Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Good News Indeed!

 Martin Luther wrote that Justification by Faith alone was the article by which the church stands or falls. John Calvin wrote that it is the main hinge on which religion turns.”  And Thomas Cranmer wrote (Article XI) that:  “… Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort...   What these three Reformers were attesting to was that the gospel, inasmuch as it be good news to those who hear it, is embodied in the doctrine of Justification by Faith.  Whether of Germany, Switzerland, or England the Reformer's Biblical understanding of salvation led them to

conclude that to diminish or reject this doctrine of  faith alone was to retreat from the good news of Jesus Christ and fall back into the works-righteousness-justification fog of the Medieval Church.
Sola Fideism (by faith alone), a much misunderstood phrase, embodies the gospel.  Dr. R.Scott Clark at Heidelblog writes that sola fide is a shorthand way of saying that “faith - receiving and resting in the perfect, finished, whole, active and passive obedience of Christ for his people - is the alone instrument through which a sinner is justified before God.”  The questions then to be addressed is: why and how is sola fide essential to the good news?  To answer that we must look to the Law.
I think for many, who look to diminish or dismantle sola fide in God’s redemptive scheme, there exists an underestimation of the absolute righteous demands of God’s law (be ye perfect even as My Father is perfect) upon all mankind and the unbridgeable chasm between our most righteous works (filthy rags all before God's holy law) and the unblemished holiness required in order to stand justified before that law.

[Gal. 3:10-11] For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one who continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them. Now that no man is justified by the law before God, is evident: for, The righteous shall live by faith…  [Rom.2:5-6] but after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his works;  [3:8] as it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one; [3:19b-20a]… that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may be brought under the judgment of God: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight…
This is some serious bad news!   And there is nothing one can do to change the “rules of the game.”  Yet something within us doesn’t buy this bad news as being quite as condemning as it really is.  Something inherent resides within us (Calvin calls it the relic of the flesh) that supposes there is some good we can and must bring to the table of God’s redemption.  That something which dwells within us is the sinful self-regard that "thinks more highly of himself than he ought" [Rom 12:8].  It is that which does not believe the truth that surely "nothing good dwells within my flesh." And, despite agreeing with the law via the benefit of a new heart and right-will through regeneration, I yet slip into the sin (Rom. 7) which subtly insists that my righteous intentions, prayers, faith, meditations, experiences, and works have some inherent value in climbing a meritorious ladder to God.
It doesn’t matter if one says, though erroneously, “but His grace has infused in me an inherent righteousness from which to live unto justification.”  It is not an "on and off" proposition with the law.  The law demands that I live not only in a righteous manner continually (no mulligans... we are forgiven - yet the Law demands complete holiness of life), but that my righteousness be as perfect as that of our divine Father in heaven... God Himself.  That the creature should somehow ascend toward the holiness of the Creator and from within himself produce virtue that matches God's Righteousness is pride and folly in the extreme.  Thus as Thomas Cranmer wrote in his Homily on the Salvation of Man (Of Justification), “but every man of necessity is constrained to seek for another righteousness or justification, to be received at GOD’S own hands...”

Where then is “another righteousness or justification” to be found for the inherently unrighteous sinner?  And how then is he to receive it at God’s own hands?  But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested… even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ… being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood… that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus… We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. [Rom. 3]
This good news of the Divine Transaction of the cross is that Jesus Christ, made like us, fully Man yet without sin, takes our sin upon Himself, bearing it and the condemnation and penalty rightly due our disobedience (to the law) by his suffering and death on the cross; but not only that. The penalty paid, He has risen in righteousness and, in exchange for our sins before the law, Christ now offers to his own the merit of His perfect obedience before that very law, which God imputes to us who receive it through faith... Christ's fulfilling of the Law for the redeemed.  The penalty for man's sin demanded by God's law is paid. The perfection of obedience demanded of the law is accomplished; both by the infinitely worthy God-Man Jesus. God is now both the just (His law is not compromised) and the justifier of the unjust. 
This Divine Transaction of grace rightly cuts against any pride of self-regard.  Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. [Romans 3:27]
Regarding this justification Dr. R. Scott Clark writes that, “That faith is never alone. [Yet] it does not justify because it is not alone. Those graces that accompany justifying faith do not constitute faith justifyingOnly Christ, the object of faith, makes faith justifying. This is the difference between Rome and the Reformation. For the Reformation, the accompanying graces are evidence and fruit of true faith. They tell us that one has a living faith. In that way, they are necessary.”

It is good news because by a free gratuitous act of favor and love, God has sought out and rescued the sinner, who though justly under the condemnation of the law, receives forgiveness of sins and salvation through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection on his behalf. Through faith in Him the sinner receives the gift of this Divine Transaction, exchanging the filthy rags of his imperfect works for Jesus's penalty-bearing and perfect obedience in all of the law. Thus the one who trusts in Christ’s work is declared justified before the same law that once condemned him.  This justification, completed and freely given, is not a blessing restricted solely to initial saving faith, but is the secure ground of the Christian’s life going forward from which all good works spring.
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus... [Rom. 8:1]  This is the solid rock upon which the believer stands as he, with increasing gratitude, follows his Lord and Savior Jesus; Who, as his Advocate and Mediator in heaven, is ever his sure Justification before God. And by grace given, this sinner/saint walks in those good works which God hath before ordained that we should walk in [Eph. 2:10b], not unto his own insufficient merit and righteousness, but unto the glory of God in Christ Jesus.
Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? God forbid: nay, we establish the law. [Rom. 3:31]
Good news of justification received through the gift of faith apart from any works of our own. 
Good news of God’s freely given grace - cleansing from sin by Jesus’ blood and His righteous merit before the Law accounted to us - apprehended by faith alone.  This grace sustains, upholds, and comforts as we, with increasing gratitude and trust in His finished work, yield ourselves to works of righteousness through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
Good news indeed!  ... for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them. [Eph. 2:8-10]  But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. [Rom. 11:6]

Originally posted July 29, 2010

Friday, January 26, 2024

"And there is no health in us"... total depravity?

"No... not that dreadful Calvinist doctrine!", exclaimed the Anglo-Catholic churchman in an tone of cultured-indignant outrage...

In a previous post I considered the case for the reformed doctrine of predestination being taught in Article 17 of the Thirty-Nine Articles.  But what about the reformed doctrine of  total depravity?  Is it likewise to be found in the Anglican formularies or is it merely a morbid innovation of of those "hyper-puritan Calvinists"?  This question is posed in the context of the larger question that this blogger has explored, what is the historical Reformational heritage of the Anglican Church?

First up we need a definition... what is the doctrine of total depravity?  I like how this pastor defines it:
What total depravity means then is that every area of man has been affected by the Fall: man's entire body, soul and spirit has suffered a radical corruption.  This does not mean that man is without a conscience or any sense of right or wrong, nor that every sinner is devoid of all the qualities that are both pleasing to men and useful to society, when those qualities are judged only by human standards. In addition, this does not mean that every sinner is prone to every form of sin...

Perhaps "radical corruption" is a better term to describe our fallen condition than the historic term "total depravity." "Radical" not in the sense of being "extreme," but radical in the sense of its original meaning, stemming from the Latin word for "root" or "core." Our problem with sin is that it is rooted in the core of our being, permeating our hearts. It is because sin is at our core and not merely at the exterior of our lives that Romans 3:10-12 declares: "There is none righteous, no not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one."

Man, by nature, does not want to know God. "There is no one who seeks after God," as the above Scripture says. As Dr. Michael Horton noted, "We cannot find God for the same reason that a thief can't find a police officer." [Pastor John Samson]  
You've got to love that Horton quote, eh?

Simply put, sin has affected all parts of man. And this corruption touches the entire man - heart, emotions, will, mind, and body.  In that respect man is completely sinful, though not as sinful as he could be.  So, is this doctrine to be found among the teachings of the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Homilies or the prayers of the Book of Common Prayer?  Let's take a survey...

Excerpts from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer...
4th Sunday in Advent Collect:  ... that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us...
Morning Prayer Confession of Sin:  And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
The Lenten Collects:   Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness...
... Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves...
Easter-Even Collect:  ... so by continual mortifying our corrupt affections we may be buried with him...
Easter Day Collect:  ... as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost put into our minds good desires...  [how else to interpret this than without God's special grace going before us we are incapable of even good desires, let alone any good, i.e. righteous, works]
4th Sunday After Easter Collect:  Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men... [how else to take this than we have no power to rule over or against our sinful affections]
1st Sunday After Trinity Collect:  ... through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee...
9th Sunday After Trinity Collect:  ...that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will...
15th Sunday After Trinity Collect:  ...because the frailty of man without thee cannot but fall...
24th Sunday After Trinity Collect:  ...absolve thy people from their offences; that through thy bountiful goodness we may all be delivered from the bands of those sins, which by our frailty we have committed...  
Holy Communion General Confession:  We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
Prayer preceding kneeling at the Lord's Table:  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.
The Commination:  Ps. 51 - Behold, I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
The Commination Confession:  ...enter not into judgement with thy servants, who are vile earth, and miserable sinners; but so turn thine anger from us, who meekly acknowledge our vileness, and truly repent us of our faults...
Psalm 14:1-8:  The fool hath said in his heart : There is no God.
2. They are corrupt, and become abominable in their doings : there is none that doeth good, no not one.
3. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men : to see if there were any that would understand, and seek after God.
4. But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable : there is none that doeth good, no not one.
5. Their throat is an open sepulchre, with their tongues have they deceived : the poison of asps is under their lips.
6. Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness : their feet are swift to shed blood.
7. Destruction and unhappiness is in their ways, and the way of peace have they not known ; there is no fear of God before their eyes.
8. Have they no knowledge, that they are all such workers of mischief : eating up my people as it were bread, and call not upon the Lord?
Psalm 53: 1-4:  The foolish body hath said in his heart : There is no God.
2. Corrupt are they, and become abominable in their wickedness : there is none that doeth good.
3. God looked down from heaven upon the children of men : to see if there were any that would understand, and seek after God.
4. But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable : there is also none that doeth good, no not one.
Psalm 58:3:  The ungodly are froward, even from their mother's womb : as soon as they are born, they go astray, and speak lies.
Article IX. Of Original or Birth Sin:  Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated, whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek phronema sarkos (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire of the flesh), is not subject to the law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess that concupiscence and lust hath itself the nature of sin.
Article X. Of Free Will:  The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing ( us that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will.
Article XIII. Of Works before Justification:  Works done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea, rather for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

Update (5-8-2011):  And this tidbit - Article XIV. Of Works of Supererogation:  ... Whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to do, say, We be unprofitable servants
[Me:  That is, we bring nothing to the table when it comes to the demands of God's holiness, for we always fall short due to the corruption of our nature]

And you may want to take the time to read these selected excerpts below as they are part of the authoritative doctrinal teaching (see Article XXXV. Of Homilies) for the the Church of England concerning the fallen state of man:

Book I-Homily #2 Of The Misery of All Mankind:  ... And all men, of their evilness and natural proneness, were so universally given to sin that, as the Scripture saith [Gen. 6:6] *God repented that ever he made man... And thus he setteth us forth, speaking by his faithful Apostle St. Paul: [Rom. 3:9–18] All men, Jews and Gentiles, are under sin. There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none that understandeth; there is none that seeketh after God.  They are all gone out of the way; they are all unprofitable: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used Craft and deceit; the poison of serpents is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood.  Destruction and wretchedness are in their ways, and the way of peace have they not known: there is no fear of God before their eyes...

St. Paul in many places painteth us out in our colours, calling us the children of the wrath of God when we be born; saying also that we cannot think a good thought of ourselves, much less we can say well or do well of ourselves... And our Saviour Christ saith there is none good but God, and that we can do nothing that is good without him, nor no man can come to the Father but by him.  He commandeth us all to say that we be unprofitable servants, when we have done all that we can do... He saith he came not to save but the sheep that were utterly lost and cast away...

We be of ourselves of such earth as can bring forth but weeds, nettles, brambles, briars, cockle, and darnel.  Our fruits be declared in the fifth chapter to the Galathians. [Gal. 5:[19–23].]  We have neither faith, charity, hope, patience, chastity, nor any thing else that good is...

Let us therefore acknowledge ourselves before God, as we be indeed, miserable and wretched sinners... For truly there be imperfections in our best works... Let us therefore not be ashamed to confess plainly our state of imperfection; yea, let us not be ashamed to confess imperfection even in all our own best works...

Thus we have heard how evil we be of ourselves; how, of ourselves and by ourselves, we have no goodness, help, nor salvation, but contrariwise sin, damnation, and death everlasting: which if we deeply weigh and consider, we shall the better understand the great mercy of God, and how our salvation cometh only by Christ... Hitherto have we heard what we are of ourselves; verily, sinful, wretched, and damnable.
Again, we have heard how that, of ourselves and by ourselves, we are not able either to think a good thought, or work a good deed: so that we can find in ourselves no hope of salvation, but rather whatsoever maketh unto our destruction... Let us also knowledge the exceeding mercy of God toward us, and confess that, as of ourselves cometh all evil and damnation, so likewise of him cometh all goodness and salvation; as God himself saith by the Prophet Osee: [Hos. 13:9] O Israel, thy destruction cometh of thyself, but in me only is thy help and comfort.

Well... what do you think?  Can a case be made that the reformed doctrine of total depravity is reflected in the Anglican formularies as exampled in the above quotes?  It seems difficult to come to any other conclusion; a conclusion which magnifies the radical remedy that God provided for us miserable sinners:  the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God come in the flesh - the perfect holy one - on the cross for sinful humans.  Nothing less was needed and because of the great mercy and love of God, nothing less was provided.

[originally posted May 5, 2011]

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Remembering Mac Laurie, Elder

Mac Laurie, as his son Craig wrote a year ago in an email, "joined the Church Triumphant on November 12, 2022." I think of him often. He was a mentor and elder to many in his years of service to the Lord. Also he was a dear and trusted friend, my elder, and co-elder with whom I served. Mac was 97 years old when he died and had served as an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for over 50 years. You can read David Winslow's Memoriam for Mac in the December 2022 issue of New Horizon's Magazine on page 21 here.

I miss Mac. The Church misses Mac. And I say that because an elder is what he was, i.e. a faithful shepherd of the Lord's flock. He looked after the souls of those not only "officially" in his congregation but also of many other Christians he came to know and love over the years. 

Soon after my wife and I began attending El Camino OPC in 2010 we joined in with the Sunday school class that Mac was teaching. We were not yet members and were taking things slow. One particular Sunday Mac's class concerned the topic of God's Law. I don't remember any comment I may have offered as we discussed the topic, but it apparently registered a concern with Mac. Later that afternoon he showed up at our home. Here's what I wrote to him years later, a few weeks before his death about that incident:

I have contemplated the prospect of your going home to the Lord more than a few times this past year. After all, you had already been blessed with many years beyond the "allotted" three score and ten. One memory that kept popping up was of you coming to visit for the first time, on a Sunday after church. Barb and I had just started attending El Camino. You had led a Sunday school class in which the topic of the Law had been discussed. Concerned about my understanding of how to think on the matter, you showed up unannounced with something written by Robert Godfrey for my consideration and help. Well, only true shepherds of the Lord's sheep do that kind of thing. I knew then I had a true shepherd for an elder; an elder who became a much beloved friend.

We weren't yet members but Mac was caring for our souls, two of Christ's sheep. Shepherds do that. That incident brought to mind a quote from the 16th century Reformer Martin Bucer:

Those who are ordained to the care of souls and pastoral ministry in the church are to serve our Lord Jesus, the chief Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, in his lambs, that is, all those elected to life, in such a way that through their minsitry everything is shown and provided that our Lord has promised in his office of Shepherd. This involves being concerned and through the word of God providing that Christ's lambs, who are still straying from his flock and sheep-pen, should be gathered in... [Barb and I were not yet sheep of the fold at El Camino] - (Concerning The True Care of Souls by Martin Bucer, p 69)

Over the next 12 years Mac and I had many conversations about many things such as the gospel of Christ, understanding the meaning of the law in various parts of the Bible, and covenantal theology. He impressed me with how deeply he cared about the truth of scripture in order to better safeguard the church from error and by his willingness to adjust his understanding when convinced to do so by God's Word. Always a learner, a disciple of Christ. 

Even in his last year of life, six years after retiring from the El Camino OPC session and having moved over to the PCA, Mac was still involved, fighting battles for truth in Christ's church. Competing overtures over controversial issues regarding the qualifications for ordained ministers were being considered for the upcoming General Assembly. Mac shared with me his closing thoughts over these matters from an email he sent early in 2022 to a PCA pastor:

Dark days in the PCA, indeed, and destined to become darker, I fear. I find myself resentful that God has placed me in them. My heart cries "you've fought enough battles; you deserve to live out your remaining days free of strife." I'm not looking very good according to measure penned by Watts in his "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?"

Transparent and always ready to consider his inadequacy as a servant... When I read those words of his I thought, "no Mac... clear evidence you are indeed looking very good."

My sweetest memories are of the many times over the years that Mac, my wife and I got together for fellowship, discussions and prayer concerning our loved ones and Christ's Church. This became a regular part of our friendship. Most cherished was how Mac, in closing our times together and with pillows on the floor along side the sofa, would say,

"To our knees!"

 ... leading us into prayer.

Heavenly Father, we offer thanksgiving for Elder Mac Laurie who has departed this life in the certain hope of the resurrection. Amen.


A post by Mac Laurie on The World's Ruined:  Forsaken? More Thoughts on Abhorring and Loving The Sinner - Part 5

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Calvin: Substitution - Why Jesus Died A Criminal’s Death

“When we read that Christ was led away from the judgment-seat to execution, and was crucified between thieves, we have a fulfillment of the prophecy which is quoted by the Evangelist, "He was numbered with the transgressors," (Isaiah 53:12; Mark 15:28.) Why was it so? That he might bear the character of a sinner, not of a just or innocent person, inasmuch as he met death on account not of innocence, but of sin. 

“On the other hand, when we read that he was acquitted by the same lips that condemned him, (for Pilate was forced once and again to bear public testimony to his innocence,) let us call to mind what is said by another prophet, "I restored that which I took not away," (Psalm 69:4.) Thus we perceive Christ representing the character of a sinner and a criminal, while, at the same time, his innocence shines forth, and it becomes manifest that he suffers for another's and not for his own crime. He therefore suffered under Pontius Pilate, being thus, by the formal sentence of the judge, ranked among criminals, and yet he is declared innocent by the same judge, when he affirms that he finds no cause of death in him. 

“Our acquittal is in this that the guilt which made us liable to punishment was transferred to the head of the Son of God, (Isaiah 53:12.) We must specially remember this substitution in order that we may not be all our lives in trepidation and anxiety, as if the just vengeance which the Son of God transferred to himself, were still impending over us.”

John Calvin, Insitutes: Book 2.16.5

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Lord's Day Minimum Daily Requirement... Beggars Should Be Choosers (Part 3) -

In this third and last segment of "Beggars Should Be Choosers" (Part 1 and Part 2) I lay out some thoughts on the importance of what I am calling the Lord's Day Minimum Daily Requirement. There are essentials that make up a kind of necessary nutritional value when choosing a local church. They are gospel-centered and helped this beggar in choosing a church home in an ACNA congregation. 

In Part 1 and Part 2 I gave a brief historical tour of my church experience in which I drew out several lines fundamental (IMHO) to the process of choosing a church. If you are to live the Christian life then you are meant to be a Christian in a church. You will choose a church. The thesis of this 3-part post is that when it comes to finding a local church beggars (Christians) should be choosers. It's in the local church where, so to speak, the rubber meets the road.

Some considerations I previously laid out in choosing a local church were Christ-centered worship, a set liturgy with its roots in the Reformation, a liturgy that isn’t pared down to mere outline, a church holding to a Reformed confession, a gospel-centered worship around the Lord’s Supper, and preaching that presents not law as the food for faith but Christ crucified as found in the gospel. Let's take a closer look.

Christ-centered worship: How does one measure that? Without any other qualifiers this descriptor ends up merely being something in the eye of the beholder. Any serious Christian church would claim to have Christ-centered worship. So, the question is how do you define this? Let me ask another question. How did Jesus define what it means to interpret and understand the written word? Two biblical texts come to mind -

"You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life."  John 5:39-40

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Luke 24:27

The minimum requirement necessary to interpret the Bible is that all of Scripture points to Christ. That is the Bible's purpose. So to understand Scripture is not to ask does a particular passage point to Christ, but rather how does it point to Christ. To read Scripture with a different focus is to miss seeing Jesus. From start to finish the Bible shows sinners the way to God. And again and again it points to Jesus Christ.

Similarly, church worship ought to have ingredients that point to and focus on the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord Jesus Christ. To ignore that focus is to miss what the Church is about. We worship God in Christ, come to God through Christ, are cleansed of our sin by him, and are spiritually fed of him. To minimize this end is to relegate Jesus to the margins of worship or as someone phrased it - assume the gospel. It would be like holding a banquet feast for hungry people but leaving most of the nourishing food off the table, i.e. not served. A feast is all about the food! There may be a menu at each setting listing the delicious delights, but the paucity of nourishment actually provided causes one to remain hungry. The problem may be that those holding the banquet don't realize how hungry people are (analogy alert). Faith needs to be fed and the food is Christ. 

A set liturgy with its roots in the Reformation: Why? Well, the Reformation brought forth the clearest understanding of the gospel. And it is in the gospel that Christ Jesus is freely offered as food for saving faith; faith by which sinners lay hold of salvation. Simply put, church worship should point to Christ in the gospel as the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16}. Why a set liturgy? As I wrote before, few pastors are up to the task of developing a worship service that approaches what we already have been given. The temptation to innovate is great. And to innovate is an invitation to likely veer off course.

One finds in the church liturgies of the Reformation such essentials as prayer to God through the mediator Jesus Christ, corporate general confession of sin, declaration of pardon to all who believe in Christ, reading of Scripture, the declaration of God's Law, a confessional creed, praise and song to God extolling salvation in Christ, the unveiled proclamation of the gospel in both the sermon and the administration of the Lord's Supper, and a final gospel blessing declared upon the congregation. Every week... and this never gets old. Rather these gospel elements are crucial for spiritual health and life just as our daily meals are necessary for the health of the body. 

And a set Reformed liturgy serves as a kind of regulative principle protecting the believer from the less than edifying experiments or ad-libs (often weekly) that mark much of today's Protestant/Evangelical churches. 

In addition, a set Reformed liturgy serves a catechetical purpose as believers rehearse each week through prayer, confession of sin, declaration of pardon, etc. the faith once delivered. The grace and unmerited mercy of God in Christ become more internalized and deeply held through a lather, rinse, and repeat liturgical Christ-centered worship.

A liturgy that isn’t pared down to mere outline: I mention this due to the tendency in some Reformed churches to have many, if not all, of the above essentials but unfortunately in brief bits or morsels that assume too much of what is left unsaid

A minister of a church might say, "We know everyone here believes in the forgiveness of sins for all who repent and believe in Christ," ...

but did your parishioners hear that affirmation from you every week or did you say to yourself, as I have heard and read confessional Reformed folk say, “We all know what the gospel is. Let us get on to the Christian life?...  
There are more “tender reeds” and “dimly burning” wicks than we under shepherds know...” (R. Scott Clark)

In a word, the gospel essentials should be unambiguous, repetitive, and full. 

A church holding to a Reformed confession: It's in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation* where one finds the clearest teaching on what is biblical Christianity. They give shape and direction to the worship of the church.** Simply put, they are essential to the church for staying the biblical course as she navigates the waters of this age.

A gospel-centered worship around the Lord’s Supper: It's unfortunate when the celebration of the Lord's Table is condensed into an all-too brief ceremony at the end of the church service, almost as if it is tacked on. Often it's reduced to little more than reciting Christ's words of institution and the distribution of the bread and cup. Why not a fuller unpacking of the mystery of this visible gospel in the prayers preceding and following the partaking? The value of this can be seen in the communion liturgy found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.** In other words, a fuller serving of Christ and his finished work of the cross as we eat and drink of him through faith. The remembrance of Jesus Christ in the Supper ought to be a big deal, because it is. As Michael Horton states:

“One of the reasons so many churches have gone to drama and other theatrical arts in worship is because the sermon and larger liturgical setting have failed to provide the sense that something dramatic is happening, as we gather before God.”

If time is taken, the minister's eucharistic prayers and spoken words can accomplish that.

Preaching that presents not law as the food for faith but Christ crucified as found in the gospel: In other words, not mere teachings that are more at home in a seminary class. Not sermons that are mainly admonitions to being more faithful and obedient. Not primarily moral examples from the Bible to imitate. But a clear presentation from Scripture of the sinful plight of fallen man and God's free offer of salvation in Christ to all who believe the gospel. Again, this never gets old. All of scripture points to Jesus Christ. And all the Church needs is Jesus Christ.

See also - Preaching: Potent Law and Gospel and The Persuasion of the Gospel (3)


* The ACNA holds to a Reformed confession of faith in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion - “Continental historians, both Protestant and Catholic, rank the Church of England among the Reformed Churches as distinct from the Lutheran, and her Articles are found in every collection of Reformed Confessions." (Philip Schaff as quoted by J.I. Packer in his book The Thirty-Nine Articles - Their Place and Use Today, p 33) - https://theworldsruined.blogspot.com/2021/08/the-case-for-reformedcalvinist-roots-of.html

**“The Book of Common Prayer liturgy is primarily a theological work, in that it was doctrine that guided Cranmer’s liturgical writings.”  G. W. Bromily, Thomas Cranmer: Theologian.


Saturday, February 18, 2023

What Is "Acceptable Worship"?

Thoughts on an Acceptable Worship:

"We all agree there should be truth in worship. But shouldn’t worship also be in truth? There’s a big difference between having truth in worship and worshipping in truth. Having truth in worship means you got some Bible in there. But worshiping in truth means the whole thing is by the Book. So the Bible commands us to worship acceptably (Heb 12). When the Bible commands acceptably, the Bible means the Bible. Where else would the Bible appeal the command than itself?

"And there is order in Hebrews 12’s exposition of worship. We are called to offer “acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Acceptable means worship accordingly. Reverence and awe means formality. Consuming fire means you should smell the charred remains of Nadab and Abihu in the smoke and tremble before your God asking only one question, “Has God commanded this worship?”" - Jared Beaird, The Antecedent To Worship 

Although I agree with the teaching that Rev. Beaird goes on to make in his essay regarding Reformed liturgical worship, I'm not sure that the writer's focus in Hebrews 12 is the regulative principle. Here's verse 28 that he refers to:

"Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace [or gratitude], whereby we may offer worship well-pleasing [acceptable] to God with reverence and awe." - Heb 12:28

It strikes me, that this verse follows on heels of the overall gospel theme of Hebrews, that of the necessity of faith in Christ alone for acceptance with God (as opposed to the ceremonial law-keeping of the Old Covenant); i.e. a lively faith in Jesus' blood shedding sacrifice for sins once for all, his eternal priesthood, and his mediation as revealed in the much more excellent New Covenant.

Here are some earlier verses in Hebrews that depict this theme of faith in Christ for our acceptance with God:

"so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." - Heb 6:12

"a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God... but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." Heb 7:19b, 24-25

"Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance... For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf." - Heb 9:15a, 24

"let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water... but my righteous one shall live by faith,

and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.”

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. "- Heb 10:22, 38-39

"And without faith [in Christ alone] it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." - Heb 11:6

And of course, "looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith" -Heb 12:2 that is at the beginning of the chapter under consideration.

Here is what John Calvin writes in his commentary on Hebrews 12:28 -
"He makes hence a transition to another exhortation, that we are to lay hold on that kingdom which cannot be shaken; for the Lord shakes us for this end, that he may really and forever establish us in himself. At the same time I prefer a different reading, which is given by the ancient Latin version, "Receiving a kingdom, we have grace," etc. When read affirmatively, the passage runs best, -- "We, in embracing the Gospel, have the gift of the Spirit of Christ, that we may reverently and devoutly worship God." If it be read as an exhortation, "Let us have," it is a strained and obscure mode of speaking. The Apostle means in short, as I think, that provided we enter by faith into Christ's kingdom, we shall enjoy constant grace, which will effectually retain us in the service of God; for as the kingdom of Christ is above the world, so is the gift of regeneration."

And what does Scripture mean by to worship in truth? Looking to the apostle John:

"Ye worship that which ye know not: we worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers." - John 4:22-23

Those born of the Spirit and faith in Jesus are the true worshipers of God.

Again, John Calvin:

"It amounts to this, that God is not properly worshipped but by the certainty of faith, which cannot be produced in any other way than by the word of God...

"Now that they [the Jews] deny the Son, they have nothing in common with the Father... The same judgment must be formed concerning all who have turned aside from the pure faith of the Gospel to their own inventions and the traditions of men.

"The worship of God is said to consist in the spirit, because it is nothing else than that inward faith of the heart which produces prayer, and, next, purity of conscience and self-denial, that we may be dedicated to obedience to God as holy sacrifices...

In all ages God wished to be worshipped by faith, prayer, thanksgiving, purity of heart, and innocence of life; and at no time did he delight in any other sacrifices.

To worship God through faith in Christ alone is what makes our prayers, thanksgivings, and praises to be well-pleasing and acceptable to him.

Finally, Rev. Beaird's thoughts on a gospel-centered liturgical worship are excellent.  I very much appreciate these words near the end:

"I prefer a liturgy structured: gospel, law, gospel. To begin and end with the gospel secures me in my only comfort in life and in death...

"Here’s my application, turn the gospel up to eleven every Lord’s Day. And for that, you will need a proper biblical liturgy." 

The article is well worth reading > The Antecedent to Worship

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Beggars Should Be Choosers (Part 2)

From the previous post - "Yet when it comes to a finding home church, I want to suggest that Christians (beggars all) indeed should be choosers!"

Picking up where I left off (Part 1 - here) in my non-magical liturgical history tour: 

We eventually landed in a small Anglican church. It was there that we began to not only appreciate but value the weekly repetition of the Holy Communion service in Book of Common Prayer - the reading of the Law, the unabashed and fully biblical general confession of sin, the declaration of absolution with the comforting words of Scripture, and the thoroughly gospel-centered Holy Communion liturgy.

The effect of this historic and Reformed liturgy was like participating in a weekly catechism of the faith once delivered to the saints. The liturgical worship assumed nothing, but rather led the believers through the essential cycle of the Christian life: repentance, forgiveness, and gospel grounded obedience. That path was via the reading of the Law with its holy standard of perfection (Lord have mercy), the confession of sin which highlighted not only sins “done and undone” but ourselves as “miserable offenders”, the declaration of pardon for all those who trust in the gospel of Christ, the confession of faith (Nicene Creed), a full presentation of the gospel of Christ as the church worships at the Lord’s Table, and the final corporate prayer of thanksgiving acknowledging the great salvation that God has given us through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ. Finally beseeching God for grace to “do all such good works as thou has prepared for us to walk in through Jesus Christ.

It was during this time that we were more and more moving towards the Reformed faith. There were many influences. Our son-in-law was attending Westminster Seminary California. So through that connection we began reading books on the Reformed faith, listening to the White Horse Inn, and eventually attending some of WSC’s annual winter conferences. At the same time due to our connection to Anglicanism I began exploring the riches of the English Reformation.

It was at this point, despite our love of the BCP liturgy, that the lack of Protestant identification in this particular Anglican church became a deal-breaker for continued membership. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (a Reformed confession of faith) and other Reformed marks of religion were at best historical footnotes, at worse totally ignored.

Wanting to be in a church that was more seriously confessional and identifiable as Reformed, we eventually pulled up stakes and landed in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and then a number of years later after relocating in the Presbyterian Church in America.

For quite a while we confessionally had accepted not only the the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion but also the Westminster Standards. I wanted to be in a church that overtly held to a Reformed confession so at least when there was debate over doctrine or practice there would be an agreed upon arbitrator and guide. Everyone can claim to be biblical. Reformed confessions define what biblical means. Now we were in such a church… yes, a church holding to a Reformed confession but also were in a church that, though having a traditional liturgy, was less liturgically gospel-centered (think assumed gospel).

Okay, this a-little-history section has stretched on longer than I planned. But certain important threads weave through it. Christ-centered worship, a set liturgy with its roots in the Reformation, a liturgy that isn’t pared down to mere outline, a church holding to a Reformed confession, a gospel-centered worship around the Lord’s Supper, and preaching that presents not law as the food for faith but Christ crucified as found in the gospel.

to be continued... [Part 1 and Part 3]

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Beggars Should Be Choosers (Part 1)

There’s truth in the saying, “Beggars can’t be choosers”. In other words, those in want should learn to be content with what is offered to them. Yet when it comes to finding a home church, I want to suggest that Christians (beggars all) indeed should be choosers! It’s with that thought I've entered the latter years of life, finding myself ever more dependent on and thirsting for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and, as Paul wrote, him crucified; to find a church where the gospel, in word and sacrament, is central for the nourishing of one’s faith and comforting of the soul. This consideration is what has recently led me into fellowship with an Anglican congregation in the ACNA. But before unpacking the whys and wherefores of that decision first…

A little history:
My wife and I spent our early years as adult believers in a church group outside of institutional Christianity in what some call the house church movement. L
ooking back (the decade of the 1970s) we naively assumed our corporate experience reflected that of the first century church. We had a love of the saints and a joyful corporate worship. We believed in the centrality of Christ in Scripture and that our salvation was complete in him. We didn't need creeds or confessions. We had Christ! Yet we lacked a solid foundation in the doctrines of grace and had a very low view of the sacraments. There was a simplicity in our worship (no guitars or other instruments - only a cappella singing) eschewing the “restrictive liturgical structure” of the organized Church. In practice the focus was on a subjective “experience of the Lord”. Too often that subjective experience (feelings) shaped our walk, defining faith and truth rather than Scripture. Ah, the blinkered idealism and ignorance of the young and some not so young. As our time there came to an end I was coming to understand that our brand, if you would, had some weaknesses.

Two years later I was in seminary for a Masters program in Biblical Counseling. After graduating we eventually found ourselves helping organize a small home church. This lasted for about three years or so. As with most non-institutional churches our little group ran its course, leaving us churchless. Now for something completely different!

Turning to organized Christianity, we began the somewhat foreign task of searching for a church. We sampled many of the offerings - Baptist, Independent Bible, Plymouth Brethren, Presbyterian, Eastern Orthodox, mega and small… and often we stayed home.

On Sundays as we set out to try a new church we would tell the children that we were going on another church “field trip”. Our attempts at pumping up their enthusiasm had limited success. Over time the children were less enthused and less amused. And my earnestness was likewise waning. I was already skeptical of organized Christianity and now I was becoming disillusioned. The similar rote offerings of songs, hymns, specials, announcements, gospel-less sermons, and the rare Lord’s Supper more often than not left us wanting. Where was the Lord in all this? Were my expectations unrealistic?

One Sunday morning we attended a service at an Episcopal church. It was the first time experiencing an Episcopal worship service (first for me, I think my wife had already been visiting). To say the least, I was sincerely surprised as the worship worked its way through the liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer. I remember turning to my wife at one point and saying with surprise, “This is so Christ-centered!” It wasn’t supposed to be that way. After all, this service-in-a-book was the height of institutionalized and supposed fossilized Christianity! A change of mind had slowly begun. I tucked the observation away.

What followed were several years without regular church attendance. We bought a sailboat and lived on it. That was my diversion. Our boat slip was not far from the Episcopal church mentioned above. Spiritually, I was at best treading water. My wife was attending church, certainly more often than I.

Three years later, after moving across country, our church search started afresh. God (my dear wife as his instrument) was renewing in me a heart for Christ and his church. Below is something I jotted down and showed her during a visit to one evangelical church as the service plodded along:

“When one takes away the liturgy [the BCP in mind] with its Christ/Scripture centered content it is difficult, if not impossible, to replace it with something that doesn’t fall short of a holy worship - a definite problem for the modern church.”

In a word, when it comes to Sunday weekly services, modern day liturgies often tend to be pared down and rather shallow liturgical outlines which fall short of a hoped-for-worship of God centered around the finished work of Jesus Christ. Their default setting consists in some combination of hymns, praise choruses, a teaching, maybe a “special” performance, prayers for various causes or sick members, an offering, announcements (the Lord’s Supper a rarity) which settles into a kind of going down the list and check-marking the boxes. In the words of Dr. Michael Horton, the gospel is assumed if not forgotten. Well-intentioned but misguided Lite-Law-teaching all too often is the main staple of sermons. All in all, it can be more like attending a Christian Rotary Club meeting than participating in a Christ centered corporate worship of our God and Savior.

to be continued... [ Part 2 and Part 3 ]

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

John Calvin on Law and Gospel

Section 7. Thus the Law is a kind of mirror.

As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both...

Section 8. When the Law discloses our guilt, we should not despond, but flee to the mercy of God. 

How this may be done.  
But while the unrighteousness and condemnation of all are attested by the law, it does not follow (if we make the proper use of it) that we are immediately to give up all hope and rush headlong on despair. No doubt, it has some such effect upon the reprobate, but this is owing to their obstinacy. With the children of God the effect is different. The Apostle testifies that the law pronounces its sentence of condemnation in order "that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God," (Rom 3: 19). In another place, however, the same Apostle declares, that "God has concluded them all in unbelief;" not that he might destroy all, or allow all to perish, but that "he might have mercy upon all," (Rom 11:32): in other words, that divesting themselves of an absurd opinion of their own virtue, they may perceive how they are wholly dependent on the hand of God; that feeling how naked and destitute they are, they may take refuge in his mercy, rely upon it, and cover themselves up entirely with it; renouncing all righteousness and merit, and clinging to mercy alone, as offered in Christ to all who long and look for it in true faith. In the precepts of the law, God is seen as the rewarder only of perfect righteousness, (a righteousness of which all are destitute), and, on the other hand, as the stern avenger of wickedness. But in Christ his countenance beams forth full of grace and gentleness towards poor unworthy sinners.

John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2.7.7 & 8

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

To Portray the Image of God...

Portraying the Image of God

In the 2nd Commandment God forbids the making of any image and the worshipping of it. It is one of the eight "Thou shalt nots" - prohibitions against certain thoughts and actions because they are sins - in the Ten Commandments, violations of God's moral will for man. To focus on them, rather than instilling obedience, brings us crashing head on into a brick wall of our disobedience! (Romans 5:20). 

The 2nd Commandment:


“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."

Why the prohibition against the making and use of images of God? As we said, it is sin. And any image made by man can only misrepresent the invisible Almighty God. Additionally, to include images in our worship directs us away from God's picture of himself he intended for man. 

We use our eyes more than any other part of our bodies to understand how to relate to our world. And when it comes to relating to God we may underestimate the attraction of  physical "seeing" or what 1 John 2:16 calls the lust of the eyes! John Calvin sheds some light on why the desire for images and other adornments in worship are so strong even among believers.

- the words of Moses (Gen 31: 19), When he relates that Rachel stole her father's images, he speaks of the use of idols as a common vice. Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols…

They [the Israelites] knew, indeed, that there was a God whose mighty power they had experienced in so many miracles, but they had no confidence of his being near to them, if they did not with their eyes behold a corporeal symbol of his presence, as an attestation to his actual government. They desired, therefore, to be assured by the image which went before them, that they were journeying under Divine guidance. (Institutes of Religion, Book 1.11.8)

Lacking the inherent confidence that God really is near to us and for us, we, like the Israelites (given our bent), often seek a prop, something we can behold or grasp to assist and assure us. Rather than trusting in his Word alone we augment it with what seem benign additions, e.g.  images and visual aids which, more or less, have become widespread standard fare in Christianity. Are images of Jesus/God really so bad? Well, yes... not only because they fall short of God’s mark, but these images, as well as many other outward visual "good idea" props (various adornments accompanying church worship), at a minimum distract from or undermine the means of imaging or portraying God revealed in his Word. Back to Calvin:

Paul declares, that by the true preaching of the gospel Christ is portrayed and in a manner crucified before our eyes, (Galatians 3:1.) Of what use, then, were the erection in churches of so many crosses of wood and stone, silver and gold, if this doctrine were faithfully and honestly preached, viz., Christ died that he might bear our curse upon the tree, that he might expiate our sins by the sacrifice of his body, wash them in his blood, and, in short, reconcile us to God the Father? From this one doctrine the people would learn more than from a thousand crosses of wood and stone. As for crosses of gold and silver, it may be true that the avaricious give their eyes and minds to them more eagerly than to any heavenly instructor. (Book 1.11.7)

And the apostle Paul adds that in his preaching to the Galatians that Christ crucified was pictured:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.

God images and portrays himself to us not in paintings or drawings, but in the gospel. God assures us of his love in the gospelIt is in the gospel that he shows himself in Christ to us. Rather than with physical eyes, we see him with the eyes of faith. And we are assured of his nearness to us through hearing and believing the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).

Philip *said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus *said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:8-9)

The gospel is God's means of showing Christ to us. Christ alone is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15a) and he is seen only through eyes of faith in the gospel.