Category Archives: Confessions

Are All Sins Equal?

At the moment, we are in the throes of a debate about marriage here in Australia.  I’ve been through that debate already once in Canada and I’ve observed it take place in the United States as well.  So this feels like my third time around.  Each time I’ve noticed that Christians sometimes soft pedal the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality by arguing that all sins are the same.  In other words, my extra-marital heterosexual lust is no less a sin than the gay person’s homosexual lust.  Sin is sin and it is all equally wicked.

In a sense this is true.  It’s true in the sense of every sin being equally deserving of God’s wrath.  What to us is a small trifling sin is in the eyes of God a tremendous offense.  This is directly related to the holy majesty of the one sinned against.  If you sin even slightly against infinitely holy majesty, you incur an infinite debt.  But this line of discussion can’t go very far since, in the nature of the case, we’re not just slight sinners — see Romans 3:10-18.

As true as it is that every sin equally deserves God’s wrath, it is equally true that Scripture teaches that some sins are worse than others in God’s sight.  This is immediately evident from the Old Testament law.  Some sins, like blasphemy, were punishable with death, whereas others received lighter penalties.  In Ezekiel 8:6, God points out to Ezekiel the great idolatrous abominations in Jerusalem.  Then he says, “But you will see still greater abominations.”  There are great abominations, and then there are greater abominations.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism captures the biblical teaching on this in QA 83:

Q.  Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?

A.  Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

The Westminster Larger Catechism in QA 151 expands on this and explains what the aggravations are.  They fall under four broad categories:  from the persons offending, from the parties offended, from the nature and quality of the offence, and from circumstances of time and place.  So, if you’re an older Christian who should know better or an office bearer, your sin carries more weight.  If your sin was against a weaker brother, your sin is worse.  If you broke several commandments in one go, that’s to be regarded as more heinous.  If your sin was committed publicly, that’s worse than if it was committed privately.

As a quick aside, you might be wondering whether this is touched on in the Heidelberg Catechism.  Well, it is, but just not directly.  Some sins being worse than others is implied in Lord’s Day 36 on the third commandment.  We confess that “no sin is greater or provokes God’s wrath more than the blaspheming of his name.  That is why he commanded it to be punished with death.”  So, blasphemy is worse than, say, adultery or false witness.  Some sins are worse than others.

There is no doubt that Scripture describes homosexual lusts and behaviour as abominable (Lev. 20:13).  The Bible uses strong language about these sins to impress upon us how God regards these things as completely contrary to his design for the human race.  While heterosexual extra- and non-marital lusts and behaviours are sinful, they retain something of what is natural in that they involve the opposite sex.  Homosexual lusts and behaviour are worse because they bring in the additional element of overturning what the Creator God designed to be natural.  This is what the Bible is saying in Romans 1:26-27 — it speaks of trading in natural relations for unnatural.

However, when we speak about sins in terms of their heinousness, we ought always to remember that there is, in Scripture, a sin that is even worse than a homosexual lifestyle.  As Greg Bahnsen once described it, “there is a sin worse than sodomy” in the Bible.  It’s found in Matthew 10.  Jesus sent out his apostles to preach and teach amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” — God’s covenant people.  While they did that, the possibility was there that they would meet with unbelief.  In such a case, they were to shake the dust off their feet as they left that town — signifying that these people are unclean.  Then Jesus adds in verse 15, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”  Sodom and Gomorrah were notorious for their sexual immorality and “unnatural desire” (Jude 7).  Christ was saying that there is something far worse than what Sodom and Gomorrah did:  to be a child of the covenant and to reject the Saviour.  To have God call you his own, for him to send you the Saviour with the glad tidings of the gospel, and for you to reject him — that is something God calls worse than homosexuality.  It’s a warning to people in the church today.

Realize this:  we all have sins great and small sinking us into the depths.  Yet, no matter what our sins are, there is a Saviour whose atoning work is sufficient to wipe it all out.  The saving work of Jesus is there for all who feel the weight of their sin and long for that burden to be lifted.  Even as we speak about some sins which are more heinous than others, let’s also always speak about the grace which is super-abounding in Jesus Christ.

 


Pastoral Q & A: Early Infant Loss and Salvation

One of my congregation members submitted this question:

What happens to miscarried babies/stillborns or little children that die too young to profess their faith?

The question has to do with Christians and early infant loss.  This something many of us (including my wife and I) have experienced.  Many of us have lost covenant children before they ever took a breath outside the womb.  Some of us have lost covenant children after they were born, too.  All these losses are painful.  When you have a child in the womb, or a newborn in the crib, you have hopes and dreams for him or her.  An early infant loss is often difficult, both for mothers and fathers.
        What happens to the souls of these babies?  What will happen to them at the resurrection when Christ returns?  Christians ought to remember that God has a covenant of grace with them — this covenant includes our children.  The Holy Spirit says in 1 Cor. 7:14 that the child of even just one believing spouse is holy.  That is covenantal language (cf. Deut. 7:6).  When such children are taken out of this world in their infancy, Christian parents need not doubt their final destiny.  We ought not to doubt their election and salvation.  In fact, we can and should be confident like David in 2 Samuel 12.  When the little child died who had been conceived in that adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, David expressed his confidence that this child went to be with God.  He said in 2 Samuel 12:23, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”  David was sure that when he died, he would be reunited with his son.  That solid confidence comes from the covenant of grace that God makes with believers and their children.
          The Canons of Dort speak to the issue as well.  This is what Reformed churches confess from the Scriptures:
We must judge concerning the will of God from his Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents.  Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy. (Canons of Dort 1.17)
To be clear, we do not teach that salvation is an automatic thing for all the children of believers.  Under normal circumstances, a covenant child grows up and reaches an age of accountability (which varies from child to child).  They then become responsible for believing God’s gospel promises for themselves and, if they do not, they will face God’s covenant judgment.  Canons 1.17 is speaking about the (for us) exceptional circumstance where a child does not grow up and is never faced with the personal responsibility to repent and believe.  In that circumstance, because of God’s covenant mercies, we believe that the faith of the parents covers for the child.
          What a comfort that gives us when we face the tragedy of early infant loss!  Our children belong to God and if they are called out of this life in their infancy, in his grace he takes them home to himself.  That little child you lost is now in the presence of God, praising him with his angels and waiting for the day of the resurrection.  When Christ returns, that child will be raised perfect and glorified, to spend eternity in the new heavens and new earth.  God took your child directly to himself, sparing him or her from having to bear the brokenness of this world under the curse.  It was a loss to you and it hurts.  Death is an enemy and it does not belong in this world.  Yet here too we can say that Christ has conquered death and removed its sting.  We can and will grieve, but we ought not to grieve as those who have no hope.  Our hope is in God and in his gospel promises for us and our children.
        Recommended readingLittle One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss, Glenda Mathes, Grandville: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2012.

Women in Office = False Church?

It could happen later this year that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decide at their synod to officially allow women in office.  I pray that it doesn’t, but the possibility is definitely there.  That raises questions relating to article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Specifically, if a church federation were to adopt women in office does that automatically mean that they have become a false church?  That question needs to be answered carefully.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered the idea of women in office in Reformed churches.  Back in the 1990s, the Christian Reformed Church in North America first discussed it, and then gradually adopted it.  That adoption was one of the biggest catalysts leading to the mass exodus from the CRC between 1992 and 1994 — over 17,000 members left just in those years.  A good number of those ended up forming what would later become known as the United Reformed Churches.

I remember some of the early talks between the CanRC and URCs in the Bulkley Valley in north-central British Columbia.  This would have been in the early 2000s.  Questions were asked of our URC brothers such as:  do you now view the CRC as a false church?  No URC person would say that.  It was as if some of the CanRC people felt that the ex-CRC people could only have been justified in leaving if they viewed the CRC as a false church.  At least some in the URC would say that the CRC was no longer a true church, but they would not say that having women in office (and the other theological aberrations) resulted in the CRC being a false church.

I think I can see why they said that.  Certainly I don’t believe that a Reformed federation which adopts women in office can be said, by virtue of only that, to have become a false church.  Let me explain.

Let’s agree that article 29 of the Belgic Confession gives a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture about the marks of the true and false church.  Let’s use that as our starting point.  What are the marks of a false church according to the Confession?

  • It assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.
  • It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.
  • It does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word, but adds to them and subtracts from them as it pleases.
  • It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ.
  • It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed, and idolatries.

So, while the true church has three marks, the false church has five.  Just as all three marks need to be in order for a church to be true, so it follows that all five marks need to be seen for a church to be false.  In the original context of the 1561 Belgic Confession, there was only one church that fit the bill:  the Roman Catholic Church.  Does a church that adopts women in office become a false church?  Certainly those first two marks are being exhibited, and perhaps the fourth too.  However, not necessarily the third (notice the focus on adding and subtracting in the BC) or the fifth (the persecution envisioned leads to martyrdom).  A church adopting women in office would have to go off the rails in all these other areas for it to be a false church.

But if it is not a false church that doesn’t mean we’re saying that it is true.  Let’s review the marks of a true church:

  • It practices the pure preaching of the gospel.
  • It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
  • It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.

Does adopting women in office compromise any of these marks?

“The pure preaching of the gospel” could be understood to refer narrowly to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  However, sometimes the word “gospel” is used more broadly to refer to the Word of God in general.  I believe the latter, broader way is found here in BC 29.  I say that because the French (or Gallican) Confession, upon which the Belgic is largely modelled, does not say “gospel” in its articles 27 and 28, but “the Word of God.”  Therefore, if a church is not proclaiming the Word of God purely about who can serve in the offices of the church, this mark has been compromised.

What about “the pure administration of the sacraments”?  Did Christ institute the Lord’s Supper and Baptism with the intent that women would administer them?  Does administering the sacraments to those who follow false teachings like women in office constitute a pure administration?  We have to conclude that this mark too is imperiled by women in office.

Church discipline is also essential for a church to be true.  When members hold to false teachings like women in office, they need to be admonished and warned that they are departing from the Scriptures.  When local congregations hold to women in office and begin implementing it, then there needs to be brotherly admonition on the ecclesiastical level — and action too, if no change takes place.  But if a Synod decides that black is white and women can be ordained, then all possibility for discipline on this point disappears.  So, yes, here as well we have to conclude that the church which adopts women in office has ceased being a true church.

All three marks of a true church are affected by women in office.  The church which adopts this position ceases to be a true church of Jesus Christ.  This is why the Canadian (CanRC) and Australian (FRCA) churches will no longer be able to have ecclesiastical fellowship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands if they go in this direction.

That still leaves the question hanging:  if not a false church, and if not a true church, then what?  It’s often forgotten that there is a third category in article 29 of the Belgic Confession:  the sect.  The sect is a religious organization which is not entirely a true church, but not entirely a false church either.  In the days the Confession was written, this was the label applied to the Anabaptist groups in the Netherlands.  Guido de Brès wrote a volume of over 900 pages on the Anabaptists.  He never calls their groups “false churches.”  Instead, consistently, he calls them sects.  If you want a category for the church which adopts women in office, “sect” is what you’re looking for.

As mentioned above, I pray that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands rejects women in office once and for all.  I pray that the faithful members will gain the upper hand and steer the RCN back to God’s Word.  I pray that the churches which are already practicing this false teaching will either repent or be removed from the RCN.  I don’t want to see them become a sect.  I earnestly desire that we can continue to recognize them as a true church of Jesus Christ, our sister churches.  We must keep praying!


Absurdity

Can we pray to Jesus?  This is a question that I’ve answered countless times, both in sermons and here on Yinkahdinay.  It’s a question that I have to keep coming back to, because the answer sometimes given to that question is not only wrong, but harmful.  Some say that since Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer for us to pray to the Father, we must therefore only pray to the first Person of the Trinity.  The Lord’s Prayer says “Our Father,” and therefore we may not pray to Jesus.  Case closed.

However, if such voices are wrong, they fly against what we confess in article 32 of the Belgic Confession.  There we confess that we must not deviate from what Christ has commanded for worship.  Then read this carefully: “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  So, if someone says that we must not pray to Jesus, and Scripture says that we are allowed to pray to Jesus, that person is introducing a human law which illicitly binds and compels our consciences.  There is a lot at stake here.

There are several ways I could address this question.  I could point out the proper explanation of “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (see here).  I could mention the explicit biblical passages where prayer to Jesus is not only observed, but even invited (John 14:14, Acts 7:59, 1 Cor. 16:22, Rev. 22:20).  I could discuss again how the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, answered this question using an essential theological distinction.  I could point out the practice of the early church with church fathers such as Augustine, the practice of the medieval church with Anselm of Canterbury, the practice of the Reformation church with William Farel, or the post-Reformation church with Thomas Watson.  We could note that the Athanasian Creed speaks of worshipping the Trinity in unity, and unity in Trinity, noting how this has been understood throughout the history of the church.  We could note the prayer-like hymns we sing which address Jesus — and to which most people don’t give a second thought.  There are all these different ways of going at this issue.

However, today I want to take an approach I haven’t taken before.  It came to me while I was recently teaching a marriage preparation class for a couple in my church.  We were discussing healthy communication in marriage.  I pointed out what Scripture says in Ephesians 5, where the Holy Spirit draws a parallel between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and his church.  The thing that stood out to me is that Christ is clearly said to have a relationship with his church.  That relationship is spoken of in marital terms.  How absurd it would be for a human marriage to see one spouse being forbidden to speak with the other!  Imagine a human marriage where the husband can speak to the wife, but the wife is not allowed to answer and communicate with her husband.  Yet that’s what we’re left with when we’re told that the church of Jesus Christ may not pray to him.  We have a relationship where the communication can only go one way.  What healthy relationship only has one-way communication?  We realize that healthy relationships see communication going both ways.  If the church really does have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and if that relationship parallels human marriage, shouldn’t it be expected that the church would pray to Jesus?

As mentioned above, it is not only wrong to conclude otherwise, it is also harmful.  Think about it.  If we cannot communicate with him, how can we really have a relationship with him?  How can we live in union with someone with whom we’re not even allowed to speak?  How can we avoid the danger of turning the person of our beloved Saviour into a theological concept to be analyzed or argued rather than someone to be loved and cherished?  I posit that the challenge of real spiritual vitality goes up exponentially in Reformed communities where they are taught (and then believe) that they may not pray to Jesus.

So, yes, I do pray to my Lord Jesus from time to time.  I don’t pray to him all the time.  Most of the time I pray to the Triune God as my Father.  But I’m taught in Scripture that prayer to my Saviour is also appropriate at times.  I may pray to him in my personal prayers.  I may sometimes also address him when I lead congregational prayer — this is especially if a sermon has been on a text explicitly unfolding some aspect of his person or work (as an example, see the prayer at the end of this sermon).  Through the Word of God, the Holy Spirit allows me this privilege of being in a relationship with the Son of God where I may freely speak with him.  He allows you that privilege too and don’t let anyone take that away from you.  Don’t let your conscience be bound by human laws.


Predestination in Mission

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For Reformed people who care about sharing the gospel (which should be all of us!), it is probably a given that election/predestination is not something we incorporate into our gospel message.  We do not go around telling unbelievers about the doctrine of unconditional election.  Instead, we generally recognize that this doctrine is revealed in Scripture for the comfort and edification of believers.  The common way of thinking is that this doctrine is for those already in the church, not for those we are trying to draw into the church.

That way of thinking can be partially credited to 1.14 of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons of Dort say that the doctrine of divine election “should be taught in the church of God, for which it was particularly intended, in its proper time and place…”  For a long time, I have understood this to mean that election/predestination would never have a real place in our missionary message.  By “missionary message,” I mean everything connected to the good news as we communicate it to the unregenerated.

My thinking on this has been upended by Tim Keller.  In his book Center Church, he stirs up a lot of thought in the area of contextualization (see here for some of my work in this area).  This has to do with the communication of the gospel in cross-cultural ministry.  In chapter 10, he discusses “active contextualization”:  entering the culture, challenging the culture, and then appealing to the listeners.

When it comes to challenging and confronting the culture, Keller relates a discussion he once had with a Presbyterian missionary to Korea.  This missionary was working amongst Korean prostitutes and was not connecting with them.  He spoke of God’s grace to them, about the forgiveness available through Christ, and about God’s love for sinners.  Nothing he said engaged them.  He decided to try something radically different.  He would begin with the doctrine of predestination.  Keller rightly notes that this doctrine is a challenging one for Western hearts and minds.  Westerners value democratic and egalitarian notions.  Many in the West do not want to hear about a sovereign God who chooses some and passes by others.  But what is true for Westerners is not necessarily true for Asian prostitutes in the mid-twentieth century.  Keller writes:

So he told the prostitutes about a God who is a King.  Kings, he said, have a sovereign right to act as they saw fit.  They rule — that’s just what kings do.  And this great divine King chooses to select people out of the human race to serve him, simply because it is his sovereign will to do so.  Therefore, his people are saved because of his royal will, not because of the quality of their lives or anything they have done.

This made sense to the women.  They had no problem with the idea of authority figures acting in this way — it seemed natural and right to them.  But this also meant that when people were saved, it was not because of pedigree or effort, but because of the will of God (cf. John 1:13).  Their acceptance of this belief opened up the possibility of understanding and accepting the belief in salvation by grace.  They asked my missionary friend a question that a non-Christian in the West would never ask:  “How can I know if I am chosen?”  He answered that if as they heard the gospel they wanted to accept and believe it, this was a sign that the Holy Spirit was working on their hearts and that God was seeking them.  And some of them responded. (Center Church, 126)

So there are times, places, and cultures where it might be effective to use the doctrine of predestination as a missionary starting point.  It’s not that this doctrine is the complete message.  Rather, it’s a starting point to bring unbelievers onward to the full gospel of salvation in Christ.

But then what about the Canons of Dort?  Does this approach contradict 1.14?  No, it doesn’t, because 1.14 doesn’t say that this doctrine should only be taught in the church and that it may never be used elsewhere.  There’s indeed room in the Canons for a wise and creative adaptation of this doctrine to the missionary calling of the church.  Because of the pervasive influence of Western culture, perhaps the contexts where this could be done are increasingly few and far between, but missionaries should definitely be open-minded to the possibility that this Presbyterian missionary’s approach could work elsewhere.