Category Archives: theology

Can I Sing This Psalm?

Well-intended Christians sometimes object to psalm singing because they incorrectly assume  certain sections are out-of-place for new covenant believers. Generally, the troublesome Psalms are the ones calling for God’s judgment on the wicked (the so-called imprecatory psalms) and those expressing disgust—even hatred—for evil people. So here is the question: are these psalms appropriate for the followers of Jesus to sing?

In order to feel the weight of this objection we must consider some examples. Here are a few instances of the sweet psalmist of Israel calling for God’s judgment on the wicked:

“The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
-Psalm 11:5-6

“O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!” -Psalm 58:6

“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
-Psalm 137:9

And here are a few examples of the psalmist expressing hatred for evildoers:

“Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”
-Psalm 139:23-24

“I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep your commands.”
-Psalm 119:158

We must confess that when we read these verses, they certainly do sound harsh. We sometimes cringe when these verses are read in corporate worship, don’t we? We may even feel a temptation to skip these lines.

Although these feelings are understandable, I believe they are deeply rooted in a common misconception that portions of the Psalms are inappropriate for Christian believers. I want to explain why Christians should sing these sections of the Psalter.

Let’s begin with the imprecatory psalms. Should Christians sing for God’s judgment to come on the wicked? Is it possible to have a righteous desire for God to intervene and bring evil men to justice? The answer is a resounding yes. There is no reason to believe that imprecatory prayers are out of place for new covenant believers.

To begin with, we find examples of imprecations in the New Testament. Paul pronounces a curse on false teachers in Galatians 1. At the end of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle exclaims, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 15:22). When Alexander the coppersmith opposed the ministry of the gospel, Paul said, “The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Timothy 4:14).

Perhaps even more surprising is the discovery of imprecations in heaven! In Revelation 6:9-10 we find martyred saints crying out for the Lord to judge the wicked and avenge their blood. Since these souls are certainly souls of “righteous men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), their prayers for vindication cannot be unacceptable in the eyes of God. If imprecations are appropriate for the saints in heaven, why should we demur that they have no place in the mouths of God’s exiles on earth?

Turning to the Psalms which contain expressions of hatred for the wicked, we need to say a little more. Admittedly, on the surface, it seems like the teaching of Jesus contradicts the attitude found in these sections. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord says,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
-Matthew 5:43-45

Some Christians would say, “There you go. That settles it. In the Old Testament believers hated their enemies, but now in the New Testament it is no longer appropriate.” Well, not so fast. We need to bear a few thoughts in mind.

First of all, when David speaks of hating those who hate God in Psalm 139:21, he isn’t speaking about personal vindictiveness. To read a tone of personal vindictiveness into these verses is entirely unwarranted. The entire psalm is a celebration of the Lord’s loving care, knowledge, and concern for David. Instead, David is speaking about his attitude toward the enemies of God. How should he regard them? He answers the question in verse 22: “I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” Essentially, David is saying to God, “O Lord, I love you so much that your enemies are my enemies.” But what about the word “hate”? In this context, the word “hate” is best taken as a moral disgust and repugnance for wicked people. It doesn’t mean that David is out to get the wicked or injure them in any way. He is simply asserting what is taught throughout the Bible, even the beginning of the book of Psalms:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers,
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.”
-Psalm 1:1-2

This helps us to understand what Jesus means in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Notice that Jesus is speaking about a different situation. He refers to the personal enemies of his disciples. These “enemies” may or may not be fellow believers. They are “your enemies” but not necessarily God’s enemies. Also, when Jesus explains what it means to “love” them, he speaks of blessing them and praying for them. This refers to practical action. We are supposed to love our enemies and treat them well, not take matters of vengeance into our own hands.

The reason we are supposed to do this is because the Lord loves his enemies. He sends the rain to fall on the good and bad, and he causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust. We should take note of the fact that “love” here refers to the way we treat other people; this passage isn’t speaking about our inner disposition and delight for the people themselves.

Think about it this way. Would it be appropriate to say that God has the same inner disposition and delight in the good and bad, the just and the unjust? Absolutely not! God does not delight in iniquity. He is a righteous and holy God. So then, why should we think that Jesus is teaching us that we should have the same inner disposition and delight in the righteous and the wicked?

Psalm 139:21-22 speaks to the way a righteous man feels about the lifestyle of those who hate God and live in willful rebellion against his law. Psalm 119:158 contains the same truth. But Jesus isn’t speaking to that. He is teaching us how we should respond to those who oppose us. We must not respond tit for tat. As God’s Word tells us, we must overcome evil with good and leave vengeance in the Lord’s hands (Romans 12:19-21).

This recognition ties it all together. If we do good to our enemies and look to the Lord for vindication, then we may both sing the troublesome psalms and obey the commands of Jesus. One day the “wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16) will come, and those who trust in Jesus alone will receive the glorious fruit of salvation through judgment. The wicked will be cast into hell, but the righteous will shine like the stars of heaven. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Degrees of Sin and Punishment

The Bible teaches that there are degrees of sin and punishment. However, your average Christian tends to think, “All sins are equal in the eyes of God.” This is a common misconception about the nature of sin and judgment. If we examine God’s Word, however, we will gain a better understanding of our sin, God’s righteousness, and Christ’s love.

In the Old Testament, God’s Law makes it clear that some sins are more heinous than other offenses. For example, if a person sins knowingly against God, it is more offensive to God than if it was done unintentionally. The Law says, “You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people” (Numbers 15:29-30). We should take note that if a person sins with a high hand, he has committed a greater offense, and he will receive greater punishment. This is because sinning with a high hand is more displeasing to the Lord because of the deliberate nature of the offense.

In the New Testament, Jesus explains that greater degrees of sin will be met with greater degrees of punishment. The Lord says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (Matthew 11:21-22). Although Jesus had given them greater reason to repent by performing many miracles, they had not repented; therefore, their rebellion was greater because it was in the face of greater light. The same is true for the city of Capernaum: “For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matthew 11:23-24). The phrases “more bearable” and “more tolerable” in connection with the final judgment reveal degrees of punishment. In God’s courtroom, the punishment will fit the crime.

In addition, Jesus teaches how God holds us accountable for what we know. If we sin against knowledge, then we will receive greater condemnation. “And the servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:47-48).

None of this should be taken to mean that some sins are not serious. Every sin is a personal offense against a holy God. Every sin breaks God’s law (1 John 3:4) and invites God’s wrath (Romans 2:5). Even a single sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2)! “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). But if all sin is serious and there are degrees of sin and punishment, how do we strike the balance?

The Larger Catechism helps us to understand. How we need to be well-catechized in these days of theological confusion! On the one hand, the Catechism reads: “Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserves his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ” (Q. 152). On the other hand, the Catechism teaches us: “All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (Q. 150). So the Catechism reminds us that all sin deserves God’s judgment, but some sins are more evil in God’s sight than others. This is a much more balanced statement than the common platitude: “All sins are equal in the eyes of God.”

So why does it matter that we affirm degrees of sin and punishment? One reason is that it promotes the righteousness of God. Righteousness calls for the punishment to fit the crime. God will punish the wicked in proportion to their crime. Hell will not be a cosmic overreaction. Although all the wicked will end up in an eternal hell, Scripture indicates that it will be more severe for those who committed greater offenses against God. All those who suffer in hell will receive their justly deserved punishment. If we placed a sign over heaven, it would read, “Grace Unknown,” but if we made one for hell, it would read, “Wrath Deserved.”

This teaching also enhances our pursuit of personal holiness. There is a temptation to excuse some of our more serious sins because we know we have many sins in our lives. Foolishly, we might think, “What difference does one more sin make when I have so many?” After all, we all sin in word, thought, and deed on a daily basis (James 3:2, Larger Catechism 149)! But we must remember that our sins against knowledge are more heinous than our other unintentional sins. We dare not excuse greater offenses because we are always falling short in lesser areas! “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). Let us declare war on all our sins! Great or small, we are called to put all our sin to death in the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5)!

Understanding the degrees of sin and punishment should turn our eyes to the greatness of our Savior’s love. When Jesus died on the cross, he died for all the sins of all his elect. Yes, he died for our unintentional sins, but he also bore God’s wrath for all the sins we committed with a high hand. What punishment he must have endured at our expense! We cannot even fathom the depths of his agony as he purchased us with the blood of the everlasting covenant! Although there are degrees of sin and punishment, there is no sin too great for God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice, and the Spirit’s power. “As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent” (Westminster Confession 15.4).

Racial Reconciliation and the Gospel

the Bible

The report of the Ad-Interim Committee on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation has been made available here. It seems like some weeks have passed and there has not been much discussion on the report at all. So I want to try to offer some thoughts in the hope of beginning some public dialogue over the contents of the report as the PCA anticipates considering it at the 46th General Assembly in June.

The report opens with some affirmations and denials. In their denials the report makes a strong statement on the primacy of our identity in Christ, as well as the rejection of racism, Marxism, and Socialism. It is right to take this stand at the start of the report. To call racism a sin is certainly consistent with the 5th commandment where we are taught to give due honor to our peers. As the statistical findings of this report bear out, these opening affirmations and denials would be accepted by an overwhelming majority of PCA Teaching and Ruling Elders, and rightfully so.

After the preliminary statements are made, the report lays out the biblical and theological foundations for the conclusions of the report. These biblical and theological foundations are supplemented with confessional support. I appreciated the authors’ attempts to argue their position from Scripture and the Westminster Standards.

However, I want to suggest that, at the outset of this process, there is an unhealthy emphasis when it comes to the area of racial reconciliation in the PCA. The report cites the action of the 44th General Assembly which recommitted itself “to the gospel task of racial reconciliation.” It may seem like trifling to some, but I take great exception to calling racial reconciliation a “gospel task.”

The gospel is the good news. Not just good news that the weather will be nice tomorrow, or that a salary increase is on the way, or that your enemies will become your friends. It is the good news of salvation, the account of the redemption of man through the mercy of God. In eternity, God set in motion his plan for redemption in which he satisfied divine justice against sin through the substitutionary sacrifice of his perfect and sinless Son. It is the church’s great privilege to set this good news before themselves by way of reminder, and the world as a general call to repent and be saved. Showing man his need for salvation in Christ is a gospel task. Calling men and women to repentance from sin is a gospel task. However, racial reconciliation as a work on its own is not a gospel task. By calling racial reconciliation a gospel task, it has been elevated to the same level as the declaration of the gospel.

My main concern with this heightened designation of racial reconciliation, is that racial reconciliation sits outside the core of the gospel. You can be free from the specific sin of racism and still end up in hell. People who are unregenerate can work toward racial reconciliation and even accomplish a large degree of success. Two unbelievers might be able to reconcile hostility they had toward each other over race or ethnicity and yet not be any closer to the kingdom of heaven. Some of the most racially integrated cultures are also some of the most godless. Racial reconciliation is not the good news. Instead, it must be applied and understood in the context of the gospel task of the church, which is to declare redemption in Christ.

Words and labels matter. To maintain a proper balance when it comes to the topic under discussion, it is important to avoid category confusion. Racial reconciliation is not a gospel task, but a fruit that will be seen in the lives of true Christians. That is an important distinction to make. We must guard ourselves against elevating racial reconciliation to the same level as the message of salvation in Christ, and I am afraid that, however inadvertently, the report incorporates the kind of category confusion I have described above.

My concern with this committee and its report is not with the individual members. In my limited interaction with them they seem to be sincere, God-fearing men who desire to help build up the church of Christ. My problem is with the assignment in general and the content specifically. It is right to call the church to repent of sins, but it seems strange to me to give such prominence to one of the many sins present in the church.

More to follow…

Justice and Mercy

Amazing Grace

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1, ESV)

The church, in some places, has truncated the presentation of the gospel. The gospel is the good news of God’s redemption of men. Paul defines it as “the power of salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Rom. 1:16). This “power of salvation” is often translated into, “God will forgive my sins because of Jesus.” That is part of the gospel message. However, it is important for the church to consider more fully what this “power of salvation” is.

The power of salvation is more than a simple fix of my sin problem. To properly understand the significance of sin, the nature of God and man must be understood. God must be seen as the Creator of all things visible and invisible. His ownership over all the world must be recognized. Next, man’s rebellion against his Creator must be seen with all its lethal implications. Man’s sin leads to his death. These lines of thought are the first to be established in the accounts of the Bible. It is within that context that the gospel message is declared. God, who is just, has been sinned against, and justice should be expected.

However, though justice is right and should be applied to men, something different happens. God in his grace and mercy, sets apart some to be redeemed from their guilt. Though they are dead in their sins and trespasses, God makes them alive. He gives to them faith that they might to find salvation in Christ. He gives them repentance that they would not continue in sin. And one of the most amazing parts of the gospel follows out of this grace from God: where justice should be given, mercy is given instead.

Instead of condemnation, man is given justification. But I want to be clear about what happens in man’s justification. The good news of the gospel is found in the hopeless condition of man. What man is unable to do because of sin, God does on his behalf so that he may be justified.

To give clarity, it is important to define justification. I prefer the definition given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. There justification is defined as: “an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” This definition divides justification into two parts, one negative in that it removes something from man and the other positive, in that it adds something to man.

In justification, God removes the guilt of my sins. He provides a pardon. He does that because the guilt of my sin has been laid on Christ. On the cross he bore this curse for his people. As the apostle Paul says: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). This curse of condemnation is removed by Christ because, though he was perfectly obedient to God and committed no sin, he became the object of God’s wrath in my place for my sin. So the guilt of my sins is removed.

However, something more is happening in the gospel than a simple removal of guilt. God does not move me from a position of condemnation to one of neutrality. God gives something positive to the believer in justification. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to me. Imputation is an accounting term that transfers something from one account to another. In justification, the righteousness of Christ is transferred from his account to that of his children. Again, Paul says, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19). Part of the gospel is that I am counted righteous in the sight of God because the merit of Jesus’ perfect works is credited to my account. Man moves from a position of eternal guilt to one of eternal favor.

So man, who rebelled against his Creator, and deserves punishment is given mercy instead. That is not because God ignores his justice. Rather, he satisfied it by pouring his wrath for sin out on his Son. With guilt removed, he now extends mercy to all those set apart for his mercy. That is a deeper understanding of the work of redemption. It shows the greatness of God’s gift of salvation more abundantly. This perspective gives God’s people far more reason not to take their salvation for granted, but to rejoice before the Lord all their days for his goodness and kindness to them in the gospel.

Regeneration and the Depth of the Gospel

the Bible

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

To be able to articulate the gospel properly, the Christian must consider all of the parts of his salvation. To truncate the gospel by presenting only a part of it as the whole is a distortion of the truth. God does not only justify, but he also adopts, sanctifies, preserves and glorifies. However far before discussions about these various results of Christ’s work can begin, it is necessary to consider the work of God in salvation that precedes these parts. For example, election shows salvation is a result of God’s will, not dependent on any work in the creature. Election shows how man’s total depravity is overcome in the gospel. Total depravity teaches man’s nature is so effected by sin that all his parts are corrupted in such a way that there is no path for him to God without some saving, intervening work. It heightens the sense of God’s grace, kindness and mercy in the work of redeeming some of his creation for his own mysterious purposes. But the work of salvation also includes the regeneration of the Christian.

Not only does God choose, but he also regenerates the one he is saving. The Bible shows the fatal effect of sin in mankind. In the build-up to the account of the fall, God explains Adam’s obligation to the Lord. Adam is to obey him fully in not eating the forbidden fruit, and if he does he will surely die. The account is well-known. He does eat, and through this sin death enters the world. However, Paul shows us the grace of the gospel in describing God’s regenerating work: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Eph. 2:4-5, ESV). Life under the tyranny of sin is death, but life in the service of Christ is life. Herein is the work of regeneration: moving a soul from death to life.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism refers to regeneration using another term: effectual call. Though different terminology, the meaning is the same. The catechism defines effectual calling as a “work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” (WSC #31). Before the Spirit’s work in regeneration, there is no reaction to spiritual life because man is dead. However, God, because of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, through the reviving work of the Holy Spirit, awakens in his creatures an awareness of sin and its consequences. He also breathes into a previously dead heart a saving knowledge of Christ and his substitutionary work with a corresponding desire to follow him.

The gospel message is greatly enriched by looking at all the parts of how God works salvation in man. Far beyond a simple declaration of righteousness in justification, the gospel contains those evidences of the warmth and mercy of God toward his creation. More than simply the process of forsaking sin and loving obedience, the gospel shows man’s position of complete dependence on God. The regenerating work of God in Christ creates a depth of understanding only attained when all the parts of man’s salvation are considered.

So God’s grace is seen in his work of choosing some from among his rebellious creation to belong to him. He takes men and women who are dead in sin, and gives to them life in Christ. Salvation is not just a legal declaration of innocence of sin. Through the doctrine of regeneration, God’s grace and kindness for his people is clearly seen in that fact that he makes them alive again. He performs the miraculous, enabling us to comprehend the significance of the work of Christ and to flee to him for salvation.

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.

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 #7

This post continues a series dealing with the recommendations made and approved at the 45th General Assembly of the PCA. These recommendations were initially presented by the study committee on the role of women in the ministry of the church. The original recommendations were debated, modified and approved by the Assembly. So far I have dealt with the first six. This post deals with the 7th which reads:

That presbyteries and the General Assembly consider an overture that would establish formally the right of sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly to establish the position of commissioned church worker within the PCA for qualified and gifted unordained men and women.

In the rationale provided by the committee they give two basic reasons for this recommendation. The first is that they hope the establishment of this “long overdue” position will provide recognition for those who labor in the church in unordained work. They state: “While it would not represent an office, it would recognize those whose lives have been given in service to the body.” (2462) The second is an attempt to correct a compensation discrepancy especially for women serving on church staffs. The report says, “This benefit for commissioned church workers may redress an inequity in compensation that mostly affects women, who are in non- licensed and non-ordained full-time ministry.” (2462). The benefit in question would be tax exemptions, which the report supports with a link to the IRS website. In giving these reasons the committee is quick to point out these commissioned workers would not be ordained.

A couple of quick responses:

First, the committee supports its strong desire to see this category of worker established by appealing to a PCUSA digest from 1938. Leaving aside what kind of impression that might make on confessional men within the denomination, there is by contrast a noticeable lack of reference to Scripture. However kind the intention to thank others for their work in the church may be, the practice must be supported by Scripture. Our confession states Scripture is our authority for “all things necessary for his (God’s) glory, man’s salvation, faith and life” (WCF 1.6) and we must study what it says.

A survey of commissioning as it relates to the church renders only two examples in Scripture. The first, in Num. 27:18-23 describes God’s command that Joshua to be commissioned to replace Moses as leader. This ceremony is repeated in Deut. 31:14, 23. The second, in 2 Cor. 2:14-17 has Paul speaking of himself as commissioned by God for the spreading of the gospel. These are the only references to commissioning in the Bible as they relate to the ministry of the church.

If the concept of commissioning is expanded to include those who are “set apart” for specific tasks, the range of persons included becomes greater:

  • The Levites were set apart to serve the Lord in the temple (Deut. 10:8);
  • Aaron was set apart to make offerings before the Lord (1 Chron. 23:13);
  • David sets apart the sons of Asaph and others to minister in music at the temple (1 Chron. 25:1);
  • Ezra sets apart 12 priests to guard the offerings for God’s house (Ezra 8:24);
  • Barnabas and Saul are set apart for their missionary journey (Acts 13:2);
  • Paul identifies himself as one set apart for the gospel (Rom. 1:1).

All the instances of commissioning and setting apart for specific tasks in Scripture are for the ministry of the church and, at the very least, are applied to men only. Even if we should grant that “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6) be considered, Scripture does not support the kind of action the committee is suggesting.

Now there is no question that all God’s people are set apart to serve and minister within the church (Ps. 4:3, 2 Tim. 2:21). However, the practice of setting apart for specific tasks within the church seems to be an exceptional circumstance where men already in office, whether as Levite, priest, apostle or teacher in the church, are given a specific assignment.

Second, commissioning is not able to address the tax exemptions the committee is hoping to provide. In the IRS code dealing with who qualifies for the ministerial tax exemptions the tax code defines ministers as “individuals who are duly ordained, commissioned, or licensed by a religious body constituting a church or church denomination. Ministers have the authority to conduct religious worship, perform sacerdotal functions, and administer ordinances or sacraments according to the prescribed tenets and practices of that church or denomination.” (https://www.irs.gov/publications/p517/ar02.html). So unless we are willing to grant our commissioned workers the authority to conduct worship services, and administer the sacraments it seems commissioning them will not give them the tax exemptions hoped for.

I would return to my thoughts on recommendation 2 which states that we should respect and tolerate the variety of views that fall within scriptural and constitutional bounds held in the PCA on the roles of women in ministry. I have already stated, the complicating factor is that there is not agreement within the PCA as to what scriptural and constitutional bounds are. I would suggest recommendation #7 is a case in point.

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.

God’s Means of Grace: Prayer

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

As has been said before, albeit in different words, it is easy to lay a guilt trip on any Christian. Simply ask about their prayer life. We all recognize it should be more fervent, frequent and faithful than it is. Yes Westminster Larger Catechism #154 describes prayer as one of God’s normal ways of communicating the benefits of redemption, the other two being the word and the sacraments. Reformed believers are typically zealous about the preaching of the word, and seek to faithfully administer the sacraments. Yet the third, prayer, is at times neglected in reformed churches as it is in the broader church as well. So let’s take a quick look at prayer.

Each of the means of grace are for God’s use in sharing the benefits of redemption with his people. It is not that he is not able to do so in other ways, but just that he usually chooses to use these three means. This is clearly understood by the disciples. Not only do they ask Jesus to teach them how to pray (Cf. Luke 11:1), but it also occupies a central place in the life of the early apostolic church. For example, Acts 2:42 tells us that the saints gathered to commit themselves “to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Prayer was a central part of the life of the early church. In addition, it is the threat to time spent in prayer that leads to the creation of the proto-deacons. The apostles ask for seven men to be chosen out of the company of believers so that they might devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4). The importance of prayer in the life of the believer is clear, but it is still God’s work.

In a sense, it is true that man is praying to God, but God controls the instrument he has ordained. In the first place, in Christ God has provided the door through which man enters his throne room in prayer. Sin has removed man from God’s presence, but through the death and resurrection of Christ, his Mediator, man is reconciled to God. So he comes to God in prayer bearing the approval of Christ or, in other words, praying in his name. In the second place, where prayer fails because of weakness and dulness of heart, the Holy Spirit intercedes“with groaning too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26). That means the imperfect, faltering words of the Christian are translated and transformed by the Holy Spirit to make them conform to God’s will. In the third place, the content of prayer is constrained by the glory of God. 1 John 5:14 teaches that if prayer is for things according to God’s will, God will hear. God does not acknowledge any prayer. Prayer that is according to his will is heard. So the access point, faithfulness and content of prayer are constrained by God himself. He is the one who uses prayer to bring us to himself.

Questions to consider:

  1. How does the primacy of prayer found in the early apostolic church help us to prioritize prayer today?
  2. What are three ways in which God constrains prayer for his use in communicating the benefits of redemption to his people.
  3. What are some reasons prayer may become neglected by God’s people?