The Manifold Helps to Holiness in the Church

Gospel Mystery

In his book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Puritan author Walter Marshall (1628-1680) gives us no less than six (6) ways in which the fellowship of the saints in the local church is conducive toward growth in holiness and sanctification (p.211-212):

1.  The Word and Sacraments (i.e. the means of grace in public worship), as well as the ministry of pastors and elders in overseeing and caring for our souls (Hebrews 13:17) are a great help to believers in striving to grow in holiness. But how rarely do we consider the ministry of the local church in public worship or in pastoral oversight when it comes to our desire to grow in holiness? Marshall points out that none of these helps unto holiness can be enjoyed outside of the fellowship of believers in the church. If you desire to grow in grace and holiness, do not overlook the importance of the local church.

2.  Mutual Prayer – How great a blessing it is when believers not only pray, or even pray for one another, but also pray with one another? What a support and encouragement that can be! And how much greater when the whole church gathers to pray together!

3.  Mutual Admonition, Instruction, and Consolation – It is not without reason that Scripture so often tells us of the importance of “one another” ministry among believers in the church. We are to let the Word of Christ dwell among us richly, which includes “teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3:16). And one of the reasons that the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us not to neglect to meet together is that we might “stir up one another to love and good works” (10:24-25). Marshall writes,

“In church fellowship there are many helpers, many to watch. Soldiers have their security in company [i.e. numbers]; and the church is compared to an army with banners (Song vi. 4, 10). So, for quickening affections, Iron sharpeneth iron (Prov. xxvii. 17)” (p.212).

So it is not just the pastors and elders who are of great assistance to us in our growth in godliness, but the entire church! We are each to be bother helper and helped!

4.  External Supports – When suffering afflictions, how greatly it helps us to have shoulders to lean upon or cry upon. Simply put, we bear each others burdens in the church.

5.  Excommunication (!) – Yes, you read that correctly. Excommunication is a benefit of being a part of a local church? So what difference is there between that and just not getting involved in the church in the first place? As Marshall explains,

This ordinance is appointed for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved (1 Cor. v. 5). Better and more hopeful it is, to be cast out by the church, for a person’s amendment [i.e. repentance and restoration], than to be wholly without the church at all times; and better to be a lost sheep than a goat or swine . . . ” (p.212).

6.  The Lively Examples of the Saints – How helpful it is to have godly examples set before our eyes throughout our days. And how often is this very thing actually neglected by those churches who seem to undervalue the elderly in our churches, all in the name of the supposed importance of youth. Both are important to be sure (as saints of all ages are), but how much more do the younger need to learn from the older! The dear senior saints who have walked with the Lord Jesus Christ for a great many years have much to teach the younger believers, who are often just taking baby steps in the faith.

Marshall has a lot more to say about the way of sanctification, and I highly recommend this book to you. But I hope that this small sample of what he has to say about it gives you a renewed appreciation for the importance of the church in the Christian life.

The Fundamental Apologetical Fact of Christianity

BB Warfield 2How important is the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ? In his book, The Person and Work of Christ, B.B. Warfield writes,

“From the empty grave of Jesus the enemies of the cross turn away in unconcealable dismay. Christ has risen from the dead! After two thousand years of the most determined assault upon the evidence which establishes it, that fact stands. And so long as it stands,  Christianity too must stand as the one supernatural religion The resurrection of Christ is the fundamental apologetical fact of Christianity” (p.543).

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the “fundamental apologetical fact of Christianity.” It is the evidence and argument for the Christian faith from which the enemies of the cross still turn away in utter dismay. Facts, as the old saying goes, are stubborn things, and the resurrection of Christ is still the ultimate immovable object.

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

Palm Sunday in Heaven

palm-leaf-233282_1280It’s easy for us in the church today to look around us and be discouraged. At times it seems like nothing much good is happening. At times it can seem like Jesus is not at work. Sometimes it even seems as if our Lord Jesus Christ is not in control. As Hebrews 2:8 says,

“Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.”

Everything really is now in subjection to King Jesus. Everything. But at present it doesn’t always look that way to us, does it? Sometimes it seems like evil is winning. Sometimes it seems as if the Lord is not blessing our witness to His gospel and working through it to save and transform sinners. But He is.

Even the original Palm Sunday seems like a failure in some ways, doesn’t it?. Upon closer inspection the triumphal entry doesn’t seem all that triumphant. After all, we know that the crowds didn’t actually understand who Jesus was and what He came to do; most of them didn’t actually believe, and many of those same people were probably among the crowds that within a week’s time would be shouting “crucify Him!” (John 19:15). Even His own disciples didn’t even understand until later (John 12:16)!

But in Revelation 7:9-12, John writes,

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.””

That is a picture of heaven. In a sense that is the real Palm Sunday. The triumphal entry of Jesus Christ was a preview of heaven. As Palm Sunday reminds us of the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ, it reminds us that the Lord Jesus Christ is even now at work in the world, gathering and defending His church. We may have trouble seeing it at times, but one day it will be clear as day that “the world has gone after him” (John 12:19) because the Lord Jesus was going after the world, seeking and saving a multitude of sinners so great in  number that no man will be able to begin to count them!

The Use of Wine in the Lord’s Supper

communionIn 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 Paul says something that clearly indicates that wine was used in the Lord’s Supper.  There he writes,

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.

Drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper? One thing is certain – people weren’t getting “drunk” on non-fermented grape juice.  And notice what he does not propose as the solution to someone being drunk at the Lord’s Supper – he never suggests (much less commands) that wine should no longer be used! If ever there would have been an excuse to forbid the use of wine in the observance of the Lord’s Supper, it would have been in Corinth. The fact that Paul did no such thing should be very instructive to us. If alcohol itself were somehow inherently sinful or if Jesus Himself had not instituted this Sacrament with wine, it would have been the simplest solution, wouldn’t it? It would certainly sound logical enough. But because the Lord Jesus Himself instituted the sacrament with wine, we should be very careful not to tinker with it however we see fit.

The use of grape juice instead of wine in the Lord’s Supper is actually a relatively recent innovation in the practice of the church. In fact, it was virtually unheard of throughout the first 1,800 or so years of church history. In his book, The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread, Robert Letham notes,

Only with the rise of the temperance movement in the nineteenth century was an aversion to alcohol allowed to intrude into the Christian church. (p.52)

To be sure, the Bible plainly condemns drunkenness. Ephesians 5:18 (also written by the Apostle Paul, who wrote 1 Corinthians) plainly says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” So drunkenness is indeed a sin, but drinking wine itself is not. And if the Lord Jesus Himself actually commanded that we drink wine in remembrance of Him and His blood shed on the Cross for our sins, certainly we should not try to be wiser than God. Even less should we appear to charge Him with error at somehow giving us something that would be harmful to us.

Maybe this is a non-issue for you. If so, good. But what should you do if you have an issue of conscience against any use of alcohol whatsoever? Maybe you were raised in a church tradition where you have been taught that alcohol itself is inherently sinful. (I myself was raised in such a church tradition.) Or maybe you have struggled with addiction to alcohol and fear that even the smallest amount of wine (as it is certainly common in the Lord’s Supper to use the tiniest of cups) crossing your lips could be the beginning of a terrible downward spiral back into alcohol abuse.

If any of those scenarios describes you, I would humbly offer you the following advice:

  1. Do not go against your conscience. Elsewhere Paul writes, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23, ESV). So if you are presently convinced that something is inherently sinful, then abstain from it until such time as your conscience freely permits. (Many churches, including ours, offer both wine and grape juice for this very reason.)
  2. Seek to the best of your ability to have a biblically-informed conscience. Prayerfully examine the whole counsel of God on the subject. Make sure that you are drawing the line where Scripture itself draws the line. There are more than enough commandments in the Word of God already; we don’t need to be adding to them (or subtracting from them, for that matter).
  3. Act in accordance with that biblically-informed conscience. If you now come to the conclusion that wine (and not grape juice) is what is to be used in the Lord’s Supper as Jesus originally instituted it, trust that He knows what is best and partake of the wine in the Supper in faith.
  4. One last thing – in the event that your mind is changed and your conscience has been persuaded of the use of wine, be careful not to seek to short-circuit this very same process in the life of a fellow brother or sister in the Lord who still has a conviction against the use of wine. Pray, gently seek to inform their conscience with Scripture, but do not try to get someone else to go against their coscience.

Of course, these same principles apply to just about everything in the Christian life, not just the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. But I hope that you find them helpful in thinking about the right administration & observance of the Lord’s Supper.

The Unimpressive Church

MH900409495As the old saying goes, you can’t always judge a book by its cover. The same can be said of churches. In fact, sometimes it is the downright unimpressive-looking church where God is really at work.

We often tend to look for the bells and whistles, the programs and amenities (basically what does a church have to offer me and my family?). And there is nothing wrong with those things in & of themselves. But we also need to look deeper than that. Frankly, sometimes we can be impressed by all of the wrong things.

Beautiful church building? Nothing wrong with that at all, of course. (Who doesn’t want a nice building for their church?) Youth programs for the kids? Catchy music? A lot of activities going on throughout the week? Those can be good things. But those things alone are not the right basis for judging a church.

J.C. Ryle offers us some godly wisdom – a different way to look at the outwardly unimpressive church:

“There are many assemblies of Christian worshippers [sic] on earth at this very day in which there is literally nothing to attract the natural man. They meet in miserable dirty chapels, so-called, or in wretched upper rooms and cellars. They sing unmusically. They hear feeble prayers, and more feeble sermons. And yet the Holy Ghost is often in the midst of them! Sinners are often converted in them and the kingdom of God prospers far more than in any Roman Catholic Cathedral, or in many gorgeous Protestant churches. How is this? How can it be explained? The cause is simply this, that in these humble assemblies heart-religion is taught and held. Heart work is aimed at. Heart work is honored. And the consequence is that God is pleased and grants his blessing.” (J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion, p.256)

So if you are a member of just such an unimpressive church (or even one of its ministers!) – take heart! Just as God doesn’t look at the outward appearance, but at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), even so He is often very much at work in the church whose outward appearance is nothing to write home about.

Unimpressive music? Feeble prayers? Even more feeble sermons? (How many pastors want to lay claim to that one?)  But better to be at home in a dull, unimpressive church like that where God is truly at work than anywhere else!

Messy Church?

watercolor-box-174549_1280We are sinners, every last one of us. And the church, if it is growing as it should, will at times be a rather messy place. Just like a growing family can have a messy home and can require a watchful eye and busy parents (and older siblings), even so the church is a place where sinners can come to faith in Christ and repentance unto life in Him, and begin with the baby steps of following Christ all of their days.

Rome was not built in a day, and neither are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not a single one of us are finished products yet, not even close.

As the saying goes, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. And if we are reaching out with the gospel of Jesus Christ the way we should, the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, who is even now ruling over all things for the sake of His church, will be sovereignly lavishing His saving grace on all kinds of sinners! Listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11,

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Look at the kinds of sinners who were saved, washed, and sanctified by God’s grace in Christ there in Corinth – real, actual sinners! The sexually immoral, adulterers, homosexuals, drunkards and thieves!

Wait – you mean that Jesus saves those kinds of people too?!? Of course He does! Or do we think that the arm of the Lord is too shortened to reach and save the lost? Is He only able or willing to save people like us who only sinned in the more respectable or socially-acceptable ways? No, he came into the world to save sinners, among whom Paul saw himself as the chief – the worst of the bunch (1 Timothy 1:15)! “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), not merely just to help those who help themselves.

Do we mentally exclude people from our witness because they are too far gone? Do we think that those with serious sin issues are beyond the reach of the grace of Christ? Remember that Jesus is a friend of sinners. He spent a lot of time around real, live sinners! Matthew 11:19 says,

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

Do we require people to clean themselves up first before they can come to Jesus (or before they can come to our church)? Or do we share the gospel with them, confident that (as Paul says in Romans 1:16) it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”? We might read 1 Corinthians and shake our heads, but that church, despite all of her obvious (and serious) problems, was still a church where the Lord was at work in saving and transforming sinners.  It was a messy church, but it was messy for the right reason – because God was at work.

Certainly in the church “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40, ESV), but decently and in good order does not necessarily mean that everything must be neat and tidy, does it? May your church and mine become a little messier because God is at work in our midst saving all kinds of sinners.

Practical Advice on Bible Reading from J.C. Ryle

Ryle Practical ReligionHave you ever wanted to make it a point to read the Bible on a regular basis, but just weren’t sure how to go about it? If that describes you, here is some practical advice for you from J.C. Ryle’s book, Practical Religion (p.122-125):

  1. Start today. Just get started, and worry about figuring out the perfect way to do it later. You can always change how you go about it as you go. Ryle writes,

    “The way to do a thing is to do it, and the way to read the Bible is actually to read it. It is not meaning, or wishing, or resolving, or intending, or thinking about it, which will advance you one step. You must positively read.” (p.122)

  2. “Read the Bible with an earnest desire to understand it.” Don’t just set a certain number of pages as your goal. Make it your aim to learn and understand what you are reading from the Scriptures. Better even a verse or two rightly understood than 50 pages hurried over as a mere duty or checklist item marked off for the day. As Ryle notes, “a Bible not understood is a Bible that does no good.”
  3. “Read the Bible with childlike faith and humility.” Be prepared to learn; more than that, to have your mind changed and renewed. Do not accept only what seems agreeable with what you already think or believe. He writes, “Do we know better than God? Settle it down in your mind that you will receive all and believe all, and that what you cannot understand you will take on trust.”
  4. Read the Bible with an eye toward obeying it & applying it to your life. We are not reading for reading’s sake or for curiosity alone. At times the Word of God will shine a spotlight (or more precisely a searchlight!) on our sins and shortcomings. There God will show us what He would change in us to conform us more to the image of Christ. Where you see a command or a prohibition, take it to heart and seek to obey and apply it to your life.
  5. Read the Bible daily. If man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4), and yet we need to eat on a regular basis in order to live, how much more do we need a steady diet of God’s Word in order to sustain us!
  6. Read all of the Bible, and read it in an orderly fashion. If we fail to read the Bible this way, we will almost certainly skip around and miss a great many things.  Don’t forget that the Apostle Paul tells us that. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV). All of God’s Word is breathed out by God. And He gave all of it to us with good reason, for our benefit. It is all necessary for us.
  7. “Read the Bible fairly and honestly.” Try your best to take everything you read there in its most plain and simple meaning. If what you read there does not fit neatly into your preconceived notion or previously taught theological system, maybe the thing to do is not to try to shoe-horn that passage to make it fit with your notion or system, but rather to reconsider your notion or system instead.
  8. “Read the Bible with Christ continually in view.” The whole Bible (not just the New Testament, but the Old Testament as well!) is ultimately about the Lord Jesus Christ. (See Luke 24:27; John :5:39-47.) That being the case, we will have a difficult time rightly understanding the Scriptures if we do not perceive the chief end for which they were given – to point us to Jesus Christ.

There is obviously a lot more that could be said, but the advice above is a pretty good start. I hope that you find these things to be helpful in your efforts to spending time in the Word of God.