Notable Quotes

A Word of Warning for Ministers of the Gospel

knotsuntiedI believe that there is a subtle temptation among those of us who are pastors to give our own beliefs and teachings the benefit of the doubt when it comes to our orthodoxy. We may keep an eye out for error or false doctrine “out there,” so to speak, but somehow assume that it could never be an issue for us.

A similar tendency can also be found at times when it comes to one’s Reformed orthodoxy. What I mean is this – pastors at times can seem to assume that because they consider themselves to be Reformed, whatever they happen to believe and teach must therefore (of course) be Reformed as well. In other words, we can tend to then (whether consciously or not) define what is “Reformed” by whatever it is that we ourselves hold to be true.

In his book, Knots Untied, J.C. Ryle writes,

” . . .none need warnings so much as the ministers of Christ’s gospel. Our office and ordination are no security against errors and mistakes. It is, alas, too true, that the greatest heresies have crept into the church of Christ by means of ordained men. Neither Episcopal ordination, nor Presbyterian ordination, nor any other ordination, confers any immunity from error and false doctrine.” (p.365)

It is not without reason that Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, ESV). Likewise, in Acts 20:28-31 he gives the elders of the church in Ephesus the following sober admonition:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” (ESV)

One of the dangers inherent in the mindset mentioned above is that it is not exactly conducive toward keeping a close eye on one’s own doctrine. Keeping an eye on other people’s doctrine? Maybe. But your own? Probably not so much if we define orthodoxy by whatever we ourselves happen to believe! And so we who are pastors and teachers must be careful not view our ordination (as Ryle puts it) as conferring “any immunity from error and false doctrine.” We must seek to be reformed and yet always reforming.

There are a number of things that we can do to safeguard ourselves (and so our respective flocks as well) from this potential pitfall. First, continue to study the Scriptureskeep on studying. As Paul told Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).

Not only that, but if you are a minister in a Presbyterian or Reformed denomination, make it your practice to continue to read, study, and teach your particular denomination’s doctrinal standards. If you are a Presbyterian pastor, that means continuing to familiarize yourself  with the Westminster Standards (i.e. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism).  Dare I say, even memorize some of it!

Now the Westminster Standards are certainly no cure-all. Frankly, they do not deal with every possible theological question that a pastor might need to deal with in the course of his studies – nor were they designed to do so! But they do give the basic substance of the system of doctrine that is taught in the Scriptures. Think of the Standards as (among other things) guard rails to keep you from drifting off to one side of the road or the other, so to speak.

This means that there may be some areas of theology upon which solidly Reformed pastors may disagree without really being at odds with the Westminster Standards (or even with each other, for that matter). But those areas of difference will inherently not therefore be regarding the main points of the system of doctrine. And so a strong familiarity with one’s doctrinal standards is then not only a way to study to show yourself approved (to borrow Paul’s words above from 2 Timothy 2:15), but also an effective way to study the peace and purity of the church in which one has taken his ordination vows.

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R.L. Dabney on the Preacher as Herald

dabney-eeR.L. Dabney’s book on preaching, Evangelical Eloquence, makes a very strong case for the practical of expository preaching. That is, preaching through entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse, with the aim of making known “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) to the people of God.

In a chapter entitled, “Cardinal Requisites of the Sermon,” he deals with “the general qualities which must characterize the structure of every sermon” (p.105). It is telling that the very first one of these qualities that he states as a cardinal requisite of true biblical preaching is that of “textual fidelity” (or sticking to the text, so to speak). There he writes,

The best argument to enforce upon you this virtue is suggested by the same fact – that the preacher is a herald. The first quality of the good herald is the faithful delivery of the very mind of his king. Our conception of our office, and of the revealed word as an infinitely wise rule for man’s salvation, permits us to discuss the text in no other spirit.” (p.105)

A firm persuasion of the truth of the calling of the preacher as a herald of the King ought to lead those of us who have the great privilege and responsibility to be pastors and preachers to stick to the text (to tell the truth of it), to preach through entire books of the Bible (to tell the whole truth of it), and to not mingle it with ideas that are not truly present in the text (to tell nothing but God’s truth).

Only then can the preacher say, with the Apostle Paul, that he is ‘innocent of the blood of all men because he did not shrink back from declaring to them the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:26-27).

J.C. Ryle on the Wonder of the Incarnation of Christ

expository-thoughts-setThe 7-volume set of J.C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels is a virtual treasure trove of insight into the Gospels.

In vol. 1 of his thoughts on the Gospel According to Luke, he has this to say about the circumstances of the incarnation of Jesus Christ:

“We see here the grace and condescension of Christ. Had he come to save mankind with royal majesty, surrounded by his Father’s angels, it would have been an act of undeserved mercy. Had he chosen to dwell in a palace, with power and great authority, we should have reason enough to wonder. But to become poor as the very poorest of mankind, and lowly as the lowliest, – this is a love that passeth knowledge. It is unspeakable and unsearchable. Never let us forget that through this humiliation Jesus has purchased for us a title to glory. Through his life of suffering, as well as his death, he has obtained eternal redemption for us. All through his life he was poor for our sakes, from the hour of his birth to the hour of his death. And through his poverty we are made rich (2 Cor. 8:9). (p.41)

Such loving condescension and grace really are “unspeakable and unsearchable.” Words fail us in trying to do justice to the mercy of God in Christ. Our deepest meditations on this subject barely scratch the surface of the infinite depths of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

No wonder that at the birth of Jesus Christ a multitude of the heavenly host burst forth in praise to God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14, ESV). Amen.

J.C. Ryle on the Leading Marks of a Forgiven Soul

old-pathsHow do you know if your sins have been forgiven? It would be practically impossible to overstate the importance of knowing the answer to that question for oneself.

In his book, Old Paths, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) offers five (5) distinguishing characteristics or “leading marks” of those who have truly found forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ:

  1. Forgiven souls hate sin.  If you hate only the consequences of your sins, and would really much prefer to continue in them if only the consequences were once removed, then you have good reason to question whether or not you have truly experienced the grace of forgiveness. As Ryle adds, “If you and sin are friends, you and God are not yet friends” (p.188).
  2. Forgiven souls love Christ. As Jesus says of the woman who wiped His feet with both her tears and her hair (!) in Luke 7:47, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (ESV). She loved Jesus much because she had been forgiven much. The better we know the greatness of the forgiveness that is only to be found through faith in Jesus Christ, the more and more we will love Him for it!
  3. Forgiven souls are humble. Forgiven souls know that they owe all that they have to the grace, love, and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our sin is an infinite debt that none of us could ever hope to repay, and so those who have had an infinite debt of sin forgiven on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have infinite cause for humility.
  4. Forgiven souls are holy. This goes hand-in-hand with #1 (i.e. Forgiven souls hate sin). Ryle goes so far to say that anyone who is “deliberately living an unholy and licentious life, and boasting that his sins are forgiven” is, in fact, “under a ruinous delusion, and is not forgiven at all” (p.190). As is often said, justification and sanctification go together and are “inseparably joined” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q.77). You cannot have one without the other. As Hebrews 12:14 tells us, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (ESV, emphasis mine).
  5. Forgiven souls are forgiving. As Ryle adds, “They do as they have been done by.” How can someone who has been forgiven an infinite debt of sin, then turn around and persist in refusing to forgive the much lesser debts of their fellow servants? (See Matthew 18:21-35.) Ryle concludes by stating, “Surely we know nothing of Christ’s love to us but the name of it, if we do not love our brethren” (p.190).

Of course, Ryle’s objective here is not to disturb the tender consciences of sincere believers in Christ, but to awaken the false professor of faith, those who claim to know Christ and forgiveness in His name, but yet exhibit none of these “leading marks” of having actually experiencing that forgiveness.

If you are reading of these things and do see the presence of them in your life (even if also certainly seeing your ever-present need to grow in them), take heart and thank God for His grace in your life. As Ryle puts it, “saving faith in Christ is consistent with many imperfections” (p.191).

If you consider yourself a believer in Jesus Christ, and claim to be forgiven in His name, but honestly do not see the presence of these graces in your life, then (to use Paul’s words) “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV). Let this serve as a wake-up call if you find that you are not yet in Christ by faith. Turn to Him by faith, and you will at last know the joy of sins freely forgiven.

The Importance of the Lord’s Supper (The Charges Against Latimer & Ridley)

FoxeThose who are familiar with 16th century church history may remember the story of the martyrdom of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. They were burned at the stake for their Protestant beliefs and teachings during the reign of Queen Mary I (AKA “Bloody Mary”). Hugh Latimer’s words to Ridley, as the fire beneath him was being kindled, are among of the most memorable ever uttered:

“Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, p.309)

But while we may be familiar with Latimer’s speech, how many of us have ever given thought to the specific charges that were brought against him and Ridley? The substance of those charges may surprise you. The Pope charged them with at least three things:

  1. Affirming and openly defending and maintaining “that Christ, after the consecration of the priest is not really (i.e. physically) present in the sacrament of the altar”,
  2. Publicly affirming and defending “that in the sacrament of the altar remaineth still the substance of bread and wine” (i.e. that the bread and wine are not changed into the body and blood of Christ – transubstantiation)
  3. Openly affirming and obstinately maintaining that “in the mass is no propitiatory sacrifice for the quick and the dead” (i.e. that the mass is not a re-offering of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ). (See Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, p.297)

How important is the biblical view and right administration of the Lord’s Supper to you? Would you be willing to die for it? Ridley and Latimer were. They refused to recant, even under threat of being burned alive!

Think about that next time someone treats the biblical doctrine and right administration of the Lord’s Supper as if it were borderline adiaphora (i.e. things indifferent).

Do You Believe in the Devil?

ScrewtapeWise words from the pen of C.S. Lewis regarding how we should view the existence of Satan and demons:

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” (The Screwtape Letters, p.3)

There are and probably have always been people who have what Lewis would call an “unhealthy interest” in the topic of demons. Many years ago I myself went through a phase where I was somewhat fixated on spiritual warfare and read seemingly every book I could get my hands on that was about the topic. To put it mildly, any of those books were less than thoroughly biblical (and so were even less helpful).

These days I think that even Bible-believing Christians (redundant to put it that way, I know) are far more likely to fall into the other error that Lewis warned against – that of disbelief. Now I don’t mean a literal disbelief (although that too is probably true of some), but rather a kind of disbelief that is akin to what is often referred to as “practical atheism.” The practical atheist is the person who professes (even sincerely so) to believe in God’s existence, but lives in such a way as to contradict that profession of belief. The practical atheist basically lives as if God did not exist. In a similar way, I think many well-meaning Christians go about their daily lives as if the devil and demons did not exist. Needless to say, the Scriptures do not encourage such a mindset among believers.

For example, the Apostle Paul actually mentions Satan and demonic forces a number of times in his epistle to the Ephesians. In Ephesians 2:1-3 he tells the Christians at Ephesus that in their former lives before they came to Christ by faith, they were not only dead in sin (v.1), but they also used to follow “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (v.2). That is even now an accurate description of everyone outside of Christ. Everyone outside of Christ is thus influenced by the devil. Scary thought, I know. But that also serves to show the greatness of God’s mercy, love, and grace in saving sinners and giving them new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:4-10).

Then, toward the end of the epistle (in what we might consider the “practical application” section of the letter – chapters 4-6), he mentions the devil again – at length. In Ephesians 6:10-20 he writes,

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.” (emphasis mine)

Why do we need the “whole armor of God” (v.11, 13)? In order that we might “be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (v.11). And yet how many of us ever give much thought to the fact that our fight is not against flesh and blood (other people), but against “spiritual forces of evil” (v.12)?

Let us not fall into either of the opposite errors that Lewis mentioned above. Let us neither fall into the error of having an unhealthy interest or fixation on devils, nor into the error of disbelief (practical or otherwise). May we learn to view these things biblically (as we should all things), and so learn to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (v.1).

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!