Category Archives: theology

The Second Presburg Colloquy: Radney and Gleason on Intinction and Tiers

On September 21, 2022, Pastor Derek Radney and I engaged in a debate on the subject of intinction, moderated by Brad Isbell of presbycast. You can watch the debate here. Subsequent to the debate there have been additional exchanges in the twitterverse, some of which have brough more heat than light. I am for public discourse, but only as a fair representation of a brother’s position. Since in the debate we were not able to deal with all the issues of intinction, I thought it appropriate to respond to Pastor Radney’s article in which he argues that intinction is legitimate and valid practice. To interact with the article is to interact with Pastor Radney’s stated position, as he has articulated it. As part of that article, he makes six arguments for intinction as allowable.

  1. Jesus did not command that we partake of bread and wine in two separate actions. 

I respond: I do not think the Scriptural data supports Pastor Radney’s claim. On the one hand it is true. Jesus never specifically says, “You must partake of the bread and wine in two separate actions.” However, Jesus does clearly lay out how the Lord’s Supper is to be ordered. Scripture gives the structure of the Supper four times: Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; and, 1 Cor. 11:23-29. In each text, eating the bread and drinking the cup are separate actions each with their own meaning. The bread is the body of Christ broken and the cup is the blood poured out. Pastor Radney does not believe Jesus had any mode of distribution in view. However, when He lays out the order of the supper He does so with two separate actions explicitly commanded: eating and drinking. So Pastor Radney’s statement is technically correct, but theologically wrong. Jesus does not command the church must partake of bread and wine in two separate actions. But He does not need to do so, because when He gives the structure of the Lord’s Supper He orders it with two separate actions.

  1. Intinction should not be rejected on the grounds of Regulative Principle of Worship because the words of the Gospels and 1 Cor 11 are not applied consistently.

As part of this larger point, Pastor Radney makes two sub-points. First, he identifies certain inconsistencies between the various accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. For example, only Matthew’s account directly includes the language “Take, eat.” and “Drink of it.” Only in Luke’s account does Jesus tell the disciples to divide the cup (Luke 22:17). Only in Mark did the disciples drink the cup before Jesus explained its meaning. Second, he criticizes opponents of intinction as being inconsistent in their readings of those texts.

I respond: To his first point, inconsistencies between gospel accounts must be understood by harmonizing them. Absence of information in one gospel does not imply the other is incorrect. If Matthew’s account includes the commands to eat and drink, but Mark leaves it out, that does not mean that Matthew is wrong and Mark is right. The accounts are understood together, each pointing to the truth in a unique way. The gospel accounts of the institution, supplemented by the apostolic explanation in 1 Cor. 11:23ff clearly have agreement and command the following:

      • Eating the bread first;
      • Drinking the cup after supper.

His second sub-point has Pastor Radney question the clarity of the biblical command based on other issues surrounding the supper that are ignored by critics of intinction. He gives several examples: 1) There was likely only one loaf; 2) There was likely a communal cup; 3) The Lord’s Supper as part of the larger Passover communal meal; and, 4) The meal was likelyserved with wine not juice. And here he makes a hermeneutical point for his critics. The commands to eat and drink are clear and cannot be understood to mean something else. However, the argument for the common cup and loaf, wine, and the implications of the Supper coming out of the Passover are likely true. In other words, these issues lack the clarity of the explicit commands of Scripture which are giving regarding eating and drinking. Even if the church must wrestle through the less clear questions as well, it can begin by honoring the clear commands of Scripture regarding the celebration of this sacrament.

  1. There are practical reasons why a session might opt to administer communion by intinction.

I respond: Appealing to the pragmatic is a terrible way to do theology. There are plenty of examples from Scripture that prove this point. What might be some practical reasons that a priest might alter the recipe for the incense to be offered in the tabernacle (Cf. Lev 10:1ff; Ex 30:9)? What might be some practical reasons that the Levites might move the ark on a cart rather than carry it on poles (2 Sam 6:5ff; Ex 25:14)? What might be some practical considerations that would justify Israel’s delay in invading the promised land (Num 13:1ff)? Of course, each example shows that obedience to God’s commands overrides any practical consideration that might be brought to bear. Pragmatism is never praised in Scripture because it tends to place what works over what is commanded.

  1. Nothing is lost in the significance of each element or the meal as a whole by partaking of the elements together.

I respond:  The testimony of all Reformed theologians affirms that the distinct consumption of the elements is necessary to preserve what they symbolize. Many prominent voices have argued for the urgency of the spiritual significance of each element of the meal celebrated distinct from the other. Below are two sample quotes:

“It is to that end that in the Supper the body and blood are depicted separately, each by a sign of its own. To that end Christ expressly states that his body was given and his blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. To that end the significance of the blood is even explained at greater length in the words of institution than that of the body, for it is the blood that makes atonement for sins on the altar. Even though Christ is worshiped, the communion that is realized through faith and is strengthened through the Lord’s Supper is and remains a communion with his crucified body and with his shed blood.” [Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, translated by John Vriend, edited by John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 4:579]

“We are not able to take this great mysterious fruit of God’s love in gross, in the lump; and therefore he gives it out, I say, in parcels. We shall have the body broken to be considered; and the blood shed is likewise to be considered.” [John Owen, The Works of John Owen (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965), 9:527]

Other men like James Bannerman in The Church of Christ, Wilhelmus a Brakel in The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology, have also argued for the importance of bread and wine as separate.

  1. Intinction should not be dismissed because it is practiced by traditions with which we Presbyterians have other disagreements or because of its origins.

I respond: At this point I am in agreement with Pastor Radney. Though the source of certain ideas may give pause because of their origins, truth is truth, no matter who says it. Christians can learn from brothers in other denominations regardless of the points of disagreement.

  1. Intinction should not be dismissed on account of Judas dipping his bread at the Last Supper.

I respond: Again, we are agreed on this point. I have not heard people making this argument, but if they are, at the very least that would not be the place where I would formulate my objections.

From my interactions with Pastor Radney, I believe him to be sincere in his beliefs. And in an attempt to shed light on this subject, and as a follow-up to the debate, I have offered the following responses. The question of intinction is significant because the right administration of the sacraments is one of the three marks of the church of Christ. And this issue must be examined in light of Scripture. Debate and interaction are needed to bring clarity on a subject. It is my hope this article has contributed to that growth in clarity.

Church History Snippet – Constantine V

Constantine V was born in the fall of 718 and died in 775. He  assumed formal responsibilities of governing the Byzantine empire as a co-regent of sorts in the 730s. He became the sole ruler of Byzantium in 740 when his father died. Much of Constantine V’s reign is remembered for his involvement in the iconoclastic controversy begun by his father Leo III in 726. The early years of his reign were preoccupied with weathering his brother-in-law Artavasdus’ attempts to dethrone him. However, in 752 that he did pick up where his father left off.  and did so from a more theological and less pragmatic angle.

Constantine approached whether images of Christ are legitimate for the Christian from a Christological perspective. It is ironic in that John of Damascus uses the same doctrine to justify icons and images. However, though they share the same doctrine, their conclusions are far apart. Whereas John argues that because Christ is truly man His human nature may be drawn or sculpted, Constantine argues the opposite. In light of the union of Christ’s human and divine natures in the one person Constantine argues that “the depiction of the prosopon (or hypostasis) which came into existence as the result of the union of the two natures cannot be accomplished, since of necessity this would involve the circumscription of the immaterial, divine nature.”[1] In other words, because of the union between Christ’s human and divine natures you cannot represent one without the other.

Constantine is reaching back to the fourth ecumenical Council of Chalcedon of 451 which declared the human and divine natures of Christ to exist without confusion or separation. At this point Constantine builds on his father’s initial second commandment argument by showing its relation to the orthodox articulation of the definition of Christ at Chalcedon. And with the iconoclast position in the ascendency, Constantine looks to formalize and bolster it with the approval of the church, which he does by calling the Council of Hiereia in 754.

[1] Stephen Gero, Byzantine Iconoclasm During the Reign of Constantine V (Louvain: Secretariat du Corpus SCO, 1977), 41.

Church History Snippet – St. John of Damascus

This post is not meant to be a complete summary of all that St. John of Damascus wrote and did. It is simply looking at his contribution to the 8th century controversy surrounding iconoclasm, or the destruction of images of God in any persons of the Trinity. Last Church History Snippet looked at Leo III who initiated the formal controversy around these kinds of images in Byzantium, though previous informal disagreements and discussions on this subject certainly existed.

John of Damascus was born in 675 and did not reside in the Byzantine empire. Instead he was a subject of a Muslim Caliph in Damascus. He became a monk in 706 and moved to Jerusalem. In response to Leo’s policy of iconoclasm,  John writes three treatises on divine images. The first one is published in 726, almost immediately after the developments in Constantinople become known. The second, written around 730, and the third written before 750, copy extensively from his first treatise. In his three works, John argues for the proper use of images from eight basic groupings. Their critique is included:

    1. Because Christ took on human flesh, He may be depicted. Objection: Borrowing from the argument David VanDrunen makes in his article “Pictures of Jesus and the Sovereignty of Divine Revelation“,  it is certainly within God’s right to depict himself according to His own perfect wisdom. However, God revealing Himself, and man making a representation of His from his own imagination are two very different things.
    2. The word “veneration” has multiple applications, and can be given to a variety of objects. Objection: Is it possible John of Damascus is the first person to promote nuance? That is not a serious question, but beware of those who adjust definitions and make clear meanings of words confusing to justify their practice.
    3. Veneration given to an image is actually offered to the person or object it represents. Objection: Even if this statement is true, the Bible commands God’s people not to worship Him in the ways of the pagans who worship their gods through images (Cf. Deuteronomy 12:4).
    4. Objecting to icons and images is to adopt the error of the Manichees. Objection: Although it is a clever strategy to associate your theological opponents with heretical views, John of Damascus does not accurately represent the view of the iconoclasts who did not hold that the material is bad but the spiritual is good.
    5. The church has used images in the past, and this tradition justifies their continued use. Objection: Leo III appealed to the second commandment for his iconoclastic policy. The Word of God is the standard of right theology and practice and cannot be overridden by appeals to previous practice. This statement does not even acknowledge that church tradition could be incorrect. Using this logic, there could never have been a Protestant Reformation.
    6. It is inevitable to form a picture of Christ in your mind so you can make images. Objection: Just because it is difficult to resist sin, or even if sin is inevitable, that does not justify continuing to walk in it.
    7. Old Testament Israel was prone to idolatry through graven images, but that is not the cases in the New Testament Church. Objection: I hardly think this needs comment. Man is just as prone to make idols today as he was 3,000 years ago. It is simply wishfully naive to suggest otherwise.
    8. Since God commanded representations of the world to be made in the construction of the Tabernacle, therefore representations of the Son while He is in that same world are acceptable too. Objection: That is true in so far as the question is about making representations of objects that are not the human nature of the 2nd person of the Trinity. However, as soon as you introduce the divine person, the question is different, because God was not represented in the artwork of the tabernacle.

The objections which are included notwithstanding, John of Damascus continues to be a force in the discussion of the proriety of images of Jesus. His arguments, or parts of them, have more or less been adopted by proponents of images of Jesus from the time he made them even until today.

Church History Snippet – Leo III

In church history there are two significant Leo IIIs. One was the pope who crowned Charlamagne emperor in 800 AD. The other was emperor in Constantinople from 717-741AD. It is the second Leo that is in view in this church history snippet.

The iconoclast controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries are unique in that they are not driven primarily by churchmen or theologians. These certainly participate, but they are not the catalysts that would force the Church to deal with a controversy that had been brewing for some time. It was the iconoclastic policies of emperor Leo III, also known as Leo the Issaurian, that forced a formal treatment of this subject by the church.

Leo III came to the throne during a time of upheaval in the Byzantine empire. That turmoil can even be seen in how he ascended to the throne. Leo III was not a natural heir of the throne, but a military commander who usurped the throne from another. And in the midst of that political chaos, Leo adds theological controversy by articulating and implementing a policy of iconoclasm within the Byzantine empire. Iconoclasm, for the sake of this subject, is the destruction of religious images. Leo, as the catalyst of bringing this disagreement in the church into focus, is a significant man in church history, especially when it comes to the development of the church’s understanding of whether images of Jesus are permitted.

Relatively little is preserved of Leo III’s arguments in favor of the destruction and/or removal of such images from churches. Understanding his views has to come from looking at the response of his opponents. However, it is known that he began his assault on images in 726. Though the motivations for doing so are far from clear, it was likely partly religious, but not purely so. Certainly there was a religious component to his iconoclasm, however, it seems to have been tinged with pragmatism and superstition. According to some, his religious actions were influenced by a desire for political stability in a time of turmoil and uncertainty. Wherever he found himself on the spectrum from pragmatism to principle, it is not fair to discount Leo’s religious impulses entirely. Though perhaps motivated in part by the social condition of his empire, Leo III did make a theological argument as well.

Leo III’s iconoclastic policy was pretty straightforward. He believed images of Jesus and/or the saints were idolatrous and should not be allowed in his empire. The biblical foundation for his argument was based on the second commandment:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6).

The initial line of argumentation from those seeking to forbid images of Jesus is a fairly simple appeal to the second commandment. Leo III seems to have made a basic connection between an image of Jesus and the prohibition in Exodus 20:4. The position articulated by Leo III is the opening salvo of a controversy that would continue intermittently into the Protestant Reformation and even into today.

 

Part 4 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: the Limits of Its Power

“Whenever obedience to man is inconsistent with obedience to God,
then disobedience becomes a duty.”[1]

At the start of this series, the mission statement was made: to help the Christian navigate an exercise of government power not previously experienced in my life-time. The virus that has troubled the world since the beginning of 2020 has subjected western society to a variety of mandates and restrictions, including businesses and churches. Christians everywhere have experienced these things, but there is disagreement about a proper response. There those who advocate for complete compliance, and those who have taken up what sounds like a Christian activism. This series represents an attempt to help Christians think clearly about this subject. Whatever our gut response may be, these articles are asking whether they are biblical. And to begin that critical assessment, this series began with a biblical study and the source and purpose for the power of the government.

First, we have seen from Romans 13 that all authority is given by God. That would include the authority that the civil magistrate has, even if behaving in an ungodly manner. Clearly, the biblical position of authority is that it is God-given. Second, we have also seen that the government exists as a servant of God. It is to carry out God’s vengeance on the wrongdoer and protect those who do good. The words “wrongdoer” and “good” are theological words, which must be biblically defined. A government will apply its power well, or poorly, and the report card is based on the biblical definitions of these words. And it is in this last observation that the problem arises. What does the Christian do when the government does not match up well to the biblical definitions of wrongdoing and goodness? Is there a point when the government’s authority is to be disobeyed because of its disregard for its function as God’s servant? What are the limits to this power?

To further complicate matters, there are other authorities in the world as well. That means there may be times when different authorities (all of whom God has provided) come into conflict with each other. For example, consider parental authority or church authority. This authority is also God-given, with its own set of responsibilities. These different authority structures further add to the difficulty of what may happen. For example, Colossians 3:20 says, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” What happens if the demands of the civil authority conflict with those of parents? Which is to be obeyed? As an example, what should happen when the government mandates that a child in kindergarten participate in an explicit “educational” presentation on human sexuality. Even if it is only factual, without any propaganda about the perversion of human sexuality, does the government have the implicit right to overturn the parents’ authority over the child, simply because they have God-given authority? The bring some clarity, consider these possible limits to government authority.

Man’s authority is always delegated. God provides authority for specific reasons. Parents are provided to train up their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Elders are given to protect the church from false doctrine and encourage it toward love and good works. The civil magistrate is empowered to provide necessary order in society. For each of these positions of authority there are limits. That is because a father is not the owner of his children and the elder is not the master of the congregants. These things are easily seen. For example, most would agree that parents are not free to force their children to marry against their will. Or elders are not free to require all congregants to wear a yellow suit to church each Lord’s Day. And these are recognized limitations. There is much talk about hyper patriarchy in the family or toxic leadership in the church. If limits are readily recognized in these two realms, it is right to examine if the civil government’s authority can be wielded unlawfully as well. In doing so, several limits are discovered.

There is one obvious limit, which is also described in the quote at the top of the article. If a magistrate would require sin, he has clearly exercising authority unlawfully. I have not heard any Christian leader object to this principle in the last two years. The oft-quoted biblical instruction comes in Acts 4. Peter and John are ordered not to speak of Christ anymore. Their response is instructive for all authority relationships: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20, ESV). When any human authority requires sin, whether family or church or civil, the giver of all authority, God, is to be obeyed instead. But there are other limits on government authority as well.

First, each nation’s government is limited by its geographical bounds. The people of Germany do not obey the laws on the books in Canada. If you live in the United States you do not obey the mandates of Australia. That is because the authority of each nation state is limited to its own citizens. All nations live in such a way, and this limit is universally respected.

Second, a government may not exercise authority over its people as a tyrant. The government’s relationship with its citizens is not one of master and slave. The king is to carry out the good laws of the land with justice and equity.[2] For example, a government may not enter a citizen’s home and confiscate private property without process and just cause. A government may not force families to separate, requiring the wife to move to Miami, while ordering the man to live in Seattle. A government may not, at a random check point, confiscate your vehicle and take possession of it. Unless you live under a communist government, that is. The examples of these abuses could possibly all be obeyed without the citizen sinning in obeying it. And yet the government is not justified in acting as a tyrant because it denies its delegated authority. The government does not own all, and cannot behave as if it does. When government behaves this way, says Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex, they are acting as if their authority belongs to them as a right, not as a delegated power. Yet the men and women that make up government are not gods, but part of God’s creation, just as their citizens are. That means that since God is the giver of authority, government is to wield it as His servant.

Third, a government is bound by the laws of the land. These limits that are being ignored these days. In Acts 22, Paul has been rescued by the Roman cohort of soldiers from a violent Jewish mob. Paul was brought into the Roman barracks to examine him by flogging. Before this atrocious, unjust, and violent act could be committed against him, Paul reminds the tribune that he as civil magistrate is breaking the laws of the land which he may not do. “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25). It is, of course, a rhetorical question. It is not lawful for them to do so, and Paul reminds them of that. The tribune and his fellow examiners immediately reverse course. They are in positions of authority, but still under authority. They, as civil magistrate, do not live above the laws of the land, but must follow the rules of their country. It is at this point that many government abuses have taken place, at least in the United States.

Here is the point. All authority has limits because it is a derived authority. That does not mean there is a place where the civil magistrate behaves perfectly.  Since the fall, all authority is abused because it is exercised by sinful men. Today, governments are acting as a master over its people by assuming responsibility over its citizens’ consciences. Some will agree with what it is demanding and imposing, others not. The point is not agreement with policy, but limit of authority. Today, governments are failing to live under the laws of their own nations. In effect the government has become a law breaker. Again, some will agree with what it is demanding and imposing, and others not. The point is not agreement with policy, but limit of authority.

The reality for the Christian is that the government is assuming authority over people’s private businesses, their movements, their worship, and even their employment. For several members of the congregation I serve, this topic is not theoretical. It is a pressing matter that must be examined on the basis of principle, not preference. But what does the Christian do when a government behaves badly, even sinfully?

To help with that, it is always good to look at the reformed confessional statements for their understanding of what Scripture teaches on this matter. After that investigation is complete, perhaps we will be ready to consider what a proper response may be.

[1] Charles Hodge, Romans, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 406

[2] Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince, (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1982), 64-68.

Part 3 » An Appeal on Race in the Presbyterian Church in America

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

Part 3 » Are There New Issues?

Last article addressed whether the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) position on racial sin was clear. This question is raised as this series of articles (for the first one click here) makes an appeal to PCA elders to turn the corner on a prevailing General Assembly (GA) conversation: race and racial sin. To that end, three questions are asked that should help give clarity on the need for continuing attention on this topic:

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

The first question was raised and answered in last installment with a resounding “yes!” The preponderance of theological statements, pastoral letters, and reports from the PCA (1977, 2002, 2004, 2016, 2018) has rendered further declarations on racial sin simply an exercise in restatement and redundancy.  However, questions 2 and 3 above are yet to be tackled.

Overture 45 (and 46) at the 48th General Assembly (St. Louis, MO)

Both Metro Atlanta (#45) and Metro New York (#46) presbyteries submitted an identical overture, asking the GA to take several actions on behalf of the Asian-American members of the PCA. Although the reasoning for any overture is never part of the final denominational adoption of a request, it is still pertinent because they argue that a significant new development in the area of race relations has arisen that would make a new statement necessary and good. Two points are specifically important:

“Whereas, Metro Atlanta Presbytery learned with sorrow of the tragic deaths of eight people in and around our own presbytery on Tuesday, March 16, 2021, six of whom were of Asian descent, who were wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters made in the image of God; and

Whereas, even though the ultimate motivation of this shooter remains unestablished, these tragic shootings happened within the larger context of an increase in violence in this nation against Asian Americans over the last year; and have brought to light the racism that many of our Asian American brothers and sisters in Christ, and Asian American neighbors have experienced, and remind them of the anti-Asian racism that has been present in the past.”[1]

These reasons sound very much like a case for answering the second diagnostic question above with a “yes.” It is an assertion that there is a new form of racial sin previously unacknowledged by the PCA warranting additional clarification from the denomination. However asserting something is not the same thing as proving it.

Is There An Extraordinary Increase In Racial Sin?

Certainly US news outlets reported an increase in violence against Asians with vigor. For example here is a story of such increased violence from NBC. In the article, several cities are cited as examples, but for simplicity’s sake, only New York City will be considered here. Included in the article is the statistical analysis that the city with the largest surge in race based crime is NYC at a staggering 833% increase. Reporting things that way makes for an alarming headline and concern is an understandable result. However, as Christians it is important to think critically to understand if such numbers are, in fact, indicative of a racial crisis in our land.

So the question has to be asked, what kind of numbers are we looking at here? It is appropriate to acknowledge that I’m not a statistician, so perhaps the numbers are over-simplified, but it will be close for illustrative purposes at least. The article cites an increase from 3 hate crimes in 2019 to 28 in 2020. That within the context of 1.4 million Asian Americans who live in New York. Looking at these numbers a different way in 2019 you had a 0.000214% of being the victim of a hate crime as an Asian New Yorker. In 2020 it is 0.002%. And the same can be said for the increase in other major urban centers: 7 to 15 in Los Angeles, 6 to 14 in Boston, 6 to 9 in San Fransisco, 0 to 1 in San Diego and Cincinnati. Just to be clear, this observation is not a denial that hate crimes were committed, neither is it minimizing the pain of those afflicted. Rather it is disputing if this rise is actually a significant difference or whether the world is continuing to show evidence of its condition of sin and misery. I say it is the latter.

My contention is that these numbers do not represent a significant shift in the world. But could it be that within the PCA there was a shift or a pattern of racial sin? That was certainly argued from the floor. Take for example the floor speech made by Pastor Hansoo Jin of the Korean Capital Presbytery. This brother insinuated racism or at least racial insensitivity against Koreans at multiple general assemblies. TE Jin said,

“You can imagine, if you will, how I felt when I heard that a member of this assembly refer (sic) to Korean prayer as unbiblical. See, when we think about racism it is easy to think of it as a problem that is in the world that the worlds struggles with and so why do we have to deal with it in this assembly? And I admit that the things that we see in the world with race do not necessarily manifest in the same way in the PCA, but we must not confuse that with a lack of racism in the PCA, or at least a lack of racial awareness in the PCA. See, comments like that that I heard at this assembly I have heard every single year that I have been a commissioner…at GA. I have had uncomfortable, demeaning, marginalizing conversations oftentimes by well-meaning individuals but still nevertheless these conversations made me feel and question whether or not this is a denomination for me.”[2]

In his speech, TE Jin articulates what he considers to be a sin by another man allegedly to have occurred at the Bills and Overtures committee of the 48th GA. The contention is not that such a sin may not have been committed, but with the process and assumptions TE Jin made. If the alleged racist truly believes Korean prayer is sinful because it is Korean, there is a bona fide charge of racism to be investigated. It would be appropriate to address such a brother about his perceived sin in private, taking other witnesses along should he remain unrepentant. Only after that process should the church courts have been made aware of these allegations. This process ensures that the truth is told, and that the 9th commandment is not broken. However, starting with the conclusion that these comments were an attack on Korean prayer seems to be an adaptation of the kind of “guilt by skin color” that is rampant in the world today.

It is possible the alleged racist who made the statement took issue with the style, and not the ethnic background of the prayer. In other words, in a PCA that has overwhelmingly repudiated racism, is it not more likely that it is the mode of the prayer, rather than the ethnicity of that prayer that is causing the objection of this TE? Of course, the world begins its attack with race. There must be a racist lurking behind every corner. Everything is boiled down to race, and all disagreement must include some underlying racial motivation. And yet, Christian charity would require us to admit at least the possibility that the issue might be entirely theological without any racial motivation at all. The process of speaking to a brother first ensures that the wrong picture is not presented as fact in the church court. However, if there is racial sin in a man, it is the sin of the individual rather than the whole denomination.

The conclusion is that the second of our three original diagnostic questions also can be answered at best in the negative, or at worst as undetermined until the process of clarifying intent and views is fully followed. That begs the question as to whether the third diagnostic question has some validity: are there individual racial sins in the PCA that remain unaddressed? That is the question for next the next article.

[1] Commissioner Handbook for the 48th General Assembly of the PCA, p. 164.

[2] Vimeo, Presbyterian Church in America, Thursday Closing Business Session, n.d.,  https://livestream.com/accounts/8521918/events/9731338/videos/222954013, accessed July 28, 2021. TE Jin’s speech takes place from 3:00:12 to 3:01:23


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

What is right, what is wrong?

Ten Commandments

One of the great weaknesses I observe in today’s North American church is the failure to recognize the authority of Scripture. Certainly, branches of all stripes within the Christ’s church acknowledge the importance of the Bible. However, on more than one occasion as of late I have observed churches, pastors, and individual members shape the Bible to their own convictions rather than have their convictions shaped by the word of God. 

The European protestant reformation of the 16thcentury re-established the principle of Sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone as our guide and authority. Man’s opinion, whether he is pope or not, should never be placed on par with the Bible. However, there is a quiet pragmatism creeping into North American churches which measures the rightness of an action by man’s assessment of whether or not it works. Actions are justified or condemned based on the perceived benefit they accomplish. These benefits can be made to sound very spiritual, but in the end they are subjective, dependent on the approval or disapproval of man. Herein is the problem.

The Christian individual is not the gauge of whether an action should or should not be done. Instead, the approval of any human action comes from the Lord. God, who knows all things, describes for his people how they should live. The traditional reformed theology about discerning what should be done, or not done is summarized as follows: 

The descriptions of right behavior are given in the Moral Law, summarized in the 10 Commandments. Doing what the law forbids, and not doing what the law commands are both considered sin. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin as: “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” (WSC #14). Therefore, no matter what man’s assessment of any given situation might be, if the proposed action at any point causes you to do what the law forbids (transgression), or not do what the law commands (want, or lack of conformity), that action should not be done. One quick example:

A man attends his local team’s National Football League game on Sunday. As he sits in the stands, he takes advantage of the concessions. He goes to the game with the intention of having gospel conversations with the people in attendance. He justifies his choice because he was able to have a meaningful conversation about the Lord with several people.

Although the action may sound noble, using the authority of God’s word the football fan cannot justify his being at the game because he is sinning against the 4thcommandment. This commandment forbids all work on the Lord’s Day, unless it is of necessity, mercy, or piety. That is not to say God cannot use his sin. His motives could even be appreciated and his evangelistic zeal admired. However, the final answer must be that because his attendance is against God’s law and therefore this choice should have been ruled out. To answer otherwise would be to introduce a pragmatic element that would give man the opportunity to justify any action. 

There are countless other ways in which the positive elements of the fan’s plan could have been achieved without sin against God’s law. For example, the man could have stood outside the stadium and preached the gospel, handed out tracts, or tried to engage in gospel conversations there. In this way, the man would not break God’s commandments. The right choice is always to remain within the boundaries of God’s word. When the Christian obeys God’s commandments he demonstrates love for God (John 14:15). But when the Christian disobeys God’s commandments in order to achieve a goal of his own choosing, no matter how noble he might make it sound, he has chosen to love himself rather than his Savior.

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…