The Least Mentioned Sin?

By Nick Batzig

“You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” This familiar idiomatic phrase sometimes simply refers to the way in which people with differing skills and abilities seek to care for one another out of a sense of need and gratitude. However, more often than not, it represents the way in which people are willing to show unjust partiality to one another for dishonest advancement or gain. In the latter case, it is not always made manifest in an official offer of possessions or promotion. Instead, it is often packaged in unspoken and unofficial ways. We may be tempted to show partiality to others in places of leadership in the workplace, civil service or in the church because they have convinced us that they can help us achieve our own goals or advance in our own ambitions. We may do so out of a sense of self-preservation–acting unjustly toward another because someone has convinced us that if we don’t do such or such a thing in regard to another, it will hurt us or our own advancement in the long run. In no matter what form or presentation it may come, Scripture distills the essence of such perverting of justice down to one word–namely, bribery! From the catalogue of sins and injustices we hear about in our day, bribery is almost entirely absent. However, Scripture repeatedly sets out this evil–even to the supreme example of it in the betrayal of the Son of God. In our day, bribery in all its sophisticated and subtle forms may be the least mentioned sin. It is, however, in no way whatsoever absent from the pages of Scripture. Consider the following:

  • The Law of God reveals the nature of the evil of bribery when it says, “You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Ex. 23:8).
  • In giving Israel God’s principles of justice, regarding the judges and officers of His people, Moses told them, “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous” (Deut. 16:19). 
  • God rejected Samuel’s sons, who were judges over Israel, because they “took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 8:3).
  • By way of contrast, when Samuel gave his farewell speech to Israel, he made the following appeal: “Here I am; testify against me before the Lord and before his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Or whose donkey have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it? Testify against me and I will restore it to you.”
  • When Jehosephat, King of Judah, appointed judges in the land, he gave them this one all important admonition: “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord. He is with you in giving judgment. Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes.”(2 Chron. 19:6-7).
  • In the days of Ezra, when the people were returning to rebuild the Temple, their adversaries sent “bribed counselors” to “discourage the people” and to “bring accusations” against them (Ezra 4:4-6). 
  • The Wisdom Literature repeatedly reminds us of the reality and evil of bribery (Psalm 15:5; 26:10; Proverbs 15:27; 17:8, 23; 21:14; Ecclesiastes 7:7). 
  • In God’s indictment against His people through the message of the prophet Isaiah, the reality of bribery is prominent. At the outset of his message, Isaiah noted the prevalence of this evil when he said, “Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts” (Is. 1:23). 
  • In the final book in the Old Testament, bribery is again set out as one of the great evils in the church. Micah explained the way in which the leaders in the church who took bribes were blind to what they were doing. He wrote, “Rulers of the house of Israel…give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us'” (Micah 3:9-11). 
  • The greatest act of injustice ever committed by an individual–the betrayal of the Son of God by his own familiar friend–was motivated by a sinful desire for selfish gain (Matt. 26:14-15). The fact that Judas sold Jesus to the chief priests for thirty pieces of silver shows just how great an injustice one will commit for the least profit. 

When we take in all that the Scriptures has to say about justice and bribery, we must honestly ask ourselves the following questions:

Do I allow myself to be swayed by others for dishonest gain?

Do my actions reveal a just dealing with others out of a love for God and His word, or am I driven by selfish ambition and dishonest gain? 

Do my actions accord with a desire to bring God glory or to secure and promote benefit for myself? 

Do I gravitate toward and surround myself with those whom I believe will help my own cause and build my own kingdom, or do I seek to love and care for those in God’s Kingdom who bring me no personal advancement or gain? 

Do my private dealings reveal a heart of justice? If they were made public, would they lead to the conclusion that my actions have not been driven by a desire for unjust gain? 

If, when we honestly examine our hearts, conversations and lives in these respects, we conclude that we have not acted as justly as we ought to have acted in our dealings with others, we must return to the Lord in brokenness and repentance, seeking His mercy and grace in the Gospel. We must remember that Jesus never took a bride (Matt. 4:9-11). He never perverted justice. The Son of God always did what was pleasing to His Father (John 8:29). He never spoke words in private dealings with others that he would have been ashamed to have had made known in public (John 18:20). Though Judas betrayed Jesus for a measly thirty pieces of silver; Jesus paid the enormity of the debt of our sin when he hung on the cross. Everything that he did, he did with unselfish motives and out of a desire to see others advance in the Kingdom of God. May God give us the grace to trust him and to seek to be conformed more and more into his glorious image. 

 


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The Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting The Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Dangers of Non-Christocentric Preaching: Misapplied Sermons

By David Prince

Understanding the biblical text in light of the person and work of Christ and eschatological fulfillment in him does not simply provide an additional meaning and application of the text to be added to a non-Christocentric reading. A non-Christocentric approach often yields a fundamentally different understanding and application of the text than a Christocentric, kingdom-focused reading.

For instance, in the David and Goliath narrative, a typical sermonic approach uses David as an exemplar of courage and exhorts the congregation to defeat the giants in their life through faith. One popular preacher and author offers a typical approach,

“Your Goliath doesn’t carry a sword or a shield; he brandishes blades of unemployment, abandonment, sexual abuse, or depression. Your giant doesn’t parade up and down the hills of Elah; he princes through your office, your bedroom, your classroom. He brings bills you can’t pay, people you can’t please, whiskey you can’t resist, pornography you can’t refuse, a career you can’t escape, a past you can’t shake, a future you can’t face. You know well the roar of Goliath. …Rush your giant with a God-saturated soul.”

Whereas, a Christocentric reading identifies the congregation with the cowering Israelites: they cannot meet the challenge of the enemy; they should be “dismayed and greatly afraid.” Their only hope is a champion, a substitute, a mediator, who can meet the challenge of God’s enemy (1 Sam 17:11).

David’s role in the narrative is typical of Christ. John Woodhouse explains,

“As we have come to our fourth and final installment of the great story of David and Goliath, we come at last to the moment of victory. The story has been told at great length, mainly so we will appreciate the wonder of the victory we are to witness now. As David defeated that terrible enemy of God’s people, we need to understand that God was doing (admittedly on a smaller scale and with more limited ramifications) what he has now done in Jesus’ victory.”

David enters the scene as the unlikely shepherd boy from Bethlehem who becomes the Spirit-anointed king of Israel (1 Sam 16:1-13). He is not simply a courageous boy but God’s chosen mediator who displays God’s power in weakness. The narrative mentions the anointed one’s crushing the head of God’s enemy five times in 1 Samuel 17, recalling the initial gospel promise in Genesis 3 and anticipating the antitype in Revelation 12 (Gen 3:15; 1 Sam 17:46, 49, 51, 54, 57; Rom 16:20; Rev 12:9-11).

Sidney Greidanus notes,

“The essence of this story, therefore, is more than Israel’s king defeating the enemy; the essence is that the Lord himself defeats the enemy of his people. This theme locates this passage on the highway of God’s kingdom history which leads straight to Jesus’ victory over Satan. The history of enmity began right after the fall into sin when God said to the serpent (later identified as Satan): ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel’ (Gen 3:15). Thus the battle between David and Goliath is more than a personal scrap; it is more than Israel’s king defeating a powerful enemy; it is a small chapter in the battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent—a battle which reaches its climax in Jesus’ victory over Satan, first with his death and resurrection, and finally at his Second Coming when Satan will be thrown ‘into the lake of fire and sulfur’ (Rev 20:10).” [ Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 239].

The application of the passage is not to have the courage of David but to trust in the Lord’s anointed, who defeats the enemy of God on your behalf. Only in his victory can one plunder the enemy to the glory of God, receiving the fruit of his work (1 Sam 17:51-53; Matt 12:29; Luke 1:31-33, 11:15-19). The Christocentric and non-Christocentric interpretations of the text produce fundamentally different meanings and distinct applications.

Moreover, it may be immoral to emulate the behavior of biblical characters in certain narratives. These kinds of texts should lead the exegete to conclude that the point of the passage is something other than a behavioral imperative. Edmund Clowney provides an excellent example of such a narrative:

The real problem comes, however, when Bible characters seem to be commended for doing dreadful things. Saul disobeys the Lord by not utterly destroying the Amalekites when the day of God’s judgment against them comes (1 Samuel 15). Saul claims to have been perfectly obedient, and Samuel asks, “What about the bleating of the sheep and lowing of the cattle that I hear?” When Samuel learns that Saul has spared King Agag, he demands that the prisoner be brought in, and does to the king what Saul had failed to do. He hews him to pieces before the Lord. Samuel’s action, and its approval in the narrative, remains baffling on a moralistic level. To understand we must take account of the history of redemption. Samuel’s bringing down of the divine curse must be understood in the context of the Lord’s conquering the enemies of his kingdom. [Preaching and Biblical Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1961), 79-82].

For another example, in the book of Judges, one wonders what a left-handed assassin (Judg 3:12-30) and a head crushing wife who is grotesquely handy with a tent peg and a hammer (Judg 4:17-22) have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? This is a dilemma with which every person preaching, teaching, or studying the book of Judges has to grapple. But when one considers the book as part of the fabric of the grand narrative of redemptive history, then its dramatic, suspense-filled stories of sin, salvation, and violent warfare do not seem as foreign to us as followers of Jesus.

Since the first promise of the gospel was that of a messianic seed who would be born of woman, engage in mortal combat with the serpent, and ultimately crush his head (Gen 3:15), it is apropos that the motif of “death by head wound” marches through the book and the whole Old Testament, from Sisera and Abimelech to Goliath and Absalom. Jael’s driving of a tent peg through Sisera’s temple is described as the means God used to subdue the enemy (Judg 4:23) and leads to a song of praise in the next chapter (Judg 5:24-31).

This first gospel promise echoes throughout redemptive history, as seeds born of women crush the heads of the enemies of God (John 8:44). There are various saviors in the Bible who serve as types of the promised skull-crushing Savior, and Judges is no different. The Holy Spirit records that, although these warrior-saviors were often flawed in action, they were not so flawed in faith (Heb 11:32-35).

Applying one’s life to the truth of a biblical text can never bypass Jesus Christ and his gospel of the the Kingdom. Non-Christocentric sermons inevitably encourage the Bible to be misapplied. Our goal must be to seek to know how, through Christ, we can walk in line with the gospel and render the obedience of faith. No obedience apart from faith is true obedience. Walking in line with the truth of the gospel is always the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5, 16:26). What every person needs from the Scripture, believer and unbeliever, is the gospel. We cannot claim any of the promises of God apart from Christ and his Gospel because there are no promises of God apart from Christ. Paul tells us, “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20).

 

*This is the third post in a series on the dangers of non-Christocentric preaching. You can find the first installement in the series here, and the second, here


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The Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting The Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

The Comfort of the Glory

By Dustin Benge

We are taken, in Matthew 17:1–8, to a setting that only three disciples are allowed to witness––Peter, James, and John. Six days prior, Jesus had forewarned his disciples what to expect once they entered Jerusalem. He described the events of his rejection, crucifixion, and the coming suffering he would endure once he arrived in the holy city (Mt 16:21–23). Jesus cautioned his disciples that to identify and embrace the Messiah was to embrace a suffering Messiah, and in order to follow him they too must take up their own crosses (Mt 16:24). To hear such words would have shocked their Messianic expectations. They were instructed all of their lives to watch for a militant Messiah, not a humble suffering servant. When we meet this inner group of Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 17, they are deflated, discouraged, and defeated. With suffering and death on the horizon, Jesus desires to encourage this emotionally crushed group of disciples with something far more glorious than Roman conquest.

The Alteration of the Son

According to the parallel account in Luke 9:28–36, Jesus had led this inner circle of disciples up Mt. Hermon one late evening “to pray.” There is no suggestion as to what Jesus prayed for or how the disciples were involved in this prayer meeting. However, after some time, they became “very sleepy,” and evidently fell asleep (Lk 9:32). Whoever woke up first must have quickly shook the others awake when they saw the scene before them––“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Mt 17:2).

The disciples awake from sleep and Jesus is framed by a thousand summer stars and his clothing is dazzling white. Not only were his clothes blazing brighter than the sun, but Matthew adds that “His face shone like the sun” (Mt 17:2). Jesus was “transfigured,” or more literally “metamorphosed” before his disciples. For a brief moment, the veil of Jesus’ humanity was lifted, and his true pre-incarnate glory was allowed to blaze forth in full brilliance. Peter, James, and John are lifeless on the ground as they beheld this treasured spectacle. John would later reflect, “we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only son” (Jn 1:14).

The Advent of Two Prophets

As if the display of the glory of Jesus was not enough to take in, the disciples are given something else, “Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with him” (Mt 17:3). Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet, were the definitive summary of the Old Testament and it is now appropriate that they appear with Jesus as his glory is unveiled. According to Luke, this heavenly council were conversing about Jesus’ coming crucifixion, “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31).

The appearance of Moses and Elijah pointed to the truth that Jesus was God’s ultimate fulfillment and conclusive word to humanity. Jesus achieved what the sacrificial system was teaching. Jesus perfectly obeyed every point of the law that the nation of Israel failed to obey. Everything toward which their religion and history had been inexorably moving was now converging like a mighty rushing river culminating within this one person, the Son of God. This stunning scene was meant to encourage the disciples and give them hope in the shadow of the looming cross.

The Audacity of Peter

Into this perfect scene enters a man who always has something to say when nothing at all should be said. At best, Peter’s response in verse 4 was a courteous reflex desiring to serve Jesus and his heavenly visitors. He wanted to construct tabernacles, or more properly thatched booths, so the disciples could wait on Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Some commentators think Peter may have thought this was the inauguration of the kingdom and all of Jesus’ talk about death and suffering would never come to pass. A quick survey of the New Testament reveals that Peter often desires to avoid the suffering of the cross, to the point that he will eventually deny three times that he even knows Jesus. At best, we don’t know all that is going on in the mind or motives of Peter, but we do know our Lord’s answer––complete silence.

The Awesomeness of God’s Glory

Adding another element to this magnificent scene, Matthew writes, “He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them” (Mt 17:5). This is no ordinary cloud. A study of the Old Testament reveals that a luminous cloud, the shekinah glory cloud, was a sign and manifestation of the presence of God, the form in which God often revealed himself to Israel. The cloud that now engulfed the disciples was the same glory cloud that passed by Moses as God covered him in the cleft of the rock with his hand so that Moses only saw God’s afterglow (Ex 33:18–23). This was the same cloud which covered the nearly completed Tent of Meeting and so filled the new Tabernacle with God’s glory that Moses could not enter it (Ex 40:35). This was the same cloud that filled Solomon’s Temple on dedication day so that the priests could not enter the Temple (1 Ki 8:10; 2 Chron 7:1). It had been six hundred years since anyone in Israel had seen this cloud, this great shekinah glory.

Here is Peter, James, and John in the midst of the glory which Moses was not permitted to directly behold. They were able to stand in this boundless glory because Jesus was present with them. As they stood shimmering with Christ in the cloud, this was not only a declaration about Christ, but a prophecy of what was to come. In the future, in death, they would meet the risen Christ in the incandescent clouds of glory to be with him forever (1 Thess 4:17–18). This is the blessed hope that not only the disciples were called to wrap their arms around, but all Christians of all ages. Jesus was expressing the fact that suffering must come before glory. The way of the cross is a way paved by blood, but glory is on the horizon.

The Affirmation of the Father

In the silence of this moment, a voice comes out of the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mt 17:5). This was the voice of God the Father, who had said almost the exact same thing at the baptism of Jesus. God was expressing that the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) are only partial expressions and realities. Here, crowned in glory, is God’s final statement, “listen to him!” The writer of Hebrews points to God’s final declaration: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1–2).

Everything that has come before, all that God has said before, all that God has accomplished before, now converges in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, “listen to him!” This is a direct command to Peter, James, and John to listen to what Jesus said about the necessity of his death and of their embracing the paradox of the cross. This is a command for them to embrace Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35, “For whoever wants to save his life will loose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” May we listen to no other voice.

Conclusion

In Matthew 17:8 we read, “And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” As sudden as it appeared, the glory was gone, the Father’s voice stilled, Moses and Elijah had retreated, and on the slopes of Mt. Hermon were only Peter, James, and John with Jesus. This is what all of our experience, all our theology, all our ministry, all our work should come to––seeing only Jesus. When this happens, our hearts honor him in worship, we love one another as we should, and we offer our lives in his service. Jesus, as with his beloved disciples, desires to encourage us, even when he calls us to embrace the paradox of the cross. He desires to encourage us with the glory that is to come, a glory that shall shine brighter than the sun for all of eternity.

Dustin W. Benge is a visiting lecturer for Munster Bible College, Cork, Ireland, and editor for Expositor Magazine.


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What a Privilege!

By Zack Groff

During family worship one night, my son was growing increasing distracted—to which children his age are inclined. I gently reached over and grasped my son’s shoulders, and said, “Remember son, we are people who are privileged by God to be nurtured to worship Him.” If you had been in his shoes, how would you respond? Would you blush and look down, ashamed because you were born into a Christian family? Would you laugh in denial? Or would confusion come over you as you try to understand what in the world “people of privilege” means?

In our day, the word “privilege” is a loaded term. Sometimes, the word is taken up like a club to knock down political opponents. “Check your privilege at the door, man!” At other times, the word is used as some sort of keycard to access protections guaranteed by law. “I am not bound to answer that inquiry, due to attorney-client privilege.” Frequently, the word is trotted out in the context of public ceremony. “It is my privilege to welcome to the podium…”

Generally speaking, to be a person of privilege is to enjoy some special benefit that others may not be able to enjoy, as a matter of circumstance. Sometimes it is easily identified, relatively innocuous, and subject to alteration. Consider the man with the best view from his office. He is privileged, but his colleagues are not missing out on anything truly significant, and his office could change on the whim of a superior. Other examples are more controversial – like white privilege or male privilege.

Immediately after telling our son that we were a privileged people I said, “We are children of God the Father, adopted in Christ Jesus the Son. We belong to Him.”

According to the Bible, to be saved is to be justified, adopted, and sanctified. Justification is God’s pardon and acceptance of us by the gracious gift of Christ’s righteousness to us, and is received through faith alone. Sanctification is God’s continuing work in our lives to make us more like Him, progressively destroying our sin and nurturing holy Christlikeness. Adoption is God’s granting of family status and privileges to us as sons of God.

It is in by our adoption that we are people of privilege. In Ephesians 1:5, we are told that God has “predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself.” In Galatians 4:5, we learn that Jesus came to “redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” In John 1:12-13, we read that “as many as received Him (Jesus), to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” As observed by David Garner, there are “filial contours” to the gospel. To the Christian, God is King, Savior, Redeemer, Creator, and Judge. But He is also Father by adoption. When we meditate on our adoption in Christ, and when we remind our little ones of their privileges as covenant children adopted into God’s family, what specifics ought we to grasp?

First, we bear God’s Name by our adoption. Jeremiah 14:9 contains the appeal to God, “Yet You are in our midst, O LORD, And we are called by Your name; Do not forsake us!” Israel’s blessing of being called by God’s Name is the church’s blessing contained in Acts 15:17, which contains a prophetic reference to “all the Gentiles who are called by My name.” It is a great privilege to bear the Name of God as a family name. Just as we give our children our names to identify them with us, so too does our heavenly Father place His Name upon us to mark us as His own.

Second, we exchange a spirit of slavery for “a spirit of adoption as sons” (Romans 8:15) in our relationship to God. Having come to realize our guilt of sin, we may initially approach God wondering if he will accept us at all. And yet, the unified witness of the Scriptures is that the Father desires to bring us into communion with Him through His Son. In our adoption, we approach God as a Father, and we call to Him in bold confidence as sons who have access to the very throne of grace (cf. Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16) upon which our Father sits, and from which He governs all things.

Third, the Psalmist tells us that “Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:13). He regards with compassion those He has adopted.

Fourth, He protects us. Proverbs 14:26 describes God’s children as having a refuge in Him, corresponding to the “strong confidence” that is theirs through faith.

Fifth, He provides for our needs. Jesus clearly taught His disciples to trust in God on the basis of his fatherly relationship to them. “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:32). He likewise instructed them to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), trusting in His fatherly care.

Sixth, He disciplines us for our good and His glory. Hebrews 12:7 tells us that “God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” The end-goal is stated in verse 10, “He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share in His holiness.” The resounding ethical message of God’s Word is that holiness is the gateway to God. Both the Old Testament sacrificial system and the final sacrifice of Jesus Christ make known God’s requirement of holiness for His people. God has made us holy in Christ Jesus, so that we can enjoy communion with Him. His fatherly discipline is a great privilege of our adoption as justified and sanctified sons.

Seventh, He promises to never cast off His sons, but rather He has sealed us with the Holy Spirit “for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). Consider the great promise contained in Psalm 89:33, where God swears, “I will not break off my lovingkindness from him, Nor deal falsely in My faithfulness.” God loves His sons with an everlasting love.

Eighth, the promises of God outlined in His Word are ours to inherit as adopted sons. Hebrews 6:12 tells us that Christians inherit God’s promises “through faith and patience.” Lamentations 3:31-32 makes this clear when it promises us that “The Lord will not reject forever, For if He causes grief, Then He will have compassion According to His abundant lovingkindness.” Though we face trials in this life, through patience we will inherit that which God has promised to His sons.

Ninth and finally, we are what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls “heirs of everlasting salvation” (WCF 12). Peter describes our inheritance as one that is “imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). Just as our older brother has passed through shadowlands of the grave to emerge into the light of everlasting day, pronouncing victory over death itself, so too shall we rise victorious at the time of God’s own choosing. This is the great hope of God’s adopted sons, secured for us in Christ Jesus, our Brother, Savior, Mediator, and Lord.

So, when I remind my children that we are people of privilege, I am not referring to our current socio-economic status, ethnicity, opportunities, or family situation. There may be specific and limited earthly privileges contained in each of those categories. But they will ever be limited and earthly – unfit for the Glory that awaits us. Rather, I refer to our imperishable gospel privileges that are meant to make us co-heirs with Christ, adopted in Him by the gracious decree of God our heavenly Father. Meditate on these, embrace them by faith, and rejoice in them.

 


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The Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting The Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

No Special Providence!

By Nick Batzig

Many Christians profess to believe in the sovereignty of God. They will speak of God’s sovereignty in the salvation and damnation of sinners. They may even remind others that God is sovereign over the trials and challenging circumstances of life. However, it is one thing to profess to believe in God’s sovereignty respecting His ability to intervene in certain affairs and quite another to believe that He is sovereign over the circumstances of our lives when things seem to go terribly wrong and when they seem to be going quite well. When we contemplate God’s sovereignty, we delve into the doctrine of divine providence. God is in absolute control of every moment, interaction, event, provision, protection, trial, difficulty and conflict of our lives. He has determined all of the events of our lives and is governing His own accordingly. 

In his Popular Lectures on Theological Themes, Archibald Alexander Hodge relayed the following story about John Witherspoon’s interactions with a man who had just encountered a near-death experience. He wrote:

“The great Dr. Witherspoon lived at a country-seat called Tusculum, on Rocky Hill, two miles north of Princeton. One day a man rushed into his presence crying, ‘Dr. Witherspoon, help me to thank God for his wonderful providence. My horse ran away, my buggy was dashed to pieces on the rocks, and behold! I am unharmed.’ The good doctor laughed benevolently at the inconsistent, halfway character of the man’s religion. ‘Why,’ he answered, ‘I know a providence a thousand times better than that of yours. I have driven down that rocky road to Princeton hundreds of times and my horse never ran away and my buggy was never dashed to pieces.’ Undoubtedly, the deliverance was providential, but just as much so also were the uneventful rides of the college president. God is in the atom just as really and effectually as in the planet.” 

Witherspoon exposed one of the main deficiencies many believers have when it comes to their understanding the providence of God. We sometimes mistakenly reduce God’s providence down to some special act of intervention in which He helps us through a particularly dangerous or difficult time. Whereas, Scripture teaches that God is sovereign over every single action of all His creatures and every single aspect of all of His creation–the enjoyable and the painful, the mundane and the seemingly miraculous. The authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism wisely answer the question about the nature of God’s providence when they suggest that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.”

C.S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, explained the reservation that he had to the utilization of “special providence,” when he wrote:

“We must abandon the idea that there is any special class of events (apart from miracles) which can be distinguished as ‘specially providential’. Unless we are to abandon the conception of Providence altogether, and with it the belief in efficacious prayer, it follows that all events are equally providential. If God directs the course of events at all then he directs the movement of every atom at every moment; ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground’ without that direction. The ‘naturalness’ of natural events does not consist in being somehow outside God’s providence. It consists in their being interlocked with one another inside a common space-time in accordance with the fixed pattern of the ‘laws.’”

We have to dispell the notion that God is acting in our lives when we experience some great deliverence but not when we are in the crucible. Additionally, we have to understand that God is at work in our lives when things are going well and not merely when He offers us some noticeable indicator that He is at work. The writer of Hebrews summs up the nature of God’s sovereinty in His providential care over all things when he says that the Son “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). Reflecting on the author’s use of the word panta (i.e. all things), Geerhardus Vos explained, “We must understand that this also includes a leading and guiding of the world to its appointed goal. Christ is therefore represented as the Author of providence in the broadest sense.”1

The next time you are tempted to refer to some special occurrance in your life as “the providence of God,” remember that you may inadvertantly be denying your professed belief in His absolute sovereinty over every single aspect of every part of creation. As R.C. Sproul used to say, “there are no maverick molecules.” 

 

1. Vos, G. (1956). The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (J. G. Vos, Ed.) (p. 83). Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.


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That is Revival

By Dustin Benge

Writing a foreword for his friend Philip Hughes in 1947, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “There is no subject which is of greater importance to the Christian church at the present time than that of revival. It should be the theme of our constant meditation, preaching and prayers.”1 He described his daily prayer for revival as “an unusual and single manifestation of God’s power through the Holy Spirit.”2

Throughout Lloyd-Jones’ life and ministry, his conviction regarding the crucial importance of revival––and of preaching about it––never wavered.3 He recognized that the only source of authentic and enduring hope for the church, in experiencing the reality of revival was deeply rooted in the model and method of the New Testament church.

The revival in Acts 4, a continuation of the powerful work begun in Acts 2, was accompanied by submission and prayer to a sovereign God (vv. 24–30), wise and bold use of the Word of God (vv. 25–26, 31), and unity and love of the people of God (vv. 32–35).

Revival is, therefore, more than the rededication of believers; it is also the awakening, or quickening, or impartation of spiritual life to the unregenerate. Additionally, we may also identify revival as the conversion of sinners to salvation in Christ. Quite significantly, these two meanings (rededication and regeneration) appear in the spiritual and scriptural concept of revival.

In a series of sermons at Westminster Chapel in 1959, addressing the subject of revival, Lloyd-Jones suggested revivals were “in a sense a repetition of the day of Pentecost.”4 He continued, “The essence of a revival is that the Holy Spirit comes down upon a number of people together, upon a whole church, upon a number of churches, districts, or perhaps a whole country. That is what is meant by revival. It is, if you like, a visitation of the Holy Spirit, or another term that has often been used is this––an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”5

Though the overarching spiritual needs of humanity do not change through time, Lloyd-Jones fully recognized that the world in which he preached and ministered had specific challenges. “The very belief in God,” he suggested, “has virtually gone.”6 He spoke about being “confronted by materialism, worldliness, indifference, hardness, and callousness.”7 As a result, he saw the “urgent need of some manifestation, some demonstration, of the power of the Holy Spirit.”8 Lloyd-Jones sincerely hoped all Christians were “sick and tired” of hearing that the problems facing the church had to do with new circumstances.

The pressing need of the church could not be met, according to Lloyd-Jones, by organized evangelistic campaigns, church revitalization programs, or secular entertainment. In 1959, he argued that there was no use saying “let’s pray for revival,” since there were numerous ways in which the thinking and actions of the church needed to change before such prayer was offered.9 Lloyd-Jones went so far as saying that churches that stress “mass meetings” or “entertainment” could not expect to see a future.

The all-encompassing vision Lloyd-Jones had for revival can be seen in three desires. In his 1959 sermons on revival, he addressed the question “why pray for revival?” His primary concern was the glory of God. He then asked, “How often do you hear annual conferences and assemblies expressing a concern about the glory of God, and the honour of the name of God? No, our attitude seems rather to be that the Church is a human organization, and of course we are concerned about what is happening to it.”10Second, he was gravely concerned over the state of the whole church. “It seems to me,” he observed, “that there is no hope for revival until you and I, and all of us, have reached the stage in which we begin to forget ourselves a little, and to be concerned for the Church, for God’s body, his people here on earth.”11 A third motive behind the desire and prayers made for revival was the desperate plight of those outside the church. He declared, “It is a terrible state for the church to be in, when she merely consists of a collection of very nice and respectable people who have no concern for the world, people who pass by it, in their horror at the foulness and the ugliness of it all.”12

Revival, for Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was real and powerful. The two primary characteristics of revivals throughout the history of the church, he exclaimed in the 1959 Puritan Conference, are an “extraordinary enlivening of the members of the church” and “the conversion of masses of people.” Lloyd-Jones argued consistently for a tremendous need for such a revival. Only through the experience of revival would the church become––as had happened in the past––“alive and full of power, and of vigour, and of might.”13 All other remedies or solutions to the needs of the time were hoplessly inadequate. Lloyd-Jones was adamant that revival is a “miracle,” something that can only be explained as “the direct action and intervention of God.”14While human efforts could produce evangelistic campaigns they could never produce real and lasting revival.

Lloyd-Jones’ positive aim was to stimulate a desire for a more powerful awareness of spiritual things, and in particular he was determined to focus attention on the awareness of the glory and holiness of God and a clear view of the love of God in Christ. Lloyd-Jones held forth a grand vision of revival to his hearers, painting revival within the narrative of redemptive history with sweeping brush strokes. He was convinced that what was once more required was “something that is so striking that it will arrest the attention of the world.”15 That is revival.

1. Philip E. Hughes, Revive Us Again (London: Marshall Morgan and Scott, 1947), 5.

2. D.M. Lloyd-Jones to Philip E. Hughes, 17 April 1946, in D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Letters 1919–1981, ed. Iain Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 70–71.

3. Ian M. Randall, Lloyd-Jones and Revival in Engaging With Lloyd-Jones, eds. Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones (Nottingham: Apollos, 2011), 91.

4. D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Revival: Can We Make It Happen? (London, Marshall Pickering, 1992), 100.

5. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, 100.

6. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, 26.

7. D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Prove All Things: The Sovereign Work of the Holy Spirit (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1985), 25.

8. D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Prove All Things, 25.

9. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, 37.

10. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, 188.

11. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, 192.

12. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, 193.

13. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, 26.

14. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, 111–112.

15. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, 183.

Dustin Benge is a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY in the area of Biblical Spirituality. He is also lecturer and administrative research assistant at The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies on the campus of Southern Seminary. In addition, he has also served as a pastor in Kentucky and Alabama.


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The Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting The Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Consumer Church

By Justin Poythress

We need more people coming to church ready to consume. We need more churches ready to give the people the product they need. That’s the trouble with the “hating on the consumer” mentality– it’s not always wrong. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation… Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is 12:3; 55:1 ESV). It turns out that God wants–even commands–His people to come with no other intent than to receive, i.e. to plunder God, if you will, for all He’s worth, to feast on His expense, and then keep coming back for more. Such an attitude respects who God is, as our infinite sustainer and provider. A greedy consumerist attitude when it comes to church is the godly one to have, provided that the product is God Himself. ‘What church will help me receive the most God I possibly can?’

Beyond that good and healthy question, however, motivations become muddled. ‘Is it the delivery of God I have come here to consume, or is it a neatly packaged delivery of convenience, of readily accessible programs and social connections, of engaging and professional music and teaching?’ Note that none of the aforementioned ‘packages’ are bad. They’re not. That’s what makes discerning and untangling “consumer-based values” a delicate business. The apostle Paul demonstrates the polarity of motivations in meeting others with the gospel.

Christ sent Paul to preach “not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (I Cor 1:17 ESV). Strange to hear Paul, a brilliant, precise, and logical communicator describe himself as preaching ‘without words of eloquent wisdom.’ It’s doubtful that Christ was asking him to ‘dumb it down’ or ‘make it personal, and tell a few more stories’. What God desires is that preachers develop an allergy to anything that smells like glitz, glamor, and fireworks dressing up the message of the cross. It’s like lighting a precious jewel with a disco ball. Paul is intentionally leaning away from tactics he could employ to draw a crowd, not because eloquent words are sinful, but for the same reason God stripped Gideon’s men down to three hundred. God’s redemptive work through the cross of Christ should command our focus.

So that means no drums, no video, and no stadium seating, right? Not according to Paul’s same letter, as he later describes his ministry philosophy: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. to those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law…I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel.” (I Cor 9:20-23) We won’t find a much stronger directive to become a chameleon – to adapt and to accommodate to whatever culture and audience we encounter. The last sentence in the quote above weighs down the anchor of truth which controls these shifts. Our eager efforts as Christians to remove obstacles to the gospel come, as obvious as this may sound, in service to the gospel. We want the gospel itself to shine forth, without distraction, in its full, unapologetic, Spirit-filled glory.

This means, despite the temptation to draw broad stroke, short-cut evaluations of churches’ faithfulness to Christ based on their forms of worship (music, liturgy, ministries), these can be misleading. Remember consumerism itself is not bad. The mentality is what matters. There are two vastly different mentalities which motivate a ‘consumer-friendly’ atmosphere:

1. Customer-service mentality. This is ‘the customer is always right’ idea. It goes like this: “Give them what they want because…you know…Jesus. Our boss wants us to serve you.” Or to use Christ Pratt’s advice, which he himself practiced in his acceptance speech, while touching on broad Christian truths: “Give a dog medicine by wrapping it in a hamburger so they won’t know they’re eating it.” Sadly, many church leaders, more by their actions and approach than by explicit confession, believe just that. Slip the unpleasant medicine of the gospel into the hamburger of cleverly designed programming.

2. God-service mentality. This is ‘the customer always needs Jesus’ idea. This mentality leads with the question, “How do I help sinners see that their particular and personal needs are crying out for a universal solution?”

The external delivery system for both of these approaches may look remarkably similar, but only the second operates through an active faith in God to deliver His help through His means.


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The Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting The Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Guard Your Heart

By Christina Fox

Watch any romantic drama or comedy and you are bound to hear it. It’s a phrase that inevitably comes up in conversation between characters. When a woman is torn about whether to pursue a relationship with a man, her friend (or mother) will ask, “What does your heart tell you?”

It seems like an innocent and harmless question. But its implication is significant. Such a question implies that the heart seeks what is right and true. It also reveals that the way culture defines the heart is different than how the Bible defines it.

The Heart of Man

The word “heart” is used in many different ways. We may refer to our physical heart, the one that pumps blood throughout our body and keeps us alive. We draw hearts on cards and give them to those we love on Valentine’s Day. In movies, the word “heart” often refers to how someone feels about something, versus what someone thinks. But the Bible uses the word “heart” differently.

In the Bible, the “heart” is the center of oneself. It is the core of who a person is. It refers to who we are, our identity, the real us. This inner self includes our thoughts, our desires, our feelings, our personality, our motives and intentions, and the choices we make. It is what drives us. “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man” (Proverbs 27:19).

As God’s created beings, made in his image and for his glory, we are called to love God with all our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:5). But because of the Fall, our hearts are not as they should be. We are born with sinful hearts. Our thoughts, desires, intentions, and choices are not focused on God; rather, we live for ourselves. We pursue our own longings and desires apart from God.

Scripture teaches that we need new hearts in order to know God and obey him, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36: 26-27). This was fulfilled through the work of Christ on our behalf (Ephesians 2). We are made new through what Christ has done and the ministry of the Spirit who labors in our hearts to transform us.

Though our hearts have been cleansed and made new, we still battle against sin. We still live in a sin stained world where temptations abound, where the presence of sin lingers within us, and where the evil one still prowls. All of these forces influence us. Though the war for our heart has been won, skirmishes still remain. We live the rest of our lives fighting against these influences.

What this means is, though we have a new heart, we have to guard it and keep it.

Guard the Heart

In Proverbs 4, we are cautioned, “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Because the heart is the core of who we are, we have to be vigilant to keep our heart.

What does that mean?

We must be aware of what is going on in our heart. There is no passivity in the Christian life. Every action we take, every word we speak, every goal we pursue, every response we make all comes out of the overflow of our heart (Luke 6:45). This means we must be aware of the contents of our heart. What are our thoughts, desires, and motivations? What are we dwelling on in the quiet moments of our day? What do we long for most of all? Developing such insight is important to guarding our heart.

We must preserve our heart as the sole residence for Christ. Christ is the Lord and Master of our heart. We can’t allow anything else to barge in and make our heart its home. We have to do whatever it takes to keep it for Christ. The sinful default of our heart is to seek out other lords and masters to worship rather than God. We look for life in other people, things, circumstances, and experiences rather than in Christ. This means we have to be alert for idols in our heart. Such idols can include success, relationships, money, influence, health, and beauty, and more. We have to ask God to help us root them out and replace them with greater love and affection for Christ.

We must keep our hearts healthy. We take care of our physical heart by proper diet, rest, and exercise. We do the same with our spiritual heart. We must feed it a healthy diet of God’s word, wherein we find wisdom for life. God’s word gives shape to our thoughts, emotions, desires, and intentions. The Spirit uses God’s word to convict our hearts of sin, to draw us to repentance, and to apply the gospel of grace. This involves regular reading, studying, and meditating on his word. It involves participating in worship each Lord’s Day where we hear God’s word preached and taught. We also keep our hearts healthy by abiding in Christ through prayer and seeking his grace and wisdom in our lives. Prayer reminds us that we are dependent upon him. It helps us yield our hearts to his will and ways. Our hearts are also strengthened when we participate in church community life—through fellowship, discipleship, singing praises together, praying with and for one another, serving each other, and encouraging one another in the gospel.

We must ready ourselves for battle to protect our heart. In this life, we remain at war and we must always be on guard. Not only do we battle sin in our own heart, but there are spiritual forces always at work against us. The healthier our heart, the more alert we will be to such forces. The Bible teaches us what we must do to ready ourselves for such attacks: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12). Such armor includes the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes of the gospel of peace, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

We must be vigilant and intentional to keep our heart, but there are times when we are weakened by our sin, the world around us, and the spiritual forces at work against us. In those times, we have to remember and trust God’s promise to keep us for eternity. Though we are to work hard to guard our hearts, God is ultimately the one who preserves us and keeps us. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Though we might stumble in our duties, God will not let anyone or anything keep us from him (Romans 8:35-39).

So, should we follow the advice on television and movies to “follow your heart?” Not likely, unless our heart is focused on God as our greatest treasure. Until then, let us keep and guard our heart, always evaluating, testing, preserving, training, and protecting it as the sole residence of Christ our Lord.


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The Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting The Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Doctrinal Pride

By Matt Foreman

Jonathan Edwards’ short essay on Undiscerned Spiritual Pride1 is something that should be read by all pastors or Christians in leadership positions. In that work Edwards writes, “The first and the worst cause of errors, that prevail in [our day], is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of religion.”2 There are few issues harder to talk about and more insidious than spiritual pride. How do you recommend an article on spiritual pride to someone without being accused of spiritual pride? How do you write an article on spiritual pride without being subject to spiritual pride? Even talking about it is a danger. But it must be talked about.

There is one specific kind of undiscerned spiritual pride that I think is not often discussed and is especially hard to recognize—the danger of doctrinal righteousness. Sadly, I think it’s a particularly prevalent danger among Reformed, theologically-minded Christians. It’s a danger I have fallen into at times. By doctrinal righteousness, I mean trusting in your doctrinal correctness as your righteousness, as opposed to trusting Christ as your righteousness. The difference can be very subtle, and, of course, will be marked by humility or pride.

Knowing About God vs. Knowing God

In the face of an anti-intellectual and a-theological, shallow evangelicalism, Reformed Christianity has been rightly concerned about the importance of theology. The Bible is a theological book. To know God requires us to know about God. Our relationship to him requires doctrine.

But it’s also possible to trust in your knowledge about him more than trusting in him personally. You can have a theoretical knowledge of something and not an experiential knowledge of something. Some people know a lot but it does not lead to faith, hope, and love. To paraphrase a Tim Keller saying, “There’s a difference between having the truth, and the truth having you. There’s a difference between trusting your grasp on him, rather than trusting his grasp on you.” (The Apostle Paul often emphasizes this nuance – “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” – Gal.4:9).

When you ‘have’ the truth, you own it; you have mastery over it. When the truth ‘has’ you, you are under it, humbled by it, shaped by it; it masters you. One is based on pride; the other leads to humility. Some people can implicitly treat their theology as something grasped on the basis of their own strength and intellect, rather than a personal knowledge of God received by grace through faith that is humbling and shaping them.

Discerning Doctrinal Righteousness

Edwards makes the point that spiritual pride can be hard to discern and easily hidden because it can look like righteousness and concern for truth. It looks right, until it doesn’t. He says, “Spiritual pride in its own nature is so secret, that it is not so well discerned by immediate intuition on the thing itself, as by the effects and fruits of it… Spiritual pride disposes to speak of other persons’ sins… Spiritual pride is very apt to suspect others; whereas an humble saint is most jealous of himself, he is so suspicious of nothing in the world as he is of his own heart.”3

Doctrinal righteousness is much the same. It is more accurately discerned in its fruit: by someone’s manner of communication, by their response to criticism or correction. The idol of doctrinal righteousness is especially exposed in an angry and hostile defensiveness whenever it is questioned. This is because it has become a matter of identity and personal righteousness. To echo Edwards, here are some possible evidences of a doctrinally righteous person:

  • Prone to criticism and suspicion of the doctrinal faithfulness of others.
  • Spending an inordinate amount of time in the critique of others’ positions, rather than a positive promotion of the beauty of the Gospel.
  • Believing that doctrinal correctness is a requirement for personal salvation.
  • Having a narrow and formulaic understanding of theological doctrines, with a quickness to be suspicious and attack any formulation that does not exactly comport with one’s own language.
  • Becoming quickly defensive, angry, and impatient when questions and concerns are expressed regarding your doctrinal position; taking it personally.
  • Correcting others with harshness and impatience.
  • Spending inordinate time arguing (actually quarreling) about theology online (or offline), while neglecting personal devotion, prayer, family, relationships, service, etc.
  • Treating every article of theology in every discussion as a hill to die on.
  • Loving truth and ideas more than people (and God).
  • Downplaying and being suspicious of an emphasis on the “experiential” in the Christian life.
  • Justifying theological study while neglecting or downplaying the role of relationships, counseling, and serving others in the church.
  • Believing that pastoral ministry involves study and preaching to the exclusion of hospitality, personal ministry, discipleship, counseling, etc.
  • In doctrinal debate, believing that Historical Theology should take the primary role; referring to Confessions and Creeds first and primarily, even over the Bible.
  • Believing that Confessionalism is a sufficient guide and solution to doctrinal drift and personal spirituality.
  • Being blind to personal sins, because of certainty on correct doctrine. Assuming that doctrinal correctness must ensure ethical rightness, wisdom, and personal morality.
  • Not believing that doctrinal righteousness is even a possibility or legitimate concern.
  • Writing articles on doctrinal righteousness to affirm your own spiritual virtue. (Can you see how pernicious this is?)

Lest the point is misunderstood, being ‘Valiant for Truth’ is a good thing. Being zealous to defend doctrine is not automatically prideful. Those vocally defending biblical doctrine should not be automatically assumed or judged as doctrinally righteous. In fact, biblical doctrine needs to be valiantly and robustly defended and asserted. Similarly, historical theology and Reformed Confessionalism is crucially important—a ‘Creedal Imperative’! A negative attitude towards historical theology and a downplaying of the importance of Confessionalism is dangerous. Such an attitude by itself reveals its own problem of self-reliance and lack of humility.

But that is what makes doctrinal righteousness among orthodox men and women so particularly pernicious! It can look so righteous! It can be the doctrinally concerned and faithful who can be in the most danger of doctrinal pride. You can be right, and be fighting the right battles, and still be wrong. Sadly, history repeatedly shows us men who were down-the-line theologically orthodox, Confessional men, who fought for truth in the right battles…and yet, who proved themselves to not even be Christians, who abandoned the faith or fell into unrepentant sin. How does that happen? Zeal for truth can sometimes prove to be completely selfish and abstracted from any real faith in God. It’s frightening how easy it is to put confidence in the wrong place.

C.S. Lewis profoundly warned that “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” It is from those with a higher calling, vision and zeal “that something really fiendish can be made; an Inquisitor, a Member of the Committee of Public Safety. It is great men, potential saints, not little men, who become merciless fanatics… For the supernatural, entering a human soul, opens to it new possibilities of both good and evil. From that point the road branches: one way to sanctity, love, humility, the other to spiritual pride, self-righteousness, persecuting zeal… Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst. Of all created beings, the wickedest is one who originally stood in the immediate presence of God.”

Without Love, I Am Nothing

We cannot think that knowledge gets us to heaven or ensures us of our place. The Apostle Paul rightly warned that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor.8:1). “If I…understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor.13:2). Paul anticipates that you can understand much and not have it be real and powerful over your heart. Knowledge by itself can be a danger and a deception.

So he constantly argues that the true fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control” (Gal.5:22-23). He repeatedly says of Christian teachers, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim.2:24-25). These things are just as important as the content of what is taught! There should be no false dichotomy between speaking the truth and doing it in love. There cannot really be one without the other. A true zeal for truth is shaped by brokenness before the Cross.

The antidote to doctrinal righteousness is a personal faith and hope in Christ alone, which leads to personal humility and compassionate love. Theology doesn’t save you; Jesus does. And that creates humility and grace in the heart.

John Newton was right when he said, “If I ever reach heaven, I expect to find three wonders there: First, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had thought to meet there; and third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there!” May God grant us such humility, reliance, and wonder at God’s grace.

1. Part IV, Section I of his larger work, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion, Edwards, J. (1974). The works of Jonathan Edwards (Vol. 1, p. 398-403). Banner of Truth Trust.

2. Ibid. p.398-399.

3. Ibid. p.399.

Matt Foreman is the pastor of Faith Reformed Baptist Church.  Matt is a graduate of Furman University and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He currently serves as the Chairman of the General Assembly for the Reformed Baptist Network, as secretary for the RBN Missions Committee, and as lecturer in Practical Theology at Reformed Baptist Seminary. Matt also writes music for worship; some of which be found here. Matt and his wife, MaryScott, have four children: Katy (2002), Darsie (2004), Liam (2007), and Molly (2010).


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


The Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting The Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

By Some Means…

By Nick Batzig

In recent years, a number of Reformed theologians have introduced the phrase ordinary means of grace to a forthcoming generation of ministers. The incorporation of this phase into the vocabulary of the church has been quite easily observable–especially in serious-minded Confessionally Reformed churches where it has become something of a Shibboleth of orthodox worship and missions. Nevetheless, few have set out, in summary form, the variations of its use in the history of the Church.

In Roman Catholic theology, the phrase means of grace is shorthand for Rome’s seven sacraments (i.e. Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Marriage) and its sacramentals (i.e. lesser blessings, dedications and ceremonies for the sanctification of the people). Rome speaks of these things as “the means of grace of the Holy Church.” Geerhardus Vos has rightly explained,

“One can easily see that the Word of God does not lend itself easily to the Roman Catholic concept of a means of grace. A means of grace, as Rome conceives it, must be, strictly speaking, a thing, a work, an action, not a thought, a word that brings God’s thoughts to our souls. Only the sacraments really fit in this system. They are means of grace as Rome requires them to be.”1

In light of Rome’s supplanting of the Word of God to the sacraments, it is easy to understand why some in Protestant churches have long been uncomfortable calling the sacraments (i.e. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) means of grace. Rome has removed the word of God as the foundational means of God’s grace and has so invested the sacraments with a grace they do not in and of themselves have, namely a grace that works ex opere operato

While references to the means of grace have been far from uncommon in the history of the church, appeal to the ordinary means holds a unique place in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition on account of the repetitious use of it in the Westminster Standards. For instance, in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we find referrences to “the outward means,” “the outward and ordinary means,” “effectual means” and “the means of salvation.” In making use of these phrases, the members of the Assembly were seeking to explain how God’s grace ordinarily works in the lives of believers. The comfortable manner in which they employed the word means reveals something of its prevelancy in 17th Century theological expositions. It will 

In WSC 85, the members of the Assembly explain the place of the outward means of redemption, 

“To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.”

In WSC 88, they define the means of grace and salvation,

“The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.”.

In WSC 89, they explain the difference between the public reading and the public preaching of God’s word,

“The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

And finally, in WSC 91, they clarified what they believed and did not believe about the sacraments as means of grace, 

“The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.”

The Divines clearly taught that, within the visible church, three things constituted the outward and ordinary means of grace–namley, the word of God, the sacraments and prayer.  

Appended to many (if not most) of the 18th and 19th Century editions of the Westminster Standards was The Sum of Saving Knowledge, a short work co-authored by David Dickson and James Durham. This book became one of the most loved of all the treatises on assurance written by the Puritans and their successors. At the outset of this work, Dickson and Durham explain that their purpose was to deal wth 1) “The means appointed to make [believers] partakers of this covenant,” and 2) “The blessings which are effectually conveyed unto the elect by these means.” They then suggested that “the outward means and ordinances, for making men partakers of the covenant of grace…are especially these four: 1. The Word of God. 2. The Sacraments. 3. Kirk-government. 4. Prayer.” In keeping with the teaching of the Shorter Catechism, Dickson and Durham asserted that the Word of God, the Sacramants (i.e. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and prayer were three outward and ordinary means of grace. However, they then broadened the definition to include Church government. The role of church discipline is included in their assessment of the means of grace.

Given this seeming difference of opinion about what are rightly considered ordinary means of grace, we must seek to answer the following two questions: “What, if any, guidelines are there to help us determine the ordinary means of grace?” and “What are the God-appointed outward and ordinary means of grace?”

In his section on “Word and Sacraments” in Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos took up these questions. Seeking to define the word grace in the phrase means of grace, he wrote, 

“[There is] a certain indefiniteness that makes it difficult for us at a first glance to delineate sharply the concept of the means of grace. Everything that God uses as a means in order to show me any unmerited favor and by which He acts for my good then becomes a means of grace. There is common grace and special grace. But what serves for receiving and granting the former must also count as a means of grace. What occurs in the sphere of God’s providence cannot be excluded. Through the particular circumstances of life, God can act on me, and it is grace from Him when He does this. However, one senses that we cannot let the expression depend on this indefinite sense. The concept, taken so generally, would lose its theological significance for us.”2

There is then a broader and a more narrow sense in which we may speak of means of grace. Everything that God does in my life in order to bring me closer to to Himself is a means of grace, broadly considered. However, there must be limitations when we are speaking of those things that He has appointed to function in the church for the saving grace that He gives to all of His people. 

Vos set out what he understood to be three limiting principles for the proper use of the phrase. He wrote,

“By showing that many of these things that one would like to call means of grace, in the widest sense, are not such in an independent way and by virtue of their own content, but only through the connection into which they are brought with instrumentalities that are the proper means of grace. One or another experience that I have in my life can certainly be used by God to strengthen the life of grace in me, but it could not do this by itself. It does this only because it brings me anew into contact with the Word of God and has as its consequence a new application of that Word to my life. It is therefore not a means of grace in the proper sense.

By saying that not every connection with preparatory grace or with common grace makes something a means of grace, but only the specific connection with the regenerating, effectual, converting, justifying, sanctifying grace of God. Said more succinctly: its connection with the beginning and the continuation of special grace. If something is not connected with that in one way or another, it may not be called a means of grace.

By saying that something must be linked with the gracious working of God not just incidentally on a single occasion but that it must be the regular, ordained means that accompanies that working. The means of grace are constant, not exceptional.”3

Finally, Vos concluded,

“If we accept these three conditions, then it appears that they only apply to the Word of God and the sacraments. These two are the only means of grace in the narrower sense.”4

This assessment has been echoed by Richard Muller who has so helpfully summarized this matter when he wrote, 

“The identification of Word and sacraments as media gratiae does not intend to exclude a general or common operation of grace but rather it indicates the function of both Word and sacraments in the regeneration (regeneratio) and sanctification (sanctificatio) of man as the instruments or objective channels of special or saving grace (gratia specialis).  Word and sacraments are thus instrumental both in the inception of salvation and in the continuance of the work of grace in the Christian life.

In addition, Word and sacraments are the sole officially ordained or instituted instruments or means of grace. God has promised the presence of his grace to faithful hearers of the Word and faithful participants in the sacraments. Thus the right preaching of the Word and right administration of the sacraments are the marks or identifying features of the true church (notae ecclesiae).” (Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms)

 

1. Vos, G. (2012–2016). Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, … K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 5, p. 80). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

2. Ibid., Vol. 5, p. 78

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.


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