.). We, the PCA, are one body made up of many parts. There are hands and feet and mouths and eyes and hearts and all manner of different parts. The significance of those parts is not in their color, but rather in the fact that they are members of the body.

However, rather than leave this topic in the mire of generalities, the next installment will deal with some practical things that can be done to change the tone of the discourse in the PCA.


Geoff Gleason is pastor of Cliffwood Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. His passion is to see the people of God grow in their faith, and those who are lost become numbered among the faithful. He has been married for 28 years and, usually, is the joyful father of 11 children ranging in age from 28 to 6, and two grandsons.

Part 1 » An Appeal on Race in the Presbyterian Church in America

“Therefore my appeal is that the PCA re-focus on the gospel ministry of the church and make that its declaration rather than repeatedly making statements on race and its related issues.”

Part 1 » Framing The Issue

Narrowly considered, the following series of articles is an appeal to my fellow elders in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), but more generally it is an appeal to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ as a whole. Perhaps there is no issue more charged these days than race, and I understand the intensity. Racial sin is perhaps so painful because it attacks people specifically at the point of how God made them in His image. The Bible tells us: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, ESV). Since all of mankind is created in God’s image, the severity of racial sin is found in its attack on the God who made that person in that way. And yet this sin is not unique to our time.

Racism has been in the world at all times and exists between all sorts of different people groups. Its manifestation is not in the United States only, but exists in all cultures. The bad news is that, because of man’s corruption, this sin will continue until Christ returns. Racial sin, and sins of ethnic prejudice and favoritism, are a result of the fall and will not be reversed until the human heart is made new in Christ, or the effect of the fall is reversed in His second coming.

Wherever sin is found, any sin, it is right for the church to address it, which includes the sin of racism. Whether sin manifests itself within the walls of the church, or in severe cases in society as a whole, the church confronts sin as evil and calls people to repentance. Those within the church who are unrepentant in sin should be shepherded in accordance with Matthew 18:15-20. If shepherding proves ineffective in bringing about repentance, those holding on to their sin should be addressed in the courts of the church. The church, in humility and love, is to enter formal discipline for the sake of reclaiming their souls from the path of destruction, preserving the purity of the church of Christ, and giving glory to God.

Beyond the work of shepherding within the church, there are situations where the church must make public declarations about the sins of society. However, respecting the different spheres of authority the Lord has established in His world, the church’s declarations about civil matters outside the church should be relatively rare, reserved for extraordinary circumstances. In speaking on the declarations of synods and councils the Westminster Confession of Faith says,

“Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 31.4)

That indicates that though unrepentant sin within the covenant community should always be addressed by the leadership of the church, not every instance of sin in society requires a response from the church. Since Adam’s fall, the word has been plunged into a condition of sin and misery which pervades all societies everywhere. It is the function of the civil magistrate to restrain that sin in society by protecting those who do good and punishing the evildoer (Romans 13:4), while the church is charged primarily with the proclamation of God’s word, which will shape and form the actions of society by the conversion of souls. Perhaps it is helpful to think of the church’s confrontation of sin in society as more on an individual basis than a corporate one.

All of this is introduction to my plea to the elders of the Presbyterian Church in America. At the last few General Assemblies (GA) there has been an adaptation of the concerns of the world within the walls of the church.

Therefore my appeal is that the PCA re-focus on the gospel ministry of the church and make that its declaration rather than repeatedly making statements on race and its related issues.

For some that statement may seem abrasive and uncaring. It is not. Rather it is a request that stems from a great desire for unity in the PCA, and beyond this denomination, to the church as a whole. Unity is hampered by the constant revisiting of the issue of race. To justify this appeal, examination is required to see whether the church’s position on this sin is clearly known. In addition, consideration must be given as to whether this sin is on-going in our denomination, or simply something of the past. To that end, this series will examine:

    1. Whether the PCA has a clear and thorough declaration on the sin of racism;
    2. Whether there are any new or extraordinary manifestation of this sin rearing its head in society or the PCA that would warrant additional teaching from God’s word;
    3. Whether the PCA neglects shepherding of private or public unrepentant sins in this regard that should be addressed by church courts.

Geoff Gleason is pastor of Cliffwood Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. His passion is to see the people of God grow in their faith, and those who are lost become numbered among the faithful. He has been married for 28 years and, usually, is the joyful father of 11 children ranging in age from 28 to 6, and two grandsons.

The Christian and Profanity

There is much discussion in the Christian world about liberty. This post is not concerned with civil liberties as such. The question is not whether society should, on the one hand, allow recreational drugs or prostitution or some other “victimless crime.” Neither is it investigating whether society should, on the other hand, mandate the use of masks or vaccinations. Perhaps another day. Rather it is dealing with the Christian’s liberty that is found in Christ.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1 (ESV).

One of the debates within Christian circles is to what extent our behavior is not restricted under Christ. There is a false defense of Christian liberty that claims a Christian is free to express himself according to his own desires, because Christ has paid for sin. That, of course is a gross generalization of a position people take. But it is a position that I have heard articulated and as expressed it is a mind-boggling denial of God’s wrath against sin and His hatred of it. God views sin with such anger that He sent His Son to die a horrific death on a cross to satisfy the guilt for the same. One of the areas where “trendy” Christians are seeking to carve out ungodly liberty is in the use of profanity and cursing. Is there a place for such speech in the Christian?

Christian liberty does not make room for disobedience to God’s word. The Westminster Confession of Faith says this about Christian liberty:

“They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.” (WCF, Chapter 20.3)

The purpose of liberty is to serve God, being set apart by His word to reflect Him as His adopted children. Therefore what does the Lord say about speech? In Colossians Paul exhorts the one who is raised with Christ to set their minds on the things above. That means putting on righteousness, and putting off what is earthly (Col. 3:5). Included in that putting off is the putting away of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” (Col. 3:8). In another place Paul gives similar instructions when he charges the Christian to “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29). Obscenity and corrupting talk are out of place for the Christian. The Bible plainly says so. If you begin arguing at this point that your profanity is not “obscene” or that you are using it to build others up, I can not help you. You are committed to your disobedience. The statements from Scripture could not be clearer. In this case, the desire for nuance can only be taken as a desire for license.

Are there times when Paul uses strong language in his letters? Some people would argue he does as a justification for their own speech. Even if you make that argument, you cannot argue that he does so habitually. Maybe one or two places in all his written words can be used as potential examples (“rubbish” Phil. 3:8 or “emasculate” in Gal. 5:12). Moreover, the words he uses  are hardly the same as the adoption of the vulgar and crude language of society which resorts to the crassest expressions of bodily functions and sexual activity. Brothers and sisters, these things should not even be named among us (Eph. 5:11-12). Yes, it is true that Christ has come and fulfilled all the law for the Christian. And, yes, it is true that all the sins of all God’s people are forgiven in Christ. But Christ work on the cross in no way diminishes the holiness of God. It in no way reduces the call to be holy and He is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). It in no way permits a despising of Christ’s sacrifice by engaging in the wickedness of the world.

Here is the sad thing. Even the world knows that certain language should not be used in the presence of children. We have an organization that ensures language for movies is rated, and that words are edited out of TV shows. There is, even in the world, an acknowledgement that these words are inappropriate. How is it that the Christian who has the Spirit and the Word of God would so badly miss this point?

 

Civil Unrest and the Christian

Wednesday at 3:18 p.m. I got a text from my younger brother “Did you see what’s happening in DC?” is all he wrote. We all know what was happening by now. A group of people stormed the Capitol, and we have all seen the videos. I have seen some responses from conservative Trump supporters who view this act as victory, and the violence justified. Ironically, these are often the same people who condemned the riots of the summer instigated by Antifa and/or Black Lives Matter. On the other end of the spectrum there has been outrage and condemnation for the occupation of the Capital. With just as much irony, many of these are the same people who ignored the riots of the summer and made accommodation because the anger of the protestors was somehow understandable.

The gamut of emotions in the world is also reflected among Christians. Some are outraged today, believing the election to be stolen and our republic to be in tatters. If that reflects your view, the denial of the courts to hear Trump’s cases of voter fraud are outrageous to you. Others, I think the majority, is horrified at the pictures of people occupying the very symbol of order and law, although there is a general uneasiness about how America’s politics is being conducted. Regardless of where you land, there seems to be a nervous churning in our nation. It is not my intention to solve those problems (as if I could). If possible, I would even like to conceal my own opinions on all that has transpired. This post is not meant to draw political conclusions, but rather to help the body of Christ to focus on a godly response to our current cultural climate.

Do not let current cultural outrage rob you of your peace in Christ. The Christian can be easily distracted from his main purpose: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The Christian is a subject of his heavenly king the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). It is true that Christ at times lead to division. But the anger and outrage in those moments should belong to the world, not the Christian. In so many places the Christian is called to live at peace with his neighbor (Mark 9:50; John 14:27; 16:33; Acts 10:36; Rom. 1:7; 5:1; 14:17, 19; 15:13; 1 Cor. 14:33; 2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 5:22; Col. 1:20; 1 Thes. 5:13; 2 Tim. 2:22; Heb. 12:14; James 3:18). 

There may be exceptional circumstances where violence is necessary, such as self-defense or just wars. But the Christian should never delight in it, nor should he choose it if he can avoid it. The Swiss Reformer Pierre Viret has written: “There is nothing which Christians ought to hold in greater horror than the taking up of arms…and that there is nothing in which Christians ought to be more hesitant to engage, nor which agrees less with their profession of faith.” If you are tempted to side with those who occupied the capital, please reflect on the texts above and ask yourself if your heart reflects the call of Scripture.

Do not allow the lies of the world to elevate people of bad character. It is intriguing to me that the people who are outraged over the events of January 6, 2021 had a much different reaction to the events of October 4, 2018. The result of that day was the same, but the cause was different. The former was perpetrated by conservatives. The latter by the Women’s March outraged over the nomination of now supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

To rush to condemn an action out of political expediency is not praiseworthy. It is a violation of the 9thcommandment. It is the height of naivité to claim innocence in either of our political parties. God is a God of truth, and desires His people to live according to the truth (Ps. 51:6; 86:11; 119:160; Is. 45:19; Jer. 5:3; Zech. 8:16; John 8:32; 14:6; 15:26; 17:17; 1 Cor. 13:6; Eph, 4:15). And when someone makes a truthful statement for a selfish purpose, as a whole he breaks the 9th commandment. 

Neither political party in the USA can claim moral high ground at this point in our nation’s history. And for Democrats to feign outrage over the actions of a few Republican that lasted less than 3 hours seems like a violation of the 9th commandment in light of the summer-long riots of 2020 and their relative silence on those occasions. It is good to condemn violence and destruction, even when done by your political allies. But please do not allow the lies of the world to elevate men of poor character, just because they say true things when it serves them to gain an advantage over their political opponents.

Do not forget about the absolute sovereignty of God. To look at current events apart from God’s on-going governing of all his creation will cause despair. In all of our circumstances, God is exercising control over His creation. Hebrews 12:1-11 explains that control in the context of discipline. The circumstances faced in life can be painful and hard to bear. But the Christian should recognize them as God’s discipline. When God’s chastenings come, the Christian must not resist or fight as the world does. The Christian is called to rejoice and accept God’s work, and respond with peace. Your peace will disappear if you forget that God is good, that He is governing the world, and that political turmoil in the United States is not catching Him by surprise.

This post is not meant to solve all the controversy of our nation’s election debacle. In a sense it seems obvious that God’s judgment has already fallen on this land and we’re simply reaping what we have sown. But more than at any time in an already tumultuous twelve months the Christian must focus on God’s word and get his eyes off his emotions. Peace and stability are only found in by looking to Him. The Christian serves the Prince of Peace and as such his response to the circumstances of the world should reflect that.

The Church and Culture

Conflict

The church’s relationship to the culture is a tenuous one. Especially in these tumultuous times of COVID-19, quarantine protests, and Black Lives Matter, the church must use discernment regarding its relationship to the ideas put forward and accepted within its culture. Culture is defined by google as: “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.” That seems a fair definition. So how does the church interact with those customs, arts, institutions, and achievements?

The answer to that question will, of course, depend on the level of faithfulness to God’s word the culture displays. A society whose culture is righteous will require little oppostion from the church, but one whose foundation is the philosophy of man will frequently bump heads with the church. What today’s culture needs is not the affirmation of the church, but rather her calls for repentance.

The church seems to have lost its prophetic voice. Of course, that is not true of all churches. There are many faithful churches that boldly proclaim God’s word. But it seems to me there are more that are simply mimicking the words of the culture, and pushing the word of God aside. And therein is the problem. The authority of Scripture, based in the Lord who gives it, makes adherence to the teaching of the Bible the distinguishing mark of the Christian. And if culture is doing anything contrary to God’s word, it is neither safe nor wise for the church to adopt or associate with that thing. There must always be an obvious identity in the Christian: an identity defined by his relationship with Christ as defined in the Bible.

Today the more popular cultural voices are in opposition to God’s word. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement enjoys tremendous popularity, also within the church. And yet it stands diametrically opposed to the Lord. Its website proudly proclaims: “We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.” However, the seventh commandment forbids homosexuality, transgenderism, and gender confusion. It is an attack on the very character of God the Creator and defined as sin. Or in another place it states: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.” But God charges parents to train up their children in the fear of His great name (Eph. 6:4). So there is irreconcilable divergence at the foundation of the Christian faith and the organization Black Lives Matter. The former flows from the Bible, the latter is foundationally opposed to Scripture.

Christian, how will people identify you? If someone does not know you, will they quickly discern that you are Christian from your social media posts, by your choice of words, by the decisions you make throughout the week? The reality is, the Christian cannot take on itself an identity that is partially rooted in the world. Consider these verses from the New Testament. Paul says, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:12, ESV). In another place the apostle says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” And in yet another instance the apostle John states: “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.” (1 John 4:5). The point of those verses is all the same. The world does not have the same voice as the church, and the church should not copy it.

It is important to remember that very basic truth especially in our days. The Christian church must stand on the Bible if it is to maintain its witness at all. The world will not be content until the bride of Christ has become an adulterous wife. But I am afraid that in North America she is already well on her way.

Performing good works

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I love the book of Acts. It is a book that contains so many examples of God’s faithfulness to his church. It is a book that gives confidence to the Christian that the church will be preserved by the Holy Spirit, which can be helpful in a time when the church’s strength and influence seems to be waning. Acts is also a book where the work of the Holy Spirit through the early church is described in some detail. For example, the content of the teaching of the early church can be seen in the descriptions of the different “sermons” that are preached by the apostles in this book.

In this article, I want to focus in on Paul’s speech before Festus and Agrippa II in Acts 26. In verses 20 Luke gives a standard outline for a Pauline sermon. It is quite simple: 1. Repent and turn to God; 2. Perform deeds in keeping with repentance. In my experience, the first point in his sermon would be commonly recognized by most Christians. But since today’s church in the West leans more toward antinomianism, the second point may cause some to bristle.

It is important to separate the justification of the believer from any sense of works. The free gift of the gospel given by grace through faith is a doctrine that demands protection. It has been attacked throughout the history of the church. One manifestation of such an attack comes through the Pharisees. The Savior describes these men as white-washed tombs which look pretty on the outside, but on the inside are filled with dead men’s bones (Matt. 23:27ff). They were busy doing lots of stuff, but on the inside they were decayed. However, comparing the Pharisees to the 2ndpoint of Paul’s outline, there is a significant difference. Whereas the Pharisees performed many deeds, their deeds were not in keeping with repentance.Paul is calling the Christian to live out the principle in James 2:17: “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Paul’s point is that repentance and turning to God leads to deeds in keeping with that repentance.

Scripture has examples of the change that takes place in a converted person. Luke 8:26ff records the deliverance by Jesus of the Garasene demoniac. This man was tormented by a legion of demons. While casting them out, they asked Jesus if they could take up residence in a herd of pigs. As a result, the pigs rushed down the steep bank and were drowned. The response of the residents was to ask Jesus to leave. But the healed man literally begged Jesus to be allowed to accompany him (v. 38). Jesus refuses his request, instead commanding the healed man to tell people all that had been done for him, which he does with enthusiasm (v. 40). That is a biblical example of performing deeds in keeping with repentance. The demoniac no longer does the perverse deeds associated with his demon possession. Now he follows his Savior, obeying him in all things. His deeds flow from his deliverance. They do not lead to his deliverance.

These deeds are the second plank of Paul sermon. Once the human heart is given new life unto salvation, Paul expects this man, woman or child to perform deeds in keeping with repentance. The language of Christians doing or performing deeds may make the Christian uncomfortable. It can even evoke cries of “Legalism!” But for Paul it is the natural fruit of a life changed by the Holy Spirit. The key is to view these deeds in light of God’s work of sanctification, rather than justification. So in what ways can the Christian today perform deeds in keeping with repentance?

The way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit are opposites in Scripture. For example, the works of the flesh are seen in strife, jealousy, and fits of anger while the fruit of the Spirit is peace. The work of the flesh is sexual immorality but the fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness (Gal. 5:20, 22). So, Christian, do you want to perform deeds in keeping with repentance? Then you must do the opposite of what your flesh desires, in accordance with God’s word, ensuring that your deeds are not an end in themselves, but are “in keeping with your repentance.”

The point of this article is not any specific application. These may come later. Rather it is seeking to recapture a biblical truth: the life of the converted Christian should be characterized with a preoccupation toward personal piety and holiness. That is not legalistic. That is the natural fruit that flows from the heart that is redeemed by grace through faith.

Is the Main Thing Still the Main Thing?

There are times when a good thing becomes so inflated in a person’s thinking that it actually knocks him off balance. I am afraid this very thing is taking place in the Presbyterian Church in America around the issue of racial reconciliation. It is good to consider whether there is on-going guilt for racial sin in our denomination, but I think this endeavor has become a controlling impulse, distracting the PCA from its primary mission: to be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission. Before I go any further, let me grant a few points:

  1. There are cultural differences in the PCA. Even those, such as myself, attempting to operate as “color blind”, have to acknowledge diversity among the people of the PCA. We should also admit these differences benefit the church.
  2. Racism does exist in the church. I have seen it with my own eyes in the PCA. I would not characterize it as frequent, or common in my almost 10 years in the deep south, but it does exist. That reality should not be surprising. Sinners sin, even after they are regenerated by the Spirit. Any sin is to be repented of and addressed with discipline if needed.
  3. Scripture identifies the church as made up of people from all tongues, tribes, and nations. There is a “unity in diversity” in the church of Jesus Christ. There should be no dividing wall or favoritism based on any criteria. We are one people, the people of God.

However, granting these points does not permit the church to turn from what is central in Scripture. God’s message of redemption is not primarily concerned with man being reconciled to man. That can happen without any hint of regeneration. Instead, Christ assumed human flesh so he could reconcile all his people to God. But what is happening in the PCA is a change of focus, manifest in how certain passages of Scripture are interpreted.

The PCA’s Report on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation uses Ephesians 2:11-19 to prove racial reconciliation as a biblical idea. The point is not whether or not that concept is good. I think the vast majority of PCA members would say so. The question is whether Scripture is being used correctly. The report speaks of the dividing wall of hostility and the uniting of races of all color in God’s people (RRER 2409:8-23). In using this text for this purpose, the report changes the emphasis of that passage into something it is not. Paul is not focused on the reconciliation between races in Ephesians 2. That may be an implication that can be derived from what he is saying, but it is not his point. Rather he is speaking of man being reconciled to God. The “dividing wall of hostility” is not between two races, cultures or ethnicities, but God and man. This passage does not even speak of race, but uses covenantal terms to describe all the world: Jew and Gentile.

There are two groups into which God divides men. The first is the Jews who received special status as God’s people in the Old Testament. With the coming of Christ, the Gentiles, who are excluded in the OT are grafted into the olive tree (Rom. 11:17). Interestingly, the Gentiles make up all the other people of the world, with all the different colors of skin that God created. It is true these are all united to each other by faith, but that is not what Paul has in view. Ephesians 2 explains how the Gentiles as well as the Jews are reconciled to God, not to each other. They are saved because God himself tears down the “dividing wall of hostility” between them and himself. Man’s relationship with man is not in view.

The fact there are cultural differences in the PCA does not mean the ordinary means of grace are not sufficient to overcome them. The presence of the sin of racism does not justify an elevation of this sin beyond all the others committed in the church. The inclusion of all tribes, tongues and nations in the PCA should be expected, because God promises that it will happen. These statements are not meant to offend or minimize anyone’s experience when it comes to race. They are simply meant to restore a measure of balance which is currently lacking.

So what is an alternative way of moving forward?

  1. Pray that God would bless the ministry of the church, both to its members and the world (Phil. 4:4-6);
  2. Welcome all people into our churches without showing favoritism (James 2:8-9);
  3. Preach the word in season and out of season, administer the sacraments, and pray (Rom. 10:14-15);
  4. Disciple men and women in what it means to live thankful lives before the Lord. Reprove, rebuke, and exhort. Lead them to repent of the sins of which they are guilty (2 Tim. 4:2);
  5. When any man in the congregation proves himself qualified, and they are elected by the congregation as elders and deacons, submit to their leadership joyfully (Heb. 13:17);
  6. Serve the Lord together (Rom. 12:9-11).

It may seem overly simplistic, but that is my understanding of how God promises to gather all tribes, tongues and nations to himself. The church’s ministry should be pre-occupied with God’s reconciling work in our lives. The church is to be pre-occupied with worshiping the Lord. This focus is what the church must lead with. Always. Nothing should replace this emphasis. When something does, even when that something is good and right in its proper place, the church suffers in the end.

Does Election Clarify the Gospel?

“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV)

One of the difficulties with having theological discussions is definitions. For example, justification means two very different things depending on if you are speaking with a Roman Catholic or a Protestant. The same is true, albeit in a less formalized way, about the word “gospel.” In Scripture the word is used as a place-holder, to summarize all the teaching of Christ. Today’s meaning for the word is often a truncation, or a partial meaning of the good news of salvation. In many cases, the word is used to describe justification, that part of salvation where the sinner is legally declared righteous before the Lord, and the guilt of his sin against God is removed because Christ has satisfied divine justice in his place. Certainly that is good news, but that is not the totality of the gospel. It is part of the story of salvation, but it is not the whole.

Salvation is applied to the believer through a process. This process is all in the hands of God, and he directs the redemption of a lost soul in such a way that it is perfectly accomplished in him. In theology, this process is called the Ordo Salutis, Latin (I’m told) for the Order of Salvation. This logical order of how God coverts a soul, protects the gospel from abridgement and mutation.

Louis Berkhof, in his systematic theology, describes the reformed view of the order of salvation as beginning with regeneration, followed by conversion (including faith and repentance as sub-headings), which leads to justification, adoption, and sanctification. The order is concluded by considering God’s preservation of his saints, and his glorifying them. These theological categories give a much richer understanding of the relationship between God and his people and the way in which he reconciles them to himself. However, these categories are not all neatly found in just one verse. They are found in the breadth of Scripture.

So, thinking through these different parts of God’s work of redemption in his people, what does regeneration add to the definition of the gospel? Regeneration describes the awakening of a dead human spirit. Ezekiel describes regeneration as he speaks of the return of Israel out of exile: “And I will give you a new heart, and a hew spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezek. 36:26). A stone heart has no life in it, but God makes the heart of his people alive. This truth defines the helplessness of man and heightens the sense of his dependence on God for salvation. This truth is not intended to run man down, or simply to make him think ill of himself. Rather it is intended to help him to think with greater joy about God who saved a wretch like him.

The electing work of God is seen as a reason for great gratitude in the verse at the top of this article. There Paul states that the electing, or “chosing” work of God in salvation is cause for constant thankfulness. It is like the man who is being swept way in the rapids, but who is snatched out of it by rescuers on the shore. He will be more grateful to those who saved him than a person who is able to swim to the side and only requires a hand up. Man’s dependence on God for his salvation sets the stage for how he views the rest. With God’s work of regenerating, or making alive, the human heart we begin our understanding of the gospel by giving praise to him.

Against a Truncated Gospel

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, ESV)

The central question Christianity answers is: “How does God reconcile man to himself after sin enters the world.” The passage above from Romans is one of many passages in Scripture that shows the centrality of salvation. Paul certainly thought the declaration of the salvation to men as central to his apostolic task. He describes this message of reconciliation as “the gospel.” It is a beautiful label meaning “good news” and good news it is.

There is nothing that could be better news for man destined for eternal judgment than that salvation has come to him. But what is all included in the gospel? To what part of Scripture would you turn to define the gospel? If you are one of those people who sits behind home plate at televised baseball games, you might suggest John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That is a beautiful verse, but it contains only part of the gospel. Therein is seen the danger of trying to make too brief a summary of the gospel. Summaries are prone to leave parts out. And when parts of the gospel are left out, the presentation becomes an incomplete picture at best, or a destructive error at worst.

I often travel south of Augusta as part of my responsibilities within the church. As I do so, there is a small church I pass.  I am not sure what the name or denomination of the church is. I can never get past the banner they proudly display by the entrance of their property. This sign has been there for years, and boldly announces: “God is not mad at you no matter what.” That is exactly the kind of unbiblical theological nonsense that leads to the eternal destruction of many human souls and flows from an incomplete understanding of the gospel.

I’m sure this church is sincerely trying to declare the gospel, but their “gospel” message is truncated. They are putting forth a message that, instead of bringing salvation, will give a false sense of security leading to destruction. If God is not mad at me, no matter what, sin makes very little difference. However, Psalm 11:5 says, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” This verse must be held hand-in-hand with John 3:16 and shows the church’s banner for what it is: man’s idea. Psalm 11 is part of the gospel. That is because the gospel is not contained so much in a handful of verses lifted out of the Bible. Rather the entirety of the Bible contains this good news.

I understand the desire to boil the gospel down to a very short phrase. However, giving a faithful representation of God’s plan of redemption via summary is a difficult task. Jesus, when explaining the events around his own crucifixion and resurrection, did so not using one phrase or verse. Instead, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:17). Christians have to include the whole breadth of Scripture when it comes to explaining the gospel. Otherwise the gospel will be presented in a truncated, inaccurate form.

So what is God’s plan of redemption? What does he do to bring salvation to men? Again, a simple verse will not suffice, but the same Paul who speaks of the gospel in Romans 1:16 says, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” a few chapters later (Romans 8:30). The picture of what happens in redemption according to this verse includes predestination, calling, justification, and glorification.

All of these, and other parts described in other places of Scripture, work together to give a complete picture of redemption. These heighten the sense of good news. So I want to take some time to consider the different parts of the gospel over the next few weeks, in the hope of presenting a faithful gospel message to the praise of God.