Author: Andy Schreiber

Justification (Shorter Catechism Q.33)

1710_largeThe 500th anniversary of what is commonly held to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is nearly upon us! For it was on October 31st, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his now-famous “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s invitation to debate these 95 points of doctrine or contention has been called the spark that lit the flame of the Protestant Reformation.

With this momentous anniversary almost upon us, I thought it might be helpful to post something on the protestant doctrine of justification. Justification by faith alone (sola fide) is often called the “material cause” of the Reformation. In other words, it was front and center in many of the debates, discussions, and even trials. The “formal cause” of the Reformation – the underlying foundational issue – was the authority of Scripture (or sola Scriptura).

The doctrine of justification has been called the doctrine by which the church stands or falls (Martin Luther), and the hinge on which the Christian religion turns (John Calvin). So what is it? What is the biblical doctrine of justification?

I believe that the simplest and most helpful definition of justification is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, where it says,

“Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

So the first thing we see there in that definition is that justification is “an act of God’s grace.” It is an act of the grace of God, and so it is a gift, freely given to all who are in Christ by faith. It is not earned, nor can it be. In other words, the basis of our justification is not found in anything inherent in us at all.

The second thing we see is that justification is a one-time act, as distinguished from sanctification, which is an ongoing “work of God’s free grace” (Q.35). There are no degrees of justification; there is no growth (or decay) in justification. In fact, as Westminster Larger Catechism Q.77 points out, justification “does equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation” (italics added). All genuine believers in Christ are equally, perfectly, and irrevocably (!) justified in Christ and so freed from God’s wrath! That is grace!

The third thing that we see here in this definition of justification is that this act of God’s grace in Christ includes the pardon or forgiveness of all of our sins. What a wonderful blessing (Psalm 103:2-3)! No wonder the Apostle Paul says,

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

Forgiveness and peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ! Is there anything that sinners could possibly need more than that? No wonder the gospel of Christ is good news!

But wait, there’s more! The fourth thing that we see in the Shorter Catechism’s definition of justification is that in it God not only pardons all of our sins, but He also “accepts us as righteous in his sight.” Being forgiven is one thing, but then also being accepted by a holy God as if we were righteous in His sight! Justification is much more than a clean slate! It is having a positively righteous slate or standing in the eyes of a holy God!

How is that even possible? How can sinners be accepted by God as righteous in His sight? What is the basis or ground of this new standing before God? The Catechism adds that it is “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” When we come to Christ by faith, His perfect, spotless righteousness is reckoned or imputed to our account in God’s sight!

In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ did not just die in our place, but He lived in our place as well! This is often spoken of as the “active obedience” of Christ (in contrast to His “passive” obedience, wherein He suffered and died in our place). His obedience is reckoned as our obedience when it comes to our standing before God!

And how is the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us and received by us? By faith alone. Period. Not by something we do; not by faith in Christ plus something else – faith alone. And it is by faith alone in order to ensure that it is by God’s grace alone (Romans 4:16).

What a wonderfully full and yet concise definition of justification! And what a beautiful and comforting truth! That is certainly something well worth considering, meditating upon, and celebrating.

 

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The Second Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonOur study through the ten commandments now brings us to the second commandment, which says,

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6, ESV)

The first thing that you might notice is that this commandment is much longer and more detailed than the first commandment, which simply says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The very length of this commandment should get your attention.

The simplest way to summarize this commandment is to say that in it God forbids the sin of idolatryBut what is idolatry? In its most literal sense it is the use of images in worship. In the commandment above the Lord forbids us from the making of images, bowing down to them, and serving them. But it also includes worshiping God in any way that he himself has not ordained. That is the basic meaning of this commandment.

The old Puritan writer, Thomas Watson (1620-1686), put it this way:

“In the first commandment worshiping a false god is forbidden; in this, worshiping the true God in a false manner [is forbidden].” (The Ten Commandments, p.59)

That is a helpful way to understand the relationship between the first and second commandments. The first forbids the worship of false gods; the second forbids false worship, even of the one true God.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism points out that in this commandment the Lord gives us not only a prohibition against a particular form of sin (i.e. the making and serving of images of anything in all of creation), but also gives us several reasons why we should be careful to obey it:

Q. 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.

The first reason why we should be careful to obey this commandment is because God is sovereign over us – He is the Lord. In other words, we should not commit idolatry because God alone is God. In v.5 he calls himself “the LORD your God.” He alone is worthy of worship and obedience.

The second reason is because of God’s redemption and ownership of his people. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you have even more reason to refrain from any form of idolatry. If he is “your God” (v.5), then you simply have no business committing idolatry.

The third reason given here is God’s own zeal for His worship – that the Lord “is a jealous God” (v.5) who will judge the “iniquity” of those who commit idolatry. And what motive does the Lord assign to those who would practice idolatry? Hatred of God. Think about that. Idolatry is essentially an expression of hatred toward God. No wonder God warns of judgment against those who practice it!

If you truly love God you will keep his commandments (v.6), especially his commandments regarding his worship! We are not left to worship the Lord according to our own imagination or preferences. The second commandment shows that God is jealous (or zealous) that he alone be worshiped, and that he be worshiped according to his revealed will in Scripture alone.

 

Spurgeon on Writer’s Block (Psalm 51)

Treasury of DavidAs a pastor, I sometimes suffer from a kind of writer’s block when it comes to writing and preparing sermons. Oddly enough, this seems to happen more often (not less) when it involves a well-known and beloved passage of Scripture. (The 23rd Psalm, for example.)

There is something intimidating about preaching the Word of God in general, but this is even more the case when it comes to the most familiar texts.

And so it brought me a strange sense of comfort and encouragement to know that even Charles Spurgeon himself, the “prince of preachers” as he has come to be known, had the following to say about sitting down to write on Psalm 51:

“I postponed expounding it week after week, feeling more and more my inability for the work. Often I sat down to it, and rose up again without having penned a line. . . . Such a Psalm may be wept over, absorbed into the soul, and exhaled again in devotion; but commented on – ah! Where is he who having attempted it can do other than blush at his defeat?” (The Treasury of David, Vol. 1, Preface to Part 2.)

To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

You might suppose that such texts practically preach themselves, but they can really humble a pastor (not necessarily a bad thing). So if you are a pastor, and are tasked with the regular preaching of the Word of God – take heart! (Charles Spurgeon was human too!) 🙂

And if you are a believer in Christ, pray for your pastor(s). Preaching isn’t nearly as easy as some of them make it look!

The Only Head of the Church (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.6)

1710_largeThe last section of Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 25 (“Of the Church”) deals with a point of doctrine which many readers today might consider as bordering on the irrelevant. It says,

“There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.6)

Simply put, we believe and confess that there is only one true head of the church – the Lord Jesus Christ. No one else can rightly claim such authority, not even “the pope of Rome.”

In Ephesians 1:22-23 the Apostle Paul writes the following regarding the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ:

“And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (ESV)

Similarly, in Colossians 1:18 Paul writes,

“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (ESV)

So the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ is the one true head of the church. How then, does He exercise His supreme authority in the church? In his commentary on the Confession of Faith A.A. Hodge notes that Christ does so through the following:

  1. His Inspired Word.
  2. His Apostolic Institutions (i.e. the ministry, sacraments, and ordinances).
  3. His Own Spiritual Presence. (p.318-319)

And so even though the Lord Jesus Christ is not now physically present on earth, He nevertheless rules over all things for His church from the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He needs no earthly vicar (a title often ascribed to the pope) to act as head in His place.

David Dickson notes that for the church to have any other head alongside Christ Himself would not be unlike thinking of her as a “monster” with two heads (Truth’s Victory Over Error, p.202).

The seven letters to the seven churches (found in Revelation chapters 2-3) portray the Lord Jesus as the one who “walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Revelation 2:1, ESV). The lampstands are the churches (1:20). And so Jesus is clearly portrayed, not as an absentee ruler, but as a very present King, walking among His churches and watching over them.

In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ needs no vicar, no pope, no other head to help rule over His church in His place. He is with us always, even to the end of the age, even as He Himself has promised (Matthew 28:20).

 

Flawed Church or False Church? (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.5)

WCFThe Westminster Confession of Faith 25.4 basically deals with is often referred to as “the marks of the true church.” Those “marks” (although the Confession does not use the term there) are the things by which we are to distinguish or recognize whether or not a particular local church is truly a Christian church. (See here.)

Having dealt with the question of the true church in some detail (25.4), the Confession then goes on to speak of the false church:

“The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5)

The first thing that we should take note of there is that there is no such thing as a perfect church this side of heaven. The Confession plainly states there that “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error . . . .” So in seeking to recognize the marks of the true church, we must be careful not to expect to find a perfect church. Even the very best of churches (like the godliest Christians) have faults, failures, shortcomings, and sins.

Mixture and error. That means that we can in this life expect to find false professors and hypocrites in the church. There is really no such thing as a church that always has a perfectly pure membership (i.e. that they are all genuine believers in Christ). And the membership of even the purest of churches consists entirely of sinners. Every last member. Saved sinners? Certainly. Justified sinners? Absolutely? Sanctified (and in the process of being sanctified)? Without a doubt. But sinners nonetheless.

Not only that, but that the best of churches are subject to “mixture and error” means that there is no such thing as a pastor or a church with perfect doctrine in all things (!). As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12,

“[9] For we know in part and we prophesy in part, [10] but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. [11] When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. [12] For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (ESV)

And so we must learn to tell the difference between, not just a true church and a false church, but also between a flawed church (which is a description of every true church under heaven) and a false church. Imperfection does not a false church make. The flawed church may be far from perfect, but it will still exhibit (even if imperfectly) the true preaching of the Word of God (“the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced” – 25.4), the right administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline (“ordinances administered – 25.4).

Some churches, however, “have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan” (25.5). In other words, sometimes true churches go beyond just being flawed (which all are) to the point of actually becoming false churches. When this happens (to use the words of the Confession), such churches “become no churches of Christ” at all. They may retain the name of “Christian,” but it is really in name only, rather than in any meaningful or true sense.

Sadly, this can be demonstrated over and over again in the history of the church. Churches and entire denominations that once started out so strong, can and do at times “degenerate” even to the point of blatant unbelief and wickedness.

Such things are spoken of (and warned against) in the book of Revelation. In what is often referred to as the seven letters to the seven churches (Revelation chapters 2-3) we read of the words of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself to the church in Ephesus:

“[2] I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. [3] I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. [4] But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. [5] Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:2-5, ESV, italics added)

There the Lord warns them that if they do not repent, He would come to them and remove their “lampstand” (v.5). Removing their lampstand is another way of saying that their light has been put out, and that they (the church at Ephesus) are no longer truly a member of Christ’s visible church. (In Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage, he describes it as Christ unchurching that church!)

Thankfully, this section of the Confession’s chapter on the church ends on a much more encouraging note than that, when it says, “Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.” The church will not fail. Some churches may become false churches, but the Lord Jesus Christ will always have His church on this earth. As He Himself has said, “. . . I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, ESV).

Ultimately, the church cannot fail, because the risen, ascended, and reigning Lord Jesus Christ Himself is her owner and her builder. That is why even the very gates of hell can never hope to prevail against it!

The Marks of The True Church (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.4)

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What kinds of things should believers in Christ look for when choosing a church? How do you know when you ought to remain at your current church? Conversely, how do you know when you may need to leave your church and find a new church home? To quote The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?”

Many in our day seem to make such decisions based largely upon what might be considered peripheral issues, such as the style of music, children’s programs, the personality of the pastor, etc.. Those are not necessarily unimportant things to consider, but are they really the right standard by which we should measure a particular church?

This is where the concept of the “marks of the true church” often proves helpful. The Westminster Confession of Faith (25.4) deals with this subject (although it does not use the phrase “marks of the church), when it says,

“This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

Keeping in mind that the word “catholic” here (as in the Apostles’ Creed) simply means universal, not Roman Catholic, it is helpful to see that no particular (i.e. local) church or denomination is to be considered as coextensive or coterminous with the catholic/universal church. Frankly, that is how cults tend to view & present themselves (i.e. as the only true church, while all other churches are false, apostate, etc.). Rather, we are to consider particular/local churches in relation to the catholic/universal church.

And so when we are considering a particular church, our primary question must be whether or not it is truly a member of the one catholic, visible church. And how is that to be determined? By considering it in light of what is known as the marks of the true church.

The Confession’s statement above (25.4) states that the standard by which a church is to be measured, the things that we are to consider in order to determine whether or not a particular church is either “more or less pure” are as follows:

  1. “The doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced.” This must come first. If the gospel of Christ is not truly taught and embraced, then a particular church is a Christian church in name only. A false gospel equals a false church. (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5 speaks of such churches as “no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.”) And so our first and primary concern when deciding on a church must be that the Word of God is truly preached and taught.
  2. The proper administration of the “ordinances.” This is refers primarily to the sacraments, but most likely includes such things as church discipline, the maintaining of the offices of the church, etc. Sadly, the proper administration of the sacraments is probably an afterthought to many sincere believers, but it has been commonly held to be one of the distinguishing marks of the true church. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are vitally important in the lives of believers. The fact that the Westminster Confession of Faith devotes no less than three (3) whole chapters (27-29) to this subject testifies to its importance.
  3. The purity of public worship. Now the public worship of the church is probably one of the first things that many people consider when choosing a particular church. But the purity of the public worship (i.e. that it conforms to what is commanded in Scripture) often does not seem to be the priority, but rather the personal preferences of the individual. In other words, we commonly ask whether or not the public worship of a particular church is pleasing to us, rather than asking whether or not it is pleasing to God. (Or we simply presume that if it is pleasing to us, then it must somehow be pleasing to God as well.)

Now there is obviously a lot of overlap between those three things. And those three things are not exactly the way that the marks of the true church have most commonly been articulated and defined. (The Confession, of course, does not use that term here.) The classic formulation of the marks of the true church is found (for example) in the Belgic Confession. Article 29 of the Belgic Confession puts it this way:

“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.”

So the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the practice of proper church discipline are stated as being the three (3) marks of the true church. That is not to say that the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Belgic Confession are at odds on this issue; they simply articulate the same things somewhat differently. And notice that the Belgic Confession basically summarizes the three marks by saying, “In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God.” That is really the standard.

As for the original question – “Should I stay or should I go?” Article 29 of the Belgic Confession sums it up well when it says, “By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.” If your particular local church does not demonstrate these three simple marks, then you probably need to find yourself a different church. But if it does show itself faithful in these three distinguishing marks (however unimpressive it may be), then (as the Belgic Confession states above), you ought not to be separated from it.

The marks of the true church are as much about knowing when you should stay at a particular church as they are about when you should leave it. Choose your church wisely, measuring all things according to the Word of God. And then faithfully worship, serve, and remain there to the glory of Jesus Christ.

The First Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonIn previous posts I dealt with some preliminary concerns about the ten commandments as a whole – things which are helpful for us to understand before going into detail about the individual commandments themselves. (More could certainly be said in that regard.)

But now I would like to spend some time going through each of the ten commandments, one at a time, and in order. That brings us to the first commandment, which simply says,

“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, ESV)

Notice that the very first commandment (indeed, the first four commandments!) deals with our relationship with God. It should be instructive for us that this is where the ten commandments begin. In his book, The Ten Commandments, Thomas Watson writes,

“This may well lead the van, and be set in the front of all the commandments, because it is the foundation of all true religion. The sum of this commandment is, that we should sanctify God in our hearts, and give him a precedence above all created beings.” (p.49)

If you were to rank the commandments in the order of their importance, how far up (or down) the list would you rank this one? Perhaps the commandment against murder (6th commandment – Exodus 20:13) comes to mind first, or maybe the commandment against adultery (7th commandment – Exodus 20:14)?

Murder or adultery might strike you as “bigger” sins, so to speak. But what about breaking the first commandment? Does it strike you as a particularly heinous sin and offense? It should. The Lord clearly places this commandment first in order to show us its importance. You could say that breaking the first commandment is just as bad as, if not worse than, murder. That is a pretty startling thought, isn’t it?

That this commandment comes first also shows us that true morality or ethics starts with one’s relationship with God. Doing what is right starts with doing what is right with regard to God himself.

What does it mean to have other gods before God? It means to trust, love, worship, and serve anything else in the place of God – to give something else other than God your first allegiance.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of what is forbidden in the first commandment:

“Q.47. What is forbidden in the first commandment? A. The first commandment forbids the denying, or not worshiping and glorifying, the true God as God, and our God; and the giving of that worship and glory to any other, which is due to him alone.”

How many millions of souls break this first commandment simply by denying God and so failing to worship Him as God! And how many millions more do so by worshiping and serving other (false) gods! Indeed, in the book of Romans the Apostle Paul tells us that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven” against such sins (Romans 1:18).

This can be done in a literal way through false religion, or worshiping false gods. In Isaiah 44:6 God says, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (ESV). If God is the only true god, than to worship anyone or anything else is to have another god (even if a false one) before him. And Isaiah 42:8 likewise says, I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (ESV).

Having other gods before him can also be done in seemingly non-religious ways as well. In Matthew 6:24 the Lord Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (ESV).

Money can be a false god if it takes top priority in your life. In fact, serving money may be the most common form of false religion or idolatry in the history of humanity.

The first commandment teaches us that it is our duty to know the one true God and Creator, and to acknowledge him as such by trusting, loving, worshiping, and serving him above all else.