Westminster & Preaching: Unction

From Toastmasters to TED Talks, America has a history of enjoying and practicing oratory. Social Media has only confirmed that people love to hear themselves talk. Without end. Amen. Living near our nation’s capital, I’m regularly reminded of some of the great oratory of the past, from JFK’s “Ask Not” to FDR’s “Having Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself”! In fact, one of my favorite places to stand and take in the National Mall is the very spot, marked by a bronze plaque, where MLK declared his “Dream”! There is something so very powerful about the human spirit connecting with its fellow man on some point of culture, policy, or morality. So memorable. So life-changing, yet so not. Ironically, as much as we can remember those speeches, they are locked in time, in an outer world in which those words may never be as significant again. In the end, the words become more about the man speaking and how the movement of the moment rested solely on him. He made them flutter! He made them soar! He made them cry!

There are moments, though, that are eternally more powerful, more lasting, more life-changing than the great historic speeches of the past. These moments happen, have happened, and will happen in urban cathedrals and prairie chapels. In these moments, the one speaking fades into the distance and with words often forgettable, hearts are made new, marriages are restored, children are warmed to parents, indeed, the dead are made to live. How? What is happening when public speaking on spiritual subjects moves beyond human oratory?

Preaching. Preaching, with Unction, to be exact. That preaching which is NOT with “superiority of speech or wisdom” but goes about simply “declaring…the testimony of God” (1 Cor. 2). And what makes that work? The Holy Spirit. Now, to be clear, human effort in preaching and the Spirit’s working at not diametrically opposed.  They go hand in glove. The human preacher is to put for the time and effort to be schooled in preaching, to study and prepare and exegete for preaching, to hone and craft his sermon for preaching, but, in the end, “success is God’s work.”[1] As humbling as that is for preachers, it is absolutely true. Take, for instance, those who saw themselves in a competition with Paul and for all the wrong reasons.

Some indeed are preaching Christ out of envy and strife, and some also from good will. The former preach Christ out of contention, not sincerely, intending to add trouble to my circumstance. But the latter preach out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached. And in this I rejoice. Indeed, I will rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18).

 

Paul was able to rejoice, knowing that Christ was being preached, knowing that the promise of the Word’s fruitfulness in Isaiah 55 would be fulfilled, knowing that, even with impure, contentious motives on the part of the preacher, the Spirit can still work in power through the preached Word.

Now, knowing our human hearts grasp at any and every excuse, we should clarify that this is no reason to preach for wrong motives or even to not study and prepare, because, after all, it’s up to the Spirit! I have a number of friends who are excellent in construction and woodworking. They can produce anything you could ask of them. However, their skill doesn’t mean they can do the work with any tool or no tool. In fact, because of their skill, they invest heavily in all the right (best, most accurate, and sharpest) tools! Because of what they are able to do, they make sure they have the most fit instrument for the job. The Spirit of God does this, but not in the way we always think he would or should. For Him, the best tool might be a humble man with little or no earthly prowess, no perceivable desirability in the world’s terms. But when that simple man, “in weakness and fear and much trembling,” steps into the pulpit with a simple heart, “not with enticing words of man’s wisdom,” and a simple message, powerful things happen, “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” In that moment, when a sinner stands before other sinners and declares the free grace of God, “the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” moving the Word from that outer, fleshy ear, to the inner spiritual one, so that the sinner might be saved.[2]

As you head to the meetinghouse this Lord’s Day to hear the Word preached, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Am I wanting, even expecting, human eloquence and wisdom, or the simple preaching of Christ, in demonstration of the Spirit and power?
  2. Am I desiring that Spiritual, powerful Word of Christ to be brought from my fleshy outer ear to the ear of my heart, that I might be saved and sanctified?

Burgess said that there “must necessarily be the Spirit of God, besides learning, First, to lead us into all truth. And then secondly, to sanctify it to our own hearts in an experimental and powerful manner.” This Sunday, seek to not be one who is “very Orthodox, and yet know[s] nothing of the work of grace upon [your] own soul.”[3] But anticipate a simple message, with unction, that alters your heart. You may soon forget the words spoken by the preacher in the pulpit, but you will never forget the Spirit’s powerful working in your soul.

Joel Enoch Wood is the pastor of Trinity RPC in Burtonsville, MD, between DC and Baltimore. He holds M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is 1/4 of The Jerusalem Chamber podcast, a roundtable discussion among four friends who are pastors about the doctrine, worship, and piety of the Westminster Confession of Faith.


[1] Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining, or, a Treatise of Grace and Assurance Part I (London, 1659): 502, quoted in Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors (Grand Rapids, 2017), 167. Spelling updated.

[2] All quotes in the paragraph are from 1 Corinthians 2.

[3] Anthony Burgess, An Expository Comment, Doctrinal Controversal and Practical upon the Whole First Chapter of the Second Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians (London, 1661): 9, quoted in Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors (Grand Rapids, 2017), 167. Spelling updated.

Westminster & Preaching: Prayer and the Pulpit

In his first sermon on our Lord’s prayer in John 17, Anthony Burgess (d. 1664), preacher and delegate to the Westminster Assembly, makes the case why prayer is necessary to all preaching.

“If therefore we would have our preaching and your hearing do any good, be powerful to a heavenly alteration and change, then look up with your eyes to heaven; It’s from God that this must do me good, It’s from God that this must teach my heart; In vain is a Teacher without if there be not also a Teacher within.”

For Burgess preaching is not enough. Of course, preaching is prescribed and essential to all good in the life of God’s people. The Church cannot live without preaching. Yet preaching cannot live without prayer. God alone possesses the key of all men’s hearts, says Burgess. Not the preacher. Not the people. The living God must come to us in preaching or we will never come to him.

Because men are sinners, prayer must always be employed in preaching. Prayer before and after preaching must not only plead that God graciously overcome the ruinous effects of our sin, but that God would also turn his anger away from our obstinacy and unbelief.

Humble prayer, spiritually prostrate before God, coming as lowly petitioners seeking benefits from the merciful God in the name of Christ, is our only hope that God has brought preaching to us and our children for better ends than he had in store for Judah when He sent Isaiah to them (Isa. 6:9-10).

Without entreaty to God and his gracious reply, says Burgess, “you hear yourselves into damnation, and we preach you into greater and greater spiritual judgements daily.”

Now it is not exactly clear how Burgess’ thoughts on prayer and preaching correspond to his participation in the Westminster Assembly. He was not a member of the subcommittee which drafted the Directory for Worship. Yet his concerns are clearly in accord with the Assembly’s own priorities for public worship.

The Directory calls for two prayers in relation to the sermon, one just before and one just after. The prayer before the sermon is when the minister “endeavor[s] to get his own and his hearers hearts to be rightly affected with their sins, that they may all mourn in sense thereof before the Lord, and hunger and thirst after the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”

Consonant with Burgess’ exhortations, the Directory calls for the preacher to confess sin on behalf of the people. The suggested language is not so much about sin preventing our ability to understand, but about the several ways we have offended God by neglecting graces previously given. It is a prayer designed to humble all, the preacher and the people:

“[We] bewail our blindness of mind, hardness of heart, unbelief, impenitency, security, luke-warmness, barrenness; our not endeavoring after mortification and newness of life, nor after the exercise of godliness in the power thereof.”

Even so, there must be a plea for mercy. Prayer without gospel is not Christian prayer. Thus, the Directory pivots from lament to hope in its suggested prayer before the sermon: “[We] draw near to the throne of grace, encouraging ourselves with hope of a gracious answer of our prayers, in the riches and all-sufficiency of that only one Oblation, the Satisfaction and Intercession of the Lord Jesus Christ….”

The Directory next addresses preaching itself. Even here prayer is not neglected. The Directory bids the preacher to toil in private prayer: “…he ought still to seek by prayer, and a humble heart, resolving to admit and receive any truth not yet attained, whenever God shall make it known unto him.” It is a fatal confidence if the preacher thinks he has already obtained all he needs to speak the oracles of God (1 Pet. 4:11).

Finally, the Directory charges ministers to pray after preaching. The Assembly suggests God not only be thanked for what he has just given, but that God be petitioned that the message “may abide in the heart, and bring forth fruit.”  Burgess goes further. He says prayer after preaching is to be marked by urgency and soberness for he notes the many times in scripture God’s people saw and heard wonderful things yet afterward drifted into stubbornness as if unaffected.

In the things of God, God is our only hope. Preaching too. It is God whom we have business with, not the preacher. Preaching is useless to us unless God rises to our cause. As Burgess says, “Of itself it worketh no more than exhortations to a dead man, but when clothed with divine authority, then it beateth down everything that opposeth itself.”

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

Biblical Counsel for Pastoral Burnout, Part 3

In the previous articles, I have suggested that C.S. Lewis’s article, “First and Second Things” provides an understanding as to why pastors experience burnout.  Lewis said that when first things are eclipsed by second things both are lost. In the first post, I suggested that a way of avoiding or recovering from burnout could be found in Romans 1:8-15. There I made the claim that understanding ourselves before God could go a long way in coping with or even avoiding burnout because all too often pastors (perhaps are even congregationally compelled to!) put secondary things first. In the second post, I pressed us to think about how God equips us to do His will. And today I want us to remember that our service to God using His resources is for the good of others. This then situates our service in its proper context.

Now, if our service is not rooted in God and God’s resources, then we have lost sight of the main thing and it won’t be long before the secondary things lose their luster, not to mention the first things. But here is point, if you begin with who you are before God and rely on God’s resources for the task, then you will be able to serve others with energy. And there are several things to notice by way of help.

First, Paul believed that his prayer life was integral to his service to God. In fact, prayer was a part of his service! Therefore, it’s little wonder that he calls upon God as a witness to his prayers!  My brother pastor, have you lost sight of what prayer is? Prayer is spending time with the Master drawing down on his resources so that when you minister to others it flows from your ongoing relationship with the Father. That is prayer.  It forms a wonderful connection between our identity and our ministry. Do you understand that? Do you experience the fruit of that relationship?

If so, the next point will make perfect sense.  Not only did Paul see prayer as a crucial part of his service to God but because of it he also felt an obligation to his neighbor. He was a debtor to the Greeks and Barbarians to the wise and foolish. Now, why would he feel this way? Well, think about it like this. A man dies and leaves his distant relative an inheritance. The lawyer has to track the relative down in order to see that he gets the estate. Now, there is a sense in which the lawyer owes it to the distant relative to make sure that he gets his inheritance.[i] Paul is like the lawyer who is going around the world enduring everything for the sake of the elect – for those who will inherit the kingdom. He has a sense of obligation and this sense gives rise to the next point.

Third, Paul is eager to preach the gospel. His desire is that their faith might be strengthened as he imparts a spiritual gift.  What is gift? Well, that question is answered when we realize the outcome. The word for “strong” in make them strong is used in 16:25 to describe the effect of preaching. There Paul writes, “Now to him who able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ,…”

Paul believed in the power of the preached word. As William Still believed after him, preaching accomplishes something in God’s people that would last for all eternity. What do you think of preaching? Do you climb the stairs of the pulpit Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day fully expecting God to work in His people through the preaching?  Let me ask another question.  Preacher, do you, for godly reasons, pray for and desire the Lord to work in your people? What I am asking is do you love your people enough to invest prayer time in them before climbing into the pulpit to preach to them?

There is a third thing to note.  When the main thing is the main thing your vision for the work expands. You say, like Paul, I want to come to you because ultimately I want to go to Spain and preach. Let me ask you, is your vision expanding or shrinking? Perhaps you say, “Honestly, yes, it’s shrinking.” Perhaps it is.  But the whether it is or isn’t, my encouragement is the same.  You must go to the Master again and again and there find your identity, your resources, and your purpose.

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.


[i] Cottrell, Romans, 58.

Huldrych Zwingli – An Overshadowed Reformer

October 11 marks the 486th anniversary of the death of Huldrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531) at the Battle of Kappel, where he acted as chaplain and flag-bearer for the troops. In spite of being one of the key protagonists of the Protestant Reformation, he is mostly known today for his disagreements with Luther, for his military career, and for his stance on eating sausages for Lent. J. I. Packer called him “A Great Reformer Overshadowed by Two Greater” (meaning Luther and Calvin).

            William Boekestein, Pastor at Immanuel Fellowship Church and author of Ulrich Zwingli, Bitesize Biographies, EP Books, and Ulrich Zwingli: Shepherd Warrior, Trailblazers, CF4Kids, has graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about this intriguing and influential Reformer.

1. Zwingli’s life took very different turns than Luther’s or Calvin. Could you sum it up briefly?

            The three names you mention are often grouped together as the early leaders of the Reformation. But as you indicate, there are important differences. For example, when Luther and Zwingli began making reformational waves in Germany and Switzerland, Calvin was still a kid, around eight years old. Calvin had the advantage of building on the foundation of the earlier reformers.

            Zwingli and Luther were born less than two months and four hundred miles apart near the beginning of 1484. They both spoke German and received a rigorous classical education. But whereas Luther began his religious career in a monastery, Zwingli, in his early twenties, became a Catholic priest in a small Swiss town just a day’s hike from where he was born. After serving in two small parishes for thirteen years, Zwingli became the pastor of a large church in the city of Zurich, where he served for the rest of his life.

            Zwingli used his influential position to promote the simple Christian faith that he learned from the pages of Scripture and from the teachings of the church fathers; a faith he believed had become almost unrecognizable through the influence of centuries of Catholic Church tradition. The ecclesiastical reformation emanating from Zurich produced gospel fruit—and civil tension—throughout the confederacy of Switzerland. In the fall of 1531 the religious conflict led to a civil war between proponents of the two faiths. This war claimed the lives of Zwingli and dozens of other pastors and hundreds of other citizens.

2. Why do you think we know less about him today than we do about Luther and Calvin?

            There are a number of factors that help explain why we often mention Zwingli as a reformer but tend to be able to say relatively little about him.

            First, whereas the reformational careers of Calvin and Luther lasted around thirty years each, Zwingli can only be considered “reformed” for around a dozen years. Formally, he did not break with the Catholic Church until six years prior to his death.

            Second, while Zwingli’s writings are energetic, fresh, and grounded in Scripture, they are not as polished or careful as Calvin’s nor as witty as Luther’s. Zwingli admitted that he often sent his manuscripts to the printer without ever even rereading what he had written! Given his tumultuous civic and religious life Zwingli was unable to edit his theology the way Calvin revised his Institutes over the course of more than two decades. His theology was changing (I think, in positive ways) but, given his untimely death, was it was unable to fully mature.

Third, in part through some ghastly comments by Luther (e.g. “Zwingli perished in his sins.”) and abiding misconceptions about his life and theology reformed people have tended to feel less affinity with Zwingli than with some of the other reformers.

3. What are some of the main misconceptions we have about Zwingli and how should we correct them?

            The first important misconception people often have is that Zwingli was a war-monger. Based often on the bare fact that he several times participated in war and died in battle—and based on his iconic statue in Zurich, with Bible in one hand, and a broadsword in the other—people assume that Zwingli favored a militaristic reformation. This impression is grossly mistaken. Zwingli rose to popularity—and notoriousness—through his early preaching against Swiss participation in mercenary soldiering. Zwingli argued that this practice created multiple social problems and violated the spirit of Christianity. He wrote a pamphlet to one of the Swiss states on the evils of warfare and encouraged his parishioners to take up more constructive occupations while at the same time remaining prepared to defend their families and territories against foreign invaders.

            Of course, he did himself go to war, and die in battle, but he did so in the capacity of a chaplain and citizen-militiaman for a state that had no standing army. It is true, however, that he did argue vehemently for the war that ended his life but only as an alternative to the cruel embargo that his state had imposed on the Catholic regions.

            Zwingli is also often accused of having a merely “memorialistic” view of the Lord’s Supper in which Holy Communion is simply a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice but not a means of grace. This is a complicated matter but we should at least realize Zwingli recognized that believers genuinely commune with Christ in the meal—he was willing to say things like, “Christ is in the Supper in the same way in which believers are now in heaven (Col. 3:1)—and that his Eucharistic theology near the end of his life was trajecting away from the position of the Anabaptists and closer toward the understanding of Luther. 

 4. In your books, you depict Zwingli flaws and all. What are some of the errors and compromises he made and how should we view them today?

            Of his many flaws, one of the most glaring in our day is his vehement, and even occasionally violent, suppression of minority theological positions. Like most of his contemporaries Zwingli could not image a state recognizing the rights of religious dissenters. This is a complicated matter but three things are worth considering.

            First, we should try to understand our heroes’ faults even if we cannot defend them (note the way Scripture honestly exposes the sins of the godliest people; e.g. Hebrews 11).

            Second, God’s people are always seduced by the sins of their age. We lament over the harsh actions of Zwingli and the Zurich city council against Anabaptists, but historically speaking, this was an “acceptable sin.”

            Third, God’s people often believe better than they behave. Zwingli treasured the Christian liberty that believers receive through the gospel. But in practice, he struggled granting to others what he claimed for himself. 

5.After Zwingli’s death and the disastrous defeat at Kappel, Heinrich Bullinger took on the tremendous challenge of leading the Swiss church and moving it in closer step with the other European Reformations. Which aspects of Zwingli’s work did he emphasize and which did he correct?

            Bullinger rightly recognized that the hand of Providence had checked the ambitions of the reformed states. In this way Zwingli’s error—failing to distinguish between the use of spiritual and carnal means of reformation—helped lead to an increasing spirit of Christian liberty in Switzerland and beyond. Theologically, Bullinger was heavily influenced by his predecessor and in Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession one reads Zwingli filtered through a more precise and careful grid.

6. Should we still read Zwingli’s works today? If so, which would you recommend?

            Zwingli is worth reading today. Regrettably, his works are not accessible in a modern, edited version. To get a taste of Zwingli’s reformational theology you can read his “Sixty-Seven Articles” available many places online (e.g. https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/zwinglis-sixty-se…).

A Healthy Church: The Word of God

The book of Revelation can be thrilling. Not because of the charts and timelines often concocted to parse out the unknowable date of Christ’s return. No, it’s marvelous because it is filled with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But let me tell you what else it has going for it besides the fact that it is the inspired word of God!  The fifth seal of the book of Revelation helps us to understand the importance of God’s word in the life of a healthy congregation. Go ahead and take a minute to read it.  It’s Revelation 6:9-11.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

 Now, I can probably guess what you’re thinking. You are saying to yourself, “How can this passage help us to understand the place of God’s word in a healthy congregation? After all, these martyrs are, well, dead! So, how can this passage tell us what you propose?”

Well, before these martyrs were martyrs they were living members of Christ’s church in the world.  And notice, they were “slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.”[1] So, while they were alive they were committed to God’s word.  In fact, so committed were they that they were willing to give up their lives for the sake of it. But the text takes us beyond their life and even their martyrdom.  The text takes us into their disembodied existence pictured under the altar. And more importantly, we overhear their prayer. John says, “They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?”

Now, we expect a prayer but not this prayer. This prayer seems to be asking for judgment and vengeance.  However, what we have here is a courtroom setting.  The martyrs are asking for their case to be heard and then vindicated. However, they are not asking for personal vindication. No, these martyrs are saying, “Christ promised that we would eat from the tree of life.[2] He promised that in Him we would possess authority over nations.[3] He promised that we would be pillars in the Temple of God.[4] And what is more, he promised that united to Him we would sit on His throne.[5] But instead we were cut down like dogs.  And the worst of it is it appears that the word upon which we based our lives has failed! So, Lord, show your word to be true! Deliver your word, vindicate it and in so doing we will be vindicated!”  That’s what these martyrs are saying.

Now, that’s well and good but how does this help us to see the importance of God’s word in the life of a healthy congregation?  Well, when you have a congregation who, in life and even in death, sees their lives so bound up with God’s word that they long to see that word vindicated – proven true, then surely you have a congregation wherein the word of God is vitally important.  And how can that congregation not be healthy?

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.


[1] Revelation 6:9.

[2] Revelation 2:7.

[3] Revelation 2:26-27.

[4] Revelation 3:12.

[5] Revelation 3:21.

The Westminster Assembly and Preaching 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 preaching 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!

A Healthy Church: The Aim of Discipline

Discipline is hard–giving it and receiving it. Knowing the reasons and realities behind it doesn’t necessarily help, either. Perhaps you’ve cringed when reading: “Endure discipline; God is dealing with you as with sons. For what son is there whom a father does not discipline (Hebrews 12:7/MEV),” maybe even as much as the last time you heard: “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” Ouch! No thanks! We didn’t tend to believe our earthly parents when they told us that, and we don’t tend to believe the Lord when he says he disciplines us because he loves us. In fact, my heart tends to zero-in on how I messed up, rather than on the loving nature of discipline. Really, can anything be said or done that makes discipline easy, even easier? No. But, remembering the motive (Love!) and the goal of discipline can aid our endurance while under it or applying it. And, since discipline has long been understood to be a mark of the church, know that, at some point, whether you want to or not, you will participate in discipline! So love is the motive, but what is the goal? Before we remind ourselves of the goal of discipline, let’s quickly review the types of discipline experienced by the Christian.

The first is Self-discipline. Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) who is powerfully present and working in the life of every believer. This is the best discipline for the Christian, as it shows the Holy Spirit is laboring to convict him of his sin, dealing with it before it hurts a brother or sister, becomes scandalous, bringing shame upon Christ or His church.

When those matters of the heart grow up into sins that come out against others, the one sinned against may handle the situation through Informal Discipline. Enter Matthew 18. Take a moment to read Matthew 18:15-16. Imagine the heartache the fellowship of saints would be spared if these two, brief verses were joyfully practiced and received. If brothers and sisters would prayerfully approach, confront, and reconcile as matters arise, not allowing them to sit, soak, and sour. Let’s remember the steps of informal discipline Scripture gives us and take them.

            So if one doesn’t discipline himself, or if informal discipline doesn’t help, even after taking along a godly witness to his interaction on the topic, but he STILL doesn’t listen, what now? Matthew 18:17 tells us that we are to involve the appropriate church authorities. Check (and follow!) your local Book of Discipline[1] for your church’s agreed-upon steps from here,[2] and be patient for good results.[3]

But why? For what reason do we follow God’s Word in our dealings with ourselves and others who are beginning to ere or stray in some area of their life. In our more litigious society, we might be more attracted to those more aggressive reasons given by the Westminster Divines for “Church Censures”: deterring of others from the like offences (sic), for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor of Christ, and holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant and the seas thereof to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.”[4] To keep things pure, to make sure Christ is honored, to keep others from doing the same things—this list, or one like it, might be the reasons we generally feel discipline to be a mark of the church and are willing to participate.

But Matthew 18:15 says that the purpose for the entire endeavor (the sweaty palms, nervous prayers, awkward conversations—all the experiences we associate with spiritual confrontation) is to “gain your brother.” The Westminster Confession actually starts with this reason, the “reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren,” then brings in broader biblical wisdom[5] to increase our motivation to practice discipline as a vital mark of the church. Our ultimate purpose in practicing church discipline is fellowship. This is a hard truth that, like surgeons, we cut to heal. Like mountaineers, we burn to conserve. Like oilmen, we ignite to cap and redirect. We handle hurtful things to heal and draw close.

At the end of it, what would motivate you to shine gospel light on the sin of a brother or sister? To show their sin for what it is? To protect others from erring in a way so offensive to you? To potentially rid the church and, ultimately, yourself of their irritating presence? How about being lovingly driven by the opportunity of drawing even closer to this sinning sibling, walking farther down the road of faith and repentance than you could have imagined in the beginning. The Lord does such in his discipline of us.[6] Let us do so in the discipline of one another.

Joel Wood is the pastor of Trinity RPC in Burtonsville, MD, between DC and Baltimore. He holds M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is 1/4 of The Jerusalem Chamber podcast, a roundtable discussion about the doctrine, worship, and piety of the Westminster Confession of Faith.


[2] If your church or fellowship of churches does not have some document or manual for how to handle issues of discipline, you may rethink why you are where you are!

[3] Hebrews 12:11.

[5] 1 Cor. 5; 1 Tim. 5:20; Matt. 7:6; 1 Tim. 1:20; 1 Cor. 11:27-34 with Jude 1:23.

[6] WCF 5.5. See also 11.5; 17.3; and 18.4.

Biblical Counsel for Pastoral Burnout, Part 2

Pastoral  burnout is a significant problem in the church today. In the last article, I suggested that C.S. Lewis’s article, “First and Second Things” might be helpful in diagnosing the problem.  Lewis said that when first things are eclipsed by second things both things are lost. In that first post, I suggested that a way forward could be found in Romans 1:8-15. I also made the claim that understanding ourselves before God could go a long way in coping with or even avoiding burnout. Today, having identity issues in place, I want to press forward and think about God and his resources for our ministry.

If we understand the gospel, that we were bought with a price and as a result we are servants of the Lord, people who offer their whole selves to the work, then we realize something crucial. We realize that God is the source of our resources. This can be very comforting. I say “can be” because every minister knows what I’m going to say next. We must realize that God may supply resources to do things in us and with us that we might never expect and never have wanted for ourselves.

Notice, for example, that Paul has longed to see the Roman Christians. He seems to have been close to visiting Rome in the past but it just didn’t work out. Maybe there were more pressing matters within churches near to hand that he needed to attend. But listen to what he says. Paul writes in Romans 1:10, “[always] in my prayers asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.”

Now, as of his historical moment, he had not been able to visit the Romans. But he wanted to visit them. He longed to do so. And so, he prayed “that somehow by God’s will” he might succeed. Now, brothers, do you remember that in Acts 21 Paul was arrested in Jerusalem? And after a plot against his life and after speaking before Felix and Festus he finally said, “I appeal to Caesar!” And then, look at Acts 28:11-16.

11 After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods as a figurehead. 12 Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. 13 And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. 14 There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. 15 And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. 16 And when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who guarded him.

“Somehow by God’s will.” Paul wanted to go to Rome. I wonder if he ever thought that he would go to Rome as a prisoner. God eventually used his means and resources to get Paul to Rome. But going to Rome as a prisoner may have been unexpected and it was almost certainly unwanted.  But Paul prayed that “somehow by God’s will” he would get to these people. But here is the point, when you know to whom you belong, when you are not willing to hold anything back then you can pray for the “somehow” of the ministry without fear.

Now, to my brothers in the ministry, are you ready to pray for the “somehow” of God’s providence in the ministry? Are you ready to trust God with the plan and the resources? Too often, we aren’t. Too often our prayers have an Augustine like quality, “Lord, Save me but not yet.” We pray, “Lord, take most of my life and leave the rest be.”

But the Lord will have none of that foolishness. He wants us and he wants all of us.  And why not, after all, he bought us. And when he has all of us he will use us for his glory and he will supply all the resources that we need. But in order to pray like that we need to desire what the Master desires. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, that is for the next post.

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: Congregational Prayer

     One of the basic practices in the Christian life is prayer.  It is a spiritual discipline that is instilled in us from our earliest days.  It is uttered in private, in family devotions, and in various public settings for numerous occasions, both within the church and outside of it.  Moreover, it is one of the gifts that God has given to his people for their growth in holiness and discipleship.  Thus, it is not an optional activity only to be used by believers for a temporary jolt of encouragement, or when we have reached the end of our own abilities or wisdom and need assistance.  It is a necessary component of the new birth.  It is offered when in the pit of despair and when on the summit of joy.  Christians are not simply expected to pray; they are commanded to do so because it pleases God (Matt. 6:9-13; Rom. 12:12).

     But how often do we consider the importance of prayer within the church?  It is easy to impress upon people the value of prayers in the home that pertain most directly to the needs of a particular individual or family.  Every Christian knows this is true from his or her own experience.  But what is the value of prayer within the setting of the local church as it gathers for worship?  Here, of course, certain subjects that take up much time in our private prayers will not be addressed in a public assembly of God’s people.  How does prayer of this nature help to contribute to a healthy church?

     This question, of course, assumes that an extended prayer is still a component of a church’s order of service.  There are other prayers that are offered throughout public worship, including the invocation near the beginning, a confession of sin, and the pastoral prayer immediately following the conclusion of the sermon.  But the broader congregational prayer achieves a number of things that are vital.  One purpose is to ascribe praise and thanks to God, not only for what he has done for his people, but for his character, which is the reason for those divine actions.  This does not mean that congregational prayer is to sound like a mini-systematic recounting of all of God’s attributes.  But it is important to remind the worshipers in a thoughtful way of what the Triune God is really like.  For most Christians in the pews, the great majority of their week is concerned with the secular affairs of their particular vocation.  The congregational prayer is a critical opportunity to direct their minds heavenward to the majesty of the one true God who has both made and redeemed them.

     Another purpose of congregational prayer is to publicly remember Christians who are serving the Lord in various ways throughout the world, focusing particularly on missionaries supported by the local church.  In addition, it is pleasing to the Lord when we add to this component Christians who are being persecuted, even unto death, for their allegiance to Christ.  Along these lines, this prayer provides the opportunity to pray for the salvation of the lost.

     A third part of the prayer includes a selection of those within the congregation who are ailing physically, if they desire such public mention.  And of course, the size of the congregation affects how many are prayed for, and how much detail will be provided.  In addition to this, other smaller gatherings that take place at other times of the week will allow for these and other more private concerns to be shared with others. 

     This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list of subjects, but is only to show what kind of material is appropriate for this particular prayer, and for the importance of having a prayer within the worship service that is more comprehensive in its content.

     Prayer contributes to a healthy church in at least two ways.  The first is that it reminds each Christian within the congregation that they do not live the Christian life in isolation from others.  Being united to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith also creates an unbreakable love for and union with other Christians that is ultimately stronger even than family ties, which is so easily seen when Christians who are disowned by unbelieving family members gain a new spiritual family in the church.  There is thus mutual support and encouragement that each member is to give to another as they together live as disciples of Christ and experience things that all people do in this fallen world.  Prayer is one of the ways such love is shown.

     The second reason why prayer contributes to a healthy church is that those unbelievers who visit will witness something that is unknown in any other religion or philosophy.  They will learn much of who God really is because they will discover what the Bible teaches about him.  And they will also observe and experience the love of Christ, as those who have received the saving truth of that love go on to display it to others. 

Michael D. Roberts is the Alliance editor of ThinkandActBiblically.org.  He holds a DTh in New Testament from the University of South Africa.

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.