Category Archives: theology

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…

Justice and Mercy

Amazing Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regeneration and the Depth of the Gospel

the Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Election Clarify the Gospel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Images of Jesus Allowed?

Ten Commandments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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