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…

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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.

Posted in 5 Points of Calvinism, Canons of Dort, Election, Notable Quotes, Predestination, Reformed, Three Forms of Unity | Leave a comment

Calvin on Why We Should not Avoid the Subject of Election

Calvin

What are we to make of the doctrine of election? Despite the fact that it is clearly taught in Scripture (and repeatedly so, I might add!), many sincere, well-meaning, Bible-believing people in the church today seem to be of the opinion that it is a doctrine (oops, that word is also on the ever-expanding list of things to be avoided in the preaching and teaching of the church) better left unsaid.  After all, many people find it to be confusing or even downright offensive.

If it is so sure to confuse some people or offend others, shouldn’t we just avoid the subject altogether? No doubt that is the approach taken by many today.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin gives us some helpful advice on the subject:

For Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know, so nothing is taught but what is expedient to know. Therefore we must guard against depriving believers of anything disclosed about predestination in Scripture, lest we seem either wickedly to defraud them of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what it is in any way profitable to suppress. (Vol.2, p.924)

Only a couple pages later, he writes:

Whoever, then, heaps odium upon the doctrine of predestination openly reproaches God, as if he had unadvisedly let slip something hurtful to the church. (Vol.2, p.926)

In other words,to avoid the subject is to cast aspersions upon God Himself for including the subject (and, frankly, for doing it so often!) in His Word. To ignore or downplay the doctrine of election when it is prevalent in the text is to accuse God Himself of either including something in His Word that is unnecessary (as if He intentionally gave us something we do not need), or (worse yet) even downright harmful to His people.

So let us not deprive God’s people of something that He gave us for our good; and (even more importantly), let us not insult our heavenly Father as if He would give His children a stone when they ask for bread (Matthew 7:9).

 

Posted in Books & Other Resources, Election, Ephesians, Grace, John Calvin, Notable Quotes, Predestination, Systematic Theology | Leave a comment

The Glorious Certainty of the Gospel

Machen

What is the relationship between the grace of God in the gospel and assurance? Why is the doctrine of justification by faith alone so important? J. Gresham Machen writes,

Such is the glorious certainty of the gospel. The salvation of the Christian is certain because it depends altogether upon God; if it depended in slightest measure upon us, the certainty of it would be gone. Hence appears the vital importance of the great Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone;  that doctrine is at the very centre of Christianity. It means that acceptance with God is not something that we earn; it is not something that is subject to the wretched uncertainties of human endeavor; but it is a free gift of God. (What Is Faith?, p.200-201)

That is just one more reason why the doctrine of justification by faith alone is so important. It is not just a matter for ivory tower theologians or fodder for theological debate – far from it!  It makes all the difference in the world to each and every believer in Christ. Why? Because it is the only real way to true certainty and assurance in the Christian life.

Justification by faith alone presents us with a choice between the “glorious certainty of the gospel” (i.e. knowing without a shadow of a doubt that you have been fully forgiven and accepted by a holy God) or the wretched uncertainties of human endeavor.”

If our salvation depends upon our works in even the slightest degree, all certainty and assurance are cast aside. But if salvation is a free gift of God (which is ultimately what justification by faith alone entails), then & only then can the believer truly have the peace and assurance that comes with believing the gospel of Christ.

Posted in Assurance of Salvation, Books & Other Resources, Grace, J. Gresham Machen, Justification, Notable Quotes, The Gospel | Leave a comment

Almost God?

Machen

Some wise words from J.Gresham Machen on the subject of the deity of Christ:

“[T]he church hurled anathemas at those who held that Christ, though great, was less than God. But those anathemas were beneficent and right. That difference of opinion was no mere trifle; there is no such thing as “almost God.” The thought is blasphemy; the next thing less than the infinite is infinitely less.” (J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith?, p.116)

For anyone (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example) to claim that Jesus is “a god” (but not fully God) or that He is “almost God” is utter nonsense.  As Machen astutely points out, there is no such thing as “almost God” or almost infinite.  It is not only nonsense, but blasphemy as well. Jesus is either God or He is something far less that that. There really is no middle ground.

 

Posted in Books & Other Resources, J. Gresham Machen, Jesus Christ, Notable Quotes, The Deity of Christ, The Trinity, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Book Review: Taking God At His Word, by Kevin DeYoung

DeYoung

This is a very good book about the Good Book.

It is also a timely and important book. Granted, a book like this would be timely in any age, as attacks on the inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture have basically been around as long as Scripture itself. Indeed the original temptation by the serpent in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3) in many ways took the form of an attack on the veracity and truthfulness of the Word of God.

I have a confession to make: I have enjoyed and benefited from a number of books by Kevin DeYoung. It would not feel right to call myself a “fan” of his, but he is as close to “automatic” for me as any current Christian author gets. In other words, whenever he writes a new book, chances are pretty good that I am going to obtain a copy for my personal library, read it, and highlight it extensively.

Part of the reason for that is that I have never read one of his books and felt like my time was wasted.  He seems to have a knack for writing on subjects that are both timely and important. He also seems to have a knack for writing with both pastor and lay person alike in mind. His works are scholarly, but not overly academic.  They are accessible, but not overly simplistic. In other words, he writes as a pastor. And this particular book is no exception.

DeYoung states the goal of his book as follows:

I want to convince you (and make sure I’m convinced myself) that the Bible makes no mistakes, can be understood, cannot be overturned, and is the most important word in your life, the most relevant thing you can read each day. (p.14)

In order to accomplish this goal, DeYoung goes into some detail about the four (4) attributes or characteristics of Scripture: Sufficiency, Clarity, Authority, and Necessity (often abbreviated by the acronym, SCAN). He spends no less than 4 of the 8 chapters (half of the book!) in this brief volume dealing with these attributes. This section is very helpful.

The final two (2) chapters of the book deal with Jesus’ view of Scripture (by examining in the Gospels what Jesus has to say about Scripture, how He used Scripture, etc.) and the inspiration of Scripture (primarily focusing on 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and the surrounding context).  He closes with an appendix of “Thirty of the Best Books on the Good Book.” The books on this list vary from those that are easily accessible to the highly academic. (Clearly DeYoung is not claiming to have written the last word about God’s Word.)

One of the strengths of this book is that throughout its pages, DeYoung demonstrates the very view of Scripture that he is seeking to impart to the reader.  In other words, much of his argument consists of the exposition of various passages of Scripture itself.  And by making his case in this way, he not only tells us, but also shows us that the Bible really is sufficient, clear, authoritative, and necessary.

I highly recommend this book and sincerely hope that it enjoys a wide (and long-lasting) readership. You can order a copy here: Taking God At His Word

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The Usefulness of Creeds & Confessions

Creed Fossil

Is there a place for creeds & confessions in 21st century Christianity?

Some might say that they are little more than ancient relics of a bygone era that have gone the way of the dinosaur. Many in the church today treat them much like a museum piece – they might be interesting to look at once in a while, but they have no abiding significance or usefulness in the modern (or postmodern) age in which we live.

In some circles, creeds and confessions are not just neglected, but openly disparaged. “Deeds not creeds” and “no creed but Christ” are the rallying cries of the day in many churches.  Ironically, those same slogans themselves actually are creeds, even if unbiblical, unhelpful, and downright nonsensical ones at that. So in a sense we all have creeds – we all believe something.  As Carl Trueman notes,

 . . .even those churches and Christians who repudiate the whole notion of creeds and confessions will yet tend to operate with an implicit creed. (The Creedal Imperative, p.15)

Judging by the widespread ignorance and disuse of even the most basic ecumenical creeds (i.e. the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds), it seems that the consensus in many evangelical churches is that such things are now obsolete (or possibly just off-putting). But we neglect the ancient creeds and Reformed confessions to our own detriment.

So what purposes do creeds & confessions serve in the life of the church and in the lives of believers in Jesus Christ?  More than you might think.  Here are just a few:

  1. Creeds & confessions help to foster unity in the church (and even between churches). They remind us of the essentials or non-negotiables of the Christian faith, the things that we as believers in Christ by definition believe together.
  2. Creeds & confessions serve to protect the church from false teaching and heresy.  They provide a helpful litmus test of sorts for the regular preaching and teaching of the church.
  3. Creeds & confessions also provide a means of keeping the ministers of the church accountable or answerable for their teaching. (See #2 above.)
  4. Creeds & confessions help to pass on the essential doctrines of the Christian faith from one generation to the next.
  5. Creeds & confessions are very helpful teaching tools – they help us to know what we believe. Many believers today are simply unsure or unclear about what they believe (or even what they should believe). Creeds and confessions give us a clear outline of the basics of the faith. This is yet another reason to incorporate them into the public worship of the church on the Lord’s day.
  6. Creeds & confessions not only help us to know what we believe (see #5 above), but also help us to articulate (or clearly state) what we believe as well.  Creeds put the words of faith in their mouths – “I believe . . . .”
  7. Creeds & confessions connect us to the common faith that we share with our brothers & sisters of earlier centuries and cultures. In so doing they can do us the invaluable service of preventing us from the all-too-common mistake of chronological snobbery (for lack of a better term). We sometimes think that the sun rises and sets with us, or that we are somehow smarter or more advanced than our brethren from generations past. The ancient creeds and Reformed confessions remind us that “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3, ESV) did not start with us.

There are no doubt many other benefits to using the historic creeds & confessions of the Christian faith. If you think of some others that are not on the above list, feel free to submit your suggestions in the comments section below.

For a very helpful book on the subject of creeds, check out The Creedal Imperative, by Carl Trueman.  If you are not yet convinced of the vital importance of creeds and confessions (and even the biblical mandate for them!) get this book!

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For a short volume containing many of the ecumenical creeds & Reformed confessions, click here: http://www.wtsbooks.com/ecumenical-creeds-and-reformed-confessions-faith-alive-9780930265342

Creeds

For a copy of the Westminster Standards (containing the Westminster Confession of Faith, and both the Larger & Shorter Catechisms), click here: http://www.wtsbooks.com/westminster-standards-gcp-9780934688567

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