Category Archives: theology

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?

God’s Means of Grace: The Sacraments

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

When considering God’s ordinary means of grace, or his usual way of teaching and applying his work of redemption to his people, the sacraments can be thought more mysterious than preaching and prayer. However, by understanding sacraments a bit better we can more clearly see God’s purpose in them, which is no different than preaching or prayer.

A sacrament, by its very nature is a ritual commanded by Christ for observance in his church until he returns. Matt. 28:19-20 instructs the church to baptize and 1 Cor. 11:26 teaches the church to proclaim Christ’s death in the Lord’s Supper until he comes. Christ gives these two sacraments so, through the outward sign of what is represented, the inward reality would be taught. He did not give them for superstitious value. In other words, the Christian’s confidence is not found in baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Instead, the sacraments serve as a visible display of the gospel, to supplement and augment the benefits of Christ’s work as our mediator declared in his word.

Baptism is a membership ritual. However, it is not so in the way often understood today. Baptism is not so much a statement about the recipient as it is about the work of God in that person to himself. Baptism signifies the washing away of the filth of sin, or the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on believers. Certainly, to receive baptism as an adult does accompany a profession of faith, but it is through God’s regenerating work that this faith is possible. That is why baptism should only be offered to any person only one time. God does not regenerate us often, but only once. Remember the thing signified and it will guide how you practice the external sign.

The Lord’s Supper is more a profession of faith for the believer. The participant ostensibly adds his “Amen!” to the redeeming work of the broken body and shed blood of Christ. Because the Lord’s Supper signifies a confirmation of faith in Christ’s work, it is essential that participants are members of Christ’s church and profess faith in him. Each participant should ensure he is not despising the work of Christ through presumptuous sin. He should examine his commitment to follow Christ. He should ask God to relieve him of his spiritual weaknesses. An honest self-examination ensures the confession made through the participation in the supper is not hypocritical or flippant.

The things signified in the sacraments are mysterious. They are simply a restatement of the biblical gospel doctrines. Therefore, how God through them is no more mysterious than how he does through the word or prayer. Preaching is described as folly by the unbeliever (Cf. 1 Cor. 1:23). That is because they do not receive it with faith. Reciting rote prayers void of faith is no act of worship. However, when by faith we hear and pray, God works graciously in us. So it is with the sacraments. When we eat and drink, or water poured on our heads is met with faith, God graciously strengthens his people’s understanding of the benefits of Christ’s gracious work of redemption.

Questions to consider:

  1. What is signified in each sacrament?
  2. Look up the passages of institution for each sacrament and discuss Christ’s institution of each.
  3. How is the communication of grace through the sacraments similar to the word and/or prayer?

God’s Means of Grace: His Word

Bible Open

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him  of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear  without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written,  “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)

The central concern of the Bible is God’s reconciliation of man to himself. When sin polluted all of mankind through Adam’s transgression, God immediately promised a reversal of the fall through the work of the Seed of the Woman (Cf. Gen. 3:15). Since that time God, in his grace, has been sharing that message of reconciliation with his people through his word. To that end, the early New Testament church devoted itself to the apostolic teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Cf. Acts 2:42). Each of these four elements participate in God’s continuing work of communicating the benefits of redemption to his people. This post will specifically consider the continuation of the apostolic teaching within the church.

The apostolic teaching continues today through reading and preaching of God’s word. This post assumes the apostolic office ceased. To make the case for this assumption which would require a different post, which may be written another time. In this post we will simply assume it and in doing so recognize the centrality of Scripture to the church.

The reason the reading and preaching of the word is so central in the life of the church is because it is a continuation of that commitment to the apostles’ teaching. As the elders of a congregation read and/or preach this means of grace, God’s benefits of redemption are set before his people. The effect of preaching is guaranteed. In Isaiah 55:11, God promises that just as rain water the earth to grow crops, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but  it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” In other words, God’s word cannot be thwarted, either in awakening a soul, or hardening it. Acts 2:37-41 demonstrates this truth by showing the reaction of the crowd to Peter’s Pentecost sermon. There is an instant turning and crying out from the crowd, and a conversion of 3,000 souls.

Therefore, when we read God’s word we should approach it with the appropriate level of respect and reverence. It is God’s instrument to bring about conversion in the unregenerate, and work spiritual maturity in those he has already called to himself. Therefore, Christian, do not read it flippantly, but prayerfully. Seek to understand it, do not manipulate it. Apply it to your life, and do not disregard it.

The apostolic teaching is God’s gift to his people. It is an essential part of the conversion of sinners and spiritual growth of God’s people.

Questions to consider:

  1. In what way is the apostolic teaching continuing today?
  2. How does Isaiah 55:11 show the certainty of the effect of God’s word? What is it based on?
  3. Are you giving God’s word the attention it deserves as one of God’s ordinary means of grace?

God’s Ordinary Means of Grace

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation. (Westminster Larger Catechism #154)

The quote above is well worth considering. It seeks to address how the grace of God is conveyed to his people. In other words, how does God usually make his gifts in Christ stick for his people. In the first place, notice the emphasis on two things: outward and ordinary. The former indicates that, whatever is about to be described, the discussion is focused on the external workings. Faith and repentance are worked in the heart of a man, but those cannot be observed. These outward means are the tools God’s Spirit uses externally to effect the inward change only he can. The latter qualifies our observations to the vast majority of cases. God can, and at times has, used unusual ways to show his people the benefits of being in Christ, but the discussion in WLC #154 centers around the most common outward methods, or means.

In the second place, these external ways that God uses in the majority of cases to convey the benefits of Christ’s mediation to his people are his ordinances. The word “ordinances” is not commonly used in conversation today, but it simply means religious rites, ceremonies, or practices. So all the religious practices assigned by God are used by him to accomplish his purposes of making plain the benefits of our salvation. However, there are three particular ones that are singled out for emphasis. The reason this is done is based on Acts 2:42 which describes the religious practice of the apostolic church in its earliest formation: the apostolic teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. In other words, the apostles focussed on the Word, sacraments, and prayer.

In the third place, that early practice should not lead anyone to suppose there is some superstitious benefit given by simply listening to sermons, participating in the sacraments, and saying rote prayers. These are only the outward means God uses to impart the benefits of Christ’s work. The emphasis must be on God and his internal work. He is the One who makes these external practices effectual, or causes them to have an effect in the heart of man. God regenerates his elect, chosen people giving them a new heart. He converts them giving faith in Christ and repentance over sin. And these changes and gifts make the proper receipt of these ordinances possible. God uses Word, sacrament and prayer with real effect…for those in whom he works faith.

To think preaching, the discipline of prayer, or the administration of the sacraments will effect change on their own is superstitious. However, to fail to recognize God’s work through these external means is to minimize the significance Scripture assigns to them.

Questions to consider:

  1. In your own words define the following terms: outward means, ordinary means, and ordinances.
  2. How is God’s internal work necessary for the effectualness of the outward means?
  3. Do you hold the ordinary means of grace (the Word, sacraments and prayer) in high esteem?

The Creator and His Creatures

the Creator seen in creation

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” Psalm 24:1-2 (ESV).

There is a reason the Bible begins with creation. Genesis 1:1 tells us that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God is the creator of our world. Everything we see in nature has been created by God. More than that, from Colossians 1:16 we know God’s creative work extends beyond the visible into the realms of the invisible too. In short, God made all things and continues to hold them together. Because God is the creator and sustainer of all things, all things belong to him and are obligated to him. Understanding this to be true about God, there are several observations we can make about how we should then relate to our Creator with our time, treasure and talents:

  1. Time. So often we treat time as a commodity to be distributed as we please. However, in our work environments we do not behave this way. We do not check into work and decide to have some “me-time” in the middle of the board meeting or construction project. Our bosses ensure we accomplish our tasks for the good of the company. However, the doctrine of vocation stemming from the protestant reformation teaches that all our work should be done with God in view. Our time should not be spent with a horizontal orientation, thinking primarily about men. Rather, our time should be spent with a vertical orientation, thinking primarily about God. He made us and our work. So we ought to honor God with our time.
  2. Treasure. Since God made all things he is the owner of all things. Whatever we have we received from God’s hand. We live in a materialistic culture and our tendency can be to treat the blessings of this life as ours and to enjoy them exclusively for our own benefits. Yet Proverbs 3:9 charges us to honor God with our wealth. The question is not what we would want to do with our treasure, but what God would have us do with his treasure. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus charges us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. That should be our orientation in the use of our money as well.
  3. Talent. Talents do not only describe the people who are gifted singers and musicians. Talents of all stripes are needed to strengthen the church. All church members have a talent which can be used to strengthen her. Some will be talented in ways completely conspicuous to others. Some have been given gifts to be used in very public ways. The talent given is less significant than the way it is used. We should use our talents wisely, to the glory of the One who gave them: our Creator.

God as creator is a significant theological truth. Our Creator is not our peer, but he is Lord of the universe. Since we also are part of his creation, we must recognize our obligation to him. He has given us time, treasure and talents to be used joyfully as we serve him. Yet our joy is not the primary objective in our living. Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. That statement, my dear friends, is not a suggestion. As his creatures, it is our obligation.