“A Most Elegant Book” (The Belgic Confession on General Revelation)

The Belgic Confession (1561) is one of the confessional documents that comprise the “3 Forms of Unity” in the churches of the continental reformed tradition. This confession is the statement of faith, taking the reader through a brief but thorough (at least by today’s standards) treatment of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Article 2 (of a total of 37 articles or heads of doctrine) deals with how God has made Himself known to us. It reads as follows:

“We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.”

According to the Belgic Confession, there are two “books,” so to speak, by which we know God. The first is what is often referred to as “general revelation.” This consists of the universe itself, including (as the Confession puts it) its “creation, preservation, and government.” In a sense, then, the Confession holds that both Creation and Providence (which is often defined as God’s powerful preserving and governing of all things – see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.11). These things testify to God’s “everlasting power and divinity,” as both Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans 1:20 attest.

In his book, With Heart and Mouth (which is an exposition of the Belgic Confession), Daniel Hyde notes the limits of general revelation:

“The Confession follows the apostle in saying that this knowledge of God in creation, providence, and governance is of God as our creator. The content, then, of general revelation is not of God as redeemer but simply as the wise, eternal, powerful, and creative God that he is.” (p.57)

So the knowledge of God that we have in that “most elegant book” of nature is sufficient to render all of mankind without excuse for our sin and rebellion against our Creator. But the gospel is not to be found there. That is where the second book comes in, which is an actual book – the Bible. This is often referred to as “special revelation” (as opposed to or distinct from general revelation).

God reveals Himself “more clearly and fully” in Scripture (“His holy and divine Word”), so the Scriptures are primary. Our reading or understanding of the “book” of nature must be informed or guided by the Scriptures. And, most importantly, it is only in the Scriptures that God makes Himself known to us, not just as Creator, but also as Redeemer in Jesus Christ.

How to Listen to a Sermon

1710_largeA lot of hard work usually goes into preaching a sermon (if it is done properly). The average  expository sermon that goes for maybe 30-45 minutes might take anywhere from 10-20 hours of preparation time, depending on the pastor and the particular circumstances of his church or situation in a given week. (Many pastors will not be able to allocate 20 hours of study/prep time, of course.)

But what about listening to sermons? Is there anything that goes into that other than simply showing up and listening? The Westminster Larger Catechism addresses this question:

Q. 160. What is required of those that hear the Word preached? A. It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives”

So there are some things that are actually required from the listener (not just the preacher) in order to get the most out of the preaching of God’s Word on the Lord’s day. What are some of those things?

First, we must “attend upon it with diligence.” Show up for worship on Sundays, and do so consistently & regularly. Make it your habit and priority to be there every Lord’s day (morning and evening, if applicable). Show up and listen. Real listening takes some effort. Focus on and pay attention to the sermon, and do not allow yourself to be distracted by other things (e.g. put you cell phone away).

Second, attend upon it with preparation. What would you say if I were to tell you that to a large extent what you ‘get out of the sermon’ (to use a common phrase) depends upon what you do before the sermon ever starts? In fact, the way that you spend your Saturdays will largely influence the quality of your time spent in worship on Sundays. Do you get enough sleep, as much as depends upon you to do so? Or do you stay up or out too late at night? (It is difficult to attend diligently upon the preaching of the Word of God if you are half asleep.)

Do you read through the sermon text prior to worship? Not just five minutes before the service, but during the week, or even the night before the service. This, of course, requires that one actually know what the sermon text will be ahead of time. In many churches, especially in those where the pastor(s) preach expositionally straight through entire books of the Bible, this is not at all difficult to do. So make it a point to spend some time reading the sermon text in advance. Think about what the passage means, and the many ways that it might apply to your life.

Thirdly, do all of this with prayer. Do we prayerfully prepare for worship? Do we prayerfully read through the sermon text ahead of time, asking the Lord to give us understanding? At the end of the day we must pray, because we must be taught by the Lord if we are going to understand His Word rightly, and apply it rightly as well.

The next thing we are instructed to do is to examine what we hear by the Scriptures. This, of course, is based upon Acts 17:11 which says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so“(ESV). They received the Word of God “with all eagerness.” What a great picture of the disposition that God’s people should have toward the preaching of the Word of God! And their eagerness to receive the Word of God led them to examine whatever they heard by the Scriptures! If they could do that when they heard the Apostle Paul himself preaching (and be considered “noble” for doing so!), how much more should we who hear the Word preached today make it a point to examine what we hear by the Scriptures!

And the last thing(s) that Q.160 mentions is that we must then “receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.” In other words, once we have prepared, prayed, carefully listened, examined what was said in the sermon, and found it to be true to the Scriptures, we should receive it as the very Word of God! That means receiving it “with faith” (believing/trusting it), love, and humility. That means meditating or thinking upon it, discussing it, memorizing it or keeping it in mind, and applying or obeying it. After all, James 1:22 tells us, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (ESV). Hearing the Word is a good start, but it is only the beginning!

That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? That’s a lot of work for the listener! But that is the right way to approach listening to the faithful preaching of the Word of God. By God’s grace, seek to make this your practice, and you may strangely find your pastor’s preaching inexplicably getting much better (even when his actual preaching has not changed)! Even more importantly, you may find the Word of God bearing much fruit in your life, to the glory of God!

J.C. Ryle on the Spiritual Use of the Law

holinessCan a sinner be justified in the sight of a holy God by works, or by obedience to God’s commandments? No, of course not. In Galatians 2:16 the Apostle Paul plainly states as much:

“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (ESV)

Notice that Paul basically states this same truth at least three (3) times in just this one simple verse. (It’s as if he is trying to emphasize his point!) No one will be justified by the works of the law. No one.

Having established that, we must be careful to maintain that although we are not in any way justified by works or by obedience to God’s commandments, yet this does not therefore mean that we as believers in Christ have no more need or use for God’s law. Quite the opposite! In his book, Holiness, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There is no greater mistake than to suppose that a Christian has nothing to do with the law and the Ten Commandments, because he cannot be justified by keeping them. The same Holy Ghost who convinces the believer of sin by the law, and leads him to Christ for justification, will always lead him to a spiritual use of the law, as a friendly guide, in the pursuit of sanctification.” (p.26)

As Ryle rightly points out, the Holy Spirit not only uses the law of God to convince or convict the believer of his or her sin, and so to drive them to look to Christ by faith for salvation from sin (often referred to as the pedagogical use of the law), but after conversion also leads that same believer to what Ryle calls a “spiritual use of the law.” What is that “spiritual use” of God’s law? It is to use it as the believer’s rule for life (often called the normative or 3rd use of the law).

To the believer who has been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, the law no longer holds forth the threat of condemnation for sin, but now serves as (to use Ryle’s words) a “friendly guide” in our lifelong pursuit of sanctification.

What Is Forbidden in the 4th Commandment? (SHORTER CATECHISM Q.61)

1710_largeIn our brief series of posts examining what the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches regarding the Sabbath, we now come to  Q.61, which asks:

“What is forbidden in the fourth commandment?”

What is positively required by the commandment was dealt with at length in the previous three questions (Q.58-60). Now we see the flip side, so to speak – what we are not to do on the Lord’s day. The catechism’s answer to the above question is as follows:

“The fourth commandment forbids the omission, or careless performance, of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness, or doing that which is in itself sinful, or by unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.”

So the first thing that is forbidden is the “omission . . .of the duties required.” Blatant disregard for the Sabbath and for worship (both public and private) is in view here. We must not neglect to observe the holy rest and worship that is required. (See Q.60.) This happens, for instance, when we fail to faithfully attend public worship on the Lord’s day. This is what the writer of the book of Hebrews admonishes us about:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV, italics mine)

‘Neglecting to meet together’ in public worship is all too common in our day, but apparently that is nothing new. Even back in the first century that was already “the habit of some” (v.25). For various reasons some professing believers simply don’t make it a priority. Some attend worship once or twice a year (around Easter or Christmas), and consider that sufficient to fulfill their obligation. This should not be. If this describes you, consider the words of the 4th commandment as well as Hebrews 10:25, and take those words to heart. Don’t waste your Sundays on lesser things.

Lest we content ourselves with mere church attendance, the second thing that we are told is forbidden here is the “careless performance” of the duties required. We are guilty of this when we go through the motions (even the correct motions, so to speak!) in worship. In others words, just showing up is a good start, but it is not enough. Our hearts and minds must be engaged in what we are doing. This is the kind of thing that is spoken of by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah:

” . . . this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13, ESV)

They said all the right things, but it was all just for show; their hearts were not truly into it. How often do we commit similar sins in worship? How often do we say, pray, or sing all the right things, while our hearts are far from God? Probably far more often than most of us would like to admit. There is often much to be repented of and forgiven even in our worship!

The third thing that is forbidden in the 4th commandment is “profaning the day.” What does it mean to “profane” the day? Q.61 outlines a number of the ways that we might do so. The first of those is simply “idleness.” A day of holy rest is not a day of inactivity; it is not intended to be a wasted day!

Another way to profane the day is by doing that which is inherently sinful. Of course, that holds true for every day of the week, but you could say that the offense is aggravated or made worse by doing those things on the Lord’s day! We are certainly not supposed to live wickedly Monday through Saturday, while saving our holiness for Sundays (or for an hour or two on Sundays) – that is rightly called hypocrisy. But we should be especially mindful of resting from our evil works on Sundays.

The last way of profaning the Lord’s day that the Shorter Catechism mentions is “unnecessary thoughts, words, or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.”  What does that entail?  One obvious example comes to mind – watching sports on Sundays.  Assuming (I hope) that we don’t just skip church altogether for the sake of watching our favorite NFL team, do we hurry home from church on Sundays so that we can watch the game? Or, perhaps I refrain from watching my favorite football team (yes, the Eagles) on Sundays, but do I still find myself checking on the score or following the game online? (Guilty as charged, at times.) Do we spend our time discussing work-related things unnecessarily?

Does that sound like an impossible standard to try to live up to? Does it sound unattainable? Sure it does. But what are we to do about that fact? Are we to throw our hands up in the air and give up on making any sincere or serious effort at obeying the law of God in these things? Certainly not. You would never dare to apply that logic to the commandment against adultery, would you? (I sincerely hope not.) Would you call someone a “legalist” because he or she took the implications of the 7th commandment seriously, and sought (however imperfectly) to refrain even from lustful thoughts? Of course not, right? Well, the same principles clearly apply to the 4th commandment!

So what are we to do? If need be, we must repent of our transgressions of the 4th commandment. If you have neglected the gathering together of the Lord’s people for public worship, resolve by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to do so no longer. Make worship on the Lord’s day your priority. And seek to delight in it as well (Isaiah 58:13). That is something that may take some time to cultivate and learn; and it doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. But it is well worth the time and effort required.

Feeding the Flock With a Slingshot? (Dabney on Polemics in Preaching)

dabney-eeFeeding Christ’s sheep is a common metaphor for the preaching and teaching aspect of pastoral ministry. When the risen Christ told Simon Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17), He certainly intended Peter to understand that if he (Peter) truly loved Him, one of the primary ways that he was to show it was in feeding Christ’s sheep by ministering the Word of God to them faithfully.

The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:2), the writer of the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:12-14), and even the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:2) likewise all used imagery involving feeding (or eating) to describe the ministry of the Word.

And so a right view of the preaching and teaching ministry in the church will necessarily involve seeing it in some way as (among other things) feeding Christ’s sheep. That should have a profound influence on the way that we approach preaching in the church. True Christian preaching should be done for the glory of Christ, and for the benefit (even the spiritual nourishment) of the flock.

In his book, Evangelical Eloquence, Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) offers a number of critiques and cautions about certain kinds of preaching that are not fitting in the church. One of those preaching styles or practices might be described as polemics-centered preaching.

What is polemics? It can be defined as the practice of refuting error by means of dispute or argumentation. It can rightly be thought of as at least one aspect of destroying arguments raised against the knowledge of God and taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Certainly there is a place for that in the preaching and teaching of the church.

Nonetheless, Dabney had the following to say about the kind of preaching that focuses almost entirely on polemics:

“In [other pulpits] the Sabbaths of the people are wholly occupied with those polemics by which the outworks of Christianity should be defended against the foreign assaults of infidel philosophy; as though one would feed the flock within the fold with the bristling missiles which should have been hurled against the wolves without.” (p.39)

Now here he is not condemning any and all polemics in our pulpits – far from it! There is nothing wrong with polemics in the pulpit per se. There is most certainly a use (even a need) for it at times. Without it, the flock will be unprepared for some of the assaults from within or without that might threaten the doctrinal integrity and unity of the church. But not all polemical issues are relevant (or even accessible) to the flock.

Sometimes, as Dabney rightly points out above, polemical preaching can be aimed at the wrong audience. Sometimes the staff (or the “bristling missiles,” as Dabney puts it) that should be used with force against the wolves, ends up being misdirected at the sheep instead. Such preaching is surely no way to feed Christ’s flock.

So let us feed Christ’s sheep in all of our preaching and teaching in the church. And let polemics have their proper place in our preaching and teaching, to be sure, but not the central place, lest we mistakenly try to feed Christ’s sheep a steady diet of stones or “bristling missiles.” Let us be careful not to try to feed Christ’s sheep with a slingshot. It not only fails to keep the wolves away, but it also leads to a malnourished flock.

When a Sermon Degenerates Into A Speech

dabney-eeWhat is the difference between a sermon and a mere speech? How can one tell the difference between the two?

In his book on the subject of preaching, Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) makes the following observation:

“The preacher relies alone upon evangelical inducements, and refers every conviction of the reason ultimately to God’s testimony. I elaborate this all-important distinction carefully; perhaps my reasons for it are difficult to grasp, because of their simplicity. The end, I repeat, of every oration is to make men do. But the things which the sermon would make men do, are only the things of God. Therefore it must apply to them the authority of God. If your discourse urges the hearer merely with excellent reasons and inducements, natural, ethical, social, legal, political, self-interested, philanthropic, if it does not end by bringing their wills under the direct grasp of a “thus saith the Lord,” it is not a sermon; it has degenerated into a speech.” (Evangelical Eloquence, p.34)

Surely Dabney is correct here. At the end of the day, if the force behind a sermon does not reside primarily in the authority of the Word of God (“a thus saith the Lord”, as Dabney puts it above), then it is not truly a sermon at all, but has “degenerated into a speech.”

It may be a fine speech – it may be carefully crafted and articulated; it may even “make men do” something, and so be thought to be effective, but it is not a sermon in the most basic sense of the word, and therefore has no place in the pulpit of a Christian church.

In the preaching in our churches, let us (again, to borrow Dabney’s phrase) rely on evangelical inducements alone, and seek to bring the wills of our hearers under a direct grasp of the truth and authority of the Word of God in Scripture. The Lord’s people need sermons, not speeches.

A Mutilated Faith

calvin-commentaryWhat does it mean to believe in Jesus Christ? What is faith? The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines faith as follows:

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

So saving faith is faith that ‘receives and rests upon’ Christ alone for salvation. And true saving faith receives and rests upon Christ “as he is offered to us in the gospel.” It must be said that much of what often passes as preaching of the gospel of Christ does not fit that description. For how is Christ offered to us in the gospel? Is Christ offered as the Savior from the penalty of sin only, or as the Savior from sin – from its penalty, power, and (in the life to come), even its very presence?

The Scriptures plainly tell us that Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and that His gospel is sent forth to offer both forgiveness and sanctification (Acts 26:18). Clearly, then, Christ is offered to us in the gospel both for our justification as well as our sanctification, and He must be received as such.

Calvin (in commenting on Romans 8:13), puts it this way:

“It is, indeed, true, that we are justified in Christ by the mercy of God alone, but it is equally true and certain, that all who are justified are called by the Lord to live worthy of their vocation. Let believers, therefore, learn to embrace Him, not only for justification, but also for sanctification, as He has been given to us for both these purposes, that they may not rend him asunder by their own mutilated faith.” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 10, p.167)

Those who would believe in Christ for justification alone (i.e. for forgiveness and acceptance before God as righteous as in His sight), but not also for sanctification, have a (to use Calvin’s phrase) “mutilated faith” that effectively seeks to ‘rend Christ asunder’ (or split Him in two). But a divided faith in a divided Christ saves no one. So let us learn, as Calvin says, to embrace Christ for sanctification as well as justification, for “he has been given to us for both these purposes.”