Laying On of Hands Revisited

A few years ago, I wrote a post about the Belgic Confession article 31 and what it used to say about the laying on of hands.  You can find it here.  I noted that the Confession, in its earliest editions, said that not only ministers, but also elders and deacons should be ordained with the laying on of hands.  However, this was dropped at some point, and today’s Belgic Confession editions don’t include that.  At the time, I posited that perhaps the change was made with the revision of the Confession at the Synod of Antwerp in 1566.

I had opportunity to revisit this question today.  I was reading Calvin’s Institutes and in 4.3.16 he also says that all office bearers should be ordained with the laying on of hands.  That got me to thinking about the Belgic Confession again.

I went over to the Post-Reformation Digital Library to see if they might now have a link to a 1566 edition of the BC and — jackpot!  They’ve got it.  You can find it here.  Here’s what I found when I looked at article 31:

For those who don’t understand French, there’s no mention here of the laying on of hands.  This means that, yes, the mention of this was dropped early on — at the Synod of Antwerp in 1566.  It’s also another reminder that the Belgic Confession we have today is not entirely the Belgic Confession written by Guido de Brès in 1561.


Pillars of the Reformation

The Reformation started 500 years ago with a protest against indulgences.  Rome had adopted the idea that there is a place called purgatory where believers must spend time before they can expect to arrive in heaven.  Purgatory is a place of torment where the believer  is “purged” (cleansed) from his or her remaining sins.  But one’s time in purgatory could be shortened through the purchase of an indulgence from the church.  Buying this certificate, one allegedly received access to the treasury of merit achieved by Christ and the saints.  It was a win-win for everyone — the church made extra money for the building of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome and the believer could reduce purge time for himself or loved ones.  But a German monk named Martin Luther would have none of it — he published the 95 Theses in 1517, a protest against indulgences.  That was just the start of the Reformation in the early 1500s.

As the Reformation progressed, it became evident that there were five main issues in debate.  We sometimes call these the five pillars of the Reformation — they’re also known as the five ‘solas.’  Let’s review them.

Sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Rome taught that the Bible is authoritative for believers.  But Rome also taught that tradition and the Church are also authoritative.  The Reformation maintained that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for what we believe and how we live.

Sola Gratia — by grace alone.  Rome taught that believers need God’s grace to be saved.  But Rome also taught that believers need to cooperate with God’s grace in order to be saved.  Salvation is by grace plus good works.  The Reformation maintained that salvation comes by God’s grace alone.  When it comes to the basis of our salvation, we do not merit anything, indeed, we cannot merit anything before God.

Sola Fide — by faith alone.  This has to do with justification.  Rome taught that justification is a life-long process.  At the end of your life, God will make his judgment about you based on what you did, particularly your good works.  The Reformation maintained that justification is an event whereby God declares that the sinner is righteous through Jesus Christ.  Justification is received through faith alone.  In justification, faith is simply receiving Jesus Christ as your righteousness.  Good works are not part of the equation (though they certainly flow forth in the justified person’s life as a fruit).

Solus Christus — Christ alone.   Rome taught that every believer needs Jesus Christ.  However, the papacy also taught that one needs the Virgin Mary and the saints.  Christ is not enough.  Against that, the Reformation maintained that everything we need for our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.

Soli Deo Gloria — to God alone be the glory.  Rome taught that God ought to be praised for salvation.  However, they included good works in the basis of salvation.  They gave a place to Mary and the saints alongside Christ as the Redeemer.  Human beings had to cooperate with God’s grace for justification and salvation.  The inevitable conclusion is that God gets praise, but so do human beings.  The Reformation objected.  The Reformation upheld the biblical teaching of Psalm 115:1, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory..”  All the credit, all the glory, all the praise, goes to God for our salvation.

These five pillars continue to be vitally important for the church today.  Rome still teaches what it always has.  But perhaps of more relevance is the fact that our natural human tendency is to drift away from each of these teachings.  The natural human inclination is not to give God his exclusive due.  We’re bent towards taking credit for ourselves and not acknowledging God’s exclusive authority in our lives.  Pride is our default mode.  The five pillars put us in a proper posture of humility before God.  Therefore, Christians today neglect the five pillars to their own detriment and, more tragically, to a degradation of God’s glory.  As we celebrate the Reformation, let’s be thankful for these teachings and continue to maintain them.


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.


Do We Have Free Will?

There is an assumption amongst some Reformed people that free will is a completely unbiblical concept.  This may be owing to the fact that often we only hear about free will in the context of Arminianism.  The Arminians, we’re told, believed in free will and so denied God his full credit for our salvation.  On the flip side, the popular belief with some is that Reformed theology denies there is any free will.  In the popular mind, free will is therefore a bad thing.  This is a far too simplistic approach to the matter.  If we dig a little deeper and think a little more, we’ll soon discover that there is a place for free will in Reformed theology.

We need to begin with a definition and an important distinction.

I’m using the term free will in the sense of humans being able freely to make choices in life.  When I say “freely,” I mean “without outside compulsion.”  These free choices always entail full moral responsibility for the one who makes them.  If these choices were not free, you could not be fully responsible for them.

The important distinction is a four-fold one about human nature.  In Reformed theology, we distinguish between human nature in four states.  In each of these four states, there is something we need to say about our ability to sin.

First, there is our original condition as created by God.  Adam and Eve were created upright (Gen. 1:31).  They were also endowed with free will — they were able freely to make choices.  They would be morally responsible for whatever choices they made (Gen. 2:16-17).  In their original condition, in true righteousness and holiness, Reformed theologians say that they were created able not to sin.  Before the fall, Adam and Eve could choose not to sin.  But if they did choose to sin, they would be held fully responsible for it.

Second, there is the human condition after the fall into sin.  After Adam and Eve misused their free will, corruption has spread to the entire human race (Gen. 6:5).  We are all fallen.  In our fallen, unregenerated condition, we are not able not to sin.  Unregenerated human beings still have a free will, but they can only use it in a sinful way (Jer. 13:23).  As free will is exercised in that fallen human nature, there continues to be full moral responsibility (Acts 3:14-15).

Third, there is the human condition after regeneration.  When the Holy Spirit causes someone to be born again, he creates a massive change which includes our will and our ability with regard to sinful choices.  We are now new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  In our regenerated state, we are again restored to being able not to sin.  This is what the Heidelberg Catechism is getting at in QA 8, “Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  A. Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  Note well:  if we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, then we are able again to begin doing good.  We are free to make good and God-pleasing choices.

Fourth, there is the glorified human state.  After we die, or when Christ returns, we will be perfected (1 John 3:2).  We will not only be sinless, but incapable of sinning.  In our glorified condition, we are even better off than Adam and Eve, for we will not be able to sin.  Our wills will still be free, but we will use our freedom to consistently glorify God.

To summarize:

  • Original state:  able not to sin
  • Fallen state:  not able not to sin
  • Regenerated state:  able to sin or not to sin
  • Glorified state:  not able to sin

Taking all that together, we can speak about free will in this way:  human beings are free to do what is according to their nature.  There is free will, but it is always in the context of one of those four human conditions.  For us as we live on this earth now, it is always in the context of the two middle conditions.  If you are not born again by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your sinful human nature.  Your free choices, for which you are responsible, are always reflective of your spiritual state as a fallen human being.  If you have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your restored human nature.  You can and do still sin (though you shouldn’t), but you can also say “no” to sin in growing measures (Gal. 5:16 and Titus 2:11-12).

So, where did the Arminians go wrong then?  They didn’t go wrong in speaking about free will as such.  Reformed theology does too — see the Westminster Confession 3.1 or chapter 9 of the Second Helvetic Confession.  The Arminians went wrong in how they view humanity in the fallen state.  They argued that, because of God’s prevenient grace (a grace which comes before salvation), all fallen human beings are able to use their free will to have faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, they credited all fallen people with the ability to do what Reformed theology claims is only possible for the regenerated.  So, in the Arminian view, non-Christians are free to do what Christians are free to do:  believe in the Saviour.  That’s the problem.  That view runs up against Ephesians 2:1 (and other passages) which maintain that unregenerated people are dead in sin.  If you’re dead in sin, you don’t move towards God — you can’t.

Another question people will sometimes raise:  if there’s human free will, then what about God’s sovereignty?  How can we speak about human beings as free moral agents when the Bible teaches that God is in control of everything?  The short answer is that the Bible teaches both human responsibility and divine sovereignty, without directly laying out how these two fit together.  I think the best expression of this is found in Westminster Confession 3.1:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

What this means is that God is completely in control of the universe, yet creatures still have a will, and these two truths are not in conflict with one another.

Last of all, what about article 14 of the Belgic Confession?  It says:

Therefore we reject all teaching contrary to this concerning the free will of man, since man is a slave to sin (John 8:34) and a man can receive only what is given him from heaven (John 3:27).

The Belgic Confession does not deny that human beings can and do make choices for which they are morally responsible.  The Confession’s argument is here directed against Roman Catholicism which, like Arminianism later on, runs into trouble on the question of the ability of fallen human beings to choose what is right and pleasing to God.  Rome said that fallen man is not dead in sin, but merely injured and in need of some help.  In spite of the injury, fallen man can use his free will to choose what is good.  So, again, the problem is not free will as such, but how it’s understood.

It’s important to understand these things properly because moral responsibility is at stake.  If human beings have no free will, then we cannot be held accountable for the wrong choices we make.  If human beings have no free will, then you can point your finger at God and say, “It’s his fault.  I’m just a robot and he’s at the controls.”  As it is, the Bible is clear that we are fully responsible for our sinful choices.  And, further, as Christians we need not be fatalistic about our sanctification either (“Nothing will ever change!”).  No, our wills have been transformed so that we are free to follow God.  If you have a choice between sinning and not sinning, by God’s grace you can make the choice to not sin.  The Holy Spirit has given you that ability.  Through him, your will is already free and someday it will be fully free!


SSM Not the Real Issue

If you’re just tuning in, Australia is in the midst of an enormous national discussion on marriage.  Today ballots are being sent to all eligible Australian voters asking whether marriage should be redefined to include same-sex couples.  Voters are to tick the “Yes” or “No” box and then mail it back to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who will announce a result on November 15.  The debate about this matter has been robust but also, sadly, at times uncivil.

Christians need to realize something important about this debate.  The real issue is not marriage.  The abandonment of the traditional view of marriage is just a symptom of a far deeper problem in Australian society (and Western society as a whole).  What we are witnessing is a clash of worldviews.  There is a worldview informed by the Bible, and then there are a host of unbelieving worldviews lined up against that worldview.  It’s not just about one issue — dig a little deeper and you’ll find that there is disagreement about many more things.  In fact, there’s disagreement on almost every fundamental thing.

So what is a worldview?  It’s simply the way one views the world.  It’s a complete package of beliefs about all kinds of important things.  For example, a worldview includes how you perceive history:  does it have a beginning and an end?  Is there someone in control of it?  A worldview includes how you think about ethics or morality:  are there absolute moral standards?  How does one define them?  A worldview includes how you think about God:  is there a personal God, a Creator distinct from his creation yet involved with it?  It involves how you regard humanity:  are we distinct from animals or to be included with them as simply more evolved animals?  It involves all those things, and far more.

The foundation for a Christian worldview is in Proverbs 3:6, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  The Christian’s worldview starts with wisely acknowledging God and what he says in his Word as public, objective truth.  All unbelieving worldviews start with the human being as an autonomous agent — you’re a law unto yourself.  It’s the Satanic lie told to Eve in the Garden of Eden:  you don’t need God.  You make up your own mind as to what is true and good.  These completely different foundations mean that these worldviews typically go in completely different, usually antithetical, directions.

The Christian believes that there is a personal Triune God and he is not silent.  He has revealed himself in the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.  Unbelieving worldviews are at best skeptical about such a God and the possibility of trustworthy revelation from him.  Christians believe that morality is directly connected to the character of this Triune God.  What is right and wrong is defined by his very nature as revealed in the Bible.  Unbelieving worldviews can be dogmatic about right and wrong too, but ultimately morality is defined either by the whim of the individual or of society — there is no firm foundation for absolute right and wrong.  Christians believe that human beings are creatures.  We were created by God in his image, and therefore all human beings ought to be treated with dignity and respect.  Unbelieving worldviews simply regard human beings as another species in the animal kingdom.  Yes, more highly evolved, but not essentially as of more worth than any of the other animals.  Ironically, despite that view, unbelievers can be quite insistent on human rights, but that kind of talk is just writing cheques that their worldview can’t cash.  Christians also believe that human beings today are fallen creatures, rebels against the Creator who notices rebellion and will punish it.  People need the redemption, healing, and forgiveness available in Jesus Christ.  Unbelieving worldviews maintain that we are all essentially good and getting better.  There’s definitely no need for divine intervention or rescue, because there is no ultimate justice.

When it comes to marriage, Christians come at this from within this total worldview package.  Marriage is included in our total way of looking at the world, a worldview based on God’s revelation in the Bible.  We believe in creation — that God created the first man and the first woman and brought them together in marriage.  He instituted marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman.  We believe that some things are right and other things are wrong — and it’s not determined by how we feel or what society thinks.  There is an absolute standard for morality that’s been given to humanity in the Bible.  You see, it’s not just a different view of who should be allowed to get married.  We inhabit totally different ways of looking at the world.  If there’s to be a way forward, we have to find a way to identify and discuss those different worldviews.

But how?  Let me make a couple of brief suggestions.

One is that believers be up front about why they stand where they do.  We need to make it clear that we think as we do because we’re Christians and because we have a worldview based on what the Bible teaches.  If unbelievers dig deeper, they’ll find that we have all kinds of disagreeable beliefs about God, humanity, history, biology, ethics — and they’re all part of who we are as Christians.  For us to deny any one part of that package is to deny the whole.  It’s the whole package which gives us a coherent and consistent worldview.

Another suggestion is that we ought to learn the art of asking the types of questions that expose unbelieving worldviews as bankrupt.  For example, when we hear someone talk about “marriage equality” as a human right, then let’s talk about human rights.  Let’s ask where human rights come from, whether they’re absolute, who defines them, why it should be regarded as evil if someone violates them, etc.  We need to ask the questions in such a way that the unbeliever, with his or her answers, is brought to the inevitable conclusion.  For help in learning how to do this effectively, I highly recommend Tactics, by Gregory Koukl (see my review here).

Our ultimate goal is not to win a debate about same-sex “marriage.”  Ultimately, our goal is to persuade people to the Christian faith, to be God’s instruments to lead them to Christ.  We want the unbelievers in our lives to see that their worldview is a vain fantasy that can’t account for the way the world really is.  We want them to flee their destructive fantasies and get into the real world where there is a real God who really reveals himself in the Bible, and who really sent his Son to redeem us from our foolishness.

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”  — 2 Corinthians 10:3-5