Recurring Failure and Never Failing Grace

The grand storyline of the Bible can at times make depressing reading if we do not pay close attention to the gospel threads that hold it together.

After its glorious beginning in the accounts of creation in Genesis, our high hopes for God’s wonderful world are dashed by the third chapter and its record of the fall. (Though it is all too easy to allow the space devoted to the dark tragedy and implications of this event to eclipse the disproportionate weight and glory of the single verse that contains the protoevangelion.) And, as the narrative continues over the eight chapters that follow, the same is true. In that brief compass, covering vast swathes of human history, we encounter some of the darkest moments of time. So much so that God intervenes with the drastic measure of the flood in Noah’s day. But here again we must not allow the dark matter bound up with human sin and its consequences to blind us to the irrepressible workings of God’s covenanted grace.

The story rolls on with Noah who, though God’s instrument of salvation through the deluge, shamed himself barely before the earth had fully dried out. Then Abraham: the man of faith, yet the one who lied with serious consequences. Isaac, like father, like son. Jacob, heir of the covenant, yet the one who sought to manipulate his way to what he and his mother thought his God-appointed destiny ought to look like. Joseph, who knew from childhood he was ordained by God to play a vital role in his plan of redemption, yet whose youthful pride seemed to derail it before it had even begun to be fulfilled.

The remaining books of the Pentateuch only seem to intensify this pattern. Moses, again a child of destiny, but who tried to fulfil it according to his own instinct and intellect ending up in exile for the next 40 years. (And even when his time came in the exodus, he was barred from entering the land on account of his sins along the way.) We see failure among God’s people, failure in their leaders and God’s reputation being tarnished in the eyes of the surrounding nations.

The entire Old Testament is a record of the recurring failures of the church of that epoch. (Psalm 78 provides a poetic summary of the extent to which this was so.) And when we move into the New Testament, the storyline does not change. In the Gospels the disciples who are called, trained and richly blessed by our Lord, not only stumble repeatedly during their time in training, but also fail miserably when it mattered most. The same is true in the period covered by the book of Acts. Good things happen as the gospel spreads, but bad things are never far behind as the enemy of souls not only opposes its work from without, but also distorts and frustrates it from within the church.

All the New Testament letters were written because of sin, failure and confusion in the New Testament churches. The last of them, Jude, almost seems to have an air of desperation in face of challenges confronting the churches Jude was addressing. And when we finally get into Revelation, we are confronted almost immediately with Christ’s pronouncements on the state of the seven churches of Asia Minor (which have resonated with the ‘sevenfold’ church in its entirety throughout its history). And his words are not easy to hear because they expose painful truths of the failures that repeatedly surface in the church.

From the reader’s perspective, it is not hard to see how these dark shadows over the history God’s people on earth seem to fill our horizons. But, as we have noted already, there is another thread that not only runs in parallel, but actually runs right through that of the recurring failures of the church and that is the never-failing grace of her Lord and Saviour.

It is striking to see how the overt language of God’s covenant is woven through all his interactions with his people, no matter how badly and how persistently they have strayed from him. So, for example, after 39 chapters of judgment warnings in Isaiah, God addresses Israel directly through the prophet, saying, ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…’ (Isa 40.1-2). Even though we would expect God to be issuing a writ of divorce to his wayward spiritual bride, he comes again with words of covenant hope and comfort and goes on to speak of all he himself will do to gather his people to himself.

In the face of the record of guilt on the part of God’s professing people, we hear words of grace from the lips of God. Grace that will never be extinguished by the darkness of disobedience.

No matter how many times we may have heard this stated, we cannot hear it too often. For the simple reason that, even as Christians, our default mode is to think in terms of what we must do to be sure our fellowship with God is secure. The reality of grace sits too lightly on our hearts and minds. We can never get away from the fact, as Paul reminds us, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved’ (Eph 2.8). Or, as he tells the Romans, ‘Where sin increased, grace increased all the more’ (Ro 5.20).

Does this mean our failures as Christians and as the church do not really matter? Not at all! It means that the more we feel the weight and shame of our sin, the more we will appreciate the costliness of grace and the weight of joy it brings to all who have received it. It means in the midst of our worst of our failings, we are assured of the God of grace who is merciful and who delights in restoring us to where and what we ought to be in Christ.

The Westminster Confession of Faith captures this well in the context of what it has to say about God’s Providence:

The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends. (WCF 5.5)

Our sins and failures as God’s people are instruments in his hands that he uses to bring us increasingly to an end of ourselves that we may increasingly value his grace.

The Ruling Elder: What to Look for

In God’s wisdom, ministry in a local church is to be led by faithful men, a plurality of godly elders who through the ministry of the word lead every member to partake in and do the work of ministry. It has frequently been noted that the requirements for elders are requirements common to all believers, the only exception really being that they are capable of rightly handling and teaching God’s word. Of course this is because their ability to rightly teach the word is how they will rightly enable and build-up every other member to rightly do the work of ministry. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Being able to rightly teach God’s word presupposes that they themselves have been taught by God’s word; that they are men who are controlled by and in submission to God’s word. In what follows, I want to lay out three ways this evidences itself. I want to do so precisely because judging a man on his “ability to teach” alone can be deceptive and even detrimental. Even Paul himself warns us that there “are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13-14). So, what are some things that demonstrate an ability to articulate and desire to live out the Gospel on the part of potential elders?

Firstly, are they men of prayer? Prayer tells you a lot. The Apostles picked seven deacons who could help with the work of the ministry so that they could devote themselves to prayer and ministry of the word. Godly elders will put a priority on the ministry of prayer. These should be men who are known not only for their public prayers but as men who give themselves to communing with God in private. If you were to ask their wives about their prayer lives what would they say? Do they lead their families in prayer? When they pray publicly is it clear that they spend much time upon their knees at home?

Prayer is evidence of a disciplined and faithful heart, which takes seriously the need for God’s grace in ministry. A man’s prayer shows his reliance upon God and not his own ingenuity and strength. An elder who places a premium on praying for the church will not be a man who easily falls for pragmatic gimmicks and business models in order to grow his church. That’s the kind of man that is grounded in the Gospel; an elder who will be able to equip the congregation to similarly live prayerful, Gospel-dependent lives.

Secondly, are their homes a reflection of the Gospel? This no doubt comes through in Paul’s instructions that an elder ought to be a man who “manages his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” What does this actually look like?

If we take Paul’s instruction about the church and work backwards to the home we can say at least a few things. Elders are exhorted to shepherd God’s flock (1 Peter 5:2), and so too ought a man shepherd his own family, selflessly caring for them physically and spiritually; feeding them on God’s word day and night. An elder is known and described as an overseer (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1). So too ought a man of God rightly lead and oversee his family, lovingly guiding them in godliness and not abdicating his role as a husband and father and the head of his household. Peter instructs elders to give oversight with “eagerness, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). It is good to see if he acts this way at home. Rather than abdicating his role as a leader does he perhaps swing too far the other way and abuse his role? Is he domineering or gentle? Does he eagerly serve or selfishly demand? Is he a model to his children on what mature faithfulness looks like? Because in becoming an elder he will be called to be model of mature godliness for the church.

Thirdly, are they courageous? Serving as an elder will require plenty of opportunities for awkward confrontation and will demand from a man a certain level of courage. He will, if shepherding rightly, be put in positions where he will cry out along with Paul, “who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

It takes courage to tell a person who for some reason is wrongly desiring to join your church, “I’m sorry, but I do not see any evidence that you either know the Gospel or believe in Jesus Christ.” It takes a level of courage to tell the daughter of a well-known member, “You should not marry the young man you’ve fallen in love with because he is not a Christian.” It’ll take courage to speak openly about the sinfulness of homosexuality and at the same time confront church members for failing to love their gay neighbors. Elders are men called to model mature faithfulness to the Gospel, and so they must be men who are willing to offend when it comes to Gospel truths. This means that they fear God and not men; that they are zealous to stand up for the Gospel even when it hurts. And this will take courage.

All three of these characteristics – prayerfulness, godliness in the home, and courage (and there are many more we could look at) – are characteristics grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A man who prays is a man who believes in God’s promises for him, that in Christ he can approach God as his Abba, Father. A man who is godly at home and has a godly home is a man who’s religion is not just for show. He is no hypocrite and desires Christ to rule in all his life, not just on Sunday mornings. A man who is courageous is a man who has begun to learn the treasure of losing his life for Christ. He will follow his savior anywhere to bring God glory, even (and especially) when it goes against the ways of the world.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

The Ruling Elder: An Indispensable Element of a Well-Ordered Church

The Minister has been in the forefront of Protestant church leadership since the Reformers recovered the primacy of preaching as the means of creating and deepening faith, having dethroned the priest, who was seen by Rome as the central actor in sacrificing Christ anew.  But the Reformation established another office, one that was not present in the medieval Roman Catholic Church.  Today this office stands in the shadow of the Minister, and is generally an under-valued and under-utilized office; but when properly understood, it serves as a vital part of what constitutes a true church. This office is the Ruling Elder (RE).

Church history helps us think about the RE.  The Reformers saw the biblical office of Elder as a remedy to the corruption that had crept into church leadership after the apostles. The shared responsibility of church leaders, who were viewed generally as equal in power and authority, eventually morphed into a hierarchical authority structure with the Bishops perched firmly atop the power pyramid.  This concentration of authority in the hands of the few led to abuses that worsened over time.  The Reformers vigorously complained about the “disorders” of the church, which they blamed largely on “Our Bishops’” many vices: ruling like secular princes, living like wealthy patrons, neglecting preaching, abandoning pastoral care, and ignoring clergy offenses.  

The Reformers reacted to this disordered church.  The remedy they sought was “a Reformation of the same according to the rule of God’s word,”[i] and building on Sola Scriptura pursued a “rightly ordered” church.  At the core was the recovery of the Eldership.  Each congregation would elect qualified men whose rule would be everything the Bishops’ was not when it came to overseeing the church.

The office of RE represents a refinement of the offices found in the early church.  Of the documents surviving from the earliest centuries after the apostles, some, like the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, indicate that the ancient church recognized a plurality of offices, but limited them to two: Deacons and Elders.  While the Diaconate was seen as an office of service, the Eldership was seen as a ruling office. The New Testament provided a cluster of terms for the church officers who were to govern the church: Pastor, Elder, Overseer, Minister, or Teacher.  All these titles described the one ruling office in the church. 

As the Reformers sought to return to a biblically based polity, they saw 1Timothy 5:17 as teaching that the office of Elder can have two types of leaders: one which rules, and the other which rules and preaches/teaches.  In his commentary on this verse, Calvin states, “We may learn from this, that there were at that time two kinds of elders; for all were not ordained to teach. The words plainly mean, that there were some who ‘ruled well’ and honorably, but who did not hold the office of teachers. And, indeed, there were chosen from among the people men of worth and of good character, who, united with the pastors in a common council and authority administered the discipline of the Church, and were a kind of censors for the correction of morals.”

Thus, Calvin refined the Eldership into a two-tiered model.  Then, based on this verse and his understanding of Ephesians 4:11, he established four leadership offices in Geneva:  Pastors (shepherding/preaching/ disciplining), Teachers (instructing), Elders (disciplining), and Deacons (serving).  Some of the Reformed Confessions produced in the Sixteenth Century follow Calvin’s four-fold church office polity, while others exhibit a three-fold scheme: Ministers, Elders, and Deacons.  What is important is that REs became major agents of discipline, a key missing ingredient in the church under the Bishops.  They had “jurisdiction over the correcting of faults” and were to join with the Pastors in “the exercise of discipline.”[ii]

Since discipline is one of the marks of true church, the Reformers saw the RE as an indispensable element of a well-ordered church, and so should we. For the church today, the office of RE, while at times allowed to suffer from an inferiority complex, is really an integral part of what the church is to do to fulfill its divine commission.  REs possess a pedigree descending from Calvin’s Genevan polity, and their work is of great importance to the health and vitality of all true churches, maintaining the peace and purity of congregations, whether between individuals, within families, or between churches.  To be faithful to this calling, churches themselves must labor diligently to bolster this office and cultivate men who rule well.

James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.

[i] W. H. Frere and C. E. Douglas, eds. Puritan Manifestoes; A Study of The Origin of The Puritan Revolt with a Reprint of  The Admonition to the Parliament and kindred documents, 1572 (New York, B. Franklin, 1907,  reprint, 1972), 63.

[ii] Institutes IV.iii.8.

The Groanings of this Present Age

“One of our regular PFT columnists, Mark Johnston, submitted this brief article, which relates directly to the recent attacks in Manchester.  We posted it first on our sister site,, but we wanted to also post it here for our readers as well.”  Dr. Jonathan Master

As I write, the United Kingdom is still reeling from the latest terrorist atrocity to be unleashed in one of our major cities. It was particularly horrific in that it was deliberately targeted at children and teenagers attending a pop concert. The grief of those affected has been broadcast widely and it is impossible not to be deeply touched by their anguish – anguish repeatedly expressed in gut-wrenching groans. No matter how much the media and its pundits try to make sense of what has happened, words are inadequate to plumb the depths of pain.

Tragically, there is nothing new in this. This same week saw another terrorist incident – one that took place 41 years ago in Ireland – back in the headlines. Four decades on and no one charged for the offence and the surviving members of the victims’ families still expressing the raw pain of the loss they have lived with all that time. All this but another symptom of what C.S. Lewis aptly called, The Problem of Pain.

Something in all of us, Christians included, desperately want to say something in response to all this, but in doing so we can easily stray into saying too much, or too little. We rarely get the balance right. In light of that we can be thankful for the many places in the Bible where God’s words strike just the right balance. And what God says through his servant Paul is a prime example of getting it right.

Addressing the church in Rome, he speaks about ‘our present sufferings’ and declares they ‘are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (Ro 8.18). Far from being a cop out by kicking the problem of pain into the long (and currently inaccessible) grass of the world to come, this actually provides the springboard for a realistic look at the world in its ‘present’ state and why it is in this state.

With a significant choice of words, the apostle speaks first of all about creation ‘groaning’ (8.22), and how ‘we ourselves [Christians]…groan inwardly’ (8.23), then of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for believers ‘with groans that words cannot express’ (8.26). Language that speaks of something deep that must be expressed, but for which no normal vocabulary exists.

This in itself would suggest we can go no further. If words are inadequate to communicate these deep sentiments, then why write any more? Except that Paul sets these groanings in a very specific context: that of a fallen world.

The ‘present’ in which these troubles are ours is what Paul describes more fully to the Galatians as ‘this present evil age’ (Ga 1.4). The age that began in the aftermath of Adam’s fall into sin. An age that is marked, not merely by the inescapable propensity to sin innate in every human being, but also by the consequences and collateral damage sin leaves in its wake.

Interestingly, therefore, Paul speaks first and foremost of ‘creation’ itself ‘groaning as in the pains of childbirth’ in this context. Earlier he depicts creation as waiting ‘in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed’ (8.19). He is referring to the Parousia and ‘the restoration of all things’ associated with that day (Ac 3.21). He portrays it as if the entire created order was standing on tiptoe trying to see over the horizon of time for the first sign of the arrival of that day.

Although our pets may do their fair share of ‘groaning’ (when they are hungry or lonely) most of creation is inanimate and incapable of expressing any sentiment. So Paul is simply personifying its non-human elements as displaying discontent over its abnormality. The world and universe in their present state are not what God intended them to be; but one day that state of affairs will be changed.

When it comes to how humans respond, however, things are different. We can articulate our thoughts and feelings, however imperfectly. For those who are not Christians and cannot reach for God’s word to shed light into the darkness and confusion of our world, they do express themselves in a multitude of ways, but ways that fall short of real comfort or hope. But those ‘who have the firstfruits of the Spirit’ – believers (8.23) – things are different. We too still groan – indicating the many aspects of present experience we cannot now fathom – but in a way that is tempered by ‘hope’ (8.24-25). And this enables patience in our affliction.

Paul’s last reference to groaning is the one that is most intriguing. He says that the Holy Sprit helps God’s children in their weakness, but does so by interceding for us ‘with groans that words cannot express’ (1.26). How could it be said that the Holy Spirit was somehow lost for words? Perhaps because Paul is giving us a glimpse of the fact that as the glory of God in his being and works go beyond the limits of language to adequately express, so too sin and its consequences do the same. And nowhere is that more plainly visible than on the cross. There we are confronted simultaneously with the word-defying horror of what put Christ on that cross but also the indescribable glory of what he was doing there. And just as the shameful reality of our sin and what it deserve leaves ‘every mouth silenced’ before God (Ro 3.19), so too when we are confronted with the glory of the Lamb who was slain for our salvation.

The fact the Spirit condescends to ‘groan’ on our behalf shows there are no simplistic explanations or answers to the anguish that lies behind our groaning. This should say something to us as Christians as we try to speak into the pain that surrounds us in our world. Sometimes it is best to just ‘weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn’ – but do so as those ‘who share in the sufferings of Christ’.

John Knox and the Women Who Loved Him

Today, the title First Blast of the Trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women evokes images of an approaching army of terrifying woman-like creatures. Its author, John Knox, meant something quite different. It was the title of a short treatise on government (regiment = rule) held by women, a concept he found unnatural (monstrous).

It was not a controversial idea. At that time, most people believed that government was a male prerogative. The biblical examples of women leaders were seen as an indication of the corruption of times when no man could rise to the task.

Most Protestant leaders, however, wouldn’t have expressed their thoughts in such drastic terms. They were concerned about winning rulers – male or female – to their cause, and tempered their words accordingly. But Knox was not a tame man.

His Life

Born in an obscure village in eastern Scotland, Knox made his bold entrance in the annals of history in 1545, at about 31 years of age, holding a two-handed sword in defense of his peer George Wishart, a fervent Reformed preacher in a stubbornly Roman Catholic country. When Wishart was finally captured and executed, Knox, who had been ordained as Roman Catholic priest, served as minister of the Gospel for a group of Protestants who occupied St. Andrews church in protest.

His strong constitution survived the consequence of his actions: 19 months as prisoner on the cruel French galleys. Freed by the English, he clashed with Thomas Cranmer over the Book of Common Prayer, which he considered too popish. Finally, the Church of England assigned him a pastorate in Berwick, a small town near the Scottish border, where he could relate the gospel to the large community of Scottish immigrants (with the added benefit of keeping him away from London).

With the ascension to the throne in 1553 of the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor, Knox moved to the continent, causing a major stir in Frankfurt by comparing the current Emperor Charles V to the Roman Emperor Nero. Ousted by his congregation, he finally settled in Calvin’s Geneva, a city he deeply loved, where he co-pastored a church of English refugees.

In 1559, he returned to Scotland on the insistence of the growing Protestant community in that country. There, he found that the group of Protestants had grown to become theologically and politically strong. Soon he became part of an actual military revolution, which he galvanized with his fierce sermons. After only two years of fighting, Scotland became an official Protestant country.

The Women Around Him

            In spite of his formidable life and bold choices, Knox is still largely unknown. Maybe his larger-than-life charisma is the very reason for this neglect. People generally remember blazes and flares. In his case, they remember the blasts of his trumpet against women rulers – especially Mary Queen of Scots, “that cursed Jesabel,” as he called her. In the popular mind, he is a misogynist and a kill-joy.

            Why then so many intelligent women loved him deeply, confided in him and zealously supported him until the end?

Elizabeth Bowes

            Elizabeth Bowes was Knox’s mother-in-law, and popular stereotypes have contributed to distort the nature of their relationship. She has been portrayed as a weak and needy woman, perennially unsure about her salvation, and a test of Knox’s patience. In reality, most of her letters to Knox were written soon after she met him in Berwick, while she was fighting her family’s resistance against Knox’s proposed marriage to her daughter Marjorie. And while Knox always saw himself as the pastor in this relationship, he admitted that Elizabeth’s questions helped him to consider more carefully the passages of Scripture she found troubling.

            As she poured out her questions and doubts to him, he opened his heart to her, confessing his own personal struggles with faith, his feelings of guilt, and his fear that his troubles will never end in this life. He used these confessions to help her understand she was not alone in her struggle, and enveloped them with pastoral words of encouragement: “And this is more plain than ever I spake, to let you know ye have a fellow and companion in trouble, and thus rest in Christ, for the head of the serpent is already broken down, and he is stinging us upon the heel.”[1]

When Marjorie died in 1560, Elizabeth stayed with Knox four more years to take care of his and Marjorie’s sons Nathaniel and Eleazar, until he remarried. In 1568, Knox sent his sons, then nine and seven years old, to Elizabeth to continue their education in England.

Anne Locke

            It’s to English poetess and translator Anne Locke, another one of Knox’s closest friends, that he made his notorious confession, “Of nature I am churlish, and in conditions different from many. … I have rather need of all [my friends] than that any hath need of me.”[2]

Anne Locke was among a group of women who offered hospitality to Knox when he was in London. Escaping the reign of Mary Tudor, Anne moved to Geneva at Knox’s insistence with her two small children (her daughter died four days after their arrival). Anne didn’t seem to have the same struggles with assurance of salvation that had been plaguing Elizabeth, and Knox treated her as his equal, encouraging her to keep fighting for the gospel and thanking her for her continual efforts to support the Scottish Reformation.

As he did with Elizabeth, he often revealed the perplexities of his heart, including his struggles to cope with his new tasks as husband and father “wherewith I have not been accustomed, and therefore are fearful,”[3] and his late, painful resignation to the fact that the church will always have imperfections in this life.

Knox’s wives

            While we don’t have any letters from and to Knox’s two wives (Marjorie Bowes and Margaret Steward), we know that they were both strong women who greatly supported him in his ministry. Marjorie showed a great amount of courage in leaving her home to marry Knox against the opposition of her father and many of her relatives, and then again crossing the Channel to follow him to Geneva, where she lived in much humbler conditions than in her English mansion. Besides raising their children and hosting a constant stream of visitors and boarders, she helped her husband with his correspondence and publishing activities.

            We know less about Margaret, but she was by his side at the end of his life, when he suffered some discouragement because the church of Scotland had not progressed as radically as he had hoped and he had been conveniently put aside as being too fanatical. She stayed at his side until the very end, in 1572, when he asked her to read to him John 17, the chapter where he “had cast first anchor.”[4]

Mary Queen of Scots

            We don’t immediately think of Mary Stuart as a woman who loved Knox. In reality, the two had a measure of mutual respect. If he called her Jezebel in her Roman Catholic impositions, he also prayed she would become a new Deborah. Religious matters aside, they cooperated very well in many things for the common goal of maintaining peace in the country (they even worked together as marriage counselors in one case). In her uncomfortable position of Roman Catholic ruler of a Protestant country, she often sought Knox’s assistance, even offering him the opportunity to become her religious adviser. While refusing the role, he remained faithful to the prophetic vocation he believed God had given him.

            In conclusion, why did these and many other women express so much love toward a man who blew a fierce trumpet against female rulers? Maybe it’s because he needed, valued, respected them, and understood their struggles, offering at the same time warm and candid pastoral care.

Simonetta Carr was born in Italy and has lived and worked in different cultures. She worked first as elementary school teacher and then as home-schooling mother for many years. Besides writing books, she has contributed to newspapers and magazines around the world and has translated the works of several authors from English into Italian and viceversa. Presently, she lives in San Diego with her husband Thomas and the youngest of her eight children. She is a member and Sunday School teacher at Christ United Reformed Church.

[2] Letter from John Knox to Anne Locke, 1559

[3] Letter from John Knox to Anne Locke, 1556.

[4] [4] Thomas M’Crie, The Life of John Knox, p. 228.

The Ruling Elder Podcast

This week on Theology on the Go, our host, Dr. Jonathan Master is joined by Dr. Calvin L. Troup.  Dr. Troup is the president of Geneva College (Beaver Falls, PA). Before becoming Geneva’s twentieth President since 1848 Dr. Troup was Associate Professor and Director of the Rhetoric Ph.D. Program in the Department of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA.

He earned his B.A. from Geneva College (1983) and the M.A. (1991) and Ph.D. (1994) degrees from The Pennsylvania State University. His communication research agenda focuses on the rhetoric and philosophy of St. Augustine and Rhetoric of Technology from media ecology perspectives informed by the work of Jacques Ellul and Walter J. Ong. His published work includes Augustine for the Philosophers: The Rhetor of Hippo, the Confessions, and the Continentals (2014), Temporality, Eternity, and Wisdom: The Rhetoric of Augustine’s Confessions (1999), scholarly book chapters and articles in journals such as Communication Quarterly, Explorations in Media Ecology, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, The Journal of Communication and Religion, and The Journal of Business Ethics. Dr. Troup has edited the Journal of Communication and Religion and is the editor-elect of Explorations in Media Ecology the international journal of the Media Ecology Association.  Dr.Troup entered the academy after serving as a press aide in the U.S. House of Representatives and working as an association executive for a national non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.

Today Dr. Master is going to talk with Dr. Troup about the office of the ruling elder.  Dr. Troup is well suited to discuss this topic since he has served as a ruling elder in three different Presbyterian congregations.  He is currently a ruling elder at Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.

So, grab that cup of coffee and join us at the table!

The book Dr. Troup mentioned in the podcast is: The Elder’s Handbook: A Practical Guide for Church Leaders by Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster

Sola Scriptura: Four Profitable Words

Many years ago, my two friends and I developed an interest in rock climbing.  We lived in an area where you could do a lot of top roping.  We would walk into the woods and find a rock face.  Someone would unpack the gear and tie off the rope and then we would rappel to the bottom. Being inexperienced and a bit apprehensive, it didn’t take long for us to develop an important rule: “He who ties the knot goes first!”

On one of our outings, two of us decided to wait at the bottom of the cliff while our friend hiked to the top in order to tie off the rope and then rappel down. We waited below for quite some time but he never threw the rope over the edge. In fact, we didn’t see or hear anything coming from above. Finally, curiosity got the best of us and we hiked up to investigate.  When we finally reached the top, his back was to us and he was sitting cross-legged.  He didn’t even hear us approach.  When I got close, I peered around to see what he was doing.  To my absolute astonishment, I discovered him reading a book on how to tie knots! He looked up rather sheepishly and said, “I was starting to doubt myself.”

As I thought about the phrase sola Scriptura, I thought of this story. I thought of it because many believers are like my friend.  They are unsure of themselves.  They are filled with self-doubt.  As a result, the self-help section of the bookstore strains under the weight of numerous titles. Now, let me be clear.  I am not suggesting that we dispense with reading anything but the Bible.  However, I am suggesting that we have a propensity for looking everywhere but the Bible for help.  In other words, we read something in the Bible and we think, “I wonder what book I can read to help me with this or that?”  Let me suggest an alternative practice.  Let us look to the Bible as a sufficient help for faith and life.  In fact, Paul tells us four things in II Timothy 3:16 that will help us in that direction.

First, Paul says that the Bible is profitable for teaching. What exactly is the didactic aim of Scriptural teaching? It’s simple. God’s word teaches us to think God’s thoughts after Him. Why is that so important?  It is important because, as God says to his people through the prophet Hosea, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” And later, “So the people without understanding are ruined.” In other words, Scripture is profitable for teaching the knowledge of God.  As Paul says in Romans 6:17, there is a form of teaching, which must be known by all God’s people because a lack thereof will bring ruin upon God’s people.

Second, the word of God is profitable for reproof.  Now, this benefit flows from the first. In other words, the word of God is profitable for teaching.  But what is taught enters through our ears, into our minds and then from there it passes into our conscience. What happens then? It begins to comfort or convict us.  In other words, it begins to shape us. God’s word shapes our thinking about God, the world, people, and us. If I can put it the way Jesus did, taking this word into our conscience is like finding a rock upon which to stand no matter what we are thinking about.

Third, the word of God is profitable for correction. Just as the teaching passes into our minds and then into our conscience it must pass into our lives. In other words, the word of God tells us what we need to add and subtract from our living.  Have you taken inventory of your practices lately?  What practice needs to be uprooted and what needs to be put in its place?

There is a fourth profitable thing. The word is profitable for training in righteousness. The word Paul uses here is a word that flows from what I’ve been saying. It’s the same word the author of Hebrews used in 12:7, “It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” The word translated “discipline” is our word for training. God is training you by His word.

And Paul has already given Timothy an example of this very thing. In the verses immediately preceding the one we are considering, Paul says, “You, however, continue in the things you learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Let me ask you a simple question.  What word are you continuing in these days?

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R Publishing) and Managing Editor for Place for Truth.

Sola Scriptura: A Brief Historical Summary of the Seige Against Scripture

           When Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden his angle of attack was to bring into question the sufficiency of God’s word. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” Not only did Satan, like a good legalist, subtly add on to God’s word by adding the command ‘any tree in the Garden’”, he also more devastatingly brought God’s word into question, “Did God really say?” Eve’s bite into that presupposition was the fruit of flowering sin.  At that moment, God’s word ceased to have the highest authority over her life.

            Thousands of years later, the sons of Satan tried to embroil the Son of Adam in the same trap. The second Adam would not bite. But in their legalism they looked on with disgust as some of Jesus’ disciples ate food without ritually washing their hands. Mark tells us it was not so much a germ thing (because they didn’t know about germs back then) as was a religious thing. “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). So, they asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?”

            Here Jesus answered them with profound theological and practical insight. “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-7). Here Jesus pinpoints their hypocrisy: they had exalted the traditions of men to a level that actually caused them to deny and leave God’s word! He ends his discussion with the Pharisees by telling them that by exalting tradition to a level of authority on par with Scripture they have actually “made void the word of God” (Mark 7:13). Satan’s tricks are as old as Eden.  

             Paul likewise did battle with this same diabolical lie when in 1 Timothy 4 he reveals that “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1).[1] And how would these demonic teachings cause people to leave the faith? Paul answers, “through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:2-4).

            Apparently, there were false teachers who were telling these Christians in Ephesus that true spirituality could only be reached through asceticism – abstaining from certain foods and not getting married. And Paul smelled something ancient and rotten going on. He pinpoints this heresy as being right in line with what Satans been doing since the Garden of Eden: taking what God has declared good and asking the question, “Well, did God really say?”

            Now God’s word is clear, marriage is good and honorable and given from God. And God’s word makes it clear that all food is good for man to eat and enjoy.[2] Yet, when someone takes what God has made good and prohibits it as if it were sinful, that person has put himself in the place of God. This is why Paul calls this asceticism Satanic; it is a lie that subjugates God’s word to our own self-exulted wills and words. When Eve looked at the fruit and saw that it was good to eat (though God said it was not good to eat), so the ascetic-legalist looks at marriage and says it is sin (when God Himself has said it is good). There is nothing new under the Sun.

            The Protestant Reformers fought against the same lie when they argued that the Scriptures alone must be the final and binding authority upon the church. As Rome exalted tradition to a place of equal authority with Scripture, they effectively made void the word of God..  Alas, Luther himself infamously cried out against Rome’s attack that “unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well-known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

            The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is a doctrine that has been under siege since the beginning of history and has continually been a main target for Satan’s lies and schemes. But we who follow Christ and live in submission to His living and active word alone, we continue to read and love and fear His word so as to “not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11). May God help us. Amen.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] See what Jesus reveals concerning this in Matthew 24:3-4; 11-12.

[2] See Genesis 1:11-13 and Acts 10:9-33

Sola Scriptura: A Biblical Casuistry Case with a Test for Truth over Experience

When Martin Luther took his stand at the Diet of Worms, proclaiming, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God,”[i] he affirmed that divine revelation is the only absolute, normative authority for truth.  This doctrine of Sola Scriptura is of no little consequence today because at its core is the question, “What is our ultimate authority for what we are to believe and how we are to live?”  How we answer it makes all the difference.

The Reformers answered unequivocally that God’s revelation is our only authority.  In providing this particular answer, they were reacting against the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s reliance on Tradition, which was an amalgamation of handpicked authorities: Church Fathers, Church councils, papal pronouncements, and medieval philosophers.  From this, the doctrine of transubstantiation developed more out of medieval philosophy than biblical exegesis.

It started with exegesis of the text (“This is my body”), but over time theologians employed a little hermeneutical legerdemain, gradually adding philosophical reasoning until in 1215 they pulled transubstantiation out of the hat!  Thus, Rome’s authoritative basis for it was really a sleight of hand.  It was precisely this concoction of biblical truth and human philosophy that the Reformers reacted against.  They pared down the number of sacraments from seven to two because they had already pared down the number of sources of authority to one.

But are the Reformers guilty of committing their own theological prestidigitation and inventing Sola Scriptura?  Could they be accused of a heavy-handed use of Occam’s razor to narrow authorities based solely on their own preferences?

The clear answer is No.  They did not invent the doctrine; on the contrary, they embraced Sola Scriptura because it arises from the biblical text itself.  One passage in which it is clearly taught is Deuteronomy 13.  The first three verses constitute God’s authoritative test for a prophet:

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (NASB)

These verses can be considered a sort of casuistry, which was a learning technique popular among Puritan authors.  Casuistry provides a case study in which a particular set of circumstances are laid out and moral and practical lessons are to be drawn from it.

A practical application of Sola Scriptura gleaned from this situation is that the Lord is providing a reliable test for truth, one by which we are to evaluate our experiences.  Even if our senses should entice us to believe a glittering spectacle, we should nevertheless be cautious.  For while it seems reasonable to believe such a miracle, the decisive determiner of authoritative truth lies solely in the message that squares with divine revelation.  This “message over miracle” test was designed to safeguard God’s people from the ever-present danger of syncretism (the harmful blending of belief systems) and its follow-on danger, apostasy.

The admonition to be skeptical of our experience is quite counter-intuitive to the little Adam inside all of us…after all “Seeing is believing,” so why question the authenticity of our experience?  Luther was forced to combat credence given to appearances of spirits and to healings that were alleged to have occurred at the graves of certain saints, “all of which,” he said, “were contrary to the received Gospel.”[ii]  While we may not be in danger of being wowed by a wonder-worker today, there still remains the constant allure of our experience: worship music that is full of emotion but bereft of biblical content that should move us to worship, or a sermon that excites our desires to fix our dysfunctions, but never informs us how to be imitators of God or how to become partakers of all the benefits which are freely offered through Christ.

Luther’s admonition regarding Sola Scriptura still holds authority today: “One must rest wholly on the Word alone and shut out everything from eyes and senses, because when the Word is lost, God is lost.”[iii]

James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.

        [i] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 32: Career of the Reformer II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 32 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 112.

        [ii] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 9: Lectures on Deuteronomy, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 9 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 130, f.n. 1.

        [iii] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 9: Lectures on Deuteronomy, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 9 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 129.

Cloud of Witnesses: Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) – the European Reformer

In the summer of 1542, Peter Martyr Vermigli reached the northern side of the Alps with mixed emotions: thankfulness, excitement, relief, but also homesickness, concern, and occasional doubts.

Born to Teach

            Born in Florence, Italy, in 1499, he had entered the Augustinian order at the young age of 15 with conviction and anticipation. From an even earlier age, he had dreamed of teaching God’s word and focused his energies toward that goal, crushing his father’s ambition of having a wealthy son.

            His theological turnabout happened in Naples, where he moved in 1537 after his ordination and some years of experience as preacher and prior. There, he met Juan de Valdés, a refugee from the Spanish inquisition, and his heterogeneous group of followers. They were known as spirituali and were committed to a deep study of Scriptures and a reformation of the church.

It was no secret that the church needed to be reformed. Many had already denounced its corruption and hunger for power. At that point in time, however, much criticism was focused on its theology. Some commonly taught doctrines, like the nature of justification or the transubstantiation of the elements in the mass, were often late and poorly discussed developments which had lost connection with the biblical texts. Ad fontes (to the sources), the prevalent rallying cry of the day, included theology, and northern reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Martin Bucer became models of this insistence on biblical accuracy and ecclesiastical purity.

True to this motto, Vermigli applied himself to the careful study of Scriptures in the original languages – a knowledge not required for Roman Catholic preachers – and of the writings of the church fathers. He also devoted himself to teaching, which was his passion and vision. He had experienced first-hand the poverty of many sermons under preachers who were either theologically unprepared or motivated by money and fame. As soon as he had the opportunity, as prior of the church in Lucca, he founded an unprecedented school of biblical studies, hiring competent teachers of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and theology to lead separate courses for older children, young people, and adults.

His sermons were theologically rich and gospel-oriented, even if he had to carefully weigh his words – in Naples, he had been temporarily banned from preaching for stating that 1 Corinthians 3:9–17 cannot be taken as proof text for the existence of purgatory, as the church had been doing for some time.

The Escape

            Pope Paul III, however, was not sitting idle in this rapidly changing climate. In 1542, after a failed attempt to conciliate Roman Catholics and Protestants at the Diet of Regensburg, he agreed on renewing the earlier practice of the Roman Inquisition under the oversight of the zealous Cardinal Giampietro Carafa. Anything that suggested echoes of European Reformers was now subject to rigorous scrutiny.

            When Vermigli got news that an invitation by church officials to a meeting in Genoa, Italy, was really a call to an interrogation, he realized he had three options: deny (at least outwardly) his faith, face the possibility of torture and death, or flee. He chose the third one. At least he could continue to teach and preach abroad.

            It was not an easy decision. He was 43 and unaccustomed to long trips, and feared the problems common to all travelers: lack of knowledge of foreign languages, utter dependence on others, and even the trivial discomforts of new foods and strange lodging. Besides, much like today, a stranger was often seen with suspicion, “regarded as a person of dubious character, … rejected or badly received.”[1] Little did he know that this was going to be his condition for much of his life.

            At times, he must have wondered if he was really chasing a dream. He was eager to see some Reformed churches to find out if the good reports he had heard were true or if “the renovation of the church was like Plato’s republic which could be clearly understood but which by no means actually exists anywhere.”[2] His arrival in Zurich and later stay in Strasbourg dispelled his doubts, as he found a church that was not only committed to Scriptural faithfulness, but also warm, caring, and sacrificial. His talents and superior education were soon recognized, and he was given the position of Old Testament Studies at Strasbourg, a course which attracted students from all over the Holy Roman Empire.

New Country, New Challenges

            Soon, he discovered that each place has its challenges. While the political arrangement of cuius regio, eius religio (the ruler of each region can determine its religion) provided some religious freedom in the numerous German states, hostilities between Emperor Charles V and Protestant princes broke out twice in the devastating Schmalkaldic Wars. After winning the first of these wars, Charles instituted a series of decrees reestablishing some traditional Catholic practices for all, something that most Protestants objected fiercely. It was supposed to be a temporary measure (known as interim) in the hope that the Roman Catholic Council that had begun in Trent in 1545 would bring a permanent solution.

            In 1547, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of the Church of England, called Vermigli to the position of Regius Professor at the University of Oxford, where the Italian reformer had to face new problems. King Henry VIII had died in January the same year, leaving the kingdom in the hands of his ten-year old son, Edward VI. Edward’s tutors and counselors favored the continental model of church reform and wanted to bring it to England, improving on the partial reformation started by Henry.

Vermigli accepted the position, but soon came to define it “a hard assignment,”[3] as he had to deal with the fierce opposition of “closed minds”[4] who strongly resisted change. “More than once I was in critical danger and at the serious risk of my life,”[5] he wrote.

All this came to a head in 1533 when Edward suddenly died and the feeble hope of a Protestant rule under Edward’s cousin Lady Jane Grey ended in less than two weeks, with the ascension to the throne of his Roman Catholic half-sister Mary. Once again, Vermigli had to flee, returning to Strasbourg and then moving permanently to Zurich, where he taught Hebrew at the university, working closely with Heinrich Bullinger until his death in 1562. Even in Zurich, his life was not completely peaceful, as he had to deal with raging controversies within the Protestant camp (reportedly, Theodore Bibliander challenged him to a duel with a double-edged axe over doctrines of predestination).

Vermigli’s Legacy

Convinced that a reformation of the church could only be the fruit of a serious study of Scriptures, Vermigli remained true to his calling of teacher until the end, both in the classrooms and in his writings. With Thomas Cranmer, he worked on the publication of literature aimed at facilitating the training of both pastors and laypeople, such as the Book of Common Prayer, a liturgical and devotional manual that helped Christians to develop a correct language of worship.

His influence spread much further than his immediate circle of students, as he was highly respected and consulted. He had a great (although not entirely successful) impact at the Colloquy of Poissy in France, where he held a private consultation with the Italian-born French regent, Catherine de’ Medici, and remained in epistolary contact with many leaders of the French Reformation. He also exercised an important influence on the Polish reformer John Laski and consequently on the Polish Reformation.

After his death, his teachings and writings continued to remain vital in shaping the Protestant Reformation in Europe, as many of his pupils went on to train a future generation of leaders and worked on important documents of the Protestant church, such as the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dordt. While his name became gradually less conspicuous in church history books, his legacy lived on, until today, when he is finally and rightly being rediscovered.

Simonetta Carr was born in Italy and has lived and worked in different cultures. She worked first as elementary school teacher and then as home-schooling mother for many years. Besides writing books, she has contributed to newspapers and magazines around the world and has translated the works of several authors from English into Italian and viceversa. Presently, she lives in San Diego with her husband Thomas and the youngest of her eight children. She is a member and Sunday School teacher at Christ United Reformed Church.

[1] Life, Letters, and Sermons, 75