Archive for the Doctrine Category

Pastor Letter #2

How should we view other Christian denominations?

I have participated in a number of Christian denominations.  My parents were originally Plymouth Brethren.  Growing up, we attended Southern Baptist, Independent Baptist, Independent Bible, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Integrated, and Presbyterian churches.  We experienced a broad vision of various expressions of Christianity.  I have preached at Church of God, Baptist, and Assemblies of God churches.  While I respect and value my brothers and sisters in other expressions of Christianity, I have settled in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).  As a pastor, this comes with the territory of my chosen vocation.  The question we examine here is whether such exclusivity is proper for a non-ministerial Christian.  When choosing a church should a Christian exclude all other expressions of Christianity that do not fall within their chosen denomination?

I must begin by confessing my bias towards exclusivity.  Naturally, since I have sworn fidelity to the OPC, I must argue for the superiority of the denomination.  No just observer would conclude that I could do anything other.  If I did otherwise, I would make a lie out of my ordination vows.  That being said, my argument will not focus on the superiority of my expression of Christianity or the orthodoxy of my denomination.  Instead, I will argue for the importance of truth, the pursuit of the purity of truth, and the significance of truth to worship.

The importance of truth has fallen on hard times in our world today. Truth has taken a back seat to the more critical question of whether a certain theory works.  Pragmatic factors have trumped truth.  The Bible counters this contemporary spirit by saying that the reason a theory works is because it is true.  The gospel meets the pragmatic needs of society because of its correspondence with the world as it truly is.  It is God who reveals to man the true nature of reality and along with that knowledge transmits to man the practical rules to guide him through life in that reality.  In this revelation, truth does not become the handmaiden to pragmatism, but truth grounds the knowledge of reality and thus defines how man must live within reality’s constraints.  The truth claims of the Bible are integral to the reality of Christianity.  Without the truth, no conception of God, the universe, or man will ultimately succeed in presenting a theory that works.  Any Christian expression must deal with the truth revealed in God’s word.

Secondly, every expression of Christianity involves a mixture of truth with error.  Because of the effects of sin upon the mind of man, none of us can escape into perfection.  Thus, all our theologies will include a modicum of error.  That does not give us the right to leave the theological enterprise any more than it gives us leave to abandon the moral pursuit.  We can no more abandon the pursuit of truth than we can abandon the pursuit of holiness.  Indeed, these two pursuits are correlative.  We only progress in our moral obedience as we advance in our true knowledge of God and His revealed will.  We must ever be concerned with how the expression of Christianity we adopt expresses the truth of God’s revealed word.  Fidelity to the Bible, above all else, determines the authenticity of the expression of Christianity.  As the final infallible authority, it alone provides certainty and veracity.

Finally, we should strive for theological purity especially when it comes to worship.  When we make decisions about our regular church attendance, we are choosing a spiritual diet.  We should no more choose a regular diet of cotton candy than we should choose a denomination that places a premium on emotionalism instead of truth.  However, a truth-telling church without an emphasis on the Spirit and personal piety is as useful as trying to eat a frozen steak.  Choosing a church that not only values truth but also does so with passion is not only proper, but necessary if we are to obey the commandment of scripture.  “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” (I Peter 2:2-3)  The evidence of our regeneration is our desire for revealed truth.

While we ought to appreciate every true expression of Christianity and occasionally experience those expressions, we must understand the importance of fidelity to the truth of God’s revealed word.  If we have come to the conclusion that our denomination expresses the message of Scripture more faithfully than any other expression of Christianity, that truth must bind and constrain our conscience and our behavior.  If we simply prefer our tradition because of habit or taste, we have no excuse for exclusivity.  Others may find our doctrine erroneous.  We make no pretense to perfection, but we believe that we have the most excellent word of truth.  Unless we are persuaded by the scripture or plain reason, our conscience is captive to the Word of God.  To contradict conscience is neither right nor safe.

 

Pastor Letter #1

How do we know that the Bible is the word of God?

This question is one of critical importance.  If the Bible were not God’s word, we could not rely upon its teaching about salvation. Without a firm acceptance of the Bible as God’s Word, the system of salvation therein remains a matter of perspective instead of a matter of fact.  We must accept the truth and origin of scripture if its message is to be taken as anything more than a piece of literature.

The first evidence of the authenticity of scripture is the witness of the church.  Roman Catholicism states that the church determines what scripture is.  However, if the Bible is God’s word, no man can determine its content.  The church does not define scripture or determine what ought be included in the Bible.  Its power is merely ministerial and descriptive.  Therefore, what it says about scripture is accurately called “testimony” and not judgments.  The church merely testifies that through its investigation, it is convinced that the Bible is God’s word.

The second evidence involves those elements of scripture that we weigh as important or suggestive.  It speaks of those transcendent realities that we would anticipate in the revelation of God.  Its teaching seems to work in this world.  It does not seem overly optimistic about people we might consider heroes.  Instead it shows their failures in quite prominent stories.  It claims and reveals the only way of salvation.  Whether it is through its doctrine, the salvation it offers, or its majestic style, the Bible contains all the elements one would anticipate if the Bible were the work of God.  This provides sufficient evidence to our own hearts to convince us of the divine origin of scripture.

For all these internal and external human evidences, the third and conclusive evidence comes from the only source possible.  If the Bible is the word of God, only God can attest to its authenticity.  We can accept no other conclusive testimony than that of the author of scripture.  How then has God revealed the authenticity of scripture?  We discover the verification of scripture in God’s revelation and the inward work of the Holy Spirit which always accompanies scripture.  God’s Word testifies through the ministry of God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, the testimony of God’s word in combination with His Spirit provide conclusive proof of the authenticity of the Bible.

This understanding quietly informs the mind and heart, not with blinding light, but with an inward assurance.  While conclusive, the evidence is not undeniable, for the natural man, deceived by sin, will always deny the truth of God.

Some may argue that the inward work of the Spirit involves a subjective and exceptional element that does not provide an independently verifiable conclusion.  This assumes that the inward testimony only applies personally and individually.  The testimony of the Bible suggests that the vital inward witness of the Holy Spirit always attends the reading and hearing of scripture. (Isaiah 55:11)  Thus, whoever examines scripture receives conclusive proof that it is the revelation of God.  Those who deny this reality do so at the expense of their own integrity for they deny what they know is true.  They are telling others the lie they have already told themselves.

How then can you know the Bible is the word of God?  Read it.  In reading the word, all three evidences will present themselves to your mind and heart and convince you of its divine origin and truth.  What you do with that knowledge will either save or condemn your soul.

 

For further reading: Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1. (I Corinthians 2:4-5, 9-10; Hebrews 4:12; John 10:35; Romans 11:36; Psalm 19:7-11; II Timothy 3:15; I Thessalonians 1:5; I John 2:20,27)

Godly Fear

Godly Fear

And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not. Exodus 20:20 

 

The children of Israel had seen the most fearful sight.  Mount Sinai had shaken, burned, and spoken.  The huddled masses decided that the front seats to this performance belonged to other people.  They instantly headed for the back pews.  They wanted to be as far from the visible presence of God as possible.  The fact that the Lord had appeared in such a display dismayed them terribly.

 

You would have thought that they would be accustomed to the power of God.  Had they not seen the terrible plagues He had unleashed on Egypt?  Had they not observed the first Passover, when the destroying angel had killed all the firstborn except the ones at their houses that smelled of dried blood and roast lamb?  Had they not seen the way God tore wheels off Pharaoh’s chariots and blinded him with darkness?  Had they not walked through the Red Sea on dry ground between walls of water?  Had they not seen bitter water become sweet after Moses went through that ridiculous affair of throwing the tree into the water?  Had they not eaten the manna?  Had they not drunk from the water out of the rock?  Had they not seen God triumph over Amalek?  How then did this appearance of God trouble them so?

 

Exodus 20:18 tells us that, “all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.”  Sure, the Lord had worked for His people and done great acts in the past, but now the Lord had come!  That dreadful presence from which all those deeds of deliverance sprang now occupied the mountain.  We may appreciate the electric power of a nuclear power plant 50 miles away, but we wouldn’t want one in our back yard.  The proximity to that power reminds us of its danger.

 

God does not seem interested in condescending to their felt need of comfort.  The Lord doesn’t want the people comfortable with His presence.  Rather, He seems to exacerbate the aversion to His presence.  In our New Testament freedom in the presence of the Lord, this seems unnatural.  Why is God so abrasive to His people?  Why does He seem to delight in their terror?

 

Moses explains to the people why these things occurred.  When he says, “fear not,” his words are not indicative of a permanent injunction.  Rather, he indicates that this display will not kill the people.  However, the fear inherent in the people has a divine purpose.  The Lord perpetuates that fear in order for the people to obey.

 

Parents understand the necessity of fear of punishment.  We would all rather have our children obey from love than fear.  I have yet to see that truly work.  God understands that although obedience from love is the goal, obedience from fear is the present reality.  We ought to obey due to love and fear, but our tendency in our age is to forget the fear and make love indulgent.

 

We have lost the terror of the Lord.  We no longer fear God.  We no longer enter into His presence with that weakness in our knees.  We no longer see the thunder, the lightning, the noise, and the smoke.  We no longer remember the character and the power of the God with whom we deal.  We sing “our God is an awesome God” interpreting “awesome” in the manner of Wayne and Garth instead of understanding God as the one whose power cannot be calculated.

 

This lack of fear leads to dire consequences.  We treat God’s law as suggestions.  In the immediate context of these verses, God gives Israel the Ten Commandments.  The lack of fear leads to vice.  As we look around us, we cannot escape the conclusion that even the church has lost the fear of God.  Unless we recover that godly fear, we will never recover piety.

 

Godly fear is not inimical to grace.  Hebrews tells us, “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” (Hebrews 12:28)  We have received the kingdom.  That does not prevent us from remembering to fear God that we may serve him acceptably.

 

The wisest man in the Old Testament said, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Eccl. 12:13)  The wisest man in the New Testament said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)  If you have experienced the love of God, has it led you to obedience, or have you lost the fear of God?  Both love and fear guide the Christian’s feet into the path of obedience.

 

Total Depravity

John Calvin wrote, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”  This first sentence in his magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion, directs our attention to the vital nature of a true understanding of man and his nature.  Of all other true elements in man’s nature, man consistently avoids the concept of his own depravity.
Depravity does not mean that every man continuously exercises all the depths of sin.  Rather, it means that all the depths of sin reside within us, waiting for an opportunity to express themselves.  We are not fundamentally good.  We are fundamentally bad.
If man would understand his sinful nature, he must first understand the effects of the fall of man which accrue to himself.  When Adam disobeyed God by direct rebellion, that sin corrupted his whole nature and made him opposed to God.  The Bible tells us, “There is none righteous, no, not one:  There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.” (Ro.3:10-11)  This absolute statement conveys the universal aspect of sin.  No one is free from its absolute corruption.  Man is not merely “sin-sick” and in need of a doctor to help him get over the flu.  Man is dead in sin.  “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph. 2:1)
While we may pay lip service to this reality (we often say that we are dead in sin and continually sin), we remain convinced that we are fundamentally good people.  These two ideas cannot stand together.  Logic tells us that an assertion and its negation cannot be true in the same sense at the same time.  Either we are totally depraved (bad people) or we are good people.  The Bible stands firm that we are depraved.  (Ro.3:23 “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;”)  The sin nature does not vanish when we are saved, either.  We still must fight the old man.  (Ro.7:24 “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”)  We still struggle with sin.
There are three areas where our failure to acknowledge our depravity manifests itself.  The most obvious occurs in the public square.  Two news stories from the past year will demonstrate this failure.  An eight-year-old boy killed his father in Arizona.  The police are baffled.  They cannot figure out why he would do this.  The family went to the local Catholic church.  The boy had no disciplinary problems in school or in his catechism class.  He was thought of as a good child.  The police chief stated, “we’re certainly going to look at the abuse part of this. He’s 8 years old. He just doesn’t decide one day that he’s going to shoot his father and shoot his father’s friend for no reason. Something led up to this.”  Something did lead up to this: the boy is depraved.  This is the result of sin.  The depraved heart leads to murder.  People have a hard time understanding this calamity because they have not understood the horror of sin.
The second story relates to the state of Nebraska.  The legislature passed a “safe haven” law.  This law allows parents to abandon unwanted infants without fear of prosecution.  Many other states had enacted similar provisions.  Nebraska’s problem arose from the legislature’s inability to agree on an age limit.  Thus, they did what most political people do when they cannot obtain consensus – they did nothing.  The law passed without an age limit. For a month, there was no issue.  Suddenly, parents started dropping off teenage children.  One parent dropped off his nine children ages 1 to 17.  Nebraska realized it had a problem.  People began questioning how this could happen.  One paper summarized the consternation well.  “The sudden surge in abandoned teenagers has raised questions about the adequacy of counseling, respite care and psychiatric services for troubled children and overstressed parents.”  People were asking why these parents were choosing this way out.  “We need more counseling and support services,” they thought.  Not so.  Why should we be surprised at this failure?  It is only a demonstration of man’s sinful nature.
The reality of man’s depravity needs to return to our collective understanding.  The concept that we are all good people will inexorably lead to poor public decisions.  Our forefathers knew this reality and created a system that included a separation of power to prevent evil from corrupting the entire working of the state.  They understood that we cannot count on people to act correctly.  We may always count on them to behave sinfully.  This reality should not only influence the system of government but also the way in which our leaders govern.  Until we accept the reality of pervasive sin, we will continue to see the frustration of public efforts at social advancement.
The second area where our failure to acknowledge our depravity becomes apparent is in our own self-consciousness.  We fundamentally consider ourselves good people.  As difficult as it may be to consider that others are depraved, it is exponentially harder to consider ourselves sinful.  Our love affair with sin causes us to redraw the boundaries of sinful behavior.  Even those who accept the notion of sin (that there are some things one ought not do) define those boundaries largely by that which they do not want to do or have happen.  Thus, we all become fence builders.  Our boundary circumnavigates the activities that we enjoy and excludes all the activities that we find offensive.  One excludes smoking because he does not appreciate it in his life, the other includes it because he does. Both think themselves righteous and the other sinful.
Is it then any wonder that we have such a sin problem in the church?  We have ejected God’s Word as the sovereign revelation of God’s boundaries and replaced it with our own conceptions.  If we would deal with sin, we must first accept the maxim that we are sinners.  We must further honestly identify the sin in our own lives.  Given two seconds, we should be able to articulate at least two sins with which we struggle. Not sins in our own minds, but sins according to God’s word.  We have legal battles over the Ten Commandments and their display.  How many of those who fight for their display violate the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day?  Let us be honest with ourselves, for we cannot deceive God.  He already possesses a comprehensive catalog of our sin.
Finally, the rejection of Reformed doctrine demonstrates our failure to appreciate the reality of our own depravity.  Reformed theology demands that we think less of man and more of God.  Man becomes a helpless corpse, enslaved to sin.  God becomes the sovereign, redeeming life-giver.  All the debates over predestination, election, preterition (not electing some), or limited atonement avoid the central issue.  If man possesses no ability to save himself, then God must do it all.  Thus, predestination, election and preterition become necessary.
The modern Christian has abandoned the reality of depravity.  He thinks that man is merely ignorant of God and needs to be informed of who Jesus is, and then human free will determines the outcome.  We have forgotten what God says about man.  “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:  Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” (Ro.1:20-21)  Many have concluded that this verse makes man’s ignorance inexcusable because the creation reveals God.  If only man would look at creation honestly, he would be convinced of God’s existence.  This understanding eviscerates the point Paul is making.  Look at this again.  Paul says, “when they knew God.”  Man knows God.  Our debates on evolution are not ignorant man positing a universe without God.  It is arrogant man, spitting in the face of the God he knows to be there.  We do not need to inform people about God.  They know Him already and have begun their deliberate rebellion against Him.  Even in their rebellion, they understand the necessity of God’s wrath and judgment against their actions.  “Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.” (Ro.1:32)  This emphasizes that there is nothing that we can do to change people’s minds about God.  It must be the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.  Man’s depravity is constantly operative.  Ignoring this reality makes our evangelism continually frustrating.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ.” (Eph.2:4-5)  This is the hope of salvation.  Not that man can work his way out of his depravity.  Not that we can convince sinners of the wrath of God (they know it and hate it already).  The hope of salvation is that God, rich in mercy, loves His own, and breathes life into the dead.  This reality confounds all our logic.  In our depravity, hating God with all that we were, in that nature, God comes and makes us alive.  God’s love looks at those who hate Him to the uttermost and draws them to Himself.  Who wants an impotent God who needs us to convince sinners of His virtue?  Who wants a God who leaves us in our sin in deference to our “free will”?  I want a God who loved me in my depravity.  I want a God who knows my sin, and loves me anyway.  I want a God I can be completely honest with and know that His love will not abate one scintilla.  I want this God because He is the God of the Bible, the only one who truly exists.  Don’t you want this God too?

The Marks of YOUR Church

People choose to change churches for many reasons.  Moving to a new city often forces them to select a new church.  With the unstable nature of our world, the changing doctrine or structure of churches often causes people to leave and seek a new church.  In these times, Christians may seek guidance in how they ought to choose which church to join.  What characteristics ought a believer search for in their desire to find a new church?
The factors people take into consideration number in the hundreds.  Most of these factors indicate some valid point of concern.  However, Christians ought to investigate and wrestle with the issue of which factors are most important in the decision.  Historically, there are three factors that Christians have concluded rank highest in the choice of a church home.  No Christian should consider joining a church where these three characteristics are not plainly evident.
Coming to the place of first importance, the mark here would find nearly unanimous acceptance.  This mark is the pure preaching of the Word of God.  We look here to Acts 2:42, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine.”  Without this mark, the organization has no business calling itself a church of Jesus Christ.
Christians must notice what this mark does not mean.  It does not mean that the sermon is enjoyable, that the pastor tells good jokes, that the sermon holds your attention, that the sermon doesn’t last too long, or worse, that the sermon doesn’t interrupt one’s nap.  Whether you like loud preaching or not misses the point of this mark.  Style remains secondary to content.  The question to face is whether the sermon expounds upon the text of scripture.
This question cannot be answered positively by using a text to springboard into a diatribe on some hot-button issue of the pastor.  Neither is this mark fulfilled by a cobbling together of texts ripped from their context and hung together on a flimsy line of superficial word studies.  Such sermons are pearls connected by a spider’s line, totally demolished at the slightest inquiry.
The pure preaching of the Word of God demands a careful analysis of scripture within its context.  The old adage “a text without context is a pretext” proves infinitely true when applied to the Holy Scriptures.  Lazy preachers use quaint moralisms to placate their listener instead of being diligent shepherds who labor hard to feed their flocks well.  All too often, Christians can become satisfied with a steady diet of cotton-candy instead of a well-balanced diet of meat and vegetables.  The former produces obese couch potatoes; the latter produces healthy warriors.
In second place, we find the due administration of the sacraments.  Again, most people would not have placed this factor even at the bottom of their lists.  Yet, Christians should remember that the sacraments were not peripheral teachings of some erstwhile apostle, but institutions of our Lord Jesus himself.  While baptism remains a normally circumstantial event, the Lord’s Supper demands planning and preparation.  How often a church celebrates this sacrament indicates the seriousness with which the church takes all of our Lord’s commands.  A Christian should ask himself, how long has it been since this church celebrated the Lord’s Supper.  Too often, the answer is shocking.  In modern thought, the Lord’s Supper no longer holds a regular appointment in churches.  It is done, rather, whenever the mood strikes someone.  As Christians have a scheduled appointment with our Lord on His Day, they should retain a scheduled appointment to the Lord’s Table.  Laying aside the question of frequency, at a minimum there ought to be a regular schedule of celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
At third place, we have the mark of proper exercise of church discipline.  This factor may surprise many believers.  Some may not consider it a proper factor at all.  Most Christians do not have this on their list when making this decision.  The complete absence of discipline in churches today demonstrates how unimportant most believers consider it to be.  Spiritually, however, it is third in importance.
Discipline means more than removing people from the church.  The church’s chief method of discipline comes in the involvement of the church leadership in the lives of the members of the church.  The chief source of this involvement comes in the relationship between the pastor and the congregation.
Discipline requires a serious recognition of the continuing presence and influence of sin within the heart of every member of the church.  From pastor to Pre-K, all people suffer the influence of sin.  Sin continually seduces people in believing that they are not sinners.  Reminding people of their sin remains a chief responsibility of the church.  
There ought to be an undercurrent within the church that recognizes that all people are sinners and thus fall under conviction.  If you can sit under the teaching of a pastor for a whole year, semester, quarter, or even month without becoming convicted of some sin in your life, this indicates that there is a lack of discipline within the church.  A church that regularly reminds people of their sinful hearts exercises discipline well.
Because the pure preaching of the word forms the sine qua non (“without which there is nothing” or absolute necessity) of the Christian church, Covenant Presbyterian Church has inaugurated a new section of its website called simply, “Doctrine.”  Within this section, we intend to post innovative and provocative articles to continue to say the same old truths of God’s Word to the modern world.  Our desire is not to say anything new, but to say the same thing Christians have said for millennia to the contemporary culture.  God’s Word never changes, but its everlasting message applies as much to us in the twenty-first century as it did in the first.
What you find in our new “Doctrine” section may shock and surprise you.  It may challenge your preconceptions.  You might even find it offensive.  Our goal is not to surprise, shock or offend any.  Rather, we merely repeat what God had taught in His Word.  We welcome any feedback on these articles, especially those who can document from Scripture where we have erred.  We make no claim to superiority, but admit that we can possess as many blind spots as our brothers.  However, we assert that the claims we make within this section constitute the most coherent and consistent interpretation and application of Scripture.  We invite you to browse our website and pray that through it, God would by His grace illumine your heart with the true light of His Word.

Service Times

Sunday School: 10:00am
Living Christian in an Unchristian World

Morning Worship: 11:00am
John

Evening Worship: 6:00pm
Ecclesiastes

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