A Healthy Church: A Family that Eats Together…

A Healthy Church: A Family that Eats Together…

One of the more visible repercussions of the Protestant Reformation was a reconfiguration of the furniture found within local churches. Throughout the Medieval period it was the Table of the Eucharist that sat center-stage, the literal and liturgical focal point of the Roman Catholic Mass. It was there in the bread and cup where Christ was offered and found, ex opere operato. In fact, the more masses held, the more one could benefit from Christ’s merits. But due to the Reformer’s recovery of the Gospel, the word became central again. It was there in God’s living and active word where Christ was found, and we could be found in Christ by responding to His word through faith, alone! Thus the pulpit now took center stage and the sermon, centered on the person of Christ, became the central event of a church’s worship.

The Reformers though still held the sacraments in high regard. They of course reduced the number from Rome’s seven to a more biblical two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.[1] To the Reformers, these two sacraments joined the right preaching of God’s Word and Church Discipline as forming the three marks of a true church. Thus John Bradford (martyred July 1st, 1555):

“If, I say, we behold the face of the popish church, Lord, how it glistereth, and gorgeous it is in comparison of Christ’s true church! which is discerned in these days but by the word of God truly preached, the sacraments purely ministered, and some discipline…”[2]

Or again, Nicholas Ridley (martyred October 16th, 1555):

“The marks whereby this church is known unto men in this dark world, and in the midst of this crooked generation, are these: the sincere preaching of God’s holy word, the due administration of the sacraments, charity, and faithful observing of ecclesiastical discipline, according to the word of God.”[3]

Thus, for the Reformers, the sacraments were a central component to being a biblical church. And if they rightly returned the pulpit to being the central piece of furniture in their liturgy, they only slightly moved the table. Sadly in many evangelical churches today, the sacraments are nowhere to be found! There are no tables any more.[4]

Why are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper so essential to being a true, biblical church? Well, firstly because it is biblical – Christ has commanded it!  (Matthew 28:19-20 and Mark 14:22-25).[5]  And since it is his church, the worship and boundaries of the church are set and delineated by him. The church must obey. And that is exactly what we see in the early church: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:41-42).

It is precisely here, in how Christ has delineated the boundaries of the church, where we see the wisdom of Christ in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism, the outward and visible sign of the inward reality of dying with Christ and being raised to new life in Christ,[6] is also the church’s public affirmation of that reality.[7] The baptized person is passively baptized by the church and thus counted by the church to now be a fellow member in Christ’s covenant community, a member of Christ’s body.

Here then is the front door entrance into the church, a door that is opened and closed by the church (Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18-20; John 20:23).  Likewise, church discipline is the church’s backdoor which is opened for those who, by a lack of repentance, are evidencing themselves to be unbelievers and not in submission to Christ.

Moving from the blueprints of the church’s front door (Baptism) and back door (church discipline), we can now look at that essential piece of furniture, the Table. What blessing awaits those who walk through the front door of Baptism? Well, if Baptism is the means of grace by which a person is brought once and only once into the church, then the Lord’s Supper is that means of grace by which church members continually identify with and find nourishment in Christ. It is a spiritual feeding upon Christ by faith, signifying the believers union with Christ as well as with the church body.

The Christian is not only looking back to what Christ accomplished in his death, his broken body and shed blood, but Jesus is also clear that the Eucharist looks forward to that final banquet in glory when the Bride shall be fully and finally united with her Bridegroom. It is a worshipful declaration of who we are in Christ the Lamb and who we will be in Christ the coming Lion. This is why the Table is restricted to those who are in submission to Christ; it is Christ’s communion now with his own. Hence again the back door of church discipline often being referred to as excommunication, a cutting off from the Communion Table.

Here we see then the blueprint and essential furniture of Christ’s Church – the delineated boundaries of the church set by Baptism and Church Discipline and the two central pieces of furniture, the Pulpit and the Table. The Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are those special means of grace by which a person is once brought into communion and then continually enjoys communion. And by faith all is centered on the glorious person of Jesus Christ, the church’s Head, her Bridegroom, her King and Savior.

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] “As far as anyone knows, [Peter] Lombard invented this number. Seven was often used for holy things, and it represented the perfection of God’s gifts, just as the seven-day week represented the perfection of his creation.” Gerald Bray, “Late-Medieval Theology” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2017), p.68.

[2] Found in The Reformation of the Church: A collection of Reformed and Puritan documents on Church issues, edited by Iain H. Murray (Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), p. 17.

[3] ibid. p. 19.

[4] Sadly, neither is the pulpit. There must certainly be some connection in the disappearance of actual pulpits in many churches and the demise of biblical, expositional preaching. Instead of pulpits we see stools and instead of preachers we find comedians or self-help life coaches.

[5] See also Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-13,16; 8:36,38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 11:14; 16:15, 30-33; 18:8 for Baptism and Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:14:-20; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11; 27:35 for the Lord’s Supper.

[6] We must also note that historically most reformed Protestants have agreed that there really is grace administered through Baptism (and the Lord’s Supper); that it is not merely an outward sign. ”It is, in short, the mystery of the Spirit of God, promised to dwell in the church, and making every ordinance of the Church, whether sacramental or not, the channel for the conveyance of supernatural grace. If we would rid ourselves of this mystery, we can only do so by denying that the Spirit is present in ordinances at all.” James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), p. 511.

[7] I am not dealing here with those distinctions made between Presbyterian and Baptist churches on the nature of the visible and invisible church, nor the covenantal continuity or discontinuity between old and new covenants, nor the distinction made by Presbyterian churches on a formal versus a vital union with Christ. All agree though that there are unregenerate people who apart of the church. If they bear the fruit of being spiritually dead through seen unrepentance, than again all agree, proper church discipline – the back door of the church, should be administered.

A Healthy Church: A Disciplined People

The term discipline is an elastic term. We can speak of the discipline of a particular subject, activity or skill, such as the discipline of music, or running, or brick laying. Still further we can speak of discipline in terms of consequences brought for bad behavior, and for the purpose of trying to change that behavior. It is likely in this latter sense that many think of church discipline. Yet we need to understand that because of what the gospel of the Lord Jesus is, church discipline should be thought of, first and foremost, in the first sense mentioned before it is thought of in this second sense.

The gospel of the Lord Jesus is, through the power of the Holy Spirit; it the presence and power of God’s new and eternal life, the life of repentance from sin and faith in Jesus. Thus, the Christian life is a discipline. This is why true Christians are regarded as Jesus’ disciples and Christian evangelism is the making of disciples of Jesus. To be Jesus’ disciple means one submits to the discipline of being a part of Jesus’ covenant community.

Disciples of the Lord Jesus are made as they receive his word by the power of his Spirit for the removal of sin so that they might be God’s holy people obeying his commands and glorifying and enjoying him forever. When Moses spoke to the Old Covenant Community of God’s people to recount God’s law to them, he declared that God had rescued them from Egyptian enslavement, and formed them as a community in order that they might know that Yahweh alone is God. “Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire” (Deut. 4:36, italics mine). All this was because God chose to love their forefathers in such a way that he would reveal himself to them and their offspring by rescuing them from the sinful way of Egyptian life by his great presence and power (Deut. 4:37-38). All this was a physical demonstration and application of the spiritual reality of salvation.

In other words, the biblical doctrine of salvation does not teach us that every individual Christian is on his or her own private journey. Salvation in and through the Lord Jesus is not rightly defined and determined merely by our personal perceptions of our feelings and thoughts. Just because someone may feel very strongly that they are correct in their convictions does not make their convictions correct. Our freedom in Christ is not a license for us to declare what is true for us.

On the other hand, the biblical doctrine of salvation does not teach us that the leaders of God’s church are possessed with an authority that allows a smaller network of people to dictate what does and does not happen in the church. As it turns out an individualistic licentiousness can morph into a communalistic legalism; same sin just a different demonstration of it. Just as Korah, Dathan and Abiram challenged and undermined Moses and Aaron and their legitimate God-given and defined authority (Numbers 16), so too Moses and Aaron were capable of misunderstanding their role and abusing the authority God had given them (Exodus 2:11-14; 4:1-26; 32:1-24). No one among God’s covenant people is without sin.

So, the discipline that God brings or applies to and within his covenant community so that it is freed from sin takes place through the ministry of God’s word by his Spirit, but it is never administered perfectly, or without sin by the ones ministering it. This is not, however, an excuse for sin. Far from it. It is, in fact, cause for all who claim the Lord Jesus as their Savior from sin to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ and to submit to the discipline of God’s word (Eph. 4:1-5:32; Hebrews 12:1-17).

The discipline of the Christian faith and life means all God’s people work out their salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who is at work in his people both to will and work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13). It means that those who claim to have new life in Christ will demonstrate their love for their King by obeying his commandments (John 14:15). They will strive together as a community for the sake of the gospel (Phil. 1:27)—not their pet hobby horses, or the hot political or social goal of their culture—but what has formed and defined God’s people throughout every generation of the church—the reception of God’s word by God’s Spirit for the glory of the Triune God.        

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield’s Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.   

A Healthy Church: A Praying Church

It is said that a visitor to C.H. Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle once asked Spurgeon to tell him the key to his ministry’s great success. In answer, the famous preacher took the visitor to a basement room where a group of church members bowed in intercessory prayer. “Here,” he explained, “is the powerhouse of the church.”

As usual, Spurgeon was correct. A healthy church must have her saints on their knees. What the surrounding world surely sees as something entirely unremarkable—a group of people with every head bowed and every eye closed—is actually one of the most important events in all of Christ’s kingdom.

Corporate prayer has been a central practice of God’s people throughout redemptive history. The sons of Seth “began to call upon the name of the Lord” as they gathered in the new-created world (Gen. 4:26), Esther and Daniel each called for a prayer meeting in times of crisis (Esther 4:15-16, Dan. 2:17-18), and Jesus himself jealously guarded prayer as a priority for God’s people (Matt. 21:13). Whenever the church gathers for a Wednesday night prayer meeting or bows her head for the Sunday morning pastoral prayer or intercedes for one another in small groups and Bible studies, she takes up the work that God’s people have always done.

This is also the lesson of the book of Acts. From the earliest days of the church, we find God’s people gathered for prayer: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). The prayer described here is deliberate (“devoting themselves to prayer”), it was united (“with one accord”), and it included the full diversity of Christians (“all these. . .with the women. . .and his brothers”).

Two thousand years later, the church is still built on this foundation. In prayer, God’s people admit their own frailty and together call upon the name of almighty God.  And in answer to our prayer, God stirs and refreshes the hearts of his people and pours out his Spirit on the church (Isa. 62:6-7, Luke 11:13). God holds out wonderful promises to the church on her knees! In Scripture, he pledges to answer our united prayer with judgment on his and our enemies (Rev. 8:3,5), with forgiveness and revival (2 Chron. 7:13-14), with healing and salvation (James 5:14-15), and with his very presence among us (Matt. 18:19-20). How could we neglect so great a privilege?

Corporate prayer is essential for a healthy church in another way, too. Not only is praying together the clear duty and privilege of Christ’s church in every generation, praying together is also God’s means to bind his church together in mutual love.

I remember clearly the first time I attended the prayer meeting at the rural church where I spent my college years. I walked down the stairs to the church basement on a Wednesday night to find a small group of people who seemed to have little in common with me. I was a teenager, they were middle-aged and older. I was studying for a liberal arts degree, they were farmers and housewives. But in that hour of prayer—and all the hours that would follow over the years—I learned that my fellow church members were not so dissimilar after all. Each of us was a sinner saved by grace, united to Christ, and entirely dependent on the Lord for every good thing. And as we bowed before the Lord in prayer together, we grew in love for one another.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), writes Paul, and “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). What better way to do this than by taking up one another’s burdens and lending each other a hand to cast them on the Lord? In prayer together, my brother’s joys and sorrows become my joys and sorrows. In prayer, his needs become my own.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Rome highlights the resulting circle of love: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5-6). As we pray together, we stir up love for one another. And as we love one another, we cultivate one harmonious voice—with which we joyfully pray together all the more.

Brothers and sisters, let us pray.

Megan Hill is the author of Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches. She lives in Massachusetts and is a member of West Springfield Covenant Community Church (PCA) where her husband serves as pastor.

Biblical Counsel for Pastoral Burnout, Part 1

Recently, I was reading C. S. Lewis’s article, “First and Second Things.” His thesis is compelling. Simply stated, when the main thing is eclipsed by secondary things both things are lost to us. His example of the woman who makes a dog the center of her universe is humorous. The poor woman loses her humanity and her joy in dog care! And what about the man who transitions from wine aficionada to winebibber?

However, as I thought about the thesis, I started to reflect on the ministry. Perhaps herein we find something of an explanation for pastoral burnout. In these cases, secondary things have been allowed to eclipse first things. So, the obvious question is how can first things be kept first? I started to wonder what Paul might say in answer to that question. How might he counsel a man facing ministerial fatigue?

I found my answer in the first chapter of Romans, specifically verses 8 through 15. There Paul guides our thinking into some areas that will help a pastor to avoid burnout. The first area has to do with understanding self. The second pertains to God and his resources. And the third has to do with the pastor’s calling. This first post will deal with the pastor’s self understanding.

Now, self understanding is difficult for a pastor.  Too many people have too many pieces of him. A pastor can feel torn and fragmented. But if we are going to keep first things first, then a pastor needs to reclaim his identity. So, how did Paul understand himself? He gives us three coordinates from the text.

First, Paul understood himself to be a servant. In Romans 1:1 he called himself a slave.  But now look at verse nine, “For God is my witness, whom I serve…” This word is different from verse one. It carries a religious dimension. In fact, it can mean either “worship” or “service rendered to God.” Yes, he is a slave, but this word adds a dimension. Paul saw the entirety of his life as an act of service rendered to God. Let me put it differently, Paul’s service is so that we might see the God he serves. Perhaps an illustration may help.  Think about reading the same book to your child over and over again.  Of course, you get tired of reading it. So, why do read it? You read the same story a million times because it’s your son or daughter and you love them. The task of reading the story is secondary to your child. You read because of her. If frustration with reading the same story makes us stop reading, then first things have been eclipsed. We must remember our role as a slave.

Second, as a servant Paul understood the importance of a right heart. Or, to put as Paul does, he served, “with my spirit.” But what does that mean? He means that he is serving from the very depth of his heart. He is sincere. He delights in the Lord’s work.  And this means that our service to the Lord affects all that we do.  But when secondary things become first things we not only lose both things but we lose the joy in doing anything.  Now, here is the problem. It can be illustrated with a story from Anthony Trollope’s Last Chronicle. The Archdeacon was angry with his eldest son. Immediately he made legal changes that would put this son at a disadvantage.  These changes could have been made the next day but the priest made them immediately.

Why?

Trollope explained that in order to reach the next day he would have to pass through his evening prayers. And the priest knew that if he had prayed before the morrow he would not be able to complete his plans against his son. For how can we pray forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors and be unforgiving? The priest did not serve the Lord with his whole heart and any joy he had turned to bitterness.

Do you sometimes behave like the Archdeacon? Are you holding something back from the Lord? In other words, when you go to him do you go with reservation rather than going with your whole self? If so, then we are not struggling with our service but with the one we serve. Our problem is an identity problem. And yet, the third area helps us with this struggle.

It’s the gospel itself. Notice verse 8. Paul says, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you…” Let me remind you of what’s being said here. Paul knows that his prayers are heard because of the gospel. In other words, the Son of God humbled himself taking upon himself the form of a servant and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross that we might belong to the family of God.

The Lord held nothing back from you so that you might be who you are. So, a good place to start is remembering who you are by virtue of the Gospel. You are a slave whose whole self is to be devoted to the one who held nothing back from you so that you might derive your joy from first things.

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.

A Healthy Church: A Loving Church

Several years ago, I gave a lecture on the threefold office of Christ, Christian ministry, and the marks of a true church.  During an interview that followed, I was asked a question about the marks.  I replied with a standard answer, repeating something of what I had said in my lecture, that a true church is recognized by whether or not it teaches God’s word and preaches the gospel of Christ rightly, whether it administers the sacraments in purity, and whether or not it maintains and practices church discipline faithfully.  As the conversation continued, one of the group asked, “What about love?  Isn’t love a mark of a true church?”  I don’t recall my answer, but I do recall a conversation I had with a friend to whom I was describing the interview some days later.  In that conversation, I challenged the idea that love could ever be an objective mark of a true church.  We can listen to what a church says to understand whether it proclaims the truth of Scripture.  We can watch the way sacraments are administered to determine if a church is following biblical instruction.  We can read the minutes of the church’s governing body to see if they engage in disciplinary actions.  But love?  What does love look like in any given church?  Is there a clear, simple, quick and objective standard by which we can judge?  It seems there is too much variation in the way love is expressed to allow it to be a mark of a true church.  Frankly, I was wrong.  A Christian is not a Christian who does not love God and people and a church without love for God and people is no church.  The greatest commandment, Jesus said, is to love God and the second is like it—to love your neighbor as yourself.

When we describe the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic we mustn’t miss the emphasis on fellowship, which is the outward expression of a spirit and attitude of love.  To be one is to be united not merely by mutual assent to a doctrinal statement or creed, but by a genuine care and concern for one another. If we are to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:14-16; Lev. 11:44), we must imitate God’s love in Christ (1 Jn. 3:1) for God is love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16).  If we’re truly catholic (universal), our care and concern will extend beyond our local church and denomination to our brothers and sisters in Christ of every race and nation.  To be apostolic, not only are we to believe, embrace, and teach what the apostles taught, we must give ourselves to building relationships with one another in emulation of the apostles’ fellowship (Acts 2:42). 

A healthy church—a church that is genuinely being the church—will be marked by a fellowship of love.  John says very clearly: If you don’t love your brother and sister whom you see, how can you say you love God whom you don’t see (1 Jn. 4:20-21)!  Jesus said, they’ll know you’re my disciples if you love one another (Jn. 13:34-35).

So, how do we know if we’re loving one another as we ought in Christian fellowship?  In that regard, the Westminster Confession of Faith provides a helpful insight in its section on the communion of saints, especially in 26.1.  Not only do we have fellowship with Christ “in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection and glory,” but, the paragraph goes on to say, “being united to one another in love, they [Christians] have communion in each other’s gifts and graces.”  This communion in gifts and graces is to be displayed, lived out, demonstrated not only in encouraging one another to grow in godly maturity and Christ-likeness, it’s to be lived out in ministering to one another’s needs in the “outward man.”  Put differently, the fellowship or communion of the saints espoused by the WCF and clearly reflecting and echoing Christ’s teaching is that we’re to be joyfully involved in one other’s lives, building bonds, helping in every aspect and dimension of life, fostering a joyful living-out of the Christian faith.  In other words, we’re to be building relationships that, in the end, point clearly and directly to the communion and intra-Trinitarian love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If this kind of life-encompassing fellowship of love is missing from a church, it’s time for a health check-up.

Michael J. Matossian was ordained to gospel ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1998.  He has served since 2009 as Senior Pastor at Emmanuel OPC in Wilmington, Delaware.  He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Marquette University.  He and his wife, Judy, and their Son, Matthew, are all natives of southern California.

Thomas Chalmers and ‘The St John’s Experiment’

For those familiar with Thomas Chalmers, his name immediately conjures up a plethora of thoughts regarding his stature as a Christian leader and also his gifts and achievements in the work of the church. He was a man of exceptional ability, but he was also profoundly concerned for the needs of ordinary people.

Chalmers is remembered for many things, not least his role in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland in the so-called ‘Disruption’ of 1843 and his subsequent appointment as Principal of New College Edinburgh – a position he held until his death in 1847. But out of all his many achievements, the two that perhaps stand out most vividly, and that have left his most enduring legacy, relate to his involvement in two socially deprived areas of Glasgow and Edinburgh. One of these, which came to be known as the ‘St John’s Experiment’ is well worth revisiting almost 200 years since its inception.

Its value lies in the kind of model it provides for Reformed church ministry. For many churches today, not least those shaped by Reformed convictions, their approach to ministry often leads to congregations being gathered from narrow social and ethnic spectrums. But that is not the kind of church we see in the New Testament. Nor is it what we see exemplified in some of the finest expressions of Reformed Christianity: Calvin’s church in Geneva being a major case in point. The church was never intended to be a homogeneous unit.

Thomas Chalmers embarked upon this ‘experiment’ in what became his third charge in the Christian ministry. Having previously served in the parishes of Kilmany in Fife and Tron in Glasgow, in 1819 he was appointed to the newly established parish of St John’s, Glasgow as a daughter work of the Tron.

This new parish was located in an area of major social deprivation in a city which at that time was struggling with economic recession and all its related consequences. Church attendance was pitifully low with people having little or no concern for their spiritual needs. So the formation of this new parish was a conscious and practical attempt to respond to this situation.

The parish boundaries were smaller than was typical for that time, catering for some 10,000 souls in the locality. It was further sub-divided into 25 smaller units each of which was placed under the care of an elder and a deacon from the newly formed church. An arrangement that was deliberately aimed at catering for the practical as well as spiritual needs of parishioners. Although the initial response to the systematic visitation of homes in the parish was often negative, as these pairs of office bearers persisted, it led to a remarkable response. This in turn led to church attendance in the parish growing through people from every sector of the community being drawn in and brought to faith.

The striking thing about this initiative and the way it led to the congregation’s growth was that it was so out of step with the norms in many city churches of that time. A man with preaching gifts like Chalmers could very easily have filled a church by attracting Christians from all over the city; but, in so doing, would have made little impact on the surrounding community. So, the fact that he was willing to face the challenge of reaching out to the mission field on his doorstep was a remarkable statement in itself.

The response to the success of this venture from other clergy and churches was surprisingly negative at first, with many arguing that this model of ministry could not work elsewhere. But, after the Free Church came into being and Chalmers had moved to Edinburgh, he embarked upon a similar venture, this time in the area of West Port in the city. In many ways this was an even greater challenge than the one he had faced in Glasgow in that it was not a ‘parish’ in the recognised sense of that time and, worse than that, it was one of the most notorious parts of the city. It was a community of some 2,000 souls, most of whom were poor, beggars or prostitutes.

Chalmers approach this time was to send out ‘visitors’ in pairs under the oversight of a missioner, but with aim of establishing a new congregation. The success of this venture served to strengthen wider interest in this model of ministry and influenced not only the evangelistic efforts of churches in Scotland, but also the formation of City Missions in many of the major conurbations throughout Britain at that time.

Much has been written on this distinctive approach to ministry since the time of Chalmer’s death, trying to analyse its basis and the factors that made it so effective under God. Several observations are worth highlighting.

The one that stands out most obviously is the personal convictions that shaped this man’s ministry. A.C. Cheyne summarised them like this,

For Chalmers, the essential tasks of the church were to propagate its message concerning the saving significance of the death of Jesus Christ and to seek to influence society in all its aspects by the inculcating of Christian values and morals[1]

He came to this dual-conviction partly in reaction against the prevailing Liberal belief of that time in the universal Fatherhood of God, but also through the influence of the Puritans with their view of ministry.

He also saw the value of the concept of ‘parish’ in what he sought to achieve. Historically this was embedded in the Scottish Kirk, especially through John Knox’s vision from the time of the Reformation. Even though Chalmers made full use of the formal parish system in St John’s, he followed its underlying principle in the Edinburgh work. Community matters and local churches need to see its place in the communities to which they belong.

Chalmers was an inspiration to his own generation and those that followed, imparting a fresh vision for outreach that led to significant gospel progress at that time. And he should continue to provide a stimulus to the church today in the way we think through our goals and strategies for ministry. We are not called merely to be preaching stations; but God’s community within local communities.


[1] Cheyne, A.C., The Practical and the Pious (St. Andrews Press; Edinburgh) 1985 p.174

The Marks of a Healthy Church Podcast

This week on Theology on the Go, our host, Dr. Jonathan Master is joined by Dr. Barry York. Since 2013, Dr. York has been professor of pastoral theology and Dean of Faculty at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh.

However, before serving the seminary, Dr. York was sent to Kokomo, Indiana, as a church planter in 1991.  Through an evangelistic and disciple-making ministry the congregation of Sycamore Reformed Presbyterian Church was organized in 1994, where Barry served as pastor until June of 2013.  From 2002-2013 he also served as the administrator and a teacher for Sycamore Covenant Academy, an educational and service program devoted to preparing covenant youth for college and life.  He also is the general editor of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Journal and co-hosts a podcast called 3GT.

Today Dr. Master will talk with Dr. York about a topic that has occupied his thinking and been near to his heart for some time, the health of the church.   

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 “The Church: God’s New Society” an audio set from the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, go to ReformedResources.org!

Preachers, Prayer and Gospel Progress

It should go without saying that preaching, praying and the progress of God’s kingdom through the gospel are inseparably bound up with each other. Jesus taught his people to pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’ and made it clear that all believers are all involved in the answer to this request as they obey his great command to go to the ends of the earth with the gospel.

There is, however, a sense in which we can be so familiar with these truths that they weigh more lightly on us than they should. We lose the sense of urgency bound up with them and are too slack when it comes to the disciplines they entail. This was certainly the case with the church of the Old Testament that was entrusted with the very same revelation and responsibility, albeit in an anticipatory way. Despite the very dramatic way in which God freed his people from bondage in Egypt, kept them through the wilderness and established them in the Promised Land, they forgot all too quickly and easily what it meant to learn from him and lean on him in order to enter more fully into what he had promised for them.

So, in the days of the prophets, God’s message repeatedly brought them back to the basics of the faith. And nowhere is this seen more plainly than in Isaiah’s prophecy. But what is so very interesting about his message with regard to the place and importance of preaching and prayer in the life of the church, is that he provides an angle on them that goes deeper than much of what we find elsewhere, even in the New Testament. We see this especially in what he says about God’s ultimate purpose for his people and the means by which he will bring about its ultimate outworking (Isa 62.1-12).

The section begins with a voice speaking in the first person singular: ‘For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet’ (62.1). The ‘I’ in question is the one who spoke at the beginning of the previous chapter saying, ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news’ (61.1). It is the voice of Christ and these are the words he read and explained as being fulfilled in himself the day he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4.16-19).

Here, then, he speaks of his determination to carry his saving work through to completion – not just in the salvation he would accomplish, but also in terms of what it will ultimately achieve. Nothing less than his people’s becoming ‘a crown of splendour in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of [their] God’ (62.3). But by what means would this come about? How would his saving action, with its climax on the cross, secure its worldwide and history-spanning goal?

The pre-incarnate Christ answers, ‘I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night’ (62.6). The ‘watchmen’ he has in mind are not merely the spiritual equivalent of sentries who keep watch against an enemy. He uses a word that is elsewhere associated with God’s prophets who were indeed entrusted with ensuring the spiritual safety of God’s people, but they were to do it in a very unmilitary way.

The obvious sense in which they were to safeguard God’s flock was to protect them from false prophets. By only proclaiming the message God had either already revealed or was now revealing through them, they were ensure the faith of Israel was firmly placed in the God who had revealed his truth to Israel. But this was not the only, or indeed primary function of the prophets. The very first time the word ‘prophet’ appears in the Bible is when God speaks to Abimelech after he had taken Abraham’s wife, Sarah, for himself without realising she was his wife. God said to him, ‘Now return the man’s wife to him [Abraham], for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live’ (Ge 20.7).

Prophets were not only to be men of the pulpit, but men of prayer. And their sacred charge to keep watch over the people of God was as much about their responsibility to pray for them as it was to preach to them.

This carries over into the New Testament. We don’t have to travel very far into the growth and development of the church in the pages of Acts before we see its need to appoint a new class of church officers – Deacons. And this need arose so that the Twelve (and, by inference, the proto-Elders who shared the pastoral responsibility for the church with them) could devote themselves to ‘prayer and the ministry of the word’ (Ac 6.4).

As we look more closely about what is said through Isaiah about these ‘watchmen’ we read that they ‘will never be silent day or night’ (62.6). That is, both in their praying as much as in their preaching they will be speaking – to God on the one hand and for him on the other – but in both for the benefit of his people.

The striking thing about this little detail is that is echoes what the pre-incarnate Christ has already said about himself in the first verse. As one commentator has paraphrased his statement there, he in effect declares, ‘I will not sit still until my work in salvation sees its ultimate fruition’. This tirelessness on Christ’s part is not merely obvious throughout his earthly ministry, but it is equally evident in his ongoing High Priestly ministry in heaven, where ‘…he always lives to make intercession for [his people]’ (He 7.25). He will only rest when he comes again and all his people are brought safely home forever.

It would be easy to be myopic in the way we view the prophet’s words up to this point, but Isaiah takes them one step further when he says – with a change of pronoun – ‘You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth’ (62.6-7). He has the church in its entirety in view.

No congregation should think that it is safe for them to sit back and leave the work of praying, or even the task of proclaiming the gospel, to the paid professionals who are over them. Every Christian is called to share in this task, not least because in Christ we are all prophets, priests and kings in a derivative sense. And as such we are to give ourselves no rest in what Alec Motyer calls ‘the urgency and discipline of prayer’ and, more strikingly, we are to ‘give him [God] no rest until he establishes Jerusalem’. That is, until the heavenly Jerusalem is fully and finally in place.

If the gospel is to make its God-ordained inexorable progress throughout the world as it is proclaimed publicly through preaching and privately through the witness of the saints, then it must go hand in hand with the ‘give-yourselves-and-God-no-rest’ kind of praying of which Christ speaks in these verses.

Calvin’s Theology: Predestination

John Calvin lived from 1509-1564. He was an influential Reformer for his ministry in Geneva. By many accounts he was an excellent writer, preacher, and theologian. When people hear his name today, they often think of him as associated with the doctrine of predestination—that God elects before the foundations of the world a people unto salvation apart from any goodness or foreseen faith in man. Predestination entails God’s sovereignty in every area of life. As Eph. 1:11 says, God “works all things according to the counsel of his will,”

It is worth noting three caveats when it comes to thinking about Calvin and predestination. First, later interpreters have often given it more prominence in Calvin’s thought than Calvin himself did. They assume that all his theology bends around this one magisterial doctrine. Unfortunately, this distorts Calvin and creates an unbalanced picture of him. No doubt, predestination was important but so were other doctrines like Christology, the work of the Holy Spirit, justification by faith and union with Christ.

Second, for Calvin the doctrine of predestination is primarily a Biblical doctrine not a philosophical doctrine. He holds to it because he finds it in the Bible. Calvin is clear that we should only seek to understand election and predestination so far as God has revealed it. Our speculation should not try to look into things God has not made known (Institutes 3.21.1). Calvin was a pastor and expositor. He wrote commentaries and homilies as much, if not more, than he wrote theology. In the final version of his Institutes, he begins his discussion of election in book 3, chapter 21, which is after he has discussed union with Christ, faith, and justification by faith.

Finally, John Calvin was not the first person in church history to teach the doctrine of predestination and unconditional election. For example, Augustine had articulated aspects of these doctrines. Even in his day, John Calvin was not the only reformer holding to these doctrines. Sometimes we do a disservice to the larger history of the church when we simply call a doctrine of predestination “Calvinism.”

What are some things we can learn from John Calvin?

First, the doctrine comes from the Bible. In his institutes as well as his other writings, John Calvin is careful to tie his doctrine to Scripture and explain the Scriptures. He examines passages like Eph. 1 and Rom. 9. He covers these passages in his commentaries and sermons, as well as bringing them to bear in his Institutes and his Treatise on Eternal Predestination.

Second, faith is not the cause of God’s election. God does not foresee ahead of time that we will believe and then choose us on that basis. Calvin writes on Eph. 1:4 “Therefore you can safely infer the following: if he chose us that we should be hold, he did not choose us because he foresaw that we would be so” (Institutes 3.22.3). “To make faith the cause of election is altogether absurd and utterly at variance with the words of the apostle [Paul]” (Calvin’s Calvinism, 45).

Third, Calvin’s overarching concern is to give glory to God and help the believer understand the grace and mercy of God. He understands that any doctrine of election that gives credit to make or makes election based upon man’s work, faith, or personal holiness, God will not get the glory because God is merely responding to men. The Bible teaches that God’s election is according to his will alone (Rom. 9:15-16) and for the purposes of the praise of God’s glorious grace (Eph. 1:6). For Calvin, the doctrine of predestination is important because it is in Scripture but it also has a practical effect: it humbles the sinner. It makes us turn and praise God for the depths and power of his mercy.

We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God’s grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others. (Institutes 3.21.1)

Finally, Calvin does not deny the necessity of the preaching of the gospel. While the benefits of Christ are “extended unto, and belong to, none but the children of God” (Calvin’s Calvinism, 94), the gospel offers salvation to all. He writes, “That the Gospel is, in its nature, able to save all I by no means deny. But the great question lies here: Did the Lord by his eternal counsel ordain salvation for all men? It is quite manifest that all men without difference or distinction, are outwardly called or invited to repentance and faith” (Calvin’s Calvinism, 94-5). So, John Calvin holds that God’s election of individuals unto salvation is God’s eternal decree. God ordains individuals to salvation and its benefits but there is the free outward call of the gospel where the listener is invited to believe. Calvin distinguishes this outward call from the inward work of the Holy Spirit who regenerates and enlivens, inwardly drawing the sinner to God’s grace and enabling them to receive it by faith.

John Calvin is a stalwart in church history and is worth reading today even if you are not a church historian or academic theologian. His works are filled with a pastoral tone and a clear explanation of Scripture. In this respect, we can still learn from Calvin on the doctrine of predestination as he points us back to what the Bible says and upward to see the glory of God in the accomplishment of redemption.

John Calvin, Calvin’s Calvinism: Treatises on the Eternal Predestination of God and the Secret Providence of God. Translated by Henry Cole. Reformed Free Publishing Association: Grand Rapids, Mich.: No date.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

John Foxe and a Book That Inspired Generations

          In 1563, the Protestant scholar John Foxe published a book with the typically long title Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous days, touching matters of the Church, wherein are comprehended and described the great persecutions and horrible troubles that have been wrought and practiced by the Romish prelates, specially in this realm of England and Scotland, from the year of our Lord 1000 unto the time now present; gathered and collected according to the true copies and writings certificatory, as well of the parties themselves that suffered, as also out of the bishops’ registers, which were the doers thereof; by John Foxe. The book, immediately known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, became one of the most influential texts in Europe, remaining recommended reading in England for centuries.

The Author

           Born at Boston, Lincolnshire, in 1517, John Foxe lived during turbulent times, witnessing England’s shift from the Roman Catholic Church to an independent state church run by King Henry VIII, then to a fully protestant church under Edward VI, going back to the Church of Rome under Mary I, and finally returning to Protestantism with Elizabeth I.

            While some English people resisted change and clung to the safety of the religion they had known, Foxe embraced enthusiastically the teachings of the Protestant Reformation – probably, as it was the case with many young men, while he was in college. His tendencies were noticed by the conservative masters, who pressured him to the point that he called his college “a prison.”

            Due to this pressure, and to a statute requiring every university fellow to take vows as Roman Catholic priest, he left his studies in 1545, preferring to face poverty and insecurity than to pursue a stable career against his conscience. He found work as private tutor. Around the same time, he married Agnes Randall, a “woman of some position.” Their marriage was happy. Foxe called Agnes his “faithful comfort.” Apparently, he learned an important lesson for husbands: when it was his wife’s turn to need comfort, if he couldn’t find a remedy, he would, “in assurance of his love … weep for her.”[1]

            While tutoring, he met and conversed with many English Reformers. He was especially influenced by the historian John Bale, who became one of his closest friends and introduced him to valuable historical manuscripts.

            In the early months of 1554, after Mary’s ascension to the English throne, Foxe reluctantly set sail with his pregnant wife, reached the continent and settled first in Strasbourg, then in Zurich, and, for a short time, in Frankfurt.

            Due to a controversy involving the use of the Book of Common Prayer among English exiles (Foxe defended John Knox who was expelled by Richard Cox – an excellent set up for a children’s rhyme), Foxe moved from Frankfurt to Basel, Switzerland, where he was reunited with Bale and began working with the city’s printers.

            By this time, he had already written a first work of martirology, Commentarii rerum in ecclesia gestarum, focusing largely on English martyrs such as the Lollards. When, by early 1555, Mary started to burn Protestants, Foxe received a large number of reports by those who had managed to flee. It was an enormous amount of information, because Mary managed to execute over three hundred people over matters of faith. He also received news from other countries. His work of research, verification, and compilation of sources continued after Foxe’s return to England in 1559. The ensuing book, Acts and Monuments, first published in Latin in 1559 and then in an updated English version in 1563, was an immediate bestseller and was reprinted in three subsequent editions just during Foxe’s lifetime.

            Less known is Foxe’s role as pastor (he was ordained priest in the Church of England in 1559), translator, and author of lesser works. Some of these were exhortations on several issues, such as a reform of canon law (including a controversial track on the abolition of the death penalty for adultery) and an appeal to Elizabeth’s council to desist from burning Anabaptists. He also wrote a plea to the Anabaptists to abandon their doctrines which he, as other orthodox Protestants, considered heretic. He participated in the controversy about vestments and wrote a collection of articles on the Lord’s Supper (begging Catholics to consider the irrationality of transubstantiation).

            In 1563, he was among those who stayed in London to minister to those who had been afflicted by the plague, and wrote a booklet of comfort to the sufferers and bereaved, which included a passionate appeal to the wealthy to provide financial aid. One of his daughters might have died at this time.

            Foxe died in 1587, famous but not wealthy. We know he had at least four children, but only two survived to adulthood, Samuel the diarist and Simeon the physician.

The Book

            The first English edition of Acts and Monuments was published by John Day, who invested much time and money on this project, paying for expensive woodcuts portraying terrifying scenes of burnings and torture. The result was a massive volume, containing about 1800 pages. It included the Commentarii rerum and an introductory overview of church history, linking the suffering of the early church martyrs to the present.

            It was, in part, an answer to a question Roman Catholics had posed to Protestants ever since Luther began to question unbiblical traditions and papal authority, “Are you alone wise?” In other words, “After 1500 years of church history, you have suddenly found the only truth?” Foxe showed continuity in the history of a persecuted church, this time with the papacy on the side of the antichrist. After all, over three hundred Christians had just been burned on the stake in England. Foxe included a calendar of martyrs.

            The information contained in Foxe’s book was obviously challenged by Roman Catholics. Foxe responded by accepting some of the corrections and contesting others. Overall, Foxe’s work as historian remains impressive, meticulously correlated with references (many of which are now lost). While he had an obvious agenda and was therefore selective in his choice of accounts, later research has confirmed most of his descriptions, making the book a valuable source of historical information.

            Though pricey (a middle-class man would have had to save his pay for three months in order to buy it), the book was a great success, and Foxe and Day immediately considered a second edition, enriched by the large quantity of new information Foxe continued to receive. The second edition, published in 1570, was even bulkier and more graphic than the first.

            By the 17th century, the book was present in virtually every English parish, together with the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It continued to inspire generations of Christians, and was still regularly read to children in the 19th century.


[1] Quotations from a memoir written by Simeon Foxe, son of John and Agnes, annexed to the 1641 edition of Acts and Monuments. Quoted in Carole Levin, Anna Riehl Bertolet, Jo Eldridge Carney, eds., A Biographical Encyclopedia of Early Modern Englishwomen: Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts, 1500-1650, Routledge, 2016, p. 150.