Category Archives: Bible

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

wrench

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.

Are Images of Jesus Allowed?

Ten Commandments

“The sins forbidden in the second commandment are…the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever;” (Westminster Larger Catechism, #109)

My experiences as an elder and pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America have shown a lack clarity and/or agreement on the application of the 2nd commandment as it pertains to representing the Son in pictures. There is a range of positions pastors and elders take in the PCA. At risk of over-simplifying the issue, let me try to summarize the positions, as I have seen them expressed.

One group affirms the plain confessional view as summarized above in WLC #109, which prohibits any representation of God. Another group would object to depicting him in corporate worship, but would allow pictures of him in children’s Bibles and Sunday School material. The last group would hold that images of Jesus are not problematic since it is not accompanied with worship. In this article, I want to give reasons why the first view is the strongest.

In Scripture, no description is given of Jesus. Therefore, no artist knows his hair or eye color, or anything else about his appearance. Any picture of him must be the product of the artist’s imagination. Yet the artist paints the picture for the purpose of making an impression on those who will see it. That picture will shape thoughts about God of anyone who sees it, and thereby influence his worship. By way of example, most representations of the Son will focus on his human nature. However, that is an incomplete depiction. In that sense, pictures of Jesus over-emphasize his humanity at the expense of his divinity. Therefore, the confession rightly urges Christians to rely only on God’s word to shape their understanding of Christ. Shorter Catechism #50 says, “The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word.” In doing so, it summarizes the teaching of God through the apostle Paul who said, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imaginations of man.” (Acts 17:29, ESV). Only God’s revelation is suitable to inform our impression of him.

In addition, pictures of Jesus affect our children. Showing our children a representation of Jesus will shape and mold their impression of him. Children’s Bibles and Sunday School materials often portray Jesus in cartoon form. The effect: Jesus’ majesty, glory, power, and splendor is removed in the child’s mind. Rather than helping them understand who Jesus is, these pictures form a cheaper, weaker impression of our Savior. Again, this impression will be carried along in worship, even only in their minds. They will worship an impression of Christ not given by God, but created by a cartoonist. Jesus can never be drawn so faithfully as it represents him as he truly is: fully God and fully man. No matter how gifted the artist, he will always fall short.

There is also a historical precedent within the church for us to respect when it comes to this issue. I understand church history is not on the same level as Scripture, but it is wise to consider the actions of the church in the past. In John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion he argues that images of Christ were not used in the church for the first five centuries (Book 1, Chapter 11.13). In addition, the Westminster Standards, Heidelberg Catechism, 2nd Helvetic Confession, and London Baptist Confession 1689, just to name a few, all forbid the representation of God in any form. The church in history has understood the 2nd commandment to forbid what we seem so eager to embrace. Today’s church would do well not to needlessly move a well-established fence.

Pastors, elders, Sunday School teachers, and parents, I make my appeal to you. It is not an appeal that questions your intentions, but is rather a call to re-consider. Do not introduce something that would harm your sheep and children in that way. Protect them from an inaccurate worship of God. Heed the words of John Calvin:

“And from the fearful infatuation under which the world has hitherto laboured, almost to the entire destruction of piety, we know too well from experience that the moment images appear in churches, idolatry has as it were raised its banner; because the folly of manhood cannot moderate itself, but forthwith falls away to superstitious worship.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 11.13)

We have enough trouble being faithful to God’s word without starting at the place where God has said, you shall not worship me in that way.

 

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation #4

At the 44th General Assembly, a study committee was formed and charged with examining the role of women in the ministry of the church. Their ad-interim report was presented to the 45th General Assembly and included 9 recommendations. I have dealt with recommendations two and three in previous posts. Today I will look at the 4th recommendation. The 4th recommendation reads as follows:

“That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men.”

However, to fully understand what happened with this recommendation we have to look at how it was originally presented to the body. The recommendation approved by the Assembly was not the recommendation suggested by the committee. It read:

“That sessions, if possible, establish a diaconate of qualified ordained men. Though The Book of Church Order does not specifically prohibit the practice of going without ordained deacons, it seems poorly aligned with the spirit of the principle of the two church offices outlined in The Book of Church Order.

This original statement enjoyed additional amendments prior to the final version, but since these were not implemented, we will simply deal with the original and final recommendations. Perhaps at first reading this recommendation seems obvious. However, current practice in the PCA made such a recommendation necessary. Part of the report’s section of recommendations contains the explanation for the various recommendations presented to the assembly. The committee, in this recommendation, sought to address a practice described in the report as “choosing not to establish an ordained diaconate, even with qualified candidates, because the church wishes to be free to establish a body of unordained servants, both male and female (BCO 9-7).” (page 2460) In other words, some churches in the PCA currently do not establish ordained deacons so their diaconate can be made up of men and women. The study committee, in a gracious and fairly mild way, rebuked this practice, urging people to follow the commands of Scripture in establishing both the ordained office of elder and deacon in their congregations. If followed, this practice would eliminate women from the diaconate, restoring the proper structure for this body within the church.

In explaining why this should be so, the report describes the foundation for this rebuke as based on Philippians 1:1 where deacons are addressed as part of Paul’s introduction, on 1 Timothy 3 where the description of qualifications assumes a diaconate, and Acts 6 where seven godly men are set apart for service, forming a diaconate prototype of sorts. The report points out these biblical texts all undergird the PCA’s BCO 9-4 which says that “The deacons of a particular church shall be organized as a Board.” (page 2460). The committee’s rationale is sound and biblical. However, in the debate on the floor the mild rebuke was removed and all that is left is a toothless statement that will change nothing regarding a disturbing practice that, at best, plays games with God’s word and the BCO.

By removing everything except the first sentence of this recommendation, the Assembly made it possible that exactly nothing will change in the congregations where refusing to ordain is the current practice. Basically, the churches of the PCA are urged to ordain deacons “if possible”. It is far too easy to say something is not possible, especially when gauging the possibility of an action is left to the discretion of the churches already not ordaining deacons.

I very much appreciated what the committee sought to accomplish with this fourth recommendation. If passed, it would have been helpful to the PCA and strengthened our denomination’s ecclesiology, or our theology of the structure of the church. Instead we are left with a statement that removes a necessary rebuke, and makes any corrections highly unlikely. I think the adoption of the revised recommendation was the wrong decision.

 

 

 

PCA Study Committee Report » Recommendation 2

From June 13-15 the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) General Assembly met in Greensboro, NC. Part of what was discussed were the recommendations made in the report given by the study committee appointed last year. Their task was to examine the role of women in the worship of the church.

At the start I want to say that these folks had an impossible task trying to formulate a document that would be acceptable to the broad range of views within the PCA. My heart goes out to them. Their solution was to try and craft a consensus document. Though I appreciate their heart and desire for unity, I think the method is not well-advised for theological reflection. Our theology should not be done on a consensus basis. I am not saying we should not tolerate different views from our own. What I mean is, we should never allow our lips to profess something we do not believe to be right or biblical in one area of dispute, so that we can have our position reflected in another area. Be that as it may, the study committee returned with nine recommendations. Since the Assembly charged the commissioners to consider each of the recommendations, it is my intention to do so, taking each one in turn.

The first recommendation of the committee deals with a procedural appeal that would have had the effect of reversing last year’s GA’s mandate for the committee. Although I had some sympathy with the sentiments of this overture, it seems unprofitable to discuss them in this article, since the report was heard. In addition, this General Assembly took steps to ensure a similar process for forming a study committee cannot be followed in the future, so it seems a moot point.

The ninth, and last recommendation from the committee asks the assembly to dismiss the committee with thanks. This is essentially a request from the committee to let them go home. Their work was done, so there’s not much to talk about there either. Instead I will focus on recommendations 2 through 8.

Recommendation 2 states: “That sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly recognize that, from the founding of the PCA, there has been a variety of views and practices regarding the ways in which women may serve the Lord and the church within scriptural and constitutional parameters, without ordination, and that such mutual respect for said views and practices continues.”

This recommendation became contentious as the discussion on this report progressed, because there is not broad agreement in the PCA about what falls within scriptural and constitutional parameters. For example, recommendation 5 asks Sessions to consider how women and non-ordained men can be used in corporate worship services. In the examples cited within the report, churches are asked to consider whether women should be used to read Scripture or pray during corporate worship. If the Study Committee is setting that before the body as within the bounds of biblical, constitutional orthopraxy, I would disagree with them, as would many other confessional men. But if they are simply asking us to consider whether women participating in corporate worship is acceptable, that may be a profitable exercise for our Presbyteries, Sessions and congregations.

It is the lack of clarity in the report regarding what is biblically and confessionally acceptable for women in worship, that makes it difficult to adopt anything other than a wait-and-see attitude with regard to the 2nd recommendation. Mutual respect is not the problem. For the most part, I think progressive and conservative men in the PCA desire to live at peace with their brothers of differing opinion, as they should. The problem is the lack of a working definition of what is biblical and confessional within the study committee report. The question that this recommendation begs is: “What are the scriptural and constitutional bounds within which a woman in the PCA may operate within a worship service context?” Perhaps we will see overtures next assembly that would seek to answer this question. Until we do, the only thing is to wait or try to craft a biblical definition ourselves.