The Marks of a Healthy Church: The Great Commission

Last words are important and often intriguing and none more so than the last words of Jesus. They are best remembered as expressed by Matthew at the end of his Gospel where Jesus tells the Eleven,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt 28.18-20).

They are familiar words and, even though they are almost certainly not Jesus ‘last words’ in a chronological sense, they linger in a way those recorded at the start of Acts do not. The last words the disciples heard from Christ would galvanise the significance of the first words he spoke to them in a way that would change them forever. Their formal relationship with Christ began with the words, ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ (Mt 4.19). Now that relationship came of age, as he prepared to leave them, saying, ‘Go…!’

There are numerous angles from which we can view this parting mandate from Christ, but one that is perhaps not often considered is its relationship to another mandate found at another defining moment in the history of the world and of the human race. That is, the so-called ‘Creation Mandate’ recorded at the end of the opening chapter of Genesis.

Immediately after the description of God’s creating Adam and Eve, having blessed the newly created pair and declared, ‘let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’, God says,

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Ge 1.28).

As Greg Beale points out, the fact that this command is introduced with words that relate to procreation provides a significant link between God’s words in Eden and his words through the risen Christ on the Mount of Olives.

The clue to the connection lies in the context of creation. In the newly established creation in Genesis, crowned with the first pair of human beings as God’s image-bearers, God commands Adam and Eve to replicate and perpetuate that image throughout the earth. On the Mount of Olives, we encounter Christ as the prototypical man who, through his resurrection from the dead, has inaugurated God’s new creation. So there should be no surprise at his speaking words that echo of those spoken to the first Adam in his perfection. Those who, in Christ, are ‘new creation’ (2Co 5.17) are also to replicate and perpetuate the restored image through their gospel witness and labours.

Within the context of the New Covenant community, this clearly had implications for the families of believers and how they were to be nurtured in the faith (Ac 2.39; Eph 6.1-4); but in the now fallen world it had a larger horizon as well. They were to ‘make disciples of all nations’ – the Goyim: nations which at that time were very much outside the covenant community of the people of God. The mandate was now to be outworked in a fallen world among the countless millions in whom the imago dei was disfigured. How was the church to fulfil this task? By bearing witness to the One in and through whom alone the image can be savingly restored, namely Jesus (Ac 1.8). The apostolic witness entrusted to the church finds its gospel focus in Christ alone as Saviour.

The precise wording of the Great Commission is significant. Even though, at least for those who only read it in English translation, it would be tempting to think the ‘command’ component of what Jesus says is to ‘Go!’, the imperative in this clause is actually to ‘make disciples’. The ‘going’ is presented in a present continuous tense. Jesus simply assumes that the church will always be in ‘going mode’ as it brings the gospel to the world.

As was pointed out in an earlier post on this subject, the church has repeatedly distorted Christ’s words at this point by understanding them to mean, ‘Come and hear!’ (supposedly addressed to the world). But, of course, our Lord addressed his command to the embryonic New Testament Church that they should ‘Go and tell!’

The salient difference between what is said in this context and its Old Testament precursors in Israel’s calling to be a light to the Gentiles and God’s means of bringing all nations to praise him (see, e.g. Ps 67.1-7) is that now, through the death and resurrection of Christ, salvation had been fully accomplished. This is why Jesus can emphatically preface his word of command with a word of promise: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me. Therefore…’ (Mt 28.18-19). More than that, it explains why he can also punctuate the commission with the assurance, ‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (28.20).

Christians in the increasingly post-Christian Western world wring their hands in face of declining church attendance and ever-growing opposition to God and the gospel. Yet, strangely, as the gospel is spreading and the church is rapidly growing in the Majority world, it is invariably in the face of even greater opposition: ignorance, world religions and persecution. This was very much the world into which Jesus was thrusting the apostolic band through his last word to them. Their mission ‘to the Jew first and then to the Gentile’ (Ro 1.16) seemed like an impossible task; but as these men gave themselves to it in faith and obedience, Christ used them to begin building his church. And that is what he has been doing ever since as his people everywhere dare to risk their all for the gospel.

Mark Johnston writes regularly for his Alliance of Confessing Evangelical column, Resident Aliens.  He is a Trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust and the author of three commentaries in the ‘Let’s Study’ series – John, Colossians and Philemon, and 2 Peter and Jude. He is currently the pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cardiff.

Westminster & Ordination: The Directory of Worship

Contemporary efforts to enrich public worship inevitably emphasize increased “congregational participation”. This may mean employing special music, or returning to set prayers in which congregation has a unison voice, but the desire is to move beyond a feeling of clerical monologue. Others blame modern egalitarianism and individualism for this desire – though that objection hardly sticks to set prayers given their premodern origins. But perhaps it isn’t the first time there was debate over “congregational participation” as an enhanced vocal or visible function for people in the pews.

The Westminster Assembly, famous for the Confession of Faith and Shorter Catechism, also produced the Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645). The preface explains its monumental displacement of the Book of Common Prayer almost 100 years into the English Reformation. Specifically, it charges “the Liturgy” with encouraging “an idle and unedifying ministry, which contented itself with set forms made to their hands by others, without putting forth themselves to exercise the gift of prayer, with which our Lord Jesus Christ pleaseth to furnish all his servants whom he calls to that office.”[i]

Devotees of the Prayer Book will take little comfort in the Directory’s allowance that this was an unintended consequence, and may reciprocate by pointing out unintended consequences in the Directory’s insistence on spontaneous prayer. However, our interest is in the Directory’s elevation of the office and gifts of ministers as essential to not only preaching, but also the public prayers of God’s people. Where the Prayer Book had congregants repeating after ministers in various places, and so vocalizing prayer, the Directory restricts vocalization to the clergy, the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm singing excepted.

The Directory urges Christians to prepare their hearts before worship and to unite in each element during it, rather than conducting private devotions as was done during unintelligible performances of the Latin Mass. Thus, the whole congregation engages in public worship. Nevertheless, the minister alone calls the people to worship, prays, reads the Scripture (unless a student “allowed by the presbytery,”)[ii] gives the benediction, and administers Baptism and the Lord’s Supper “as the steward of the mysteries of God.”[iii] Under preaching, much is made of a minister’s training, study, preparation, and public performance. Modern efforts to spotlight laity are irrelevant to the Assembly’s concept of “congregational participation.”

Today, offertories are often where non-ordained people are placed front and center, whether by mission’s updates, special music, or simply calling attention to the ushers. The Directory acknowledges collections in connection with the Lord’s Supper, but does not treat them as an element of worship or describe them in detail. There are perhaps two places where the minister’s work is muted for other emphases: family worship, which is led by heads of households, and burials, which are stripped of religious ceremony to avoid superstition. But these are familial and social settings, not church gatherings.

In his public prayers, a minister must “endeavour to get his own and his hearers hearts to be rightly affected.” Ministers are “the mouths of the people unto God” who must pray so that “both themselves and their people may be affected, and even melted thereby.”[iv] Through preaching and praying, ministers mediate both sides of a dialogue between God and his people, even in regard to the believer’s inward experience.

The only examples of vocalized participation by the whole congregation in the Directory are the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm singing. As to the latter, its treatment at the end of the document suggests it was not in use everywhere, and only one or possibly two Psalms a service are prescribed.[v]  Psalmody is also the only place (other than the exception for ministerial students) where a non-ordained person may be appointed by the elders to fulfill a public function, namely, to read the Psalms out line by line for the illiterate. Such allowances are the exceptions to the rule. The Directory highly elevates the minister’s role in public worship, disregards modern notions of “congregational participation,” and eliminates the premodern practice of set prayers. Is the last of these, part and parcel of rejecting “the Liturgy” (which, after all, means, “the work of the people”)?

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is currently a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He and his wife have two boys and are expecting their third child.


[i] “The Directory for the Public Worship of God,” in The Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1973), 374.

[iv] Ibid., 376, 392.

[v] Richard A. Muller and Rowland S. Ward, Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation & The Directory for Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 125, 135.

Westminster & Ordination: A Persistent Task

The Westminster Assembly, which met at the behest the English parliament from 1643-1653, while not properly speaking a church court (i.e., a session/consistery, presbytery/classis, or general assembly/synod), did perform functions which we now rightly associate with the presbytery or classis level of church governance. Chad Van Dixhoorn, in his fascinating book God’s Ambassadors, refers to the examination of men for entrance upon the ministry (ordination) or transfer from one congregation to another or from one kind of ministerial work to another (e.g. pastoring to teaching at a university) as its “persistent task.” While there were no doubt multiple reasons for the Assembly taking on the persistent task of examining men for the ministry, the most significant was the abolition of the office of the bishopric.

One of the characteristics of Presbyterianism as such is to understand the biblical terms presbuteros (elder) and episkopos (overseer) as referring to one and the same church office from two different vantage points rather than seeing these as two distinct offices. The rise of monarchical bishops or monepiscopacy in the second century is fascinating in its own right. Charles Krueger’s new book Christianity at the Crossroads devotes significant space to this development.  On a related note, prelacy involves monarchical bishops with political power. All of this is to note that bishops had the authority to examine and ordain men to the ministry and when you eliminate that office the work still needs to go on in order to ensure sound and solid ministers for the church. Until Presbyterian church governance was established within the Church of England the responsibility for the examination and appointment of men to the ministry fell to the divines gathered at Westminster Abbey in London.

The reformation of the ministry in seventeenth-century England was necessary to replace monarchical episcopacy with biblical Presbyterianism. It was also necessary to institute changes in emphasis from sacerdotalism to a Word-centered ministry. What the Westminster divines knew and had confirmed repeatedly was that pastoral ministry in numerous instances was in the hands of immoral and incompetent men. Many men were both. Examination of men for the ministry was of paramount importance for the spiritual health of God’s church in the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It is paramount for the church everywhere at all times.

We see from the forgoing that the examination of men for the ministry involves ascertaining candidates’ character and competence. We might say that the divines were tasked with determining whether a given man was both pious and learned (to use the language adopted by old Princeton Seminary in its charter). A man who came before the Westminster divines (or a committee thereof) had to demonstrate these qualities to the committee and the assembly as a whole. The divines, like all ministers and elders, did not have direct access to a man’s heart (as does God) and so they could only judge character and competence by what these men and others said about them and their character and learning.

The examination of a candidate for ministry or if already ordained, for installation in a new charge, began with the presentation of letters of testimony. These would address the man’s piety and overall character. The candidate would be further questioned about his Christian profession. Then the examination of learning involved demonstration of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and answering a plethora of questions on theology, exegesis, church history, and philosophy as well as the preaching of a sermon before the whole assembly. Present day Presbyterian and Reformed churches pretty much follow this same process. Candidates and credentials committees are concerned with character and competence and their interpenetration. Piety and learning are mutually reinforcing. Note well that character and competence come together in pastoral care which requires supernatural wisdom and patience. Piety and learning needs to express itself in a pastoral heart and sensitivity. This makes perfect sense since pastors are under-shepherds of the Good Shepherd or Chief Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, Jesus Christ.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Irenaeus – Loved by the Reformers, Still Refreshing Today

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it’s good to travel back about 1400 earlier, when a concerned pastor and missionary to today’s France sat down to write a well-informed and comprehensive work, in order to provide some clarity in his confused theological times.

Early Life and Studies

            Irenaeus’s life is hard to trace. Most scholars agree that he was born around the year 130, probably in Smyrna (today’s Izmir, Turkey), where he studied under Polycarp. In fact, the first time we can actually picture him in action is when he sat under Polycarp’s teaching, taking notes but especially committing the teacher’s words to memory, as writing tablets could easily be ruined.

            Little more than a century had passed from Christ’s ascension to his Father. All the apostles had died, and the churches they had left behind were still trying to consolidate their doctrines and practices in the middle of a proliferation of contrasting claims of Christian truth. At times, these claims sounded so outrageous that Polycarp had to cry, “O good God, for what times have you kept me, that I should endure these things?”

            Polycarp was in Rome in the year 154, where he discussed some pressing matters with bishop Anicetus. The main point of discussion was the date of Easter. The churches in the East (where Polycarp lived) celebrated Easter on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan (which corresponded to the Jewish Passover), while the churches in the West chose to celebrate it on a Sunday, since Jesus rose from the death on that day.

            Irenaeus might have been in Rome at the same time, whether alone or as Polycarp’s companion. In any case, the final decision between Polycarp and Anicetus to “agree to disagree” taught him the importance of keeping the unity of the church in matters of faith and allowing differences in what the stoics called adiaphora and the Reformed tradition calls “things indifferent” (matters which are inconsequential to the essence of faith). In fact, Irenaeus clung to this principle later in life, when a new bishop of Rome, Victor, demanded that all Christian churches celebrate Easter on a Sunday.

            In Rome, Irenaeus came certainly in contact with Justin Martyr and other Christian apologists. He also spent time listening to dissenting voices, especially the Valentinians, a widespread community with a complicated system of beliefs. Today grouped under the general name of Gnostics, the Valentinians claimed to possess a higher knowledge that Jesus had imparted in secret to a select number of people.

            Another popular voice in Rome was that of Marcion and his followers, who had solved the theological problem of evil by stating that there are two opposing gods: a lesser god who is the creator introduced in the Old Testament, and a higher god who is the New Testament savior.

Practical Theology

            Whatever the nature of Irenaeus’s studies in Rome, his theology provided practical answers in 176, when he was called to pastor the church in Lyon, the capital of Gaul (today’s France). About a year after his arrival, the church suffered one of the worst persecutions at that time, which was well documented in a letter written to the churches in Asia. Apparently, Irenaeus escaped the persecution, maybe because he was travelling to Rome to deliver a letter to bishop Eleutherus. In any case, he was left with the difficult task of strengthening and encouraging the Christians who were still alive and had suffered such a tragic loss.

            It was not time for confused teachings. His aching church needed a robust theology, and Irenaeus provided one in both his pastoral work and his writings, exposing the errors of the Gnostics against the background of what Jude calls “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

            Sorting out the teachings of the Gnostics was an exhausting and enervating task, prompting Irenaeus to respond with the typical cries of Greek tragedies: Iou, Iou! Pheu, Pheu! He had to have, as Erasmus later commented, patient stomachi (a tolerant digestive system). Nevertheless, he persisted, for the sake of the church and also out of concern for the Gnostics, whom he loved “better than they seem to love themselves.”[1]

Irenaeus and the Reformation

            Erasmus, who edited and published the first printed edition of Irenaeus in 1526, referred to the author as “my Irenaeus.”[2] He was especially impressed by the theologian’s priscum vigorem (early vigor), a dynamism he found missing in the church of his time. Irenaeus, in fact, communicated with passion and freshness the beauty of the gospel and the Christian faith, a passion and freshness that are still standing out today. Around the end of his introduction, Erasmus prayed that God could raise some new Irenaeuses who, according to the meaning of the name (“peacemaker”), could restore peace to this world.

            Erasmus was not the only representative of the 16th century who rediscovered with joy the writings of Irenaeus. Most of the Protestant Reformers studied with zeal his writings, as well as those of other Fathers of the Church. While he was not extensively quoted, his influence was evident in Reformed doctrines, including his above-mentioned defense of freedom in “things indifferent” (a major concern in the Reformation).

            Against a background of medieval mysticism, Calvin’s emphasis on the balance provided by Deuteronomy 29:29 (“Let us then learn to make no searchings respecting the Lord, except as far as he has revealed himself in the Scriptures; for otherwise we shall enter a labyrinth, from which the retreat is not easy”[3]) echoes Irenaeus’s exhortation: “If … we cannot discover explanations of all those things in Scripture which are made the subject of investigation, yet let us not on that account seek after any other God besides Him who really exists.”[4]

            Some take this and other similar quotations to say that Irenaeus stood for Sola Scriptura. While it’s always risky to use later labels for earlier writings, Irenaeus’s emphasis on the purity of Scriptures as they had been passed down by the apostles and the predominance of biblical references in his refutation of the Gnostics speak volumes for his high regard of Scriptures as primary authority, which were summed up in the “rule of faith” confessed by Christian churches all over the then known world.

            Besides, his emphasis on the Bible as a united story (which must be understood in relation to Christ) and his view of Christianity as a historical and material faith goes well in step with the Reformation, after years of confused reading of Scriptures, mysticism and neo-platonism.

            Another theme that is prevalent both in Irenaeus and the Reformers is what Luther called a theology of the cross – a view of suffering (for Irenaeus, specifically martyrdom) as a participation in Christ’s path from cross to glory and as ultimate expression of love.

            Overall, as Westminster Seminary California graduate Nate Milne recently reminded me, the writings of the Church Fathers played an important role in the Reformation in what they didn’t say. “The Reformers noted what was absent: the claims of the bishop of Rome to be the vicar of Christ and the head of the Church, purgatory, indulgences, the five additional sacraments, the withholding of the cup from the laity, the restriction of the Bible to monks and priests, the role of bishops as administrators instead of pastors, the use of an unknown language for worship, and so on.”

            Some of these are particularly evident in Irenaeus, who had no qualms correcting, together with other bishops, Rome’s bishop Victor on his imposition of a date of Easter. He also readily used the local language in his preaching and, as his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching shows, he taught his congregants the Bible (two practices which were largely lost in the medieval church).

Irenaeus Today

            Today’s Christianity has some uncanny resemblances both with the second century (in its doctrinal uncertainties and the position of the church as misunderstood minority in a pagan world) and with the mystic and neo-platonic Middle Ages. In this context, Irenaeus’s voice is as refreshing, energetic, and crisp as it was for Erasmus and the Reformers. His style is simple, clear and even humorous at times, including a great number of vivid and captivating illustrations. What’s more, his tone is deeply pastoral and cheerful, even in the middle of the dire challenges the church of his day had to face, looking not only to the joys of the world to come, but appreciating the beauty and wonders of the created world, which are for Irenaeus an expression of the goodness and love of God.


[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.28.2, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103228.htm (cfr. Calvin, “Let us then learn to make no searchings respecting the Lord, except as far as he has revealed himself in the Scriptures; for otherwise we shall enter a labyrinth, from which the retreat is not easy,” Calvin’s Commentaries, Romans 11:33, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom38.xv.viii.html.

Westminster & Ordination Podcast

This week on Theology on the Go, Dr. Jonathan Master is joined by Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn.   Dr. VanDixhoorn is Associate Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington D.C..  He is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM) and the University of Cambridge (PhD). He has taught theology at the University of Nottingham, and has held three fellowships at the University of Cambridge, where he has researched the history and theology of the Westminster assembly and taught on the subject of Puritanism.

A former British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, in 2013 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in recognition of his five-volume work on the Westminster assembly, published by Oxford University Press. Van Dixhoorn also serves as an honorary research fellow in the School of History at the University of East Anglia, UK.

Van Dixhoorn has lectured at RTS Washington since 2008 where he teaches church history and practical theology. He has served as Associate Professor of Church history at RTS Washington since 2013, as Chancellor’s Professor of Historical Theology for RTS since 2015, and he is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Van Dixhoorn served as a pastor at Cambridge Presbyterian Church (UK) and then at Grace Presbyterian Church (Vienna, VA) for nine years.

Today, Jonathan and Chad will the topic of Ordination as it relates to Chad’s new book, God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643-1653.

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

Just for listening, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals would like to give you a free resource. If you would like to win a copy of ” God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643-1653“, go to ReformedResources.org!

Westminster & Preaching: The Work of Preaching

The work of the Westminster Assembly (1643-1653) in London, England involved the furtherance of the gains of the Protestant Reformation in the domains of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Called by Parliament amidst a civil war between parliament and the king (Charles I), the Westminster Assembly was initially given the job of revising the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles before it was assigned the more demanding work of creating a Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, a directory for church government, a directory of public worship (with a subdirectory on preaching), and a directory for ordination. What may be less well known is that while the assembly was technically not a church court, but a parliamentary advisory committee of sorts, it did conduct business that usually falls to church courts within the Presbyterian form of church government.

Today we possess a wealth of books and articles on the Westminster Assembly and its historical and theological context, and have unparalleled access to the primary sources upon which so many helpful contemporary studies are based. We suffer from an embarrassment of riches. Recently, Chad Van Dixhoorn has produced a fascinating historical study of the Assembly and the its overhaul of the training of ministers and the ministry of preaching. His God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643-1753 is worth its weight in gold. The same can be said of his many other contributions to our understanding of the background of and the texts produced by the Westminster Assembly, including his five-volume minutes of the assembly.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects to the practice of pastoral ministry in seventeenth-century England was its failure to properly emphasize the preaching ministry of the clergy. The Church of England in this day basically maintained the traditions of the Middle Ages in making the administration of the sacraments the heart of pastoral ministry rather than the reading and proclamation of the Word of God. We may sum up the focus of Anglican ministry in that day and age as sacerdotal. That is, the regular day in and day out work of the pastor was centered on the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To say this is sacerdotal is to note that the observance of these ordinances did not ordinarily involve their subordination to the Word of God. This subordination of the sacraments to the Word is manifest in the biblical explanation typically offered before the observance of these rites in Presbyterian and Reformed churches of various sorts. Additionally, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper would involve the so-called fencing off the table from unworthy participants. That is, the Lord’s Supper is for those who have professed faith in Christ and the intent to follow his Word in all things. This is one practical form that the subordination of the sacraments to the Word of God takes. To put it another way, the Word alone (as used by the Holy Spirit) is involved in the creation of faith whereas the sacraments are used to strengthen faith.

Additionally, it should be noted that in the Church of England at the time to be ordained to the clerical ministry did not give one the right to preach God’s Word. Preaching required a further or different license from the local bishop. Not all ministers were given licenses to preach and some who were given such licenses were not ordained ministers. The church separated what ought never to be separated: the Word and sacraments. Both are ordained by God for his people, to build them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Among other things, the Westminster Assembly made sure that preaching was put front and center in corporate public worship. This was how it was in the early church, and this was how it would be once again. The Word would now be systematically read aloud and explained in worship in ways it had never been before, at least not kingdom wide in the UK. The Scriptures were to be read and exposited according to their sensus literalis or literary sense. This included recognizing types and shadows in the Old Testament pointing forward to the person and work of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Preaching was to be Christ-centered and expositional. These were great improvements indeed.

As the Lord’s providence would have it, the efforts of the Westminster Assembly failed to take hold in their initial English context. The interregnum would pass away and the crown would return as would prelacy to the church. However, the reformation of preaching and theology which the texts produced by the Westminster Assembly represent did not go the way of all flesh. God raised up churches in Scotland, Ireland, the American colonies and elsewhere wherever Presbyterian planted itself. There the Word of God was preeminent and its proclamation paramount. The Reformation began in Wittenberg, but it was furthered in London and continues this day wherever the Word of God is heard and obeyed, especially in those churches which conscientiously hold to the Westminster Standards or similar Reformed confessional documents.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Westminster & Preaching: Preparation & Hearing

The Puritan movement was known firstly as a resurgence of biblical of preaching; its focus was upon the right preaching of God’s word which would transform and revive not only the Church but also the nation, and if the Lord so willed, also the world! As Dr. Irvonwy Morgan understood it, “the essential thing in understanding the Puritans was that they were preachers before they were anything else…. Into whatever efforts they were led in their attempts to reform the world through the Church, and however these efforts were frustrated by the leaders of the Church, what bound them together, undergirded their striving, and gave them the dynamic to persist was their consciousness that they were called to preach the Gospel.”[1]

If William Perkins is regarded as the Father of Puritan preaching with his publishing of The Art of Prophesying, a book which planted the seeds of Biblical exposition in the Puritan psyche, then it may also be said that the Westminster Assembly was the flowering of that seed. Indeed, in the Assembly’s outlining of what proper preaching ought to look like, it was to William Perkins where they found their model.[2]  The emphasis which both Perkins and the Assembly aimed to establish was that the preaching ought always be centered upon and grounded in the Word.

Hence Perkins claimed, “The Word of God alone is to be preached, in its perfection and inner consistency. Scripture is the exclusive subject of preaching, the only field in which the preacher is to labor.”[3] It was from this that the Westminster Divines wrote that “the subject of [a preacher’s] sermon is to be some text of Scripture… he may go on in some chapter, psalm, or book of the holy Scripture, as he shall see fit.”[4]  In fact, they go on to advise that when applying or bringing about any doctrine in their sermons, preachers are to make sure “it be a truth contained in or grounded on that text, that the hearers may discern how God teacheth it from thence… The doctrine is to be expressed in plain terms… it is to be opened, and the consequence also from the text cleared.”[5]

For the Puritans, and the Westminster Assembly especially, preaching was only right preaching when the text was central; for the responsible preacher, the Scripture passage was to guide the sermon, not allowing his sermon to mold the Scripture or to go beyond what the text was saying. William Gouge, an Assembly member himself, noted that preachers must “ground what they preach upon the Scripture, and deliver nothing but what is agreeable thereunto, preach the word of God… So close ought ministers to hold to God’s word in their preaching, as not to dare to swerve in anything from it.”[6]

Chad Van Dixhoorn helpfully reminds us that for the Puritans, the right preaching of God’s was to be heard as God’s word! This is startling to modern ears, but Van Dixhoorn notes that “older theologians believed that the preached Word was the Word of God only derivatively and only when it faithfully expounded the inscripturated Word.” He goes on to quote Jeremiah Burroughs who exclaimed that “when you come to sermons to hear the Word of God, O labor to keep your hearts in a constant trembling frame, and the Word that you do now tremble at will forever hereafter comfort your heart.” [7]

The Westminster divines defended their high estimation of preaching from passages like, 1 Thessalonians 2:13 wherein the Apostle Paul explains that when he and his fellow workers in the ministry preached, their hearers heard their sermons “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” It was out of this understanding that Jeremiah Burroughs could advise his hearers that “many times you will say, ‘Come, let us go hear such a man preach.’ Oh no, let us go hear Christ preach, for as it doth concern the ministers of God that they preach not themselves, but that Christ should preach in them, so it concerns you that hear, not to come to hear this man or that man, but to come to hear Jesus Christ.”[8]  In another setting though, Burroughs reminds us with balance that “it is not the means that works, but God in the means.”[9]

This is why the Assembly can advise in The Directory for the Publick Worship of God that a preacher must be “as taught of God, and persuaded in his own heart, that all that he teacheth is the truth of Christ… So shall the doctrine of truth be preserved uncorrupt, many souls converted and built up, and himself receive manifold comforts of his labours even in this life, and afterward the crown of glory laid up for him in the world to come.”[10]

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] Irvonwy Morgan, The Godly Preachers of the Elizabethan Church (Epworth Press: London, 1965), p 11. I found this quote through J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway Books: Wheaton, 1990), p 37.

[2] Richard A. Muller and Rowland S. Ward, Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation & The Directory For Worship (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, 2007), p 126.

[3] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Banner of Truth: Edinburgh, 1996), p 9.

[4] “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God” in the Westminster Confession of Faith (Free Presbyterian Publications: Glasgow, 2009), p 379.

[5] ibid. p 379.

[6] Gouge, Hebrewes, part 4, p. 76 (Sec. 98), as seen in Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643-1653 (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, 2017), p 122.

[7] Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643-1653 (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, 2017), p 124.

[8] ibid. p 125.

[9] Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel-Fear, 91 as seen in Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors, p 166.

[10] “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God” in the Westminster Confession of Faith (Free Presbyterian Publications: Glasgow, 2009), p 381.

Louise de Coligny – a Courageous Woman in Troubled Times

On August 22, 1572, while Paris was lingering in the celebrating mood after the wedding between Henry, King of Navarre, and Marguerite de Valois, sister of King Charles IX of France, 16-year old Louise de Coligny received some terrible news. Her father Gaspard had been shot. Thankfully, he was still alive, saved by the providential decision to bend down just as the gun was fired. The bullet only reached his left arm, tearing a finger off his hand and shattering his elbow.

            Any sense of relief she may have felt vanished quickly, as a search for the culprit was accompanied by fierce accusations and a dangerous thirst for vendetta. Whatever unity the wedding of a protestant king and a catholic princess might have represented was too artificial and fragile to survive this attack against one of the most influential Huguenot leaders.

            Most of the blame fell on the Catholic family of Guise. After all, the shot came from their house, where the guards found a smoking gun. Immediately, the Huguenots demanded justice. Gaspard’s brother-in-law went as far as gather a 4,000-men army outside of Paris. Feeling threatened, the Catholic leaders pressured King Charles and his mother Catherine de Medici, former Queen regent and still a powerful force behind the throne, to resolve the situation.

            No information about the meetings that ensued in the royal gardens has survived. Generally, Charles and his mother have been blamed for ordering a reprisal against the Protestant threats, but there is no certainty.

            In any case, it was the people who carried out the blow with the greatest fury, unleashing the anger, hatred, and fear that had been brewing for decades, while the Huguenots (though still a minority) had occupied more and more positions of influence in France.

            What followed was one of the most atrocious massacres in France, a spontaneous, unanimous attack that killed approximately 10,000 Huguenots – 2-3,000 in Paris alone. Gaspard de Coligny didn’t escape the fury. A group led by the Guise stormed into his room, pierced him with a sword, threw him off the window and decapitated him. Louise’s husband, Charles de Teligny, was also killed. The couple had been married for just over a year.

Fugitive, Ruler, Mother, and Correspondent

Shocked and frightened, Louise escaped by finding refuge first at Montargis, in the castle of Renée of France, who had also fled the scene, then in Switzerland. She returned to France only in 1576, after King Henry III, who had succeeded his brother Charles IX, proclaimed an edict of temporary amnesty for Huguenots – the Edict of Beaulieu. Louise spent the next seven years at Lierville, a property she had inherited from her husband.

            It was there that, in the spring of 1583, she received a proposal of marriage by William of Orange (also known as William the Silent), the Stadtholder of the Seven United Provinces (future Netherlands). She accepted. William, who had been the main leader of the Dutch wars of independence from the Spanish, was 22 years older than Louise, and had been married three times before. William and Louise had a happy marriage and rejoiced at the birth of their son, Henry Frederick. Louise also mothered some of William’s older children. In July 1584, however, their union ended in tragedy when William was killed by a Spanish sympathizer.

            Louise continued her tasks as mother, especially to her stepdaughters and her infant son. She also endeavored to restore the kingdom’s finances, which had been depleted by William’s numerous war expenses. Her diplomatic skills were evident, for example, in her negotiations between Henry of Navarre, who became King of France in 1594 (under the name of Henry IV) and her stepson Maurice, who had taken his father’s place as Stadtholder.

            William’s death reopened the hostilities between the United Provinces and Spain, with Maurice taking the most radical stance. In 1598, after Henry IV, who had converted to Catholicism for political reasons, proclaimed the Edict of Nantes, giving freedom of worship to the Huguenots, Louise returned to France. Her country, however, was no longer the same. Many of the surviving Huguenots had recanted their religion, turning France into a solid catholic state. In spite of her friendship with the king, Louise was vilified by his catholic courtiers and had to retire again in her territories at Lierville. She died in 1620 at Fontainblue, guest of the elderly Queen Maria de Medici.

            Louise’s life followed one of the most troubled times in European history – from the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Massacre to the creation of a new nation, the Netherlands, until the beginning of the Thirty-Years War. The 193 letters which have survived from her abundant correspondence (there were thousands of them, in her estimation) are punctuated by prayers and praises to God and charged with both a keen understanding of the political situation of her times and an overall trust in God’s providence and mercy.

Christ’s Public Defender

Out of all the names given to the Holy Spirit as he is revealed in Holy Scripture, few are more profound or precious than the ‘Paraclete’ (Jn 14.16). This designation has at one and the same time intrigued, but also excited Christians everywhere as they try to peer into the depths not only of what this means regarding the Spirit’s identity, but also how it is manifested through his ministry.

Different versions of the Bible offer various translations in an effort to capture the essence of what it means. They range from ‘Comforter’ (KJV), to ‘Counsellor’ (RSV, NIV, NLT), to ‘Advocate’ (NEB), to ‘Helper’ (NASB, ESV) and often, when being cited in extra-biblical literature, it is simply transliterated from the original as, ‘Paraclete’ [parakletos: Gk).

Some theologians, such as Sinclair Ferguson, unpack the concept bound up with this word in light of its original usage. Namely, that in the ancient Near East, when someone was called to stand before a court of law to defend themselves, they were entitled to have someone stand with them and act in their behalf. If such a person could afford formal legal representation, they could employ a suitably qualified professional; but if this was beyond their means, they could simply bring their ‘best friend’. So, as Dr Ferguson points out in relation to the way Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit to his disciples in the Upper Room – notably by describing him as ‘another Counsellor’ – he was reassuring his followers of two things. The first, that just as he, Jesus, had been the disciples’ best friend over the past three years, but was now about to depart, so the Holy Spirit would fulfil that role for them after Jesus’ return to glory. But the second implication bound up with Jesus’ choice of words at this point was the fact that since the Holy Spirit had in a profound sense been Jesus’ ‘Best Friend’ from the moment of his conception in the Virgin’s womb, and would be right though to his exaltation, our Lord was providing his faithful followers with the best friend imaginable.

Herman Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, sheds further light on the significance of the Spirit’s being ‘Paraclete’ by rendering it, ‘Christ’s public defender’.[1] He provides the backdrop to this designation by saying, ‘The whole world is hostile to Christ; no one stands by him’.[2] Made all the more graphic, given the imminence of Gethsemane and the appearances Jesus would make before the Jews, Pilate and Herod – alone in the face of the hostile mob bent on settling for nothing less than his execution.

Interestingly, Bavinck opts for this rendition in the chapter ‘Faith and its Ground’ in relation to God’s word in Scripture’s being the ground of faith. In other words, the fact that ‘God has said it’ is the strongest warrant for believing that faith in Christ will never be futile.

He points primarily to the way God’s revelation in the Bible in its totality is the Spirit’s public and objective testimony to Jesus’ being God’s promised Christ. ‘Scripture is the witness, the defender’s public address on behalf of Christ, which he voices and maintains throughout all the ages’.[3]

Bavinck goes on to show how the same Holy Spirit who has provided the objective witness to Christ in God’s special revelation in the Bible, uses this once-for-all revelation to bear witness subjectively in the hearts of believers. Christ as the heart of God’s saving revelation in the gospel is not merely presented as the One we are called to trust for salvation; he is confirmed to us as the One who alone is able to save on the authority of God’s own word.

There are several layers of significance in this great truth. On the one hand it reminds us of the role of Scripture in the Spirit’s work of giving assurance of faith and salvation to believers. Too often, the idea of the Spirit’s bearing witness with our spirit as Christians (Ro 8.16), has been seen as something mystical. But that is to miss the point of what lies at the heart of witness bearing. By definition this can never be reduced to subjective feeling. A judge and jury are not interested in how a person may feel about an incident about which they are called to testify. They want to hear objective facts of what was seen and heard. So too with the Spirit’s testimony in the hearts of those who have put their trust in Christ for salvation. His concern is not to massage their feelings, but to point them to what God has done through Christ and promised in the gospel to make salvation a reality. And he bears this testimony by bringing God’s children back to God’s holy word.

The other major facet to the witness borne by the Spirit in his ministry to the people of God is apologetic. That it, just as he acted as Christ’s public defender when Christ literally stood alone in the succession of trials he faced, so he acts in the same way for Christians everywhere who so often feel beleaguered and alone in the face of an anti-God and anti-Christian world. The Christian message has never been drowned out by the decibels of its opponents’ efforts to shout it down. Because the louder they shout, the clearer God’s voice is heard and the calm credibility of his message is plain for all to see.

This ties in with the Holy Spirit’s wider ministry in the world that Jesus explains in the Upper Room.

When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned (Jn 16.8-11)

Although it is right to see this in relation to the regenerating, convicting and converting work of the Spirit in salvation, there is also a non-salvific aspect to this work in all humanity. Paul’s assertion that the reason God’s wrath is continually being revealed in this present age is because those against whom it is revealed wilfully and persistently ‘suppress the truth in unrighteousness’ (Ro 1.18). They cannot deny the truth that stares them in the face – through God’s general revelation as much as through his special revelation in Scripture – but they refuse to bow to its veracity. And the Holy Spirit, acting as Christ’s public defender, will prosecute the case for Christ against them all the way to the Final Judgement.

There are many times when Christians throughout history have felt the pain of being wrongfully accused by a hostile world. More than that, they have experienced the awful sense of isolation of belonging to a small, despised and often persecuted minority. And their faith may waver. But the same Spirit who, as both Best Friend and Public Defender, stood by Jesus not only to the end, but also through it to his final vindication will stand by us as well. And just as he upheld our Lord through the ministry of the word in those darkest hours, so with the same word he will minister God’s comfort and assurance to his children as well.


[1]  Bavinck, H., Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1 (Baker Academic; Grand Rapids, MI) 2003 p. 588

Louise de Coligny – a Courageous Woman in Trouble Times

On August 22, 1572, while Paris was lingering in the celebrating mood after the wedding between Henry, King of Navarre, and Marguerite de Valois, sister of King Charles IX of France, 16-year old Louise de Coligny received some terrible news. Her father Gaspard had been shot. Thankfully, he was still alive, saved by the providential decision to bend down just as the gun was fired. The bullet only reached his left arm, tearing a finger off his hand and shattering his elbow.

            Any sense of relief she may have felt vanished quickly, as a search for the culprit was accompanied by fierce accusations and a dangerous thirst for vendetta. Whatever unity the wedding of a protestant king and a catholic princess might have represented was too artificial and fragile to survive this attack against one of the most influential Huguenot leaders.

            Most of the blame fell on the Catholic family of Guise. After all, the shot came from their house, where the guards found a smoking gun. Immediately, the Huguenots demanded justice. Gaspard’s brother-in-law went as far as gather a 4,000-men army outside of Paris. Feeling threatened, the Catholic leaders pressured King Charles and his mother Catherine de Medici, former Queen regent and still a powerful force behind the throne, to resolve the situation.

            No information about the meetings that ensued in the royal gardens has survived. Generally, Charles and his mother have been blamed for ordering a reprisal against the Protestant threats, but there is no certainty.

            In any case, it was the people who carried out the blow with the greatest fury, unleashing the anger, hatred, and fear that had been brewing for decades, while the Huguenots (though still a minority) had occupied more and more positions of influence in France.

            What followed was one of the most atrocious massacres in France, a spontaneous, unanimous attack that killed approximately 10,000 Huguenots – 2-3,000 in Paris alone. Gaspard de Coligny didn’t escape the fury. A group led by the Guise stormed into his room, pierced him with a sword, threw him off the window and decapitated him. Louise’s husband, Charles de Teligny, was also killed. The couple had been married for just over a year.

Fugitive, Ruler, Mother, and Correspondent

Shocked and frightened, Louise escaped by finding refuge first at Montargis, in the castle of Renée of France, who had also fled the scene, then in Switzerland. She returned to France only in 1576, after King Henry III, who had succeeded his brother Charles IX, proclaimed an edict of temporary amnesty for Huguenots – the Edict of Beaulieu. Louise spent the next seven years at Lierville, a property she had inherited from her husband.

            It was there that, in the spring of 1583, she received a proposal of marriage by William of Orange (also known as William the Silent), the Stadtholder of the Seven United Provinces (future Netherlands). She accepted. William, who had been the main leader of the Dutch wars of independence from the Spanish, was 22 years older than Louise, and had been married three times before. William and Louise had a happy marriage and rejoiced at the birth of their son, Henry Frederick. Louise also mothered some of William’s older children. In July 1584, however, their union ended in tragedy when William was killed by a Spanish sympathizer.

            Louise continued her tasks as mother, especially to her stepdaughters and her infant son. She also endeavored to restore the kingdom’s finances, which had been depleted by William’s numerous war expenses. Her diplomatic skills were evident, for example, in her negotiations between Henry of Navarre, who became King of France in 1594 (under the name of Henry IV) and her stepson Maurice, who had taken his father’s place as Stadtholder.

            William’s death reopened the hostilities between the United Provinces and Spain, with Maurice taking the most radical stance. In 1598, after Henry IV, who had converted to Catholicism for political reasons, proclaimed the Edict of Nantes, giving freedom of worship to the Huguenots, Louise returned to France. Her country, however, was no longer the same. Many of the surviving Huguenots had recanted their religion, turning France into a solid catholic state. In spite of her friendship with the king, Louise was vilified by his catholic courtiers and had to retire again in her territories at Lierville. She died in 1620 at Fontainblue, guest of the elderly Queen Maria de Medici.

            Louise’s life followed one of the most troubled times in European history – from the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Massacre to the creation of a new nation, the Netherlands, until the beginning of the Thirty-Years War. The 193 letters which have survived from her abundant correspondence (there were thousands of them, in her estimation) are punctuated by prayers and praises to God and charged with both a keen understanding of the political situation of her times and an overall trust in God’s providence and mercy.