Each week we will be highlighting important resources. Check back each Friday to see what we have dug up for you. From this week’s cache:
1. Your Sin Will Find You Out, But So Will His Righteousness: By Jared C. Wilson - Wilson says: “Your sins will find you out. You won’t get away with it. There will be justice. In this life or the next. Or both.”
2. The Scandal of Jesus: By Brad Watson - Watson notes: “I remember that there is Someone behind that cloud cover, One whom even the winds and waves obey. And that Someone is working a masterpiece behind the curtains of clouds that obscure our view of Him and His ways.”
3. The Peace of the Triune God: By Derek Rishmawy - Rishmawy says: “This inner divine peace is the principle of creaturely peace, that upon which all other peace is founded and by which it is preserved. This is so, however, only because divine peace is in itself complete and fully satisfied.”
4. Pride Is Your Greatest Problem: By Josh Squires- Squires says: “While the presenting problems vary widely, the problem, which all too often muddles counseling from the very outset, is pride — and the answer is Holy-Spirit-enabled, Jesus-centered humility.”
5. The Key to the Christian’s Joy: By R.C. Sproul - Sproul says: “Even if the Christian cannot rejoice in his circumstances, if he finds himself passing through pain, sorrow, or grief, he still can rejoice in Christ. We rejoice in the Lord, and since He never leaves us or forsakes us, we can rejoice always.”
Matt Manry is the Assistant Pastor at Life Bible Church in Canton, Georgia. He writes at matthewwmanry.com.
Call it “melancholy”, call it spiritual depression, call it excessively introspective, Bible-believing Christians have always recognized the category of the tenderhearted soul. This is the true believer who is nonetheless overly anxious, almost obsessive, about his spiritual state. Everybody around him will quickly identify him as a godly Christian, but for whatever reason, he can’t see it. Often he lives in constant fear that he is among the self-deceived to whom Jesus will one day say, “Depart from me, I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23). In the curious providence of God, I have several individuals in my congregation who fit this description. And on not a few occasions, I have found myself in this category.
Now in helping such persons enjoy assurance of salvation, it is necessary to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove. Conventional counsel encouraging believers to look for fruit of the Spirit in their lives rarely helps since tenderhearted souls are often more attuned to their insincere motives than most Christians. And since even our best works are tainted with insincere motives, this approach can easily make things worse. It can plunge the melancholic believer into a painful whirlpool of endless self-examination and despair.
If you are a pastor, almost certainly you have at least a few individuals in your congregation who fit this description. So as you prepare to shepherd your tenderhearted souls through their struggles with assurance, let me recommend a few resources. Books, articles, and lectures on assurance of salvation are legion, but here are a few that I’ve found particularly helpful in this area:
- “The Assurance of Faith”, essay by Peter Jensen (a must read for everybody, especially misguided souls seeking assurance in an experience)
- “The Pastoral Heart of the Reformation” and “Knowing God: The Importance of Grace”, lectures by Carl Trueman (rely heavily on Luther’s theology of knowing a gracious God)
- Don Carson on Assurance, a collection of resources complied by Andy Naselli (what could I say to commend Carson?)
- “Thoughts on The Assurance of Faith”, essay by Augustus Toplady (Toplady was an instrumental preacher in the Great Awakening; this is short but speaks powerfully to those excessively concerned with the strength of their faith)
- Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health by Donald Whitney (a little book the Lord used profoundly in my own life to help me biblically evaluate the state of my soul)
- The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes (a wonderful spiritual tonic for the weak, doubting Christian)
- The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, Theses IX, XI, XVII, and XXII, by C.F.W. Walther (the author is a conservative, confessional Lutheran, so his understanding of regeneration is somewhat different, but he has some really helpful things to say to those of us who are overly introspective and subjective)
- Thoughts on Religious Experience by Archibald Alexander (especially helpful for ministering to those with chronic “melancholy” or spiritual depression)
I’d be interested in your experiences. Would any of you describe yourselves as tenderhearted souls? If so, what have you found helpful for enjoying assurance of salvation?
Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.
Proverbs promises amazing rewards to those who are wise. Some Christians have said that we should never be motivated by rewards, that we are more spiritual if we obey God without any thought of a reward. Such a view, though it sounds spiritual, doesn’t fit with what the Bible says. God promises to reward us if we trust and obey him, showing that seeking a reward is pleasing to him.
Many of you know the famous C. S. Lewis quote on rewards. “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward … promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Seeking a reward is only wrong if the reward doesn’t fit with what you long for. If you marry a woman for her money, you are a mercenary because you don’t really love the woman but her money. But if you want the reward of marriage because you love a woman, then the reward fits with love. No one would say that you are a mercenary because you want to marry a woman you love.
But don’t some want the rewards God promises without loving and desiring God? I think the answer to that question is yes. Some do want the rewards even though they are bored with God. If you offer people joy, peace, and life, they naturally desire those things. In fact, that is how some churches do evangelism. They offer psychological comfort and peace to those who come to Jesus. Often such invitations are separated from proclaiming the gospel. Too often people fail to mention that we must repent of our sins, be disciples of Jesus, and trust him for salvation. Conrad Mbewe, who has been called Africa’s Spurgeon, wrote that too many African churches preach a false gospel, a health and wealth gospel. Too many evangelists preach a health and wealth gospel in the United States of America as well.
Another false gospel we often find brings this message: come to Jesus and your problems will be solved. People are invited to come to Jesus for healing, peace, and psychological comfort. In both cases, whether the message is come to Jesus and get rich, or come to Jesus for psychological wholeness, we have a false gospel. We can call it the health, wealth, and happiness gospel. As we can see, there is a way of seeking rewards that is alien to the gospel and to the message of the New Testament. Someone can have a desire for rewards while they don’t want to follow Jesus and to count the cost of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly warned us about cheap grace.
Rewards Aren’t Enough
So, should we throw out any idea of rewards since people misunderstand and abuse this teaching? Let us make two observations here. First, we can’t throw out rewards, for God promises stunning rewards to his people in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Promises of reward are everywhere in the Bible, but we also learn from the Old Testament and Israel’s continual disobedience that rewards aren’t enough. In other words, rewards alone don’t motivate us to obey. The history of Israel teaches us that if we don’t truly love God, we won’t end up believing in the rewards he promises. And so we will disobey him and not get the rewards.
Let’s think of an illustration. If I say that you will be strong and healthy your entire life if you do 30 pushups a day, then the reward is health. But if you absolutely hate and despise doing pushups, then you won’t keep doing them even though you are promised a great reward. You will start to mistrust the promised reward since you hate pushups. That’s the way it was with Israel. They didn’t keep God’s commands and receive what he promised, because they didn’t love God and disliked doing what he commanded.
So, that’s the first point: rewards themselves do not keep us faithful if we do not love God But that brings us to the second point. Even though rewards themselves aren’t sufficient to keep us faithful, it is still true that God promises us amazing rewards if we follow him. Our God doesn’t respond to the abuse of rewards by withdrawing rewards from us. In his great love he promises amazing blessings to those who know him. Knowing God and loving God and glorifying God are why we live. But at the same time God promises that if we love him he will give us astonishing blessings. And though rewards alone don’t keep us faithful, they are one of the means God uses to motivate us.
Part of what it means to trust God is to believe in his great promises. Rewards are tied into our love of God, for we realize from the rewards God promises that he wants to make us happy. Let’s return to the idea of marriage again. You don’t marry someone unless you think they will bring you happiness. No one marries and thinks: this person will make my life miserable. In the same way, we wouldn’t love God if we thought he would finally ruin our lives and make us miserable. For we can’t love God if he doesn’t love us first.
Before we look at some of the rewards promised in Proverbs let me briefly state two more things. First, most of the rewards promised in Proverbs are earthly rewards. God gives earthly blessings to those who follow his will and ways. Later we will see how these earthly rewards relate to heavenly blessing, but the blessings in Proverbs focus on our earthly joy. Second, we must remember that Proverbs are general principles and not unqualified promises. So, don’t interpret these promises of rewards in Proverbs as if there are no exceptions. Sometimes the godly suffer and experience disasters. Proverbs teaches that generally speaking, those who follow the Lord are blessed. In what follows we will look at three rewards promised for believers: believers are promised life, joy, and peace. Let’s look at these in order.
The Promise of Life
First, we are promised life if we follow the Lord. I am using the word life here in a broad sense. Life refers to the blessing and flourishing which is ours when we follow the Lord. Let’s begin with Proverbs 10:27, “The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short.” Or consider Proverbs 11:19, “Whoever is steadfast in righteousness will live, but he who pursues evil will die.” Fearing the Lord and steadily pursuing righteousness is the way to life. A life devoted to evil is bad for the body and one’s psyche. We know that one’s psychological frame of mind affects our bodies and our health as well. Are there exceptions? Of course! But generally speaking those who love God and do his will experience blessing.
Along the same lines we are told that righteousness delivers us from trouble in this life. Proverbs 11:6 says, “The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the treacherous are taken captive by their lust.” Think of the desires and lusts that can capture us. We may be addicted to alcohol, or drugs, or sex or anger. This verse says that these desires take us captive. We become enslaved to them and they start to ruin our lives. Not only that but they can lead to an early death as well. Are there any desires that are enslaving you? Are you being captured by something that is taking you away from the Lord? Are you spending your life in a productive and righteous way? Are you letting some sin or habit rule your life and frittering away your life on what is frivolous?
Let’s look at three other Proverbs about how important righteousness is. Proverbs 11:8 says, “The righteous is delivered from trouble, and the wicked walks into it instead.” Proverbs 12:7 says, “The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand.” And Proverbs 12:13 declares, “An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, but the righteous escapes from trouble.” I want to highlight here the importance of righteousness. If you are righteous, you will stand, you will finally be rewarded.
Maybe you feel you aren’t very good at anything. Maybe you look at other people and you think they are smarter than you. Or, maybe they seem to have a more productive and important job. You look at what you do every day and it doesn’t seem that significant and worthwhile. Perhaps you look at the ministry of someone else and yours seems small and insignificant. You get discouraged because you wish you were more gifted and you wish you could accomplish more for God. These Proverbs remind us that we are pleasing to God if we live righteous lives. God’s pleasure in us does not stem from how important our job or how important our ministry is. We might feel, “I am not doing that much. I am engaged in trivial tasks day after day.”
First of all, nothing is trivial to God, everything we do matters. A cup of cold water in Jesus’ name brings great blessing. But secondly, God is more interested in our righteousness than he is in our success. Let me put it another way, he is more interested in us becoming more like Jesus. Maybe you are frustrated with your abilities or what you do in your day to day life, but God is calling upon you to trust him and to do his will day after day. And if you do that, then God is pleased with you. God isn’t calling you to be great. He is calling upon you to be godly.
Proverbs 28:13-14 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. 14Blessed is the one who fears the LORD always, but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.” Isn’t that an encouraging verse? Prospering isn’t based on perfection. We prosper when we are honest, when we admit our sins. Those who harden their hearts against the Lord will face calamity. Those who confess their sins and forsake them we will find mercy. We should notice here the idea of forsaking our sins. Forsaking doesn’t mean perfection either. However this verse does warn us against using confession as a mantra to obtain mercy when we have no desire or intention to fight against the sin that we are committing. True confession of sin involves a fight against sin in our lives, a resolve to see that the sin in our lives is dethroned. True confession of sins doesn’t mean a quick “I’m sorry” and then an immediate return to what we were doing.
To return to our main them, notice the connection between righteousness and life in a few more Proverbs. Proverbs 12:28, “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death.” Proverbs 19:16 says, “Whoever keeps the commandment keeps his life; he who despises his ways will die.” And we find in Proverbs 19:23, “The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.” I have already said that when Proverbs speaks of life and flourishing it focuses on life in this world. Furthermore, Proverbs recognizes that there isn’t always a straight line in this life. For instance, Proverbs 24:16 says, “the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.” The righteous live, but they may stumble seven times. There may be many stresses and difficulties and failures along the way. But, ultimately and finally we all die.
When we look at the New Testament however we realize that life isn’t restricted to this world. The earthly life in Proverbs points to the eternal life we enjoy in Jesus Christ. Life in Proverbs functions as a type of eternal life. And Jesus said that everyone who believes in him has eternal life. As John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We read in John 6:40, “For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Proverbs ultimately points beyond this life to the life to come. In that day death and pain and sorrow won’t touch us anymore.
The Promise of Joy
The second promise for those who love God is joy. We all desire to experience deep joy in our hearts and lives. We want to be satisfied, fulfilled, and happy, and those desires are good and right. What is amazing is that God promises us such joy if we love him and follow his ways. Such promises make it clear that God is good and that he loves us. He doesn’t hide from us the pathway to joy. He doesn’t leave us to figure it out on our own. He plainly tells us how to find joy. Perhaps you have a parent or spouse who was angry, and you think of God as like them. But God is full of joy, and he invites us to participate in his joy. He wants us to find our joy and satisfaction in him. Proverbs emphasizes this theme with several verses. Proverbs 12:20, “Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but those who plan peace have joy.” 12:28 , “The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish.” 13:9, “The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked will be put out.” 15:15, “All the days of the afflicted are evil, but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.” 10:22, “The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.”
I want us to make three short observations from the above verses. First, God promises that ultimately the godly will have joy. The wicked plan and strategize for joy as well, but their plans are finally frustrated and come to nothing. I love the promise of Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Those were the last words the famous pastor Peter Marshall said to his wife as he was wheeled away after having a heart attack. Catherine never saw Peter alive again. So, she endured a long and painful time of weeping, but the promise her husband said is still true, “Joy comes in the morning.” When you are full of sadness remind yourself of this truth. It is dark now but morning is coming. Morning is coming.
Second, I love the line that the “cheerful heart has a continual feast.” Those who are cheerful in heart have bad days too, but what makes them distinctive is their joy, their happiness in the Lord. The most important thing as a parent you can give your children is your happiness in the Lord. I am not talking about a fake kind of outward joy. I am not talking about having a certain kind of personality. I have met people that seem very happy on the outside who are actually incredibly unhappy when you get to know them. Paul tells us that he had joy even in sorrow, so joy doesn’t mean that we are happy clappy every moment. But there is a joy and a confidence in us because we belong to, and live under a sovereign God. I also think one of the most important things for pastors is that they are happy in the Lord. Have you ever sat under an unhappy pastor? He can’t ultimately hide his unhappiness. Grumpiness shows up in everyday life. If you are a joyful Christian at work, people will notice the difference. There is something radiant and attractive about joy. As Nehemiah 8:10 says “the joy of The Lord is our strength.”
Finally, Proverbs 10:22 says that God doesn’t add sorrow to our joy. He doesn’t mean by that we never face sorrow. He means that God’s joy finally triumphs over all sorrow, that God gives us a joy that is stronger and deeper than sorrow. That is what Jesus meant when he said. “In the world you will have tribulation, but cheer up for I have overcome the world.” In every trial don’t forget that Jesus has overcome the world, that everything that holds us down will not conquer us. The final word is joy.
The Promise of Peace
The third blessing we are going to look at is peace. The Lord gives peace to those who follow his ways. There is a tranquility and rest that is given to those of us who know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. In our digital age people are always being entertained, always on their phones, iPads, computers, listening to music, watching TV, checking Facebook, etc. But how many are terrified of being alone? How many lack true peace where they can be quiet and at rest when they are alone. We read in Proverbs 3:1-2, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you.” We read in Romans 5:1 that those who are justified by faith, those who are right with God because of their faith rather than their works, have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
How wonderful it is to know that we have a right relationship with God, to know that we stand clean before the God of the universe. We can put our heads down on our pillows, knowing that we are reconciled to God. And when we live wisely we find peace. Proverbs 3:17 puts it this way, “Her ways (that’s wisdom) are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” If we give ourselves to God, we experience peace in our everyday lives. It is a peace, as Philippians 4:7 says, that passes all understanding, as God guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
We read in Proverbs 14:30, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” God gives us peace, and if our hearts our tranquil and restful, then we will experience life and joy. Isn’t it fascinating that a tranquil heart is contrasted with envy and jealousy? One of the things that robs us of peace is if we are fiercely competitive with others, if we are torn up with a spirit of rivalry and competition. When we see others who are better than us and it wounds our heart, thank God for their skills and abilities. Ask God to use and glorify them even more than he does.
In conclusion, though we have barely touched the surface, we close where we began. God promises us an eternal weight of glory. He promises us a glory that is so great that the sufferings of the present world will seem light. He doesn’t say our sufferings are light, for they are often very heavy. But he promises that they will seem light in the future. We will look back and say that what we suffered is nothing compared to knowing The Lord. Therefore, we can know that the beauty and glory and splendor before us must be astonishingly great, more than we can comprehend. Praise the Lord.
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.
In the new issue of Credo Magazine,“The Forgotten God,” Bruce A. Ware contributed an article called, “Vengeance is Mine: Suffering for the Gospel and the Certainty of the Judgment of the Non-elect.” Bruce Ware is T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Dr. Ware is a highly esteemed theologian and author in the evangelical world. He came to Southern Seminary from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he served as Chairman of the Department of Biblical and Systematic Theology. Prior to this, he taught at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary and Bethel Theological Seminary. He has written numerous journal articles, book chapters, and book reviews and, along with Thomas Schreiner, has co-edited Still Sovereign. He also has authored God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism; God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance; Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God; and The Man Christ Jesus: Theological Reflections on the Humanity of Christ.
Should the future suffering of the non-elect, particularly the future suffering of those who currently inflict suffering on the elect, play any part in a Christian’s comfort, or hope, or in his understanding of his own unjust sufferings? Our intuitions, shaped so much by our contemporary culture, would lead us to answer, “no.” How could our present comfort be based, even in part, on the recognition that those who currently inflict suffering on the godly will themselves be punished? This seems just plain wrong. It seems un-Christian. And it seems contrary to the teaching of Christ himself. After all, Jesus commanded his disciples, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). And Jesus himself, while enduring the infinite injustice of his death on the cross by the hands of wicked men (Acts 2:23) spoke not words of retribution but forgiveness, saying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). So, surely a persecuted believer would be wrong to take comfort or hope in the realization that the wicked persecutors of the godly will themselves be punished.
Three Bible verses you won’t forget
As intuitive as this may seem to us, look with me at three other passages (the last of which we’ll explore in a bit more detail):
First, consider 1 Peter 2:21-24. Evidently Jesus himself — yes, the same Jesus who spoke the words we just considered in Matthew 5:44 and Luke 23:34 — took comfort in knowing that God his Father would bring vengeance on those who persecuted him. Listen to 1 Peter 2:21-24:
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
The key verse, of course, is v. 23. Jesus did not retaliate when he was wronged, but what did he do instead? He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” This means that Jesus consciously considered as good and right that God his Father would deal with the injustices that were occurring in his persecution. He did not put this out of his mind; rather, he “kept entrusting” himself to the One who would “judge righteously,” i.e., to the One who would, in the future, bring justice to bear on those practicing injustice now.
So we conclude that Jesus could simultaneously “love his enemies” and hence not retaliate when wronged, while also entrusting to God the future judgment of these perpetrators of injustice; he could simultaneously pray forgiveness for these enemies, while consciously knowing that all who were not forgiven by the Father would face their day of reckoning. Both were true in the self-consciousness of Jesus, not just the former of the two (1 Pet. 2:21-24).
Second, Paul’s admonitions in Romans 12:19-20 are also instructive. He writes:
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Rom. 12:19-20).
Notice two things about this text. To begin with, Paul also encourages believers who are wronged not to take their own revenge, but instead to trust God who will execute his wrath and vengeance upon these ungodly wrongdoers. So, as we saw with 1 Peter 21:23, the realization of the future judgment of God on those who now inflict unjust suffering is not meant to be resisted or squelched or dismissed as “ungodly” thinking; rather this realization is to be embraced as part of the very arsenal by which those unjustly persecuted may resist personal revenge. They shouldn’t take revenge because God will! And they should know this, contemplate it, and take strength and comfort in it in the midst of their own mistreatment.
Additionally, notice Paul’s juxtaposition of two OT passages: Deuteronomy 32:35, where Moses (speaking on behalf of God) reminds the children of Israel that God will take vengeance on those who turn from him and his ways, and Proverbs 25:21-22, where we are instructed to do good our enemies, giving them food and drink instead of (implicitly) doing them harm.
This juxtaposition is very instructive. It shows that one can simultaneously “love our enemies” while also “leaving room for the wrath of God” to come upon them. One does not cancel out the other. As we saw with Jesus, above, we too can simultaneously show kindnesses to our enemies (“if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink”) and hence not retaliate against them when wronged, while we can also entrust to God the future display of his vengeance upon those who carry out injustice against us (“leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord”). Not only do these two not conflict, it is our confidence that God will repay that can contribute to freeing us up not to retaliate ourselves but rather show kindness and love to our enemies. …
Read the rest of this article today!
Looking back on the first half of the twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr famously described liberal Christianity’s understanding of the gospel like this: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Such a mentality has had its influence and still does today. There are certain Bible stories that you just don’t talk about, not even in church. For many people today, Bible stories having to do with divine wrath, anger, or jealousy are embarrassing. And yet, no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel, it is nearly impossible to get through a book (sometimes a chapter!) of the Bible without coming face to face with these forgotten attributes of God. In a culture that capitalizes on tolerance and love, a focus on divine judgment is considered harsh, even primitive. Gordon Rupp’s words still speak today when he said, “What it means to feel oneself under the Wrath of God is something that modern man can hardly understand.”
Though unpopular to do so, this issue of Credo Magazine aims to make you, the modern reader, feel the weight of these biblical attributes of God. They are forgotten attributes of God, no doubt about it. But our desire is that by the end of this issue you will see just how important these attributes are to the story of redemption and for knowing God in a saving way. As has often been said, it is impossible to relish the grace of God in the cross of Christ unless you first understand the condemnation you sit under as a rebel.
Contributors include Bruce Ware, David Murray, Erik Thoennes, Matthew Barrett, Fred Zaspel, Daniel Hyde, Cornelius Tolsma, Jessalyn Hutto, Michael A.G. Haykin, and many others.
The next best thing to reading a classic, is reading a literary guide that respects, explains, and inspires you to read again a classic with fresh eyes. My hope is that J.V. Fesko’s recent book The Theology of the Westminster Standards will do exactly that. We’ve invited Dr. Fesko to give us a brief guide to his guide of these classic standards of Reformed Orthodoxy.
For those of our readers not familiar with the Westminster Standards, could you give us a brief description of what they are, when they were produced, by whom, and why?
Seventeenth-century England was racked by significant political turmoil. The king, Charles I, wanted to solidify his political power by uniting the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland under his reign, which was political and theological. As head of the Church of England, Charles directed his bishops to impose the Book of Common Prayer upon the churches of Scotland. To say the least, the Scots would have nothing of it. They believed that Charles and Archbishop Laud wanted to force Roman Catholicism, popery, upon them. The Scots rebelled and started a war. Charles convened the infrequently gathered Parliament in order to secure funds to raise an army, but he did so in a highhanded way, which created political rifts that resulted in civil war. In the wake of Charles’ departure from London with loyal members of parliament (MP) in tow, the remaining MPs knew they too needed to unite the three kingdoms, politically and theologically. The English needed the Scottish army to fight the king, and the Scots wanted Presbyterianism in the three kingdoms. The English were looking for a military and political alliance, and the Scots for a theological one. The child of this political and theological union was the Westminster Assembly. Parliament called an assembly of theologians, divines according to seventeenth-century terminology, to unify the worship and theology of the three kingdoms under one common confession of faith and church order.
The divines initially sought to revise the Thirty-Nine articles but eventually determined to write an entirely new confession, catechisms, and church order. They produced a set of documents, which we now know as the Westminster Standards. The Standards consist of the Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism, and Directory for Public Worship. From one vantage point, the Westminster Standards represent a failed project—Parliament was unable to unite theologically the three kingdoms. Charles I was executed, but Charles II eventually assumed his father’s throne and reconstituted the Church of England. Many of the Westminster divines were ejected from their pulpits with the restoration of the monarchy. Despite the dark clouds of failure that rolled over the theological landscape, there was a silver lining in these forboding developments. Today, many churches around the world confess and employ the Westminster Standards, and they have been translated into numerous languages. The history of the origins of the Westminster Standards proves an old medieval axiom: God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. Parliament may not have united the three kingdoms, but they provided Christians throughout the world with one of the best and concise statements of the Christian faith. Moreover, the Westminster Standards have found life beyond Presbyterian circles, with Congregational and Baptist versions of the Confession, and a Baptist version of the Shorter Catechism, edited by Charles Spurgeon.
The contemporary relevance of the Westminster Standards is demonstrated not least by the fact that it continues as the doctrinal authority of many confessional bodies. Yet what are the dangers of referencing them without taking into account the four hundred year gap between when they written and now?
We continue to profess the faith once delivered to the saints. The same gospel promises and justification, for example, that brought Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel, the forgiveness of sins and imputed righteousness of Christ, is the same faith outlined in the Westminster Standards, and it is the same faith we continue to profess today. But in spite of the substantive agreement throughout the ages, to quote the Bob Dylan song, “The times, they are a’changin.’” In other words, though we share a common faith, the church has spoken of it in slightly different ways. We all speak English, but seventeenth-century theologians have a different accent and use different words. I think all too often we gravitate to the portions of the Standards that we understand and recognize and skip over other parts. What, for example, is general equity (WCF 19:6)? What do the divines mean when they invoke the term contingency (WCF 3:1)? Why on earth would they confidently assert that the Pope is the antichrist? When we can answer questions like these, then we will be better equipped to employ the Standards in our own setting. We can only truly understand the Standards when we do our best to step back in time and read them in their original seventeenth-century setting. We have to walk in the shoes of a Westminster divine so we can accurately grasp what the Standards teach. When we do this, I believe we will gain a much greater appreciation for the clarity, concision, precision, and doctrinal fidelity of the Westminster Standards.
Whenever I read the puritans complain about how spiritually dark and theologically fragmented their times were, I used to be quite shocked and skeptical. Surely, they lived in an era of greater religious probity and unity than our own pluralistic and secular age. Are the similarities between our ages greater than the differences, or vice versa?
I think we moderns have a tendency to idealize the past. We look at the chaos in our own day and see the apparent green pastures and serenity of the seventeenth century. We think, “If only I could have lived during the composition of the Westminster Standards, a time when everyone was united in their convictions and theology.” We must realize that, as popular as such a notion is, it is rooted more in desire and imagination than in reality. Imagined ideals are calm and peaceful; history is chaotic, violent, and filled with sin. Every age, including seventeenth-century England, has been marred and defaced by wicked unbelievers and well-intentioned but nevertheless sinful saints. Yes, the Westminster Standards are a monument to doctrinal unity, a goal to which the church in every age should strive. But this unity was an acheivement, not of unity of conviction on every point, but out of love, compromise, and sacrifice.
The minutes of the assembly amply attest to the sometimes bitter and arduous debates that marked the efforts to birth the Standards. The divines knew where to draw lines in the sand and when to draw circles, when to say, “Thus far and no further,” and when to allow principled diversity on many different doctrinal issues. Many portions of the Standards are expressions of brilliant ambiguity—the Standards state a truth but in such a way as to allow men of different conviction to affirm it. For example, the Confession states, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam” (7:2, emphasis). We may not realize it, but this is an instance of principled ambiguity. There was debate among the divines as to whether the life promised to Adam and Eve was eternal life or prolonged life in the garden. Rather than declare one another heterodox, the divines worded this phrase in such a way so that both parties could affirm it. The divines exercised wisdom and knew what was essential and where the areas of disagreement were. We have much to learn from the divines in this area.
We must realize that there has never been a golden age in church history. We are just as sinful as previous generations. The divines conducted their labors in the midst of civil war, lived with threats of terrorism, the encroaching menace of false doctrine, even Islam, and regularly wrestled with questions regarding the proper limits of governmental authority vis-à-vis the church. In a word, their world was just as chaotic as our own. Once we recognize this, we can learn much from their own engagement of these complex and challenging issues.
Your survey of the Standards is selective, not comprehensive. What is your reasoning behind the selection of topics from the Standards you cover?
My dream was to write a comprehensive, line-by-line, commentary on the Standards, but I am also a realist. Such a project would take a decade or more and would likely fill many loquacious volumes. I wanted, therefore, to write a book that would be accessible and useful for the church, so I aimed for a much more modest project. I chose the topics that I did because, as I researched the history and theology of the Standards, they were the subjects that seemed to occupy much of the assembly’s time and debate. Topics like justification and sanctification sat on the front burner for the assembly, as did worship and the relationship between church and state. As you can imagine, if you have run off the king and are engaged in a civil war, you would want to deliniate the boundaries of political and ecclesiastical power and authority. In our own day we debate the question of whether the President of the United States is a Christian and whether his profession of faith is genuine. In the seventeenth-century, on the other hand, the debate was about whether the king was head of the church or simply just one of its members subject to ecclesiasitcal, not political, authority. I treated the topics, therefore, that, in my judgment, seemed to warrant the most attention.
I believe one charge you attempt to lay to rest at various point in this book is that the authors of the Standards may have been unduly influenced by some form of early modern rationalism. What are the typical examples of this so-called rationalist bent, and what would be your overall response to them?
Some historical scholarship in the mid- to late-twentieth century made the claim that the Westminster divines were given to speculative rationalism because they treat the doctrine of predestination in the earliest portion of the Confession rather than under the topic of salvation, where John Calvin treats the subject in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. While such an accusation may be common, it rests upon at least two faulty reasons.
First, placement of a doctrine within a confession or theological work is not all determinative. One must take into account the different literary genres—a confession of faith versus an introductory doctrinal manual for theological students based upon Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. What do the respective documents substantively claim about the subject, in this case, predestination? Are there any substantive differences between Calvin and the Confession? We should also connect the doctrine of predestination with the rest of the theological system and related doctrines. When we do this, we quickly discover that the Confession advocates the doctrine of divine permission of the fall, a category that Calvin rejected. Moreover, Calvin advocates a fully double predestination, two separate decrees—election and reprobation. Whereas the Confession only speaks of single predestination, a decree of election, and preterition of the non-elect. The differences are minute, but certainly demonstrate that placement alone does not determine the significance or function of a doctrine.
Second, critics seem to ignore the fact that the Confession begins with the doctrine of Scripture, a topic that Calvin never treats under a separate locus in his Institutes. This does not mean that Calvin thought any less of Scripture than the divines, but it does point out that, contrary to the erroneous accusation of rationalism, the divines firmly believed that Scripture was the ultimate and chief authority in Scripture. All one needs to do is read the third question of the Shorter Catechism to grasp this fundamental conviction: “What do the Scriptures principally teach? A. The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” The Westminster divines were likely guilty of a number of sins but rationalism was not among them.
Could you give a brief biographical sketch of some of the most outstanding members of the Westminster Assembly and perhaps some works of theirs that we should be acquainted with to understand better the Standards?
There were over one hundred Westminster divines, so picking some standouts puts me in the place of the team with a limited number of first round draft picks! Decisions, decisions. While not wanting to slight the other luminaries of the assembly, two divines come to mind. The first is Thomas Goodwin (1600-80), one of the Independent (Congregational) divines at the assembly. Goodwin was one of the more notable contributors to the assembly’s debates and was one of the more outspoken proponents of the imputed active obedience of Christ. He often brought calm and insight to the sometimes turbulent discussions in the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey. In addition to his contributions to the assembly’s labors, we can benefit greatly from his collected works, which cover a range of topics including sermons, christology, justification, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
A second noteworthy divine is Samuel Rutherford (ca. 1600-61), one of the Scottish representatives. He was highly esteemed and had a reputation for having a sharp theological mind. He too contributed greatly to the assembly’s work, but was especially a noteworthy participant in the debates over church polity. Rutherford was among those who wanted the lines between church and state clearly drawn. He was personally imprisoned by the king for his refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer in his ministry, so he was severely aware of the abuses of political power. In this respect, Rutherford’s work, Lex Rex, is an important contribution to understanding the Confession’s statements on church and state and the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Rutherford’s works on antinomianism and covenant theology, A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist (1648) and The Covenant of Life Opened (1655), are notably rich and insightful works well worth reading and studying.
An honorable mention, and one likely unknown to most, is Edward Leigh (1602-71). Leigh was an MP during the time of the assembly, though there is no record that he ever formally participated in any of the debates or efforts to compose the Standards. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly knew many of the divines and was part of the process of authorizing them. He lived the history. But Leigh was more than an MP; he was an insightful theologian too. He wrote a massive systematic theology, his Body of Divinity (1662). This is one of the most comprehensive and annoted systems of theology from the period. Leigh is both learned, practical, and theologically rich. His Body of Divinity offers a topographical map to the various doctrines, debates, and opinions of the day. Anyone who wants to learn about seventeenth-century theology would do well to devour Leigh’s work.
J.V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He served in church planting and pastoral ministry for more than ten years. His research interests include the integration of biblical and systematic theology, soteriology, and early modern Reformed theology. Fesko’s most recent publications include, The Theology of the Westminster Standards, Songs of a Suffering King, and Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology. His scholarly essays have appeared in various books and journals including Reformed Theological Review, Journal of Reformed Theology, Church History and Religious Culture, Calvin Theological Journal, Trinity Journal, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Westminster Theological Journal. Dr. Fesko and his wife, Anneke, have three children and reside in Escondido.
Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has four children: Alec, Nora, Grace, and Julie.
Each week we will be highlighting important resources. Check back each Friday to see what we have dug up for you. From this week’s cache:
1. Why Join a Church: By David Mathis - Mathis says: “In a good church covenant, we yoke ourselves to accountability while we’re in our right minds, in case someday sin gets a foothold in our hearts and blinds us to the truth. Church discipline is hard, but so good. The purpose is always restoration, and God often has been pleased to use this difficult means to pour out his striking grace.”
2. Clouds & Clarity: By Aimee Joseph - Joseph notes: “I remember that there is Someone behind that cloud cover, One whom even the winds and waves obey. And that Someone is working a masterpiece behind the curtains of clouds that obscure our view of Him and His ways.”
3. The Gospel Isn’t a Cul-de-Sac: By Brad Watson - Watson says: “Jesus forgave sins and healed sickness. He welcomed those sent to the margins of society to eat with him. He cared for those burdened, ignored, and abused. Jesus proclaimed the gospel and the kingdom of God coming to us. Jesus came for the poor and powerless—the oppressed.”
4. Campus Pastors Need to Take Risks: By Daniel Im- Im says: “Most likely, if you’re considering campus pastoring, you’re also considering a church planting or senior pastoring role. The point of this post is to help you figure out if campus pastoring is the right road for you to head down on.”
5. Just How Sovereign is God: By Justin Taylor - Taylor says: “And since compatiblism is true, none of this contradicts the equally biblical teaching that Satan is “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and that human choices are genuine and significant.
Matt Manry is the Assistant Pastor at Life Bible Church in Canton, Georgia. He writes at matthewwmanry.com.
Many things come to mind when you think of John Calvin. Is pastoral care among them? To bring that contribution closer to the top of our first thoughts, let me introduce you to Scott Manetsch’s fine new book, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology). Dr. Manetsch is Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He also happens to be one of my top favorite and influential professors in seminary. He is the perfect scholar to tackle this subject, a man of impeccable theological insight joined with a pastor’s heart. I heartily commend this book to our Credo readers.
What drew you to this topic and what kind of work was involved in researching it?
More than a dozen years ago I had the opportunity to spend a summer reading through the published sermons of Theodore Beza (1519-1605), and I was impressed by the many pastoral themes and concerns that appeared in them. It occurred to me that this “pastoral” side of Theodore Beza was entirely missing from the scholarly literature, and deserved further study. In the years that followed, my family and I spent four summers in Geneva, where I had an opportunity to explore the entirety of Beza’s literary corpus. At the same time, these summers allowed me to work extensively in the city archive, reading church documents related to religious life and pastoral practice in sixteenth-century Geneva. What had begun as a monograph on Theodore Beza’s pastoral theology quickly mushroomed into a book on the pastoral company of 135 ministers who served the Genevan church between 1536 and 1609. As it turned out, most of the original research for my book was drawn from the minutes of Geneva’s Consistory, a disciplinary body created by Calvin that met every Thursday, beginning in 1542. City scribes were hired to produce detailed, hand-written minutes of each Consistory session. Most of my research time in Geneva was spent reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of these almost-illegible minutes preserved in Geneva’s city archive.
What was Geneva’s Company of Pastors and how did it change the shape of Christian pastoral ministry?
The Company of Pastors was a church institution founded by John Calvin and his pastoral colleagues in the mid-1540s. Its membership consisted of all of the ministers who served churches in the city-republic of Geneva, including Calvin and the other ministers who served the three large parishes within the city walls (St. Pierre, St. Gervais, the Madeleine) and the pastors who served around a dozen smaller rural parishes in the surrounding countryside. In addition, several professors from the Genevan Academy were members of the Company of Pastors.
The Company met every Friday morning to address concerns of the church both locally and internationally. In terms of local concerns, the Company examined students for ministry, filled local ministerial posts (with the approval of the city magistrates), addressed theological disputes within the city or Company, and negotiated religious policy with Geneva’s city council. Owing to Calvin’s theological stature, the Company of Pastors also soon gained an international role, providing support and theological advice for reformed churches and pastors in other parts of Europe. It was pretty common for foreign churches to ask the Company to send them promising ministerial candidates from the Academy. Moreover, as historian Robert Kingdon has shown, the Company of Pastors also recruited, trained, and secretly deployed more than 100 pastors into France between 1555 and 1562. Thus, the Company of Pastors played an important role in shaping the institutional form and theological content of pastoral ministry in Geneva.
It seems one of Calvin’s pastoral concerns was cultivating a spirit of ‘collegiality’ among the clergy. Why was this important to Calvin?
This was one of the biggest surprises that came from my research: the degree to which Calvin not only championed, but institutionalized a form of church government that promoted pastoral equality and collegiality. The caricature of John Calvin as the “dictator of Geneva” deserves to be put to rest once and for all. I think Calvin cultivated this spirit of collegiality for at least three reasons.
First, Calvin (and Beza as well) had a deep aversion to forms of church government that were hierarchical and autocratic. They believed that Scripture taught that, though pastors’ roles might vary from parish to parish, the pastoral office was a single office, and all pastors were equally servants of Christ and ministers of the Word of God. Second, Calvin recognized the need for ministers to be accountable to one another to preserve the health of the church. Hence, Calvin created the weekly Congregation (patterned after Zurich’s Prophetzei) where the city’s pastors met to study Scripture together and evaluate one another’s exposition of biblical texts. So too, four times a year in the Quarterly Censure, Geneva’s ministers met behind closed doors to air their differences, to address colleagues suspected of immorality or teaching wrong doctrine, and to promote mutual trust and common vision. Third, and this is related to the second point, Calvin valued collegiality among pastors because he recognized the dangers of individual interpretations of Scripture. Right doctrine depended on a community of pastors studying Scripture together. In a letter to a colleague in Bern in 1549, Calvin defended the work of the Congregation as “not only useful but necessary” for the health of the church. Calvin further stated that “The fewer discussions of doctrine we have together, the greater the danger of pernicious opinions… for solitude leads to great abuse.”
One of your main concerns is to challenge the notion that Calvin and his successors represented a white-tower approach to theology and pastoral ministry. What kind of evidence have you found to correct this assumption?
Having grown up in the reformed tradition, I was sometimes exposed to a portrait of Calvin that focused on his theological genius at the expense of his pastoral concerns and commitments. In this caricature, Calvin was little more than a reformed “brain on a stick.” When one studies the documents of the Genevan church, it becomes clear that this depiction misses the mark. I’m reminded of Calvin’s statement: “the office of a true and faithful minister is not only to teach the people in public, which he is appointed to do as pastor, but also, as much as he is able, to admonish, exhort, warn, and console each person individually.”
The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541), written largely by Calvin, laid out a plan for ministry that involved intensive pastoral care of God’s people through the Word. And this plan was enacted in practice during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. All of Geneva’s ministers preached multiple times each week. They were expected to visit sick people at bedside. Along with the city’s lay elders, they conducted pastoral visitations of all the households in their parish each year before Easter. Ministers also preached catechetical sermons to children every Sunday at noon to teach them the basics of the Christian faith. Furthermore, every Thursday the pastors and elders met in Consistory to interview, reprove, and offer spiritual advice to men and women guilty of a whole variety of sins, from adultery to drunkenness to spousal abuse. Although these consistorial interviews could be confrontational and were always intrusive, they constituted a form of spiritual counsel and pastoral care as the pastors and elders engaged people at their point of greatest brokenness and need, seeking to guide them to repentance and spiritual healing. On many occasions, the Consistory also intervened on behalf of the neglected and abused, seeking to protect the weak and poor as well as mediate conflicts between spouses and within households. I came away from my study of Geneva’s consistorial minutes with a deep sense of admiration for the amount of time and effort that Geneva’s pastors and elders devoted to this painful, yet important, aspect of spiritual care.
What did a typical week look like for a minister in Geneva circa 1590?
That depends on whether the minister worked in one of the three city parishes, or whether he served one of the dozen small rural parishes in the surrounding countryside. Countryside pastors usually preached 2-3 times per week, held weekly catechism classes, and visited members of their congregation who were sick or suspected of moral failure. Baptisms, weddings, and (quarterly) celebrations of the Lord’s Supper were performed during the regularly scheduled worship services. Many of the countryside pastors were responsible for two different congregations within their single parish, requiring them to travel on foot 3-4 miles several times each week to perform their pastoral duties. When possible, rural pastors were also expected to come to the city to attend meetings of the Consistory (on Thursdays) as well as the weekly meetings of the Congregation and the Company of Pastors (on Fridays). Because their salaries were usually inadequate to pay bills, at least some of the countryside pastors supplemented their incomes by raising cattle, farming a garden, or tending a vineyard. City pastors usually preached more frequently than countryside ministers.
Prominent ministers such as Calvin, Beza, and Simon Goulart usually preached twice on Sundays and every weekday morning, every other week. (That adds up to around 18-20 sermons per month!) In addition, city ministers instructed children in the catechism at noon on Sundays, performed baptisms, the Lord’s Supper, and weddings (in conjunction with regular worship services), and attended the meetings of the Consistory, Congregation, and Company of Pastors. Most city ministers had special assignments as an additional part of their vocations: some like Calvin or Beza taught at the Genevan Academy; others were part-time chaplains in the hospital or army; still others visited prisoners in the city prison, or were assigned to the plague hospital. Moreover, I discovered that nearly one-in-six of the ministers wrote books, whether theological tomes, works of poetry, historical books, or exegetical works.
How seriously did Calvin and his successors consider church discipline? How was it enforced and how did its enforcement change over the years?
Calvin and his colleagues believed that biblical church discipline was essential for the health of a Christian church, comparing it to ligaments holding the body of Christ together. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes: “as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place.” Thus, “all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration – whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance—are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the Church.” Practically speaking, Calvin and Geneva’s ministers insisted that the local Consistory (consisting of pastors and twelve lay elders) should meet weekly in order to address cases of moral failure and misbelief in their congregation. The Consistory met every Thursday at noon; its case load often included a dozen or more cases, including cases such as fornication and adultery, superstitious practice, dancing and lewd singing, public drunkenness, fighting and swearing, usury, Catholic behavior, gambling, and begging and idleness. Many offenders were scolded, counseled, and sent away with warnings. In more extreme cases, people were suspended from the Lord’s Supper for a few months, until they repented and were reconciled to the church and their neighbors. (Note that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated four times a year in Calvin’s Geneva.) In the five years following Calvin’s death in 1564, there was a spike in number of annual suspensions with more than 680 people temporarily suspended from the Lord’s Supper in 1568 alone. Thereafter, the number of annual suspensions declined significantly, reaching levels of 100-150 people per year during the 1590s and early 1600s. It is important to remember that Calvin’s Consistory did not have the power to impose any form of corporal punishment on offenders, i.e. imprisonment, banishment, fines, or capital punishment – that was the prerogative of the civil authorities alone. The Consistory could only impose spiritual penalties, namely warnings, rebukes, suspension, or, in the worst case, major excommunication (which involved a measure of social ostracism). With that said, Calvin lived in a city republic where the civil magistrates were willing to stand behind the Consistory, enforcing the church’s suspensions and, sometimes, imposing its own punishments on sinners who refused to repent and be reconciled to the church.
My investigation of church discipline in Geneva indicates a number of changes over the seven decades from 1542-1609. For one, as mentioned earlier, the number of annual suspensions increased significantly between 1542 and the late 1560s, peaking in 1568 at 681 suspensions, before declining rapidly to levels of between 100-150 suspensions per year. Second, the kinds of sins for which people were likely to be suspended changed over this period. Whereas in the early years, the single most common offense leading to suspension from the Lord’s Supper was fornication and adultery, by the latter decades of my study household and family quarrels became the most common reason for suspension. In addition, “sins” such as ignorance of the gospel and Catholic behavior become less common as the century progressed. What remains more or less consistent, however, was the sheer number of cases of conflict between spouses and within households in the Consistory’s caseload each year. Consequently, the ministers and elders regularly devoted a lot of time and energy seeking to reconcile husbands and wives, and pacify households that were torn by violence, mistrust, abuse, and hatred.
Were there any surprising revelations that you came across in your research?
A couple of surprises come to mind. First, I found it striking the degree to which church discipline served as a form of pastoral care in Geneva during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Second, I did not expect the degree to which Calvin encouraged, and Geneva’s pastors pursued a form of ministry characterized by mutual accountability, encouragement, and collaboration. Third, I was impressed by the degree to which Calvin’s liturgies (recited in Geneva’s churches several times a week) reinforced and institutionalized his vision of pastoral ministry in the city. Finally, I was greatly encouraged and blessed by the rich (and largely unexplored) collection of pastoral resources – prayers, sermons, Christian meditations, ethical treatises – produced by Geneva’s pastors during the decades after Calvin’s lifetime.
Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has two children, Alec and Nora.
As Christians we should be responsible citizens and vote. It is especially important to vote on the great moral issues of our day, like abortion. Historians look back on what the Nazis did to the Jews with horror, and we can easily be dulled to the relentless murder of babies in our culture. Abortion is the great moral issue of our time. And those who fail to see this reveal their own moral blindness.
But we must never put our faith in politics or any political party. The City of Man will never become the City of God. We should do our civic duty, and if you are called to politics, or to serving as a judge, that is a wonderful calling. But we do not put our hopes in the political process. We do not believe our nation will be transformed by passing laws which enshrine moral principles, even though the passing of such laws is a good thing. No, the key to our nation’s transformation is spiritual revival. The fundamental problem in our country is spiritual and not political (even if it is a good thing to be involved in political life). What we need most is revival in our churches.
We believe the local church can play a significant role in this process, for we hope and pray that many in our congregations will go out and pastor churches. Many churches out there are like the church of Sardis: near spiritual death. Though you will never read this in the newspapers, as our churches go, so goes our nation. If our nation is moving away from the things of God, it is because our churches have been compromising for a long time. But we never give up hope. Christians should never despair. We have a God who brings life out of death. We believe in a God who can turn things around. So, we get involved in the political process, and we pray for godly leaders and rulers. And some of us pursue the political life as a calling. But we realize that nothing is more important than our churches. Our fundamental goal is never to change the culture. It is to bring glory and praise to our God. We want our churches to be his beautiful bride for his name’s sake. Let’s look at a church that needed reviving—the church in Sardis. Let’s ask this question as we consider this text. How can dead churches come to life?
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ Revelation 3:1-6
Church, Know You Are Dead!
So, how can dead churches be revived? First, they need to know they are dead (3:1). Notice the second half of v. 1. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Many churches don’t even know they are dead. They think they are doing well. The church of Sardis thought it was just fine. What is the sign that a church is alive? A church isn’t alive simply because it is large. We all know a church can attract a lot of people and not preach the gospel. A church isn’t alive simply because it buzzes with programs and activities. Don’t misunderstand me. It can be a great blessing to have a large church and lots of activity, but we should not equate numbers and programs with spiritual life. A church that is alive is pleasing to God. Jesus says to the church at Sardis. I know your works and you are dead! A dead church may be a very friendly church. Some churches think they are alive because the people are very nice. Now I am not advocating that churches be mean! But we should not equate life with being nice either! A church is alive if it has a passion for the glory, honor, and praise of Jesus Christ.
Dead Churches, Wake Up!
Second, dead churches need to wake up (3:2). The church of Sardis had fallen into spiritual lethargy. Jesus says to them, “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (v 2). As the ESV study Bible says, “Twice in its history Sardis had been sacked (in 547 B.C. by Cyrus II, and in 214 B.C. by Antiochus III) when the watchmen on the walls failed to detect an enemy army sneaking up its supposedly impregnable cliffs and walls.” When Jesus says to Sardis: wake up, he reminds them of their history. They had fallen asleep before, and it turned out to be a disaster.
Many churches in the U.S. are in this situation right now. They are slumbering spiritually. They are about to die as the church of Sardis was, and they don’t even know they are on the brink of death. Many churches have already died. Some are closing their doors. I hear in England that many churches are becoming mosques. What a challenge it is for us to pray for godly pastors to be raised up to go to such churches, and to plant new churches for the sake of the gospel.
And perhaps you personally today have become spiritually dull. Maybe you need to wake up. Maybe your heart has become cold toward God, and you have been in a long spiritual nap. Jesus says: wake up. Strengthen the little life that is left in you. Certainly our nation needs to wake up before it is too late. We need a fresh infusion of spiritual life. We need to pray earnestly for our churches and our country.
Church, Get Back to Your Spiritual Roots
Third, we need to go back to our spiritual roots (v 3). “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” We need to remember the gospel. Isn’t it amazing how quickly churches forget the gospel? I have seen the same truth in my own life. One thing I have been astonished about in my life is how easily I forget the gospel. I know the gospel in my head, but I start living by works in my life. All of us are prone to start trusting in ourselves and what we accomplish in our own strength. And one reason we forget the gospel is everything we do in life is judged by performance. Am I a good husband, father, preacher, teacher, writer, etc.? How am I doing, doing, doing? We are evaluated constantly. How good is the class you teach? How good is the sermon? How are your kids turning out? So, it is very easy for us to forget the gospel.
And churches can forget the gospel as well. Fundamentalist churches forget the gospel because they focus on rules. They teach their children: we don’t do this, and we don’t do that, and on and one. And liberal churches quit talking about sin and repentance. In liberal churches there is no need for the gospel because we are good already. And actually the same problem is present in fundamentalist churches, because though they know the gospel in their heads, they begin to focus on their piety in observing rules.
Repentance means that we turn back to the gospel. We recognize that our strength comes from the Lord and not from ourselves. When we were new Christians, we knew that we were weak, we knew that we were babies, we knew that we could only be saved by the grace of God, but it is easy to forget that the longer we are Christians. So, churches that are spiritually dead must remember and repent and turn back to the gospel.
Church, Resist Compromise
Fourth, we must resist compromise. We read in v. 4, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” To not soil one’s garments is to resist being defiled by worldliness. Jesus says that faithful believers walk in white. In other words, they do what is pleasing to God. Our churches need spiritual revival because they have often become worldly. I am not talking about observing legalistic rules here: like don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t go to movies, etc. True worldliness is much more subtle than this. Worldliness shows up when we join a church for business reasons instead of spiritual reasons.
Churches might promote someone to leadership because of their worldly success instead of their spiritual walk with God. Abortions may be quietly practiced in the church to spare families the embarrassment of admitting that their daughter is pregnant. Or, members of the church may divorce their spouse without any biblical cause, and yet no one says anything to them about their sin. Or, the church is marked by gossip instead of by prayer. If our churches are going to be revived, they need to seek the Lord, and the members need to be accountable to one another. We need to keep short accounts with the Lord and confess our sins to one another. We must not hold grudges against one another, but forgive one another. In the U.S. there are tons of seminars on how churches can grow if they use the right strategy and use the right technique. But our churches will not truly be revived if we are not godly. Our churches will be revived when we walk humbly with the Lord.
Church, Be Filled With the Power of the Holy Spirit
Fifth, and most important, churches need to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. We read about this in v. 1. “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God.” Jesus has the Holy Spirit, and he is saying to the church of Sardis, what you need to be revived is to have the work of the Spirit renewed among you. Jesus is the one who has the Spirit and pours it out on his people. At the end of the day the revival of churches is due to the Spirit’s work. It is a supernatural and divine work. We acknowledge that we have no ability to revive a church. We can and must work for it, pray for it, and hope for it. But it is finally a work of God, a work of the Holy Spirit.
Martin Lloyd Jones constantly stressed in his ministry that we cannot plan a revival. We don’t have one by just putting a sign up beforehand. Often people confuse revival with a preacher getting excited and yelling, or with an outpouring of emotion. Now a revival may be accompanied by a preacher getting excited in such a way and with a great outpouring of emotion. But we must beware of superficiality. It is easy to have a cheap and tawdry imitation of the real thing. We may so want revival that we pretend we are having it when it isn’t happening. No, revival finally depends upon the Holy Spirit. We can’t manufacture it. We can’t produce it, but we can pray for it, and ask for the Spirit to be given to us. We are weak and needy people. How we need the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of our churches. Let us conclude by considering the future.
First, if a church doesn’t come alive, it will be judged. We read in Revelation 3:3, “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” This coming could be the second coming or it could be a coming in history, and it is difficult to decide which is intended here. Since Jesus uses the same imagery to describe the second coming and Paul picks up the same language in 1 Thessalonians 5, it seems that the second coming is probably in view here. In either case, the church will be judged if they don’t wake up.
Jesus alludes here to the two occasions when Sardis was conquered in surprise attacks, and he says that he will come in a surprising way like a thief. Don’t think you will finally get away with being spiritually dead. A day of reckoning is coming. Spiritual deadness is like an infected appendix, which suddenly bursts inside and releases poison everywhere. It is like what happened to Saddam Hussein’s army in both 1991 and 2003. Iraqi troops could not withstand the onslaught of U.S. power. The day of judgment will be like that. One moment there will be peace and safety, and then suddenly the judgment will be at hand.
But second there is another side. Those who are ready for the Lord’s return will be rewarded. Revelation 3:5 states, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” I think all three pictures of the reward here promise eternal life. The one who conquers will be in white garments: that means that they will be right before God. How do we get these white robes? We read in Revelation 7:14, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Are your garments white because you have been washed in the blood of the lamb? Have you found the forgiveness of sins, not in your own works, but in what Jesus has done for you on the cross? If you know him and have white garments and are really spiritually alive, then he will never blot you out of the book of life. Your name will be in his book, and you will live with him forever. Jesus will confess your name before the Father. He will say: this is my child. This is my son. Or, this is my daughter. This person belongs in the book of life, because they are alive, because I have granted them life.
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.
The verbal images of God in the Bible, just as the various names given him, constitute a significant part of his self-revelation. When Scripture likens God to a lion or rock or shepherd or judge or King it tells us much about who God is and about our relationship to him. One of the most prominent metaphors is that of God as Father, a representation we find in reference to God repeatedly in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, but especially so in the New. And this revelation of God as “Father” itself is unpacked in several dimensions. We’ll just highlight them here.
God as Father – Creator
First, God is Father in the sense of Creator. He is “the Father of Lights” (James 1:17), “the Father of Spirits” (Heb.12:9), “one God the Father from whom are all things” (1Cor.8:6), and in this sense all humanity is “his offspring” (Acts 17:25-26). With this come the accompanying connotations of his rights over all things, the dignity and honor and authority due a father, as well as his providential care for his creatures.
God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ
In referring to God and in praying, Jesus most commonly referred to God as his Father. We should at least understand this in Messianic terms. In his covenant with David God had promised that he would make David’s son his own son (2 Sam. 7:14). Although this has reference to the Davidic kingly line it ultimately refers to that “greater Davidic son,” the Messiah. This is reflected, for example, in Psalm 2:7, a Psalm that anticipates the enthronement of David’s greater Son — “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” The “son of God” language of the Gospel of John reflects this also. “Son of God” is a Messianic title.
But when Jesus refers to God as his Father there is much more implied, and here we enter some of the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith. God as Father and Christ as his Son reflects an eternal relationship within the Godhead.
The implications of Jesus’ command to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” are enormous. There is one “name” in which disciples of Jesus are to be baptized. “The name” of course is God himself. And yet there are three who share that name — the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. There is distinction between them (the Father, the Son, and the Spirit), and yet these three unite in the single divine “name.” From this point onward Yahweh has been known by this name — the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
So there is one God and yet three Persons. And the relationship between these two is that of Father and Son. The Father loves the Son, we are told (John 3:35; 5:20), and the Son loves the Father (Jn. 14:31). Here is the prototype and model of fatherhood and sonship (Eph. 3:14-15), and here we are given at least a glimpse of the eternal joy and contentedness of the Triune God — perfect love, perfectly expressed, perfectly received, perfectly requited, and perfectly enjoyed in perfect fellowship forever.
The apostle John, in turn, points to this eternal loving relationship of Father and Son as the measure of God’s love in the gospel. God so loved this sinful world that he gave even his own Son to the cross (Jn. 3:16). Surely, here is love (1Jn. 4:10).
God Our Father
On occasion in the Old Testament God is referred to as the Father of the nation Israel, generally in the sense that he “begat” and provides for them (Dt.32:6; Is.63:16; 64:8; Jer.3:4, 19; 31:9; Mal.1:6; 2:10). As we saw briefly above, the Old Testament also speaks of God as the Father of the Davidic King (2 Sam.7:14; 1 Chron.17:13; 22:10; 28:6; Ps.68:5; 89:26). And at various points father imagery is employed to describe God’s relationship to his people Israel (Ex.4:22–23; Dt.1:31; 8:5; 14:1; Ps.103:13; Jer.3:22; 31:20; Hos.11:1–4; Mal.3:17).
But to speak of God as Father in an individual sense, in terms of filial personal relationship, is something that does not come to the fore until the New Testament. This is a curious thing because, after all, God is Father-Creator and Father of the nation and the king. But of course a sense of filial relation was forfeited at the Fall, so that now men and women can be described as children of the devil (John 8:44)! Moreover, in Jewish prayers God was typically addressed by titles reflective of his majesty, glory, sovereignty, and so on. This of course is a good thing, but addressing God as “Father” just was not the practice.
Joachim Jeremias famously demonstrated that it was not until Jesus that we find an example of one addressing God as “Father” in prayer. This has been disputed, but we needn’t get into that discussion here. It is plain enough that in broad terms, at least, this was not the common practice. To address God as Father with the attending notions of paternal and filial affection and relation was a striking innovation in Jesus’ prayers. Here was the eternal Son speaking to his Father in terms of loving relation and personal endearment. And it must have seemed revolutionary for Jesus’ disciples when, having asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus instructed them to pray, “Our Father.” And to this day this marks Christian prayer universally.
Now Jesus did not level the field absolutely. The Father from whom the disciples were instructed to ask forgiveness was “your Father” (Mt. 6:14-15). But when Jesus spoke of his divine sonship he referred to “my Father” (Mt. 11:27). And when speaking of his return to heaven, he said that he was ascending “to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God” (Jn.20:17). This is “the only Son,” and his sonship is one that is unique and unshared.
And yet when our Lord teaches us to pray he does pass along this privilege. We are instructed to address God, now, as Father. And with that, surely, he means to convey a sense of filial trust, confidence, assurance, acceptance, love, and so on. And this we have only because we are in union with Christ, the Son par excellence. “You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal.3:26ff; cf. Jn.1:12). God is not “Father,” in this sense, to everyone. But joined to Christ, God is our Father, and we now also have the supreme privilege of knowing and addressing him as such (cf. 1Jn.3:1). Certainly, this is the very height of gospel privilege.
What does this mean for us? Just briefly here, the New Testament stresses wonderful themes such as acceptance and access. We have no need of human priests or even “sainted” mediators. We are God’s children and may boldly go to him with full assurance of acceptance. The related themes of provision, care, and protection were staples in Jesus’ teaching (Mt.6:8, 11, 25ff; 7:7-11; 10:28ff). Knowing that God is our Father ought to give us a deep sense of assurance of his heart of loving care for us. And the apostle Paul reasons gloriously that if we are sons of God, then we are heirs of God — indeed, we are joint-heirs with Christ (Rom.8:17), certain to inherit the glory that he has achieved on our behalf. And in fact the great climax of God’s redemptive work in us to date is that he has sent the “Spirit of adoption” to ensure that we sense our sonship and so now turn to heaven with “Father” instinctively on our lips.
Further, here we learn also what a father is supposed to be. Even if your earthly father was a failure, here you come to experience fatherly love in its ideal. Here is a Father who has committed himself to provide for us, his children, in exactly every way we need, and he has promised to direct our every step for our good and his glory. And although he is known as “righteous Father” and “Holy Father,” he is also known as the “Father of mercies” and “the eternal Father” who will always be for us and provide for us all that he has promised.
Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.
Sunday’s Sermon: Gift, the Noahic Covenant, and the Ethics of Justification (Schreiner, Barrett, Zaspel)
Three of Credo Magazine’s main contributors include Thomas Schreiner, Fred Zaspel, and Matthew Barrett. Each of them are professors, but they are also pastors. So each Monday morning we will be highlighting their “Sunday’s Sermon” on the blog to provide you with encouragement throughout the week and an opportunity to study God’s Word.