Category Archives: the Gospel

Quotable Church History: “The doctrine by which the Church stands or falls”

This is the sixth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

“Justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.”  This saying is often attributed to Martin Luther.  There’s no question Luther accorded central importance to justification.  However, so did other Reformers.  For example, in his Institutes, Calvin famously insists that justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns” (Institutes 3.11.1).  However, the exact wording of today’s quote comes from neither Luther nor Calvin.  Instead, from what I can tell, these exact words come from a later Reformed theologian from Germany, Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638).  In his Theologia Scholastica Didacta Alsted wrote, “The article of justification is said to be the article by which the Church stands and falls.”  From the fact that he wrote “said to be,” it would seem that he was not coining a new aphorism, but simply rehearsing and expounding an already well-known expression.

To understand why Alsted and others made such claims, it is essential to review the basics of this doctrine.  Simply put, justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous.  This declaration is made solely on the basis of the imputed passive and active obedience of Christ.  In other words, it is only because Christ’s work on the cross (passive obedience) and his perfect life of law-keeping (active obedience) are credited to the sinner.  Faith, resting and trusting in Christ, is the sole instrument by which we receive this tremendous treasure.  What follows from this declaration of justification is a transformed relationship with God — no longer do we relate to him as a Judge with whom we have a relationship of hostility.  Now we relate to him as our Father with whom we have a relationship of deep filial affection.  That beautiful relationship is foundational to the Christian life.

Clarifying further, we do not confess that justification by itself is the gospel.  Nor do we believe that the doctrine of justification exhausts the goodness of the good news.  In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed churches maintain that the Apostles’ Creed summarizes “all that is promised us in the gospel” (QA 22).  That obviously goes far beyond justification.  The gospel promises us righteousness in Christ to deal with the curse of sin, but it also promises the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit to deal with the power of sin — and more.  Nevertheless, justification is the central facet of the gospel diamond.  It is of prime importance.  Without justification, nothing else in the gospel is of any value to us.  This, again, is because of its relational significance.  Apart from a relationship of fellowship with God, we are still under the deadly curse.

Is it biblical to say “justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls”?  To answer that, we need to turn to Galatians.  In the original Galatian context, the Judaizers were preaching a message which included the sinner’s great need for the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The problem was that they added to that the sinner’s own need to perform deeds of righteousness, including following Jewish ceremonial requirements like circumcision.  Thus, it was not Christ alone as the basis for our standing with God.   This is what the Holy Spirit said through Paul in response to this:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again:  If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.  (Galatians 1:6-9)

Those are powerful words!  If a different gospel is preached, that preacher should go to hell.  If a different gospel is received, the recipient will go to hell.  Standing or falling is indeed what’s at stake.  A church that doesn’t get justification correct is in danger of falling into the pits of hell.  On the flip side, a church that receives the biblical gospel, including a correct understanding of our righteousness before God, will stand firmly.

In my pastoral experience, I have noticed that justification is often poorly understood amongst many Reformed believers.  I have encountered widespread ignorance about the vital role of the active obedience of Christ.  I have seen a preconfession textbook (from a Reformed publisher) teaching the erroneous notion that justification is a life-long process rather than an event — a notion which is traditionally found in Roman Catholicism rather than Reformed theology.  I have heard countless believers speak of justification as God making us righteous — stripping away the crucial vision of justification as a courtroom declaration.  There’s the common misconception that justification is merely a verdict of innocence rather than righteousness.  There are those who still believe that as Christians, we relate to God as our Judge and do not see him as our loving Father.  There are those in our churches who argue that Christians are not sinners but only saints, failing to come to terms with the biblical concept of imputation.  The list could go on.  If justification is truly the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, we see ample evidence that pastors and other church leaders have to do better at teaching it.  I certainly recommit to doing my part in ensuring that the church I serve will stand with this doctrine.

 


The Reformation and Doxology

Five hundred years!  Today is the day we mark a half millennia since God brought Reformation to his church.  Over these five centuries, Reformed biblical theology has spread far and wide.  Its influence has infiltrated into various cultures and sub-cultures around the globe.  For this, we ought to praise God and vigorously.

One of the surprising sub-cultures where Reformation theology has found a home today is American hip-hop.  One of the leading voices in this development is Shai Linne.  In the spoken word intro to his album Lyrical Theology Part 2: Doxology, Shai makes this astute observation:  “If you have theology without doxology, you just have cold dead orthodoxy…If you have doxology without theology, you actually have idolatry.”  He’s right.

Theology (the study of who God is and what he’s done) should lead us right to doxology (proper praise for God).  The two belong together and must never be separated.  So when we consider the Reformation, we’re not doing it right if we’re not ending up on our knees in adoration for God.  There are all sorts of reasons why remembering the Reformation should bring us to worship — the chief being the recovery of the biblical gospel.  Without that gain, everything else is meaningless.  Praise God that he peeled away the ignorance, brought back the Bible, and brought widespread gospel preaching back to his church!

Let me mention three other reasons why we ought to be praising God today for the Reformation.

The Recovery of Certainty and Assurance

When many medieval Christians went to church, they were immediately confronted with an image of Christ.  It was not an image of Christ as Saviour, but as the coming Judge of heaven and earth.  The medieval church wanted to put the fear of Jesus into its members.  You were always supposed to be afraid and wondering whether you would be good enough for him.  You would never know the answer to that question until after you died.  For the average believer, the prospect of purgatory always loomed.  You could not be sure that you would go to God’s blessed presence the moment you died, because most likely you wouldn’t.  What a horrible distortion of the Christian faith!

The Reformation brought back the Bible’s message of justification.  If you believe in Jesus Christ, you are declared right by God.  The Judge is now your Father.  As his beloved child, you need not fear judgment.  When you die, because of God’s verdict in your justification, you can be absolutely 100% certain that you will be going to his blessed presence.  As one Reformation catechism put, “Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism QA 42).  Praise God that we are not left wobbly and doubting!  Praise God for the Reformation’s recovery of gospel certainty!

The Restoration of the Voice of God’s People in Worship

Prior to the Reformation, when you went to mass you mainly went as a spectator.  Almost everything was done by someone else, mainly the priest and his assistants.  Congregation members were typically passive participants.  Since much of the service was in Latin, it could not be otherwise.  The idea of congregational singing was known, but not widely practiced.

With the Reformation, this began to change dramatically.  Christian worship becomes a more active affair for congregation members.  They are not only to watch or listen, but also to participate and particularly in song.  One of John Calvin’s priorities was the preparation of a metrical Psalter in the language of the people.  This was because he understood that the congregation should be lifting up its voice in worship.  In Reformed churches today, this continues to be the practice.  We emphasize congregational singing, the priesthood of all believers melodiously lifting up the Name of God.  We don’t go to church to listen to a choir sing or listen to soloists, but to lift up our own voices in praise to God.  This is as it should be.  Let’s praise God that we can praise him each Lord’s Day from our own hearts with our own tongues and lips!

The Humanity of the Reformers and their Example

When we look closely at the men whom God used to recover the gospel in the Reformation, one of the striking things is that they were just, well…men.  They were not super saints.  They had warts and blemishes.  For example, Luther famously ran off his mouth and was known for saying some things a bit strongly, if not strangely — and even sometimes wrongly.  Yet through their weaknesses, the power of God was made strong.  God amazingly worked through weak and sinful men to bring something about that’s still having a ripple effect to this day.

They were people with families.  When they faced death or martyrdom, they wrote like regular people because that’s what they were.  If you haven’t already, you need to read the powerful last letter of Guido de Brès to his wife.  See if you can read that without praising God for the example of this Reformation pastor.  I read that letter and I can’t help but doxologize.  God worked steadfast faithfulness in his servants and it was not in vain.  The gospel for which de Brès died outlived him and spread far beyond his little corner of the world.  God worked through them, through their humanity, and he left examples for us to follow.

There are many more reasons why we can be praising God today as we remember the Reformation.  Along with the recovery of the gospel as number one, those three above certainly rank up there for me.  They lead me to this:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm

have worked salvation for him…

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

Psalm 98:1,4


Seven Terms You Need to Know

It was my first time visiting Australia.  As I sat around the dinner table with an Aussie family, the father and his sons began discussing a cricket game from the day previous.  I listened intently, but it was as though they were speaking a foreign language.  I was quite sure that it was still English, but the words were unfamiliar — and the thick Aussie accent didn’t help!  However, I’m quite sure that if these Aussie blokes were to head to Canada and sit around a dinner table with some fellows talking hockey, they would experience the same.

Last summer, my brother-in-law came to visit us from Canada and went vacationing with us around Tasmania.  We spent our evenings watching 20-20 cricket on television.  We were determined to learn this game.  With the help of some context (and occasional help from Google) by the end of our vacation we had it mostly figured out.

The Christian faith presents us with similar challenges.  Like cricket or hockey, Christianity has its own unique vocabulary that needs to be learned.  As newcomers or covenant children are discipled in the faith, there are certain terms that they need to grasp in order both to be established as a disciple and to grow as a disciple.  Today let me briefly introduce to you seven essential Christian terms.  Every disciple of Jesus needs to know these:

ELECTION — Before the creation of the universe, God the Father chose (elected) a certain number of definite individuals to salvation in Jesus Christ, purely on the basis of his grace and good pleasure.  A key Bible passage is Ephesians 1:1-14.

EFFECTUAL CALLING — This is a work of God the Holy Spirit.  It’s a process where the Holy Spirit convinces sinners of their plight and brings them to spiritual life so that they can and do believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.  A key Bible passage is John 6:44-45.

REGENERATION — Also known as the new birth — without it there is no salvation.  This is the moment when the Holy Spirit miraculously changes a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.  Regeneration is the transfer from death to life.  A key Bible passage is John 3:1-9.

JUSTIFICATION — God’s declaration as a judge that a sinner is right with him (righteous) only on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for that sinner in his life, death, and resurrection.  This can only be received through resting and trusting in Jesus Christ.  A key Bible passage is Romans 3:21-31.

ADOPTION —  All those who are justified are received into God’s family as one of his adopted children.  He is our Father and we are his beloved children with the privilege of a promised inheritance in the future.  That inheritance is life forever in the new heavens and new earth.  A key Bible passage is Romans 8:12-17.

SANCTIFICATION — This is the process by which Christians grow in looking like Jesus Christ.  It is a life-long process of growing in hating, fighting, and overcoming the evil and rebellion in our lives.  A key Bible passage is Romans 12:1-2.

GLORIFICATION — The Christian’s hope for glory which comes either with death or the return of Jesus Christ (whichever happens first).  We shall some day be perfect and sinless, sharing in the glory of our Saviour.  A key Bible passage is 1 John 3:1-3.

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Taken together all of the above make up what is known as the Order of Salvation.  In Reformed theology, you’ll often see these things referred to with the Latin expression Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps which make up the rescue of a Christian from sin and deserved condemnation.  With each of these, there is far more that could and should be said, but the above provides just a basic orientation.


A Missiological Reflection on the RCN and Women in Office

 

Over the last few years, I have written several times about my concerns regarding the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  Occasionally, I’ve received feedback from members of the RCN, including office bearers.  Some of the reaction has been encouraging – in the sense that the correspondents shared my concerns.  Others have been negative and even sometimes hostile.

In one instance, a brother from the RCN wrote to express his surprise that I could be a doctor in theology and not endorse the direction of the RCN.  In his way of thinking, any intelligent and educated person would surely see that the RCN was going the right way.  In another instance, a brother wrote and suggested that I had neglected the issues.  Moreover, with my concerns I was relegating the churches I serve to irrelevance in this contemporary world.  If we want to be relevant missionary churches, he wrote, we have to be open to new insights and prepared to enter new paradigms.

I have heard these sorts of things before while serving as a pastor in Canada.  The same types of arguments have been used to promote the acceptance of theistic evolution.  We were told that intelligent and educated people are not going to be able to accept at face value what the Bible teaches about creation – for example, that the universe was created in six ordinary days, and that man was created as a special creation of God from the dust of the earth on day six.  I have always said that if intelligent and educated people will not accept that, then they need to repent of their unbelief.  We were told that being an outward looking, missionary church means that we need to accommodate what “science” tells us about origins.  No one will take us seriously if we just maintain what the Bible says.  We will become irrelevant if we are creationists.  To that, I have always said that our calling is not to be relevant, but to be faithful to the Word of God.  The world does not set our agenda.

That was about creation.  But what about women in office?  In what follows, let me reflect a little bit on Synod Meppel’s decision from a missionary perspective.  What difference does it make for the missionary calling of the church to have women in office or not?

Our Saviour sent out his church into this world with the Great Commission.  He sent the church to preach the gospel to all humanity.  Moreover, he also instructed us to teach new disciples about everything that he has commanded in his Word.  Mission includes not only preaching the gospel, but also discipling new converts in following God’s will.  That includes his will for the roles of men and women in the church.  When it comes to mission, there is no way to avoid these issues.  A Reformed approach to mission begins with the preaching of the gospel, but it certainly doesn’t end there.  If Christ teaches us in his Word that only men are to serve in the offices of the church, then Reformed missionaries must teach what Christ teaches in his Word.

However, the gospel itself is threatened by the direction that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands has taken.  This is because the authority of Scripture itself is under attack.  Everyone must understand this:  we are not dealing with questions of exegesis.  Instead, we are confronted with questions at the most basic level of hermeneutics.  Is the Bible the inspired Word of God?  Is the Bible infallible and inerrant revelation from the Holy Spirit?   Did the Holy Spirit say that only men are to serve in the offices of the church?  We are back to the most basic question confronting Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:  “Did God really say?”  Then the question was about fruit, now it’s about the place of women in the church:  “Did God really say that only men can serve as office bearers?”

When a high view of the authority of Scripture is lost, then everything is up for grabs, including the gospel itself.  Once you begin questioning whether the Spirit really said some things in Scripture, there is nothing preventing you anymore from questioning whether the Spirit said everything.  Of all the offensive teachings in the Bible, nothing is more offensive to unregenerated human nature than the cross and the penal substitutionary atonement offered there.  It is only a matter of time before the biblical gospel of Christ crucified is questioned, compromised and, eventually, even completely lost.

The historic Reformed view of Scripture is that nothing and no one stands above Scripture.  With their decision at Synod Meppel, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands have betrayed that view.  And since Christian mission and commitment to the Great Commission depends on a high view of Scripture, the time will come when this new view of the Bible will gut the missionary endeavours of the RCN.

We’re told that we need to change our view on such matters as women in office in order to stay relevant to the culture.  But I ask:  since when has it been our priority to be relevant to an unregenerate and lost culture?  The true church has always been odd and out of place in this world.  Augustine rightly contrasted the City of God (the church) with the City of Man (the world).  These are two different worlds at odds with one another.  While we want to reach that other world, we must do so on God’s terms, not on the terms of unregenerate culture.  When it comes to mission and evangelism, faithfulness is to be our greatest concern, not relevance.

A colleague who serves as a missionary in Brazil has been reading a book by Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth.  On Facebook he posted this excerpt from the book:

It is a common assumption that, in order to survive, churches must accommodate to the age.  But in fact, the opposite is true: in every historical period, the religious groups that grow most rapidly are those that set believers at odds with the surrounding culture.  As a general principle, the higher a group’s tension with mainstream society, the higher its growth rate.

My colleague noted that the RCN’s compromise on women in office is inevitably going to relegate them to decline and insignificance.   History demonstrates that this is correct.  In church after church, chasing after relevance by accommodating Scripture to the culture has led to vapid, weak, and puerile churches.  These are churches that do next to nothing for the advance of the gospel anymore.  In North America and elsewhere, churches that have gone down this path end up meeting on Sundays with a few old ladies – and no mission work at all.  Women in office will eventually spell the end of mission.

It is counter-intuitive to think it.  Fallen human nature thinks that relevance must be the way to missionary success.  But mission is the way of the cross, and the cross turns human thinking upside down.  The cross is foolishness – no one would think that God would save through something so offensive, and yet he does.  Some missiologists might think that God will give us success through pandering to the world and its feminist ideology.  But the Scriptures teach us to expect God’s blessing when we are faithful to the Word, despite the fact that it grossly offends the world.

With all my heart, I deeply lament the decision of Synod Meppel.  It grieves me enormously when I see churches that were once faithful taking this unfaithful path.  One of the saddest things is what it is going to do to the missionary witness of the RCN.  This is going to be a tremendous set-back when it comes to the advance of the gospel.  Satan laughs as God’s Word is twisted in the name of mission and being relevant to the culture.  And while I grieve, I am sure that our Lord Jesus Christ is grieving even more.  The church entrusted to take his Word to the world has betrayed it.  That’s a tragedy of the highest order.


Pastoral Q & A: Christ’s Intercession

On Ascension Day, I preached on Romans 8:34.  Afterwards, one of my parishioners asked the following question:

Why do we see the intercession of Christ as an ongoing process and not a completed act like his atonement on the cross?

To answer this we need to go back to the Scriptures and pay attention to the exact wording of two key passages that speak of Christ’s intercession.  In Romans 8:34 it says that Christ is interceding for us.  Grammatically speaking, the verb there is in the present tense.  It is describing something that is happening right now and happening continuously.  Similarly, in Hebrews 7:25 it says that Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for believers.  There you not only have the present tense (“lives”), but also an adverb to emphasize that it’s ongoing (“always”).  There is no escaping the teaching of Scripture that Christ’s intercession is a present and ongoing reality.  If the Holy Spirit had meant to say that Christ interceded but once (just as he was sacrificed and made atonement once), certainly there is a grammatical option in Greek to express that (the perfect tense or, less likely, the aorist).

So given that information, our question has to be different: why do the Scriptures teach that Christ’s intercession is present and continuous? Why does he carry on that ministry? I believe the answer to that is that he wants to constantly assure us of his love and interest in our lives. He completed his work on the cross and was raised for us — that’s in the past. But now he wants us to be confident that every minute he is carrying us on his heart. I say that on the basis of passages like John 17 (Christ’s high priestly prayer) and Hebrews 4:14-16.  In John 17, Jesus allowed his disciples to listen in to his prayer — why?  Partly to encourage them with the knowledge that he was praying for them (John 17:9).  In Hebrews 4:14-16, we read of Christ’s position as our high priest.  His sympathetic mediation is the reason why we can confidently go to throne of grace.  His continuous intercession is revealed to us so that we would be constantly encouraged by his love and continue to depend on him in faith each day.