Book Review: Things Unseen, By J. Gresham Machen

Things Unseen, by J. Gresham Machen, is (as the subtitle puts it), “a systematic introduction to the Christian faith and reformed theology.” And what an introduction it is!

For those who may not be familiar with Dr. Machen (1881-1937), he might be the greatest theologian of the 20th century whom no one has ever heard of before. He was a long-time professor at Princeton Seminary, before leaving that institution to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1929. He was instrumental in forming the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination in 1936 as well. (If you would like to learn more about Machen, Stephen J. Nichols has written a very good biography which I would enthusiastically commend to you – J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought.)

The chapters in this book were originally written for a series of radio broadcasts via the WIP radio station in Philadelphia. Those broadcasts were intended for a general audience, in many ways even with unbelievers in view. There is a decidedly evangelistic tone throughout.

He lays out the basic essentials of the Christian faith in a systematic fashion, in much the same logical order found in much more complex systematic theology texts, and yet he somehow does so in such a way as to remain remarkably accessible and readable.

He cites the Westminster Shorter Catechism liberally (pun!) throughout. At least half of the 50 chapters of the book contain direct references and quotes from the catechism. He also refers the reader to such eminent Reformed theologians as Charles Hodge, Benjamin B. Warfield, John Murray, and Geerhardus Vos throughout the book.

He addresses such topics as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, God’s sovereignty and the freedom of man, predestination (3 full chapters), Providence, the doctrine of original sin, the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, and King), the atonement of Christ, and the active obedience of Christ. And somehow he manages to make all of these things clear and accessible to regular, everyday Christians.

I just wish the book were longer, and that he could have lived to complete the work. Nevertheless, the ground that he covers is more than enough to get anyone well on their way in seeking to understand the Christian faith and reformed theology. If you are looking for an accessible & readable introduction to the Reformed faith, I would highly recommend this volume to you.

The Belgic Confession (An Introduction)

A Brief History of the Belgic Confession

The Belgic Confession was written in A.D. 1561 (the better part of 100 years before the Westminster Confession of Faith). Its primary author was a man named Guido De Brès. De Brès was born around 1523 in the Netherlands, and was “educated in the Roman Church, and by diligent reading of the Scriptures converted to the evangelical faith.”1

After a period of exile from his home country, he became an itinerant evangelist in parts of Belgium and France. During a second exile, he “traveled to Lausanne, France, and then on to Geneva, Switzerland, where he studied under Theodore Beza and John Calvin.”2

with-heart-and-mouthHe was martyred, being executed by hanging in May of 1567 for his work in the gospel. Pastor and author Daniel Hyde notes,

“The Belgic Confession, then, contains doctrine worth dying for. This is not dramatic hyperbole, either. In fact, just having a copy of the Confession in your home during the sixteenth century meant certain death if the authorities caught you with it.”3

To borrow a line from Hebrews 11:4, “through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (ESV). It would be nearly impossible to overestimate the impact that this document has had all over the world for hundreds of years, despite its current neglect.

It has been said that the Belgic Confession gives evidence of being heavily influenced by at least two (2) sources, the French Confession of Faith4 (1559) and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.5 As to the former, there are parts of the Belgic Confession that follow it nearly word-for-word. Philip Schaff notes that “The Gallican Confession is a faithful summary of the doctrines of Calvin.”6

As for the latter, it has been observed that the Belgic Confession closely follows the outline and structure of the Institutes. Considering the fact that John Calvin was also involved in the formulation of the French Confession,7 his influence upon the Belgic Confession can hardly be overstated.

The Belgic Confession was officially adopted at a number of church synods, including the Synod of Dort (1619), the same synod where the Canons of Dort8 were adopted and ratified. Originally written in French, it was also translated into Dutch, German, and Latin.

The Contents of the Belgic Confession

The Belgic Confession consists of 37 “articles” or points of doctrine, and basically follows a systematic theological outline of sorts. Philip Schaff notes that, “It is, upon the whole, the best symbological statement of the Calvinistic system of doctrine, with the exception of the Westminster Confession.”9

Articles 1-7 deal with God (Article 1) and His revelation of Himself to us in Scripture. These articles deal with the doctrines of the inspiration of Scripture (Article 3), the Canon of Scripture (Articles 4-6), and the sufficiency and authority of Scripture as our only rule of faith and practice (Article 7).

Articles 8-13 deal with the doctrines of the Trinity (Articles 8-11), and God’s works of Creation (Article 12) and Providence (Article 13).

Articles 14-17 deal with the Fall of Man in Adam (Articles 14-15) and God’s plan of Redemption (Articles 16-17).

Articles 18-26 deal with the work of the Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ, including His incarnation (Articles 18-19) and satisfaction for our sins (Articles 20-21), justification through faith alone in Christ alone (Articles 22-23), sanctification (Article 24), the abrogation of the ceremonial law at the coming of Christ (Article 25), and Christ’s Session at the right hand of God (Article 26).

Articles 27-35 deal with the church of Jesus Christ, including such things as the definition of the church (Article 27), the marks of the true church (Article 29), the government of the church and her officers (Articles 30-32), and the Sacraments (Articles 33-35).

Articles 36-37 deal with matters of eschatology (the doctrine of the last things), including the proper relationship of the church to the state (Article 36), and the Return of the Lord Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead (Article 37).

Many of these 37 articles are the better part of a full page in length, but the Confession nevertheless serves as a rather brief (even if not by today’s standards) summary of the Christian faith, especially that of Calvinism or the Reformed (Protestant) faith.

Being a confession of faith, and so intended as a consensus and confessional document, it is not given for the purpose of settling minute differences of opinion, nor does it go into great detail about debatable things (e.g. varying Reformed views on eschatology). These are things that all believers of the Reformed faith “believe with the heart and confess with the mouth” (Article 1). Each article begins with the phrase, “We believe . . . .”

1 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.504

3 With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession, p.2

4 Also known as the Gallic Confession of Faith.

5 With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession, p.20

6 The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.495

7 Philip Schaff notes that Calvin himself “prepared the first draft” of the Gallic Confession. (The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.493)

8 The Canons of Dort were formulated as a response to the Arminian teachings of a group called the Remonstrants. The Canons basically set forth in great detail what we now often refer to as the so-called five points of Calvinism. The Canons of Dort, along with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, comprise what is known as the “Three Forms of Unity,” which are the doctrinal standards for the continental Reformed churches (much like the Westminster Standards are for the Presbyterian churches of the British Isles).

9 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I, p.506

Teaching Election Properly (The Canons of Dort)


It is often said that there is a right way to do things, and a wrong way to do things. And that is true even when it comes to how we are to teach and preach the doctrine of election.

The 1st point of doctrine in the Canons of Dort is “Divine Election and Reprobation.” It then further breaks out the various aspects of this point of doctrine into no less than 18 “articles” (or sub-points).  Article 14 is about the proper way to teach the doctrine of election.  It says,

As the doctrine of divine election by the most wise counsel of God was declared by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the Apostles, and is clearly revealed in the Scriptures both of the Old and the New Testament, so it is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed, provided it be done with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety, for the glory of God’s most holy Name, and for the enlivening and comforting His people, without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the Most High.

Notice that the first thing this article establishes is that the doctrine of election is thoroughly biblical, and so because of that it is most certainly to be taught. So the first thing about teaching the doctrine of election properly is, well, to teach it. It is to be taught. If we fail to teach it, we are failing to teach the whole counsel of God. If we fail to teach it we are failing to teach what was “declared by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the Apostles.”

The second thing we see in this article is that there is a proper time and place for teaching the doctrine of election.  It is still to be taught in the church of God. It is clearly taught in Scripture, and is clearly taught throughout Scripture, but it is not found in every text. If it is in the text, preach it, and preach it plainly. But don’t look for it under every bush, so to speak.

The third thing that this article tells us about the right way to teach the doctrine of election is that it is to be done “with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety.”  Election is an act of the grace and mercy of the most holy God in saving sinners, and so it should be preached in such a way that it reflects that truth properly. It should not be used as a means to show how wise or learned we are (or how foolish or unlearned those who disagree with us on this issue are).

It should also be taught “for the glory of God’s most holy Name.” At times the doctrine of election can be taught in such a way that the glory actually seems to go to us for having believed it properly or for teaching it unashamedly. (There is something highly ironic about someone being proud of a right understanding of God’s sovereign grace, isn’t there?) If we are guilty of that, we are not teaching the doctrine of election properly, not by a long shot. The doctrine of election, whereby God has chosen us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) is to be taught “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6). This doctrine should lead to doxology!

The doctrine of election is also to be taught “for enlivening and comforting” God’s people.  In other words, for believers in Christ election and predestination have to do with comfort and assurance. If we are teaching election in such a way that we are in effect beating people over the head with it, we are doing something wrong. Genuine believers may find the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace confusing at times, but they should never find the manner of our preaching and teaching of it to be deflating or disturbing. It should be clear that we are seeking their growth in holiness and godly comfort in teaching it. If our teaching of election leads to laziness or discouragement, there is  something amiss.

The last thing that article 14 tells us is that we are to teach the doctrine of election, but not in such a way that we go beyond what the Scriptures actually tell us about it. We should not use it as a springboard to vainly attempt “to investigate the secret ways of the Most High.” This is probably most often done with regard to the implications of the doctrine. For example, we might wrongly suppose that if God chooses whom He is going to save, then we do not then need to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). If our understanding of election leads us to disregard or downplay the clear commands of God to His church, we are doing something wrong.

So while we must certainly be careful that we are understanding and stating the doctrine of election accurately as it is taught in Scripture, we must also be careful to teach it properly, in the correct context, and with the right purposes in mind as well. To simply teach it in the first place is certainly a good start (and is doing more than most), but that is not nearly enough.

The Outward and Ordinary Means of Grace


The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of the “outward and ordinary means” of grace.  It says:

Q.88 What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption? A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are, His ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

The outward and ordinary means of grace are the Lord Jesus Christ’s own ordained means of building up His people – His church –  in grace.

This points to something that is increasingly a foreign concept to many professing Christians today – the vital importance of public worship.  The means of grace are, by definition, primarily aspects of the corporate worship of God’s people.  These are not things that you do by yourself in the prayer closet.  These things are not personal spiritual disciplines.

Individual Christians can certainly pray, read the Scriptures, sing songs of praise – all good things.  But that is a far cry from corporate prayer, hearing the preaching of the Word of God, and observing the Sacraments. (There is to be no such thing as taking the Lord’s Supper privately – it is called Communion for a reason.)

And yet these very things (Word, Sacrament, and Prayer) are the very things that more and more churches seem to be drifting away from – and in many cases they are doing so in order to make their churches grow! (How exactly should we define “church growth” anyway?)  In doing so, they may be filling the pews on Sundays (certainly not a bad thing in itself), but leaving their congregations impoverished and undernourished in the process.

As churches, do we rightly understand and emphasize the vital importance of the outward & ordinary means of grace in public worship, or do we primarily look for growth through other means?   Is the preaching of the Word of Christ central? Are the Sacraments an afterthought?  Do we minimize prayer in worship?

And as individual Christians and families, do we too rightly understand and appreciate the vital necessity and importance of the means of grace in public worship on the Lord’s day?  Do we let other things keep us from it?  Do we look forward to it, prepare for it, and diligently attend to it?

If we truly and sincerely desire to grow in the grace of God, we must avail ourselves of the means of grace that God Himself has ordained for our benefit.  The means may seem all too ordinary, but the grace is anything but that.

No wonder we see in the book of Acts that the early church was so devoted to public worship.  In Acts 2:42, Luke writes,

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (ESV)

See you on Sunday!

The Regulative Principle of Worship

Moses Law

How are we to determine what is or is not acceptable in worship?  And, just as importantly, acceptable to whom?  All too often we fail to even bother to ask ourselves those questions in the first place.  Nevertheless, the answers to both of those questions clearly reveal themselves in our worship practices.

These days when we talk about worship, it is very likely that the discussion will primarily revolve around what is or is not acceptable to us, rather than to God.  We talk about what kind of music we inside the church do or don’t like in worship; we talk about the kind of sermons that we do or do not like; we talk about the kind of setting or atmosphere that we do or do not like, and so on.  Or, in some churches the primary question instead seems to be whether or not those outside of the church will find the music, sermons, or atmosphere to be acceptable or pleasing.

Both, while often well-intentioned, seem to be asking the wrong questions altogether.

In their book, With Reverence and Awe, Darryl Hart and John Muether write, “Scripture insists that we must worship in a way that is acceptable to God. The simple test for good worship, then, is whether it conforms to the Bible. This standard has become known in Reformed churches as the regulative principle” (p.77).   Here is a good summary of regulative principle of worship:

“. . .the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.”(The Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.1)

What exactly does this mean?  It means that we are to worship the Lord only in the way that He Himself has commanded or prescribed in His Word.  We are not left to our own imaginations when it comes to worshiping the one true and living God.  We are not free to improvise, innovate, or imitate the worship practices of other religions.

Simply put, pragmatism (i.e. whatever works) is not the standard for worship; and preference (i.e. whatever we happen to like or find pleasing) is not the goal of worship.  What God has revealed in His Word regarding worship is the only valid standard for guiding & directing us in worship. And our goal is to worship in such a way as is pleasing to God first and foremost, not ourselves.

Hart & Muether point out that both the Westminster Larger Catechism (the catechism of the Presbyterian churches) and the Heidelberg Catechism (the catechism of the Reformed churches) deduce the Regulative Principle of worship from the 2nd Commandment – the commandment against idolatry.   In Exodus 20:4-6 (the 2nd Commandment), the LORD 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. (ESV)

In other words, self-styled worship may be pleasing to us, but it is not pleasing to God.   It is idolatry.  Not only is self-styled worship or idolatry an act of disobedience, but it is also an act of hatred toward God (v.5).

As Thomas Watson notes, the very length of this commandment in comparison to many of the others should be instructive to us.  It tells us both the importance of this commandment, as well as our tendency toward breaking it.  He writes,

Take heed of the idolatry of image-worship. Our nature is prone to this sin as dry wood to take fire; and, indeed, what need of so many words in this commandment: ‘Thou shalt not make any graven image, or the likeness of anything in heaven, earth, water,’ sun, moon, stars, male, female, fish;  ‘Thou shalt not bow down to them.’ I say, what need of so many words, but to show how subject we are to this sin of false worship. (The Ten Commandments, p.62)

We should not trust our own hearts to guide us in worship.  We should always be mindful (as Watson says) of just how prone we are toward idolatry.

And so let us rejoice that our God has revealed to us in His Word how He is to be approached in worship.  We need not guess as to what our gracious heavenly Father would have us to do in our public worship on the Lord’s day, for He has given us His Word as a clear and sure guide.

Book Review: The Creedal Imperative


This might just be the best book I have read all year.  It’s that good.

It is a very timely book about a seemingly ancient subject (the creeds and confessions of the church).  We live in a day when knowledge of the creeds and confessions of the Christian church is at an all-time low.  Some of that ignorance is caused by neglect (i.e. the failure of the churches to utilize the creeds in worship and instruction), but a lot of the ignorance in our day is sadly of the willful variety.  Many in our churches are all but openly hostile to the use of creeds and confessions – they simply reject them out of hand.

There are many (far too many!) Christians in our day who acknowledge ‘no creed but the Bible.’  As Trueman ably demonstrates, this is truly nothing but pious-sounding nonsense.  Everyone has a creed (even if not articulated or written down for posterity) because everyone believes something.  A creed or confession is simply a statement of belief, however minimal or far-reaching.  He notes that “even those churches and Christians who repudiate the whole notion of creeds and confessions will yet tend to operate with an implicit creed” (p.15).  Good point.

In this book, Trueman shows us the need, history, and usefulness of creeds and confessions.  He also explains the biblical basis for creeds. (This section alone is worth the price of the book.)  He writes,

To claim to have no creed but the Bible, then, is problematic: the Bible itself seems to demand that we have forms of sound words, and that is what creeds are. (p.76)

This book is not exactly light-reading, although it is not really all that long (197 pages).  That being said, it is well-worth the time and effort required to read it.  As a bonus of sorts, Trueman sprinkles in a healthy dose of wit and irony throughout. (More than once I found myself nearly laughing out loud.)

In my humble opinion, every pastor should read this book.  Anyone who is even thinking about becoming a pastor should read this book.  The subject matter is that crucial, and Trueman’s treatment of it is that helpful.

If you want to better understand why we have creeds and confessions, why we need them, how they are subordinate to the Scriptures, how they have developed over the centuries, and how they are inestimably useful for the health and well-being of the church (and so individual believers as well), I would highly recommend this book to you.  It could be the most important book (other than the Bible itself, of course) that you read all year.

You can order a copy here: The Creedal Imperative

Helpful Resources on the Sacraments

The Sacraments (Baptism & the Lord’s Supper) are means of grace intended for our benefit.  They are one of the primary means by which the Lord Jesus Christ communicates to us the benefits of the redemption that He accomplished for us.

Here are just a handful of books that you may find helpful in learning more about the Sacraments:

1.  The Westminster Standards – Still helpful to say the least after all these years!  The Confession of Faith (ch.27-29), the Larger Catechism (Q.162-177), and the Shorter Catechism (Q.92-97) are a virtual gold mine of instruction for all believers.  You could do a lot worse than to simply read through these sections with your family in the days prior to participating in the Lord’s Supper or observing a baptism at your church.  I would also recommend the hardbound version with the Scripture references – available here.

2.  Jesus Loves the Little Children, by Rev. Daniel Hyde – this book is an excellent introduction on the subject of infant baptism that is especially helpful to those who are new to the Reformed faith.

3.  Christian Baptism, by John Murray – my personal favorite on the subject of baptism (infant & otherwise).  Murray deals not only with the issue of infant baptism, but also the scriptural case for sprinkling or pouring (as opposed to immersion).  If I were to recommend only one book on the subject, this would be the one (although it may be somewhat of a difficult read for someone new to the Reformed faith).

4.  What Christian Parents Should Know About Infant Baptism, by John Sartelle – a very concise & helpful booklet on the subject of infant baptism. Highly recommend it!

What does it mean to be Presbyterian or Reformed?

Do you have some basic questions about what it means to be a Presbyterian?  What does it mean to be “Reformed?”

If you have been asking yourself (or others) questions like these, here are a couple of resources that you may find very helpful:

On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories, by Sean Michael Lucas

Welcome to a Reformed Church, by Daniel R. Hyde

I highly recommend both of these books.  Both are relatively brief, but very informative and engaging.

Also, if you happen to live in the Oceanside/Carlsbad, CA area, you would be most welcome at Rev. Hyde’s Reformed Church (URCNA)!  Go worship the Lord with them on Sunday!  For more information about his church, click here.