Category Archives: Ecclesiology

RCN Report: Men and Women in the Service of the Gospel

woman_preacher2

An official English translation has been made available of an important report going to the next synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated).  This report deals with the question of whether or not women can serve as office bearers in the church.  You can find the report here.   The report includes a draft proposal to the upcoming synod.  One of the recommended decisions reads:

…to declare on the basis of this report that…the position that besides men, women also may serve in the offices of the church, as described in this report, fits within the breadth of what can be affirmed as Biblical and Reformed;

Obviously, this report gives reason for great concern and reminds us again to pray for the RCN.


Excerpt from The Beautiful Bride of Christ

1561 Belgic Confession Cover Page

The following excerpt is from chapter 3 of The Beautiful Bride of Christ: The Doctrine of the Church in the Belgic Confession — you can order it here as a paperback and here as an e-book.  All proceeds go to the John Calvin Institute, the seminary of the Reformed Churches of Brazil.

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Have you been to the doctor lately? If you have, you can be thankful for the sound training that today’s medical professionals have received. Back in the early 1900s, things were a lot different. Medical schools were more motivated by money than by anything else. Men could become doctors after only studying for two years. A report from the Carnegie Foundation in 1910 changed all this and led to improved health care in the United States and Canada and many parts of the world.[1]  A crucial recommendation of this report had to do with medical school and the order of classes. There were to be at least four years of training. The first year would involve learning what a healthy human being looks like from the inside out. The second year would focus on pathology – the study of what’s abnormal, the study of disease. Today apparently many med schools still follow this basic structure. First you learn what is normal and healthy, and then you learn about what is abnormal and unhealthy.

The Belgic Confession applies the same method in article 29. Here we’re considering Christ’s church and where to find her. If the church is so important and necessary (as we discovered in the last chapter), then it’s crucial that we have some criteria to find where she is. It’s critical that we have some tools in place to discern what is a church of Christ and what isn’t. Faithfully summarizing the teaching of Scripture, the Confession gives us those tools. We learn about how to recognize the real thing and also how to detect counterfeits.

Confession from a Completely Different Era?

Let’s get something out of the way right at the very beginning. There are those who say that the Belgic Confession was written a long time ago when things were very different. They say that back in the days of Guido de Brès (the 1560s), things were simple. There were Reformed churches and there was the Roman Catholic Church. The difference was clear-cut. There was the true church and the false church and nobody could get them confused. It was black and white. But that was over 450 years ago now. Today things are much different, they say. Today we have so many other churches around us and it’s not always easy to discern. Article 29 is not all that helpful anymore in our situation, they say.

There is a sliver of truth in this, but it’s really a gross oversimplification. The historical reality is that Guido de Brès and the Reformed churches of his day were surrounded by far more than the Roman Catholic Church. Though there were not many, there were Lutheran churches in the Netherlands in the days the Belgic Confession was written. Guido de Brès even made efforts to unite with them.  He was involved in high-level ecclesiastical and political discussions to bring the Reformed and Lutherans of this region together in a strategic merger.[2]  Then there were also the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists were not a united group. There was not a single Anabaptist Church. Eventually the Mennonites came to be the dominant group, but in the days of the Confession there were dozens of Anabaptist groups. De Brès wrote a huge book of over 900 pages about the Anabaptists and he mentions many of them. He recognized that there was diversity among the Anabaptists. Some of them were the equivalent of today’s Pentecostals – they claimed to receive direct revelations from God. Others were closer to today’s Baptists. Some had little respect for the Word of God, others regarded Scripture as infallible truth. Among some Anabaptists you could hear the genuine preaching of the gospel, among others you would hear mostly moralism or maybe good advice. Some denied the Trinity and were outright heretics, others were comparatively orthodox on many points of Christian doctrine. The point is you cannot say that the ecclesiastical situation in Guido de Brès’ day was one of simply Rome versus the Reformed. It wasn’t like that. Yes, as I said, there is a sliver of truth here. The sliver is that today there is an even greater diversity in the number of those claiming to be churches of Jesus Christ. But to deny that there was any diversity in the sixteenth century is simply wrong. Thus I think you can agree that article 29 has not lost its relevance – it speaks out of a situation where there was diversity and it still speaks to our situation where the same kind of diversity still exists, but only now to a greater degree. This can be, and still is, the confession of Reformed churches for today.

How to Recognize the Real Thing

Now if we confess that the Bible teaches that the church is necessary, how can we discern what a true church of Christ looks like? For us maybe this isn’t such a pressing question. After all, I imagine that almost every reader would be a member of a church somewhere. But it can be helpful to approach this question with some self-examination in mind. It’s good that we think about this not to boast about what a good true church we are, but to examine our church and see how we’re doing in this regard. Can your local church credibly claim to be a true church of Jesus Christ? That’s not a question we can take for granted. One might reason:  I’m a member of that church, therefore it is a true church. In logic we call that a non sequitur. It’s a fallacy. A non sequitur is an argument where the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Just because you are a member of this or that church, it does not automatically follow that it is a true church. Don’t you want to be confident that you are in a true church of Jesus Christ? We therefore need to learn the skill of discernment.

Furthermore, it’s also good to reflect on this because we may find ourselves in a situation where we need to find a true church in a given place. Perhaps your education or work will take you to some far off city where you don’t know anyone and you don’t know where to find a church at first. Then you need to have the skills in place to discern where you can find a church of Jesus Christ where you can either visit or, if it’s a long-term situation, become a member.

What is the most important thing in a church? The Belgic Confession puts “the pure preaching of the gospel” at the front of the list of the marks of a true church. When John Calvin and other theologians of the Reformation wrote about the marks, they always put this one first too. It’s not a random choice, as if this could be listed third and it wouldn’t make a difference. It was put first on purpose. It’s first because it’s the most important.

That reflects a biblical approach. That’s the approach of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1. Paul had preached the gospel of grace among the Galatians. But then others came along and preached something different and they gained traction among the Galatian churches. Paul was amazed at how quickly the Galatians bought into this perversion of the gospel. Then he says in verse 8 of Galatians 1, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” In other words, may God damn the person to hell who preaches something other than Paul’s gospel. Those are harsh words!  But the harshness underlines the seriousness of what is at stake here. We can then ask the question:  how can a church be true to Christ if it tolerates a situation where Christ’s gospel is not preached?


[1] Tim Challies, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 100-102.

[2] The appendix features a translation of the letter of de Brès to the consistory of Antwerp on this point.


Now Available: The Beautiful Bride of Christ

The Beautiful Bride of Christ

Questions abound when it comes to what the Bible teaches about the church.  Is the church essential for Christians or can we do without it if we want?   Can we still use the old Reformation distinction of true and false church?  What about how the church should be governed — what should we do?   Shouldn’t churches each decide on their own how to worship God?  These and many other important questions are considered in The Beautiful Bride of Christ.  The Belgic Confession is our guide as we consider what God teaches us in Scripture about the body of Christ.   Included is a never-before translated letter from Guido de Brès to the consistory of the Reformed church in Antwerp.

Table of Contents:

PREFACE

1      THE CHURCH OF CHRIST IS CATHOLIC (Article 27)

2      OUTSIDE OF THE CHURCH NO SALVATION (Article 28)

3      LEARNING TO DISCERN THE CHURCH (Article 29)

4      HOW CHRIST GOVERNS HIS CHURCH (Article 30)

5      SHEPHERDING THE SHEEP (Article 31)

6      ZEAL FOR THE PURITY OF THE CHURCH (Article 32)

APPENDIX:  LETTER OF GUY DE BRÈS TO THE CONSISTORY OF ANTWERP

All proceeds from this volume will be donated to the John Calvin Institute — the seminary of the Reformed Churches of Brazil.

You can order The Beautiful Bride of Christ as a paperback for $8.95 here and as an e-book for $4.99 here.


Gospel-Centered Church Growth (2)

Part 2 of the revised text of a lecture for the Bible Seminary in Aguascalientes, Mexico in February, 2008.  See here for Part 1.

Numerical Growth

If we teach our people to value the gospel and if they listen and treasure it, then they will want to share it with others.  However, if we teach our people with our preaching that the Christian faith is first about living a certain way, that will not make them want to share their faith.  More likely, it will just make them prideful – they are the ones living a good Christian life and the unbelievers are not.  However, we know from God’s Word that we are sinners.  And James says that if we have broken one of the commandments, we have broken them all (James 2:10).  The only difference between us and unbelievers is Christ.  We are only beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.

This is where the connection is between spiritual growth of our members inside and numerical growth from outside.  If our people value the gospel, this is what they will take to their neighbours.  They will tell their neighbours that this is what is preached at their church.  They will say, “If you want to hear good news every Sunday, come to our church and listen to our pastor.  Every Sunday you will hear about Jesus Christ and what he has done!”

There are no tricks or techniques or programs in what I am saying.  This is all about people hearing preaching about Jesus Christ and his gospel, loving that gospel, and then talking about it with family, friends, co-workers, and fellow students.  Some years ago somebody did a study about the ways in which people become Christians and become committed members of a church.  In this study, 0.001% became Christian church members through crusade evangelism.  About 25% came through a variety of other ways.  But 75% of the people came through family and friends.  That study was done some years ago, but there is every reason to believe that it is still valid.  Forget about techniques and programs.  Preach the gospel to your people and have your people share the gospel with their family and friends.  Let them go everywhere evangelizing with the Word as the early church did in Acts 8:4.  It’s that simple.  Focus on the message, not the method.

Jesus said in John 10 that when the sheep hear his voice, they will come.  When the sheep hear the voice of Jesus in the gospel and in the preaching of the gospel they will come.  Who are the sheep?  According to John 10:11 and John 10:15, they are the ones for whom Jesus Christ laid down his life.  According to John 10:29, they are the ones who were given to Christ by the Father (cf. John 17:9).  They were those chosen to everlasting life.  The spreading of the gospel is the way through which God’s elect are brought to faith and are brought into his church.

When the gospel is spread whether through witnessing by church members or by the preaching of pastors, we must remember that the results are not our responsibility.  We are called to get the message out there, but we cannot control what happens from there.  In Mark 4:26-29, the Lord Jesus tells us a parable about the kingdom of God.  It is like a man scattering seed on the ground.  That is the preaching of the gospel.  The man sows the seed and he goes about his business.  Then one day he comes to the field and there is grain growing in the field.  Before he knows it, there is a crop and it is time for the harvest.  The message of this parable is that there is surprising growth in the kingdom of God, but God makes that growth happen.  Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians 3.  In 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.”  In other words, church growth is something that belongs to God.  He uses human tools or instruments.  He uses us and our congregation members, we have our responsibility, but we should never forget that church growth is ultimately God’s work.

A Lesson from History

Here I want to say something about the history of the church in the United States.  The United States has had a lot of influence on Christianity everywhere in the world.  It has influenced Canada and it has also influenced the churches where I am a pastor.  I am sure that it has also influenced the churches here in Mexico.  Because that is true, we should think carefully about the history.  We should try to learn from it.

We have to go back to the 1700s.  This was the time of the First Great Awakening.  At that time, a revival came through the United States.  Many people were converted and churches grew in numbers and in maturity.  The pastors of the First Great Awakening believed that the message was more important than the method.  The emphasis was on good Biblical preaching teaching – people did not think about whether or not it would work.  One of the pastors of the First Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards wrote many books and preached many sermons.  One of his most famous sermons is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  By today’s standards, Edwards was not a great preacher.  He read his sermon.  He had a high-pitched monotone voice.  He never looked up at his congregation.  Yet the message he preached was sound and biblical.  God used it to convert many people to true faith in Jesus Christ.

When we go to the 1800s, we find the Second Great Awakening.  This was a turn from truth to technique.  The method became more important than the message.  The gospel was being watered down and the teaching and preaching was not as biblical as it had been with the First Great Awakening.  One of the key figures in Second Great Awakening was Charles G. Finney.  There are two important things to note about Finney.

First of all, he believed that revivals are not supernatural miracles of God.  Rather, if one could only find the right method or technique, then people would be converted to Christ.  For him, it was not about the message and God working the miracle of regeneration through the message, but about finding the right method.  If you found the right method, people would be converted and your church would grow – he compared it to growing a crop using the right agricultural methods.

Second, his idea of what Christianity was really about can be seen by looking at his book on Systematic Theology.  Finney’s Systematic Theology is not about theology, but about ethics.  It is not about what God has done, but about how we must live.  It’s not about the gospel, but about the law.

At the beginning of his Systematic Theology, Finney writes that many people were looking for religion that deals with matters of practical importance and now in this book they can find it.  That’s what the Second Great Awakening was all about:  finding a religion that works for people.  We call this pragmatism and it is a disease which continues to afflict not only Christianity in the United States, but everywhere in the world.  If you doubt this, go to just about any Christian bookstore in the United States or Canada and have a look.  There are huge sections on Christian Living, but a very tiny section on theology – there may not even be a section on theology.  This is also illustrated in all the trends we see in American Christianity.  A number of years ago, it was the “Prayer of Jabez.”  Then it was the “Purpose-Driven Life.”  Today it is the Emergent Church Movement, with men such as Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller and Leonard Sweet.  The movement from one fad to another, fits with the thinking of American Christianity and its obsession with method, technique, and programs.  And the simple gospel message gets lost.

Conclusion

Let me conclude then with a warning.  be suspicious of programs that promise growth for your church.  Programs, techniques and methods are marketed to us – they are part of American big business.  They are dressed up in Christian clothes, we are told that it is “ministry,” but it is all about making money for somebody.  Furthermore, the programs, techniques and methods of today are usually taken from the world of business.  There are Bible texts here and there, but when you dig deeply, you find that it has more to do with Donald Trump than Jesus Christ.

We want to see our churches grow in maturity and numbers.  More importantly, God wants that as the Great Shepherd.  But then we must follow God’s Word.  We must simply preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Sow the seed.  Let the gospel do its work.  Then, at the end of the day, we will not praise man.  We will not say that man is so smart that he used this technique or that program.  Then we will praise God, because we know that it is his doing.  Let us finish with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5,

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.


Gospel-Centered Church Growth (1)

Revised text of a lecture for the Bible Seminary in Aguascalientes, Mexico in February, 2008.

Introduction

Every pastor should want to see his church grow.  What we mean by “grow” can be explained by what a pastor literally is.  A pastor is a man who takes care of God’s flock.  He is actually a shepherd serving under the Great Shepherd.  We think of Psalm 23 – “the LORD is my shepherd.”  We think of John 10 where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”

So, what kind of growth does God look for in his flock of sheep?  It’s the same kind of growth that any shepherd would look for.  First, he wants to see the sheep growing.  He wants to see the lambs become full grown adult sheep.  Second, he wants to see the flock grow bigger.  He raises the lambs to become adult sheep who will produce more lambs.

A pastor must share God’s concern for the growth of the flock.  He wants to see his people grow in grace and knowledge.  He wants to see his people getting married and having children and seeing the church grow through that.  He also wants to see his people reaching out with the gospel and having the church grow through new converts.

So, how can we help our churches to grow both in terms of spiritual maturity and in terms of numbers?  Is there a connection between those two things?  I should say that I will work with the idea that you are a pastor of a church.  You have people who are members of your church or who regularly attend your church.  The situation is a little bit different when you are a pastor who is a missionary, starting from nothing and trying to get a church started.  I have been in both situations.  I was a missionary for five years.  Now I am a pastor of an established church in Canada.  I pray that I can bring my experiences and knowledge to you in a helpful way.  Let us begin with spiritual growth.

Spiritual Growth

The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of a valley.  We find this in Ezekiel 37.  That valley was full of dry bones.  These were people who had been dead for a long time.  God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  Ezekiel said that God knew the answer to that question.  Then God gave him the command to speak to the dry bones.  He told the dry bones to hear the Word of Yahweh, the LORD.  After he did this, the bones were joined together and flesh came on them, and skin too.  But one thing was still missing:  life.  So, the prophet listened to God.  Ezekiel told the Spirit to come and fill the bones with life and he did.

This is an Old Testament picture of how God brings life to those who are dead in sin.  He does it with his Word and with the Holy Spirit.  Romans 10:17 says, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”  The Word of God in Romans 10 is the Word that is preached.  It is particularly the gospel contained in the Word.  People are converted through the Holy Spirit working with the Word.  People are convicted through the law which says that we must be perfect like God is perfect (Matt. 5:48).  When people realize that they cannot do that, they come to faith through the preaching of the gospel.  They hear that there is a Saviour who is perfect.  There is a Saviour who has paid for their sins and lived a perfect life for them.  When we believe that for the first time, we could say that’s the beginning of the Christian life.

But how do people grow from there?  There are those who say that the gospel is good for the beginning of the Christian life, but then afterwards what Christians really need is the law.  They need to be told how to live.  They need to hear advice for Christian living.  They believe that Christ is a Saviour for the beginning of the Christian life, but afterwards it’s up to Christians to bring about growth.  That is not a biblical way of thinking.  That view has a lot in common with the Roman Catholic Church.  The Roman Catholic Church says that grace comes to you at the beginning, but after that it is up to you.  You have to work hard so that you do not fall from grace.

In that way of thinking, Jesus Christ is half a Saviour.  However, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is a complete Saviour.  He saves us from the wrath of God against sin.  Another way of saying that is that he saves us from the curse of sin.  Through Jesus Christ, we are justified.  That means that God declares that we are right with him.  But there is more – the good news gets better!  Jesus Christ not only saves us from the curse of sin, he also saves us from the power of sin.  Through Jesus Christ, we are sanctified, we are being made like him.  Both of those things come together in Titus 1:14.  Paul speaks there about Christ “who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from every lawless deed [the curse of sin] and purify for himself his own special people, zealous for good works [the power of sin].  Christ is a complete Saviour.  We and our people will grow in the Christian faith, in knowledge and obedience, when we are fixing our eyes on Jesus.

That means that the gospel is not only for the beginning of our Christian life, but also for every day afterwards.  The gospel is what we and our people need to hear, over and over again.  We need to hear that Jesus Christ took our place on the cross.  We need to hear that he suffered and died for us.  But we also need to hear about his perfect life.  Jesus Christ never sinned.  He always obeyed God’s law.  Romans 5:19 tells us that Christ’s perfect obedience is given to us.  That means that when God looks at us, he not only sees a people who are forgiven (because of Christ’s suffering and death), he also sees a people who are perfectly righteous and holy (because of Christ’s perfect obedience).  Our people need to hear that message of good news.

And hearing the good news over and over again is going to help people to grow in faith.  They will learn how sweet Jesus Christ is.  They will see all his perfections, his wonderful qualities.   They will be impressed with him.  And as they grow in faith, the amazing thing is that they will also grow in maturity with respect to a Christian lifestyle.

For a pastor, the most important thing he can do to help his congregation grow spiritually is to preach the gospel.  Put the emphasis on what Christ has done for them.  Every Sunday tell them the good news that they have a wonderful Saviour in Jesus.  Yes, we must preach what Paul calls the whole counsel of God.  We have to preach to our people about living a Christian life – we find that in the Bible as well.  But the commands always flow out of what Christ has done.  This is the pattern of Paul in the book of Romans.  The first chapters speak about our sin and misery.  Then there is a big section in the middle about our salvation.  Then Paul builds on that from chapter 12 onwards about living a Christian life.  It is clear that the power to live a Christian life comes from looking to Jesus Christ and what he has done.  So before and above every thing else, if we want our people to grow, we need to preach Christ.  Preach his person and work.  Preach his perfections, his blessings – but preach Christ!  Many times when I’m working on a sermon, I will write this in my study notes:  make sure you preach Christ.

Think of what Paul said in the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians.  The Corinthians were immature.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3 that they were babies in Christ.  They needed to grow in so many ways.  They had many lifestyle problems.  But notice what he does with them and where he puts the emphasis.  He says in 1 Corinthians 1:17 that he was sent to them to preach the gospel.  Then he tells us what that gospel is:  it is centered on the cross of Jesus Christ.  In chapter 2 he says that he decided not to know anything among them except “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  In 1:30, he says that Christ is our wisdom from God, our righteousness, our sanctification and redemption.  Notice that he says “sanctification”!  Paul preaches the gospel to Christians, to church members and then from the gospel follows more good news:  Christ is our sanctification.  And then once Paul has laid that out, then he can talk about the problems with lifestyle in the Corinthian church.  But it all begins with the gospel and the emphasis has to be on the gospel.  Brothers, we are called to be preachers of the gospel, not life coaches and not therapists.

To be continued…