Category Archives: Sacramentology

Get With The Times

Every pastor knows the value of a good illustration.  I have a few in my pedagogical toolbox and I use them regularly.  Some are timeless and I’ll likely keep using them as long as I teach and preach.  Others made sense to everybody 10-20 years ago, but fewer people are grasping them with the passage of time.

One of my favourite illustrations has to do with baptism and the covenant promises signed and sealed by God in this sacrament.  I’ve used it countless times in sermons and catechism lessons.  I didn’t come up with it — I don’t even remember where or from whom I first heard it.  It’s the illustration of the cheque.

This is the illustration as used in my book I Will Be Your God: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace:

We must distinguish between extending the promise and receiving what is promised.

An illustration might help.  It is not a perfect illustration, but it will get the point across.  Imagine if I were to give you a cheque for $10,000.  Another name for a cheque is a promissory note.  It is a promise from me that you will receive $10,000 from my bank account.  But say that you take my cheque and put it in your pocket and then forget about it.  Next week you pull those pants on and you put your hand in your pocket and there is a crumpled wad of paper.  It has been through the washing machine, so you are not quite sure what it is anymore.  You throw it in the garbage.

Did I extend a promise of $10,000?  Yes, I wrote the cheque and gave that promissory note to you.

However, did you receive $10,000?  No, because you did not take the cheque to the bank and deposit it or cash it.  You did not do anything with that cheque and so you missed out on what was promised.

Do you see the difference now?  It is the difference between extending a promise and receiving what has been promised.  It is the difference between giving a cheque for $10,000 and getting $10,000 in your hand.

That is what happens in the covenant of grace.  God proclaims the promises of the covenant to all in the covenant.  Every single person — and that needs to be stressed.  However, not every single person receives what is promised in the covenant: the blessings.  That is because there is a human responsibility within the covenant relationship.  Everybody needs to bring the cheque to the bank, so to speak.  The big question is how.

Do you see a possible problem this illustration might encounter today?

When we moved here to Australia in 2015, we right away noticed that cheques are almost completely extinct here.  It was getting like that in Canada, but Australia is even further along in electronic payments for everything.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen an Australian bank cheque.  Still, I’ve kept on using the cheque illustration, banking on the hope that most people still know what I’m talking about.  Most probably do, even the kids in my catechism classes.  Yet the illustration is undoubtedly losing its currency.

I’m mentoring a couple of young men from my church in teaching catechism.  I have a sabbatical coming up shortly and they’ll be taking over my catechism classes.  One of them was teaching on baptism.  Afterwards, we got to discussing this illustration and I asked how it could be updated.  “A gift card,” was the reply.  Hmmm…..

Indeed, if someone gives you a gift card for $10, it’s like a promise for that amount.  However, in order to cash in on the value of the gift card, you need to do something with it.  If it’s for iTunes, you need to get yourself to the iStore.  If you leave that gift card in your pocket and forget about it, it’s given you no benefit.  You have to redeem it.  Similarly, with God’s covenant promises, you have “to redeem them” in order to receive their value and benefit.  The way that’s done is through faith in Jesus Christ.  I think that works to bring the illustration into a new era.

As I intimated in the book excerpt above, it’s not a perfect illustration.  It can only be taken so far.  For example, it doesn’t reckon with the reality that not appropriating the promises for yourself doesn’t leave you in a zero-sum state.  If you don’t deposit your cheque or redeem your gift card, you’re just left with nothing.  There’s no penalty.  But if you neglect or spurn God’s covenant promises, there are serious consequences (e.g. Hebrews 10:26-31).

It’s often said that the best way to teach is to show and not tell.  A well-crafted illustration does exactly that.  “Well-crafted” means also ensuring our illustrations are relevant and easily grasped.


Review: The New City Catechism Devotional

The New City Catechism Devotional, edited by Collin Hansen.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2017.  Hardcover, 238 pages.

I’m always on the lookout for new family worship resources.  When I spotted this volume at my local Christian bookstore, I thought I’d check it out and give it a test run at home.  So, for a couple of months recently, this devotional served as the catechetical instruction in our daily family worship.  We read each question and answer, read the Scripture text, and then the contemporary commentary.  There is also a brief commentary by a figure from history, but we skipped over that in the interests of time.

For those unaware, the New City Catechism is a teaching tool written by Timothy Keller and Sam Shammas.  It appeared under 2014 under the auspices of The Gospel Coalition and Redeemer Presbyterian Church.  It seeks to condense and modernize Reformation catechisms — there are clear echoes throughout of both the Heidelberg and Westminster Shorter Catechisms.

I have several observations about this devotional and it seems best to divide them into two parts.  First, I’ll comment briefly on the commentary and then a little more at length on the New City Catechism itself.

Contemporary Commentary

Each question and answer of the NCC has commentary, both historic and contemporary.  Historic commentators include John Calvin and Augustine, but also less orthodox figures like John Wesley.  The contemporary commentators are men such as Tim Keller, John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan.

Because there is such a variety of authors, the commentaries or devotional components are uneven.  That happens with any compilation.  Here too: some are short, some are long.  Some read easier than others.  Some have better illustrations or clearer teaching.  Some were really good, others okay, and some mediocre.

I’m going to make some remarks further down about the New City Catechism and its teaching on baptism.  But already here I want to note that from a confessionally Reformed (i.e. Three Forms of Unity) perspective, the teaching in the commentary on baptism is at best inadequate.  If you are intending to use this devotional to teach your covenant children about the meaning of their baptism, then this book is not going to cut the mustard.  There is certainly nothing here about baptism as a sign and seal of God’s covenant.  Baptists will appreciate it more than anyone.

The New City Catechism

There are some things to like about the NCC.  It generally tracks with Reformation theology.  The NCC speaks biblically about the unpopular doctrine of hell in QA 28.  It draws attention to the cosmic significance of Christ’s redemption in QA 26.  In QA 34, obedience to God’s commandments is motivated not only by thankfulness (as in the Heidelberg Catechism), but also by love for God.

However, there are also some significant weaknesses.  There is one question and answer dealing with the Lord’s Prayer.  There is one question and answer dealing with the Apostles’ Creed.  There is a little more with the Ten Commandments — all ten are covered in four questions and answers.  In trying to keep the NCC to fifty-two questions and answers, all these important elements of Christian catechesis have been given short-shrift.  I’ll gladly take my Heidelberger back, thank you very much.

Were I to write a contemporary catechism (not that I plan to), I would be sure to address contemporary concerns.  The Heidelberg Catechism did that — look at Lord’s Day 18 and its four questions and answers on the ascension.  That was all because of polemics with Lutheran theology at the time.  One of today’s major battles has to do with creation and evolution.  While the NCC has two questions and answers dealing with creation, there is nothing to address the threat of evolution.  It’s not in the commentary either.  Should we be surprised?  Since Timothy Keller is a well-known ally of BioLogos, an organization promoting theistic evolution, I suppose not.

As mentioned above, one of the greatest concerns I have about the NCC is its teaching on baptism.  It’s not only what it doesn’t say — i.e. that the children of believers ought to be baptized.  It’s also what it does say, namely that baptism not only “signifies and seals our adoption into Christ [and] our cleansing from sin” but also, “our commitment to belong to the Lord and to his church.”  Does baptism signify and seal “our commitment”?  Doesn’t the one being baptized already belong to the Lord and, if a covenant child, also to his church?  Again, our Baptist friends might be willing to sign on the dotted line for everything in the NCC, but count me out.

Summary

Our family went once through the NCC Devotional, but that’ll be the last time.  Sadly, it’s not a catechism resource I can recommend to Reformed parents.  Perhaps a married couple with children out of the home might use it discerningly with benefit, but it just isn’t solid enough for families.  My top alternative remains Starr Meade’s resource on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Training Hearts, Teaching Minds.

Readers can check out the NCC and devotional resources online here.


CRCA Synod 2018

The Christian Reformed Churches of Australia held their synod from May 6 to 11 in Melbourne.  For those unaware, the CRCA is not the antipodean equivalent of the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA), although they do have ecumenical relations.  The CRCA was formed through post-war Dutch immigration and today consists of over 50 congregations throughout Australia.  Besides the CRCNA, and unlike them, the CRCA also has ecumenical relations with the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (“ecumenical fellowship”) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Last year, the CRCA also joined the International Conference of Reformed Churches.

A few items of interest from this recent synod:

In the area of ecumenical relations, the CRCA synod decided to suspend their relationships with two sister churches in South Africa.  The Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa and the Netherdutch Reformed Church of South Africa  have both made synodical decisions compromising the biblical view of homosexuality.  If there is no repentance in these South African churches by 2021, the next CRCA synod will terminate these relationships.

Until recently the CRCA Church Order stated in article 56:  “The sessions shall see to it that the congregations assemble for public worship twice each Sunday unless valid reasons make this impractical.”  A proposal to change this was discussed and approved.  The CRCA Church Order now reads:  “The sessions shall see to it that the congregations assemble for public worship at least once a Sunday.”  This effectively makes two worship services optional in the CRCA.

Finally, there was a noteworthy discussion regarding children at the Lord’s Supper.  According to the official Short Minutes a proposal was tabled to allow children access to the Lord’s table “on the basis of their covenantal membership and exercising an age and ability appropriate understanding of God’s grace and how it applies to them.”   After extensive discussion, a committee was appointed “to review previous synodical, theological, and exegetical studies, to consult with churches in ecclesiastical fellowship, consider whether the practice is a confessional matter, and to clarify other theological issues and practical implications.”  This committee has been mandated to report to the next synod in 2021.

Of course, other matters were discussed as well, and you can read a longer summary of them all here.


Book Review: Visual Theology

Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  Paperback, 155 pages.

I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies.  These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students.  They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way.   Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.

Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it.  Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew.  It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style.  So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics.  All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.

Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things.  Visual Theology is different; it has four parts:  grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ.  It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented.  It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12).  You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ.  Visual Theology shows why and how.  I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.

As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed.  For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33).  Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.

By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79).  Some readers will detect gaps.  Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two.  Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings.  That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors.  Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing.  There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.

I have one noteworthy concern:  the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism:  “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27).  The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said.  The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism.  As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace.  However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position.  Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.

This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class.  For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and moreVisual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation.  You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!


Supervised Lord’s Supper

Each month Faith in Focus, the official magazine of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, has a column entitled “Letters from New Zealand.”  This column features historical correspondence from D.G. Vanderpyl, a long-serving elder in the RCNZ and, at one time, their stated clerk.  The February 2018 issue sees Vanderpyl commenting on the supervision of the Lord’s Supper in the RCNZ.  He notes (writing in September 1978) that the RCNZ practices “closed communion.”  The elders supervise admission to the table and only those admitted by the elders are permitted to partake.

Vanderpyl shares a number of reasons why Reformed churches have a closed Lord’s Supper with supervision by the elders:

Elders have the responsibility to superintend (shepherd) the Church of Jesus Christ to see that all things are done decently and in order, 1 Cor. 14:40, Acts 20:28-31, 1 Thess. 5:12-13, Heb. 13:17, and 1 Peter 5:1-4.

Open communion means that the session [a.k.a. consistory] must measure with two different standards:  Local members are under the continuous disciplinary supervision of the session while the visitors are permitted to come to the Lord’s Table without any exercise of supervision on the part of the session.

At open communion elders have no prior knowledge of who partakes of the sacrament, which allows for the possibility that visiting communicants may not have made a credible profession of faith earlier, may be living in open sin, or may even be under discipline elsewhere, all of which desecrates the Lord’s Table.

Open communion contradicts the Church Order, Articles 66 and 91 (Reformed Church of Australia), which specify that the session must ascertain whether those who come to the Lord’s Table are qualified to do so, namely, those who have professed their faith publicly and who are in good standing in the church.

Open communion contradicts the necessity of discharging and receiving members in orderly fashion by means of a letter or certificate from sister churches.

Open communion contradicts the commandments of love (Matthew 22:37-40) which indicate that, in order to love God and the neighbour properly, concern for the neighbour should include that he not be guilty of eating or drinking judgment upon himself (1 Cor. 11:27ff.).

Open communion prevents conscientious members from exercising their right to come to the Lord’s Table because they do not wish to share responsibility for an improper celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30ff.).

All good reasons worthy of our consideration!  The continued practice of closed communion in churches like the CanRC and FRCA is not, historically speaking, idiosyncratic or arbitrary.