Author: Andy Schreiber

Book Review: God Is, by Mark Jones

God IsMark Jones’ newest book, God Is, is a book about what is often called “theology proper.” That is, it is about the study of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. That in itself makes this volume a welcome addition. As Jones notes in his introduction, “books on the doctrine of God are few and far between” (p.16).

Don’t let the subtitle (“A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God”) fool you. This “devotional” is by no means lacking in substance the way that books of that genre often tend to do. I don’t know of many so-called devotional books that quote liberally from the likes of Thomas Watson, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, and Herman Bavinck (just to name a handful).

While there is a great deal of substance in this book, its relative brevity (only 215 pages, plus end notes) makes it very readable. As with his previous volume, Knowing Christ, here Jones once again takes what can be some rather complex theological concepts (like the simplicity of God!) and makes them much more accessible to the layperson. (For my review of Knowing Christ, see here.)

Each chapter, as the title suggests, deals with a different attribute or perfection of God. He opens with a chapter on the Trinity (“God Is Triune”), and follows that up with a chapter on the simplicity of God (“God Is Simple”), which is probably a concept that many readers will be unfamiliar with prior to reading this book.

Chapters 3 through 6 seem to echo the order of the attributes of God found in question and answer #4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says,

“Q.4. What is God? A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

  • Chapter 3 – “God Is Spirit.”
  • Chapter 4 – “God Is Infinite.”
  • Chapter 5 – “God Is Eternal.”
  • Chapter 6 – “God Is Unchangeable.”

See? You’re learning the Shorter Catechism and didn’t even know it!

There are 26 chapters in all, and all of the chapters are relatively short. (None of them exceeds 9 pages in length.) This actually makes the book very useful for devotional reading. I read just one chapter per day, and found that very helpful.

Each chapter follows a distinct and easy to follow pattern: First Jones states the doctrine of God’s respective attributes. He then follows that with a brief section demonstrating how each particular attribute of God is known and understood rightly by us in Christ alone. And finally he offers a section dealing with how these things rightly apply to the Christian life (what some of the old Puritan writers often referred to as the “uses” of the doctrine). This is doctrine with hands and feet, doctrine for life.

If I were to offer any minor criticism, it would be only this – the final two chapters (on the anger of God and the anthropomorphic way that God reveals Himself in Scripture), while being very clear, helpful, and even necessary for the book to be in some sense complete, would probably be more fitting as appendixes of some kind, rather than formal chapters in the book.

What I mean is this – the book is entitled God Is, and so each chapter deals with an attribute of God. That being the case, each chapter title begins with “God Is ___.” Those last two chapters don’t really fit that same way. Strictly speaking God is not angry or anthropomorphic in and of Himself. In other words, those things are not His essential attributes. Jones, of course, makes this very clear in those chapters. He says, for example, that “God’s anger remains an expression of his outward will, not his essential being” (p.194).

So my criticism is not so much of the content itself, but rather one small part the arrangement of it. It is admittedly a minor nitpick on my part, and it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, I enjoyed this book very much and found it to be eminently clear and helpful. If you are looking for a good book on the attributes of God, I enthusiastically recommend it to you. And if you are not looking for such a book? You probably should be – pick up a copy and read it anyway! You’ll be glad that you did.

J.C. Ryle on “Jelly-Fish” Sermons

prepared to stand aloneIn his terrific biography of J.C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain Murray quotes Ryle on the dangers of an aversion to “dogma” or doctrine among the ministers of the Church of England in his day. He likened this to ‘Jelly-fish Christianity,’ saying that it was,

“without bone, or muscle, or power.   . . . We have hundreds of ‘jelly-fish’ clergymen, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity [i.e. their doctrine].   . . . We have thousands of ‘jelly-fish’ sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or a corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint.” (p.186)

Ryle penned these words in the late 19th century (!), but they seem as timely and relevant in our day as ever. (Take heart, such things were not invented in our day!)

If you think about it, there are not many biblical doctrines which unbelievers (or even nominal Christians) are not likely to take offense at hearing. Scoffers, skeptics, and sometimes even professing believers often bristle at the most basic doctrines that are taught in the Bible – creation, providence, the Fall, depravity, sin, hell, the cross of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, the judgment – just to name a handful. These things are no doubt repugnant to many, and always have been. But those doctrines and many others are found throughout Scripture, and so they must be clearly preached and taught.

The temptation toward “smooth” preaching is ever-present, and probably always has been. Such sermons are no doubt designed to be pleasing to the ears of the hearers and to avoid offense at all costs. But such sermons, as Ryle observed, awaken no sinner and edify no saint. As Paul told Timothy,

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4, ESV)

People who have “itching ears” will tend to refuse to “endure sound teaching” and “turn away from listening to the truth” (v.4), but Paul says here that this is actually all the more reason to “preach the Word” (v.2)!

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the one true Head of His church, be pleased to once again raise up a godly generation of ministers – men who have spines of steel in their doctrine and doctrine in their preaching. And may the Lord use such preaching to awaken many sinners and edify the saints!

THE VISIBLE CHURCH (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH ON THE CHURCH – PART 2)

Theologians commonly distinguish between the “invisible” and “visible” church. In our previous post we looked at what the Westminster Confession of Faith (25.1) has to say about the invisible church. What about the visible church? The Confession goes on to say the following:

“The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (25.2)

First, notice that the visible church (like the invisible church spoken of in 25.1), is also in some sense “catholic or universal.” In what way is it universal? The Confession goes on to spell that out in detail, saying that “under the gospel” (i.e. in the New Testament era) the one true church is no longer “confined to one nation” as it used to be in the Old Testament age. The church used to be confined to one earthly nation – Israel.  The gospel is now to go out to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).

There is also another sense in which the visible church is catholic or universal – whereas the invisible church consists of “the whole number of the elect” (25.1), even so the visible church consists of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children” (25.2). Everyone who professes the true religion is a member of the visible church.

Professing the true religion, strictly speaking, involves more than merely professing faith in Christ (as essential and important as that is). The visible church is not just every individual professing Christian in the world. Rather (as the remaining sections of chapter 25 will go on to make abundantly clear) the church as church is in view here (no pun intended). Today’s overly-individualized and privatized version of the Christian faith was an utterly foreign concept to the Westminster divines, and rightly so. Indeed, it is a foreign concept to Scripture itself as well! (See here.)

Not only that, but the visible church also includes the children of all those who profess the true religion as well! That may seem like a strange concept to many in our day, but this is the consistent pattern found throughout Scripture (both Old and New Testaments alike). The children of believers have always been included in the covenant community, and have always had the sign and seal of the covenant applied to them (circumcision in the Old Testament, and Baptism in the New Testament). That is why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 7:14,

“For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (ESV, italics mine)

Does that mean that all of the children of believers are somehow automatically saved (salvation by association?), or even that all of the children of believers, without exception, will come to saving faith in Christ? Of course not. But is it not most often the case that the children of believers in Christ, having been raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4) and brought up in the church, end up, by God’s grace, coming to a saving knowledge of Christ?

The Confession also states that the visible church is “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God.” It is as if no one analogy or metaphor for the church is sufficient in order to convey everything that the church really is. Paul says something similar in 1 Timothy 3:14-15, where he writes,

“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” (ESV, italics mine)

The church is Christ’s kingdom. Now Christ rules over all things, not just the church (Psalm 8:6; Matthew 28:18; 1 Corinthians 15:27), but, as Paul says of Christ in Ephesians 1:22, God “placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (NIV, italics mine). He is head over all things for the sake of His church! And so the visible church, strictly speaking, is not co-extensive with the limits of Christ’s kingdom (for there are no limits to His authority and reign), but it is the primary manifestation of the kingdom of God on this earth.

Not only is the visible church the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, but it is also “the house and family of God. What a privilege it is to be included in the family and household of God Himself! What a blessing it is to not only be reconciled to God and be able to call upon Him as our heavenly Father through faith in Christ, but also in Him to be given a multitude of “brothers and sisters and mothers and children” (Mark 10:30, ESV)! The church is not just an organization, or even an organism – it is a family!

Lastly, the Confession makes a statement that is sure to raise a few eyebrows in our day. It says that outside of the visible church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” A similar statement is also found in the Belgic Confession (which is the confession of faith for the continental Reformed churches, just like the Westminster Confession is for the Presbyterian churches). It says,

“We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.” (Article 28, emphasis mine)

And so it is clearly the standard reformed position that there is no salvation apart from the visible church, or at least not normally so. There are some, to be sure, who have no opportunity to join themselves to a local church body where the Word of God is truly preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered, and church discipline is faithfully exercised. Some are suffering extreme persecution and even imprisonment for the faith. Others may live in a place where there simply is no (true) local church. But for most professing Christians that is certainly not the case. And so, as the Belgic Confession makes clear, “no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself.” No man is a church unto himself, “regardless of his status or condition.” No one is sufficient in and of himself to live the Christian life on his own.

There are certainly some within the visible church who profess Christ without actually possessing Christ (i.e. they do not truly believe), and there are also some, no doubt, who are outside of the visible church who truly profess and possess Christ, but these are the exceptions and not the rule. No one who professes faith in Christ should willingly cut himself off from membership in the visible church. No one who professes faith in Christ should be “at home” (or at peace) without a (true) church home.

Part of the reason for that can be seen in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3, which speaks of the means of grace that are to be found only in the church – the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” which are given “for the gathering and perfecting of the saints” (i.e. believers). (Lord willing, we will deal that section in more detail in a future post.)

Love for our brothers in Christ is one of the evidences of salvation. In 1 John 3:14 the Apostle John writes,

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” (ESV)

How can we say that we love our brothers in Christ if we avoid fellowship among them in the church? Or is it possible to truly love Christ, while seeking to avoid His body and bride, which is His church?

If you profess to know Christ by faith, but are somehow not a member of a local church. Do not be content to stay by yourself. Do not look for a perfect church, for that does not exist in this life. But rather make it your aim to find a true church where the Word of God is preached truly and sincerely (even if imperfectly), where the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered rightly, and where church discipline is faithfully and lovingly exercised for your good.

When you find such a church (and all do not fit that description, of course), despite her imperfections, join that church. Stay at that church. Worship and serve at that church. And may our faithful Savior Jesus Christ be pleased to greatly bless you in that church, to His glory!

The Ten Commandments and the New Testament

Moses LawOne of the questions that needs to be addressed in any study of the Ten Commandments is that of their proper relation to the New Testament Scriptures.

Many in the church in our day seem to be under the mistaken impression that the coming of Christ has somehow rendered the law of God null and void, or at least in some way irrelevant or unnecessary.

But if you take the time to examine the teachings of Jesus and His apostles, you will find that the uniform testimony of the New Testament is such that the ten commandments have a continuing authority and relevance. They are every bit as binding and important today as they have ever been. They are still God’s standard for holiness, and they are still the summary of God’s moral will, telling us how He would have His redeemed people to live.

First, let’s start with the teachings of the Lord Jesus himself. What did Jesus have to say about the law of God in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular? In what is probably His best known (or at least most famous) sermon – the “sermon on the mount” (found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7), Jesus actually had quite a bit to say about the law of God and the Ten Commandments.

In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (ESV). When He speaks of “the Law or the Prophets” there, that is a shorthand way of referring to the entire Old Testament. So Jesus tells us right from the beginning that He had not come to do away with the Old Testament, including the Law. Rather, the reason that He came was in order to “fulfill” them.

In a sense everything that was written in the Old Testament was in some way prophetic of Christ, both his sufferings and the glory that was to follow. (See Luke 24:25-27.) And so in both His person and in His actions He fulfilled those prophecies to the letter. His atoning death for His people fulfilled the entire Old Testament sacrificial system, including the Temple, the priesthood, and even the very sacrifices themselves. All of those things were meant to point forward to the person and work of Jesus. (See Hebrews chapters 9-10.) That is why those things are no longer needed – they have served their purpose, and were never intended to be seen as an end in and of themselves.

What about the ten commandments? Did the Lord Jesus set them aside? Certainly not. Not only did He clearly tell us that He did not come to “abolish” the law (Matthew 5:17), but He also said that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (v.18, ESV)! He even went on to say that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.19-20, ESV).

If you read the rest of Matthew chapter 5 in particular, you will find that the bulk of that chapter actually consists of extended teaching regarding at least two of the ten commandments themselves, including those prohibiting murder (v.21-26) and adultery (v.27-30). So, in summary, Jesus himself not only perfectly obeyed the ten commandments, but He also clearly taught obedience to them as well.

The Lord Jesus expects his ministers to teach others to obey His commandments (Matthew 28:19). To be sure, no one is justified in the sight of God by their obedience to His commandments, but rather we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone in order that we might obey His commandments from the heart. We are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:9), but we are saved for them (Ephesians 2:10).

What about the apostles themselves? What did they have to say about the law of God in general, and the Ten Commandments in particular? Let us look in particular at what the apostle Paul had to say about the law and the ten commandments.

In the book of Romans, for example, the Apostle Paul uses one form or another of the Greek word for “law” (nomos) no less than 73 times. Clearly he had a lot to say about the law of God, even in a book that is primarily about the gospel (Romans 1:16).

There he says that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12, ESV). He even says that the law is “spiritual” (7:14) and “good” (7:16). Clearly Paul had a very high view of the law of God (as he did of all of Scripture), even after coming to faith in Christ for salvation.

What about the Ten Commandments in particular? In Romans 7:7 he says, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet” (ESV). In other words, God’s righteous commandment revealed Paul’s sin to him, and so also revealed to him his need for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ!

Elsewhere, in Ephesians 6:1, Paul gives a command, saying, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (ESV) And on what does he base this command? How does he prove that “this is right” (v.1) for them to do so? He quotes the 5th commandment. He reminds us that the law of God says, “Honor your father and mother” (v.2), which is a direct quotation from Exodus 20:12.

That alone should give pause to those in the church who would say that the law of God (especially the Ten Commandments) no longer applies to believers today. Nothing could be further from the truth! The ten commandments are still the summary of the moral will of God for His people. They are still a reflection of God’s own holiness and perfections. He cannot change, and so that does not change either!

But Paul doesn’t stop there, does he? He reminds us that “this is the first commandment with a promise” (v.2), and then actually quotes and interprets the promise that God Himself annexed to the 5th commandment, saying, “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (v.3, Exodus 20:12). So the commandment, of course, still applies, and not only that, but God’s promise of blessing and reward still applies as well!

How about the Apostle John? He has much to say about keeping God’s commandments. In fact, he equates love for God with keeping His commandments. In 1 John 5:3 he writes,

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (ESV)

Love and law are not contrary to each other – quite the opposite! If we love God, we will love His law as well, like David did (Psalm 119:97), and make it our aim in life to willingly keep His commandments, rather than seeing them as “burdensome.”

God has certainly not changed (and indeed cannot!), nor has his moral will for the lives of his redeemed people. The ten commandments are still the summary of the moral will of God; they are still of great use to the believer in Christ; and God still promises blessing to His children for obeying His commandments. Of these things let us be sure that the New Testament Scriptures are abundantly clear.

A Word of Encouragement for Pastors/Preachers

prepared to stand alone

Preaching is hard work. It requires much prayer, study, preparation, and even practice. Doing all of that on a weekly basis (and in many cases, doing so for both morning and evening services) can add up to a real grind. Who among us is sufficient for such things? It can feel rather overwhelming at times. (Hint: Pray for your pastor!)

Some preachers seem to make it look just so easy, don’t they? And it is all too easy for us to imagine that the men whom we consider our heroes of the faith from years past found no difficulties in such things. But in his recent biography of J.C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain Murray writes the following:

“He [Ryle] would later say that he was turned fifty before he learned to preach.” (p.59)

Considering that Ryle entered the pastorate at age 25, that is really saying something! Think about that – J.C. Ryle was essentially preaching twice every Lord’s day for the span of 25 years before he started to feel like he had really learned to preach! (Having just turned 50 myself, and having far less than 25 years of experience in preaching, it is encouraging to know that even someone such as Ryle felt that way once too.)

So if you are a pastor and have found the work of preaching to be rather difficult, and are discouraged by your apparent lack of progress in it, take heart – you are in good company. In two or three decades maybe you’ll start to get the hang of it, just like Ryle did!  🙂

And if you are a member of a church where your pastor(s) preaches the Word of God to you faithfully and clearly (even if unspectacularly), thank God! For that is not the case everywhere. And be patient with your pastor’s shortcomings in the pulpit – give him some time to get his proverbial sea legs under him. It might take a decade or two, but it’ll be worth it!  🙂

The Invisible Church (Westminster Confession of Faith on the Church – Part 1)

1710_large

What exactly is the church? (Have you ever given that much thought?) The biblical doctrine of the church is probably one of the most neglected doctrines in all of the Scripture. To many in our day, having a clear theology of the church (its nature, necessity, purpose, ordinances, offices, and marks) seems much like an afterthought. And yet the very fact that both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed include statements regarding the church speaks toward the abiding importance of the church and what we are to believe concerning it.

The Westminster Confession of Faith includes an entire chapter on the church. That brief chapter provides a great deal of clarity on this important but neglected subject, so we hope to, Lord willing, examine each part of that chapter, one section at a time.

The very first section of the Westminster Confession’s chapter on the church deals with what is known as the invisible church. Protestant/Reformed theologians have commonly made a distinction between the invisible and the visible church.  The Confession (25.1) states:

“The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.”

Now the visible church and invisible church should not primarily be considered as two separate churches, but rather as two aspects of the one true church in Jesus Christ. (We will deal with the visible church in more detail when we come to Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2.) What does it mean that the church is invisible? Louis Berkhof writes,

“This church is said to be invisible, because she is essentially spiritual and in her spiritual essence cannot be discerned by the physical eye; and because it is impossible to determine infallibly who do and do not belong to her.” (Systematic Theology, p.566-566)

The Confession’s statement above teaches us the following:

  1. The invisible church is catholic or universal. The word “catholic” simply means universal (not Roman Catholic), and refers to the fact that Christ has one Redeemed people, one church, one body. This idea is found in Ephesians 1:22-23, where Paul writes, “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).
  1. The invisible church consists of all of the elect. It is “the whole number of the elect” (25.1). In other words, everyone who will ever be saved in Christ.
  1. The invisible church consists of all of the elect throughout all time. It is “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof . . . .(25.1)” So everyone – past, present, and future – who will have been joined to Christ. Many people who have not even been born yet are then part of the invisible church, as are the saints of old, who are now absent from the body but present with the Lord!
  1. The invisible church also consists of both the church militant (the redeemed on this earth) as well as the church triumphant (the redeemed in heaven).

One day the invisible church will finally become visible to us! Revelation 7:9-12 says,

“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.” (ESV)

On that great day all of the elect will at long last get to behold that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (v.9). What a beautiful sight that will be – the ultimate family reunion!

J.C. Ryle on Sin as the Root of All Sorrow

old-pathsIf you were to ask 100 people at random what lay at the root of all of the world’s problems, what answers do you suppose that you might hear? (You might very well hear nearly 100 different answers.) But how many people in a hundred would point to sin as the culprit?

In his book, Old Paths, J.C. Ryle has some pointed words about the evils of sin as the ultimate source of all of the misery that mankind encounters in this fallen world:

“Sin is the cause of all the burdens which now press down mankind. Most men know it not, and weary themselves in vain to explain the state of things around them. But sin is the great root and foundation of all sorrow, whatever proud man may think. How much men ought to hate sin!” (p.338)

And so while all of mankind shares in the miseries of this life since the fall, how few there are who trace those miseries back to their true root – sin.  And apart from that, there really is no right explanation or understanding of the state of the world. But if we understand that sin is “the great root and foundation of all sorrow,” then we will begin to truly hate sin (and not just its effects), especially our own (not merely those of other people).

And how thankful we should be that God in His great mercy and grace did not leave all of mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery, but rather, “out of His mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.20). Thank God that He gave us His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be the Redeemer of God’s elect (Q.21)!