The Biblical Centrality of the Church

Stott (The Message of Ephesians)

How important is the church in the life of the believer in Christ?  How important is the church in the plan & purpose of God? Many professing believers in our day have a rather low view of the church – they either think poorly of the church, or they just don’t think much about her at all. Far too many no longer see the church as necessary, much less as a vital part of the Christian life.

But what does the Bible have to say about the church? Even a cursory examination of the word ekklesia (which is most commonly translated as “church”) in a Greek concordance is instructive. It occurs no less than 114 times in the New Testament.  In the epistles of Paul it occurs at least 58 times.  This, of course, should come as no surprise, as the vast majority of his epistles were written to churches (e.g. Romans, 1 Corinthians, etc.) or to pastors of churches (e.g. 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus), not just to individual Christians. In fact, even the book of Philemon was addressed not only to Philemon (v.1), Apphia, and Archippus (v.2), but also to “the church in your [i.e. Philemon's] house” (v.2). So basically all of Paul’s epistles were in some way church-related. All of them.

But do we think of the church when we read or study the epistles of Paul? Or do we read those letters through the foggy lenses of our individualistic spectacles? Do we jump right to asking, “How does this passage of Scripture apply to me?” without ever bothering to ask how it applies to us (i.e. as the church)?

In commenting on Ephesians 3:1-13, John Stott writes,

The major lesson taught by this first half of Ephesians 3 is the biblical centrality of the church. Some people construct a Christianity which consists entirely of a personal relationship to Jesus Christ and has virtually nothing to do with the church. Others make a grudging concession to the need for church membership, but add that they have given up the ecclesiastical institution as hopeless. Now it is understandable, even inevitable, that we are critical of many of the church’s inherited structures and traditions. Every church in every place at every time is in need or reform and renewal. But we need to beware lest we despise the church of God, and are blind to his work in history. We may safely say that God has not abandoned his church, however displeased with it he may be. He is still building and refining it. And if God has not abandoned it, how can we? It has a central place in his plan. (The Message of Ephesians, p.126)

Even the very best churches (as Stott notes above) are “in need of reform and renewal.” But even so the church is still very much central to God’s plan – it is still “through the church” that “the manifold wisdom of God” is to be made known to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10, ESV). And as Paul says later in the very same chapter, “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:21, emphasis mine). The glory of God is to be manifested in and through His church, and that is to be the case “throughout all generations.”

We have not, nor will we ever in this life, outgrow the church or our need for the church. And we should not expect to do so – it really does have a central place in God’s plan.

Quite Possibly the Greatest Book Recommendation of All Time

GFY

Keith Mathison has written a very helpful book about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. (OK, it was actually published w-a-y back in 2002, but whatever – I’m reading it now.)

In it he details both John Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as well as developments in Reformed views on the subject in the centuries that followed Calvin’s day. The opening chapter of the book (“John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper”) by itself is worth the purchase price.  The chapters that follow are very good as well.

The foreword is written by R.C. Sproul. There he states that this book “represents the best and most comprehensive treatment of the Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper I have ever seen” (p.x). He also calls the book a “must read” (p.xi). That should be enough to persuade just about anyone to read it for themselves, right?

But in case that is not enough to make you want to pick up a copy, he adds a rather interesting personal aside:

When I read it for the first time (and D.V. not the last time), I said to Keith Mathison, “You may die now.” Keith gave me a puzzled look as he was not ready to sing the Nunc Dimittis. I explained that if he made no other contribution to the church for the rest of his life, he has already provided a legacy for future generations by writing this book. (p.x-xi)

“You may die now.” That just might be the greatest (as well as the strangest) book recommendation of all time. If you are a pastor or a seminary student preparing for future ministry, this volume belongs on your shelf. It is also well worth your time if you are simply a believer & church member who wants to better understand the outward and ordinary means of grace that you partake of in the Lord’s Supper.

So what are you waiting for?  You can order a copy here: Given For You

A Condensation of Romans Chapters 1-3 in Only 3 Verses

 

Stott (The Message of Ephesians)

Sometimes the Scriptures have a way of abbreviating things in one place that are spoken of at greater length elsewhere in its pages. For example, John R.W. Stott describes Ephesians 2:1-3 this way:

“It is a condensation into three verses of the first three chapters of Romans, in which he [Paul] argues his case for the sin and guilt first of pagans, then of Jews, and so of all mankind” (The Message of Ephesians, p.71).

What a great way to put it! So if you want to boil down (or condense) the essential message of Romans chapters 1-3, you could do a lot worse than looking to these three verses in Ephesians:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)

Outside of Jesus Christ we are all dead in sins and trespasses; enslaved to sin, and helplessly under the sway of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Outside of Christ we are all by our very natures the objects of God’s just wrath.  Romans 1-3 goes to great lengths to teach us these things. Ephesians 2:1-3 teaches us the same things, just in far fewer words.

Thankfully Ephesians chapter 2 does not stop there, but goes on to speak of God’s mercy, love, grace, and kindness toward sinners in the gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 2:4-10 Paul writes,

But 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—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10 ESV)

You could say that if Ephesians 2:1-3 is a condensation of Romans chapters 1-3, then Ephesians 2:4-10 is similarly a condensation of Romans chapters 4-16 (the rest of the book of Romans), where Paul goes into great detail about the good news of the gospel of Christ and its implications for our lives.

A Mighty Adversative

Stott (The Message of Ephesians)

“A mighty adversative” – that is John R.W. Stott’s description of the first two words of Ephesians 2:4: “But God . . . .”

Stott writes,

“Verse 4 begins with a mighty adversative: But God . . . These two monosyllables set against the desperate condition of fallen mankind the gracious initiative and sovereign action of God. We were the objects of his wrath, but God, out of the great love with which he loved us had mercy upon us. We were dead, and dead men do not rise, but God has raised us with Christ. We were slaves, in a situation of dishonour and powerlessness, but God has raised us with Christ and set us at his own right hand, in a position of honour and power. Thus God has taken action to reverse our condition in sin.” (The Message of Ephesians, p.79-80)

No wonder some have said that the words “But God . . .” are the two most important words in Scripture!

The “Grotesque Anomaly” of the Un-Churched Christian

Stott (The Living Church)

In the opening chapter of his book, The Living Church, the late John R.W. Stott has some strong words for those who call themselves believers in Christ all the while having nothing to do with the local church (which is the body of Christ). He calls the un-churched Christian a “grotesque anomaly” (p.19).

It is an anomaly; that is, it is abnormal. It is simply not the way that it is supposed to be. He wastes no time informing us as to why such a person is anomalous. He simply states,

The New Testament knows nothing of such a person. (p.19)

That just might be the best one-sentence argument against church-less Christianity that you will ever read. You will look in vain to find anywhere in the Scriptures where a believer in Christ all by his or her lonesome (or even a family), disconnected from a local body of believers, is considered to be the norm, or even that such a thing is acceptable. In fact, everywhere in Scripture the exact opposite is stated, implied, or assumed.

In the book of Hebrews we are told in no uncertain terms that we are intended to meet together for public worship on a regular basis:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25 ESV)

You will notice that everything about this passage is first-person plural (i.e. we, not I; us, not me). There is nothing privatized about anything here. We are to hold fast to “the confession of our hope” (v.23) together. We are to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (v.24). And we are not to neglect to “meet together,” but are rather to encourage one another (v.25).

Now just because something is an anomaly (or even a “grotesque” one, to use Stott’s words), does not mean that it is not all-too-common. In fact, the passage cited above clearly tells us that neglecting to meet together is (unfortunately) “the habit of some” (v.25). In our day it actually seems to be the habit of many. To be sure, there are numerous reasons for such a neglect of the public gathering of the church. But, to be blunt, none of those reasons does away with the simple fact that believers in Christ are meant to meet together, worship together, serve together, and grow together.

Much more could certainly be said. Perhaps in future posts on this blog we will take some time to explore some of the various reasons that many give for not belonging to a local church.  But for the time being, if you somehow find yourself falling into the unfortunate and unflattering category of the “grotesque anomaly,” there is no better time than the present to resolve that you (and your family) will finally stop “neglecting to meet together” with the body of Christ.

Look for a local church where the Bible is clearly believed and taught, where the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are rightly administered, and where the elders of the church will faithfully exercise discipline for your good. And if you need any help finding such a church, get together with some other believers whom you know and ask them for help. You may find yourself in a church that is far from perfect and even quite messy, but that is much better than being grotesque, isn’t it?

Those Blasted Presbyterians: Reflections on Independence Day

Andy Schreiber:

A great read!

Originally posted on The Chief End of Man:

“We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against him, let us not pay the least regard to it.” Book Four, Calvin’s Institutes

Presbyterian Revolution

“I fix all the blame of these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians.”  So one colonist loyal to King George wrote to friends in England.

Around the same time, Horace Walpole spoke from the English House of Commons to report on these “extraordinary proceedings” in the colonies of the new world.  “There is no good crying about the matter,” he said.  “Cousin America has run off with the Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it.”

The parson of which he spoke, was  John Witherspoon—a Presbyterian minister, as well as a descendant of John Knox.  At the time, Witherspoon was president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).  He was also the only clergyman…

View original 868 more words

Teaching Election Properly (The Canons of Dort)

teacher

It is often said that there is a right way to do things, and a wrong way to do things. And that is true even when it comes to how we are to teach and preach the doctrine of election.

The 1st point of doctrine in the Canons of Dort is “Divine Election and Reprobation.” It then further breaks out the various aspects of this point of doctrine into no less than 18 “articles” (or sub-points).  Article 14 is about the proper way to teach the doctrine of election.  It says,

As the doctrine of divine election by the most wise counsel of God was declared by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the Apostles, and is clearly revealed in the Scriptures both of the Old and the New Testament, so it is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed, provided it be done with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety, for the glory of God’s most holy Name, and for the enlivening and comforting His people, without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the Most High.

Notice that the first thing this article establishes is that the doctrine of election is thoroughly biblical, and so because of that it is most certainly to be taught. So the first thing about teaching the doctrine of election properly is, well, to teach it. It is to be taught. If we fail to teach it, we are failing to teach the whole counsel of God. If we fail to teach it we are failing to teach what was “declared by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the Apostles.”

The second thing we see in this article is that there is a proper time and place for teaching the doctrine of election.  It is still to be taught in the church of God. It is clearly taught in Scripture, and is clearly taught throughout Scripture, but it is not found in every text. If it is in the text, preach it, and preach it plainly. But don’t look for it under every bush, so to speak.

The third thing that this article tells us about the right way to teach the doctrine of election is that it is to be done “with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety.”  Election is an act of the grace and mercy of the most holy God in saving sinners, and so it should be preached in such a way that it reflects that truth properly. It should not be used as a means to show how wise or learned we are (or how foolish or unlearned those who disagree with us on this issue are).

It should also be taught “for the glory of God’s most holy Name.” At times the doctrine of election can be taught in such a way that the glory actually seems to go to us for having believed it properly or for teaching it unashamedly. (There is something highly ironic about someone being proud of a right understanding of God’s sovereign grace, isn’t there?) If we are guilty of that, we are not teaching the doctrine of election properly, not by a long shot. The doctrine of election, whereby God has chosen us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) is to be taught “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6). This doctrine should lead to doxology!

The doctrine of election is also to be taught “for enlivening and comforting” God’s people.  In other words, for believers in Christ election and predestination have to do with comfort and assurance. If we are teaching election in such a way that we are in effect beating people over the head with it, we are doing something wrong. Genuine believers may find the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace confusing at times, but they should never find the manner of our preaching and teaching of it to be deflating or disturbing. It should be clear that we are seeking their growth in holiness and godly comfort in teaching it. If our teaching of election leads to laziness or discouragement, there is  something amiss.

The last thing that article 14 tells us is that we are to teach the doctrine of election, but not in such a way that we go beyond what the Scriptures actually tell us about it. We should not use it as a springboard to vainly attempt “to investigate the secret ways of the Most High.” This is probably most often done with regard to the implications of the doctrine. For example, we might wrongly suppose that if God chooses whom He is going to save, then we do not then need to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). If our understanding of election leads us to disregard or downplay the clear commands of God to His church, we are doing something wrong.

So while we must certainly be careful that we are understanding and stating the doctrine of election accurately as it is taught in Scripture, we must also be careful to teach it properly, in the correct context, and with the right purposes in mind as well. To simply teach it in the first place is certainly a good start (and is doing more than most), but that is not nearly enough.