Archive for the ‘Church History’ Category

A Brief Biography and Pertinent Prayer of John Calvin

John Calvin was one of the great ministers of the Reformation. He was born in France, and moved to Switzerland to escape religious persecution. Being reformed in 1500′s France would get you killed. Calvin ended up in Geneva, Switzerland where he served as the minister in the church and professor in academy. From Geneva, thousands of ministers were trained and sent out as church planters and missionaries, carrying the gospel as far away as South America.

By 1555, Calvin and his Geneva supporters had planted five churches in France. Four years later, they had planted 100 churches in France. By 1562, Calvin’s Geneva, with the help of some of their sister cities, had planted more than 2,000 churches in France. Calvin was the leading church planter in Europe. He led the way in every part of the process: he trained, assessed, sent, counseled, corresponded with, and prayed for the missionaries and church planters he sent (John Starke, “John Calvin, Missionary and Church Planter”).

So much for the charge that believing the biblical teaching on election, predestination, and particular redemption lead to lazy evangelism.

According to Frank James, the average life span of church planters being sent out from Geneva to go back into France to preach the gospel was six months. John Calvin and the other ministers of the reformation were both committed to the proclamation of the gospel and clear on what it was to suffer for what they believed. When we understand this, we see quite clearly that the following prayer of Calvin was in no way merely pietistic theologizing, Calvin was quite acquainted with the hatred and enmity of mankind.

Almighty God and Father, grant unto us, because we have to go through much strife on this earth the strength of thy Holy Spirit, in order that we may courageously go through the fire, and through the water, and that we may put ourselves so under thy rule that we may go to meet death in full confidence of thy assistance and without fear.

Grant us also that we may bear all hatred and enmity of mankind, until we have gained the last victory, and that we may at last come to that blessed rest which thy only begotten Son has acquired for us through his blood. Amen (John Calvin, Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, Baker Books, 1952.).

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Happy Reformation Day! Celebrate by Reading Luther’s 95 Theses

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DISPUTATION OF DOCTOR MARTIN LUTHER ON THE POWER AND EFFICACY OF INDULGENCES

OCTOBER 31, 1517

Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.

In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said “Repent”, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood to mean the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.

3. Yet it does not mean inward repentance only; for there is no inward repentance that does not produce outwardly various mortifications of the flesh.

4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

5. The pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of canon law.

6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.

7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His representative, the priest.

8. The penitential canons apply only to the living, and, according to them, none applies to the dead.

9. Therefore the Holy Spirit acting in the person of the pope manifests grace to us, because in his [the pope’s] decrees he always excludes the dead and cases of hardship.

10. Ignorant and wicked are the actions of those priests who impose canonical penances on the dead in purgatory.

11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.

12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.

13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.

14. The imperfect piety and love of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.

15. This fear and horror is sufficient in itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.

16. There seems to be the same difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven as there are between despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.

17. The horror of souls in purgatory should grow less and love ought to increase.

18. It seems unproven, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.

19. Again, it seems unproven that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own salvation, though we may be quite certain of it.

20. Therefore by “full remission of all penalties” the pope means not actually “of all,” but only of those imposed by himself.

21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty and saved are in error;

22. Indeed he cannot pass on to souls in purgatory any penalty which canon law declares should be paid in this life.

23. If it is at all possible to grant to anyone the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission could be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.

24. Therefore it must be the case that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.

25. The power which the pope has, in general, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in particular, within his own diocese or parish.

26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.

27. There is no divine authority for preaching that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].

28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.

29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.*

[*This legend tells of two saints who were willing to remain in torment in purgatory to suffer for others.]

30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.

31. The man who sincerely buys indulgences is as rare as the man that is truly penitent; that is, such men are most rare.

32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.

33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope’s pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;

34. For these “graces of pardon” concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.

35. It is not according to Christian doctrine to preach and teach that contrition is not necessary for those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional licenses.

36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.

37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.

38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for as I have said, they are the declaration of divine remission.

39. It is most difficult, even for the very best theologians, to commend to the people the abundance of pardons while at the same time encouraging true contrition.

40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but generous pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].

41. Papal pardons should be preached with caution, lest people falsely think they are preferable to other good works of love.

42. Christians should be taught that the pope does not intend the purchase of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.

43. Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;

44. Because love grows by works of love, and a man becomes a better man; but by pardons he does not grow better, only escapes penalty.

45. Christians should be taught that he who sees a person in need, and passes him by, and then purchases pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.

46. Christians should be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep what is necessary for their own families, and should by no means squander it on pardons.

47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a voluntary matter, and not a legal requirement.

48. Christians should be taught that in granting pardons the pope needs and desires their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring.

49. Christians are to be taught that the pope’s pardons are useful only if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if they lose their fear of God because of them.

50. Christians should be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church be reduced to ashes than be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.

51. Christians should be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money.

52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is useless, even though the commissary, or indeed even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.

53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who forbid the Word of God to be preached at all in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.

54. Injury is done the word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this word.

55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.

56. The “treasures of the Church,” out of which the pope grants indulgences, are not sufficiently spoken of or known among the people of Christ.

57. That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not grant such treasures freely, but only collect them.

58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man.

59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church’s poor, but he used the term in accordance with the custom of his own time.

60. Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church are that treasure, given by Christ’s merit;

61. For it is clear that the power of the pope is of itself sufficient for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases,

62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.

64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.

65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly desired to fish for men of wealth.

66. Now, the treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they fish for the wealth of men.

67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the “greatest graces” are in fact truly such only when they promote financial gain.

68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.

69. Bishops and curates are bound to receive the commissaries of papal pardons, with all reverence.

70. But they are under greater obligation to watch closely and listen carefully lest these men preach their own imaginings instead of the commission of the pope.

71. He who speaks against the validity of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!

72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!

73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any means, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.

74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth.

75. It is folly to think that the papal pardons are so powerful that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God.

76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.

77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope.

78. We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; specifically, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in 1 Corinthians 12.

79. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.

80. The bishops, curates and theologians who permit such assertions to be spread among the people will be held accountable for it.

81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it difficult even for learned men to defend the respect due the pope from false accusations, or even from the astute criticisms of the laity;

82. For example: — “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he can redeem an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.”

83. Again: — “Why do funeral and anniversary masses for the dead continue to be said? Why does the pope not return or permit the repayment of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for those now redeemed?”

84. Again: — “What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow an impious man who is their enemy to buy out of purgatory the devout soul of a friend of God, when they do not allow that pious and beloved soul to be redeemed without payment for pure love’s sake or because of its need of redemption?”

85. Again: — “Why are the penitential canon laws long, which in actual fact and practice are long obsolete and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in effect?”

86. Again: — “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealthiest of the wealthy, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?”

87. Again: — “What is it that the pope dispenses to people, and what participation does he grant, to those who have a right to full remission and participation because of their perfect repentance?”

88. Again: — “What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does only once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?”

89. “Since the pope seeks the salvation of souls rather than money by his pardons, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted before now, since these have equal efficacy?”

90. To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.

91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; indeed, they would cease to exist.

92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace!

93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “the cross, the cross,” where there is no cross!

94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.

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Someone Else Died on Tuesday Also

As we all know, Steve Jobs died on Tuesday. He has been rightly heralded as an innovative genius in the technology sphere. His beautifully-simple and highly-functional arrangements of various plastics, metals, and glasses have changed the way we think about technology, the way we buy and listen to music, what we expect from a computer, and what we think a “phone” is for. He was one of the greatest designers and salesmen we have ever known, and at the news of his death, we picked up our iPhones, iPads, and iPods to fill Facebook and Twitter with clever epitaphs such as -

“iSad”

“iRIP”

“iGrieve”

“Ten years ago we had Bob Hope, Johnny Cash, and Steve Jobs. Now we have no jobs, no cash, and no hope.”

“Three apples changed the world, Adam’s, Newton’s, and Steve’s.”

It simply cannot be denied that Steve Jobs made a tremendous contribution to technology and therefore had a tremendous impact on our increasingly technology-driven lives. John Dyer wrote an interesting and helpful theological reflection on Steve Jobs; you can read it here.

Someone else died on Tuesday (to be fair, somewhere upwards of 150,000 people died on Tuesday). Another man whose life and work had a profound impact on our social landscape, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Rev. Shuttlesworth was a preacher in Alabama before, during, and after the civil rights movement. Though he could have, he never resigned his pulpit to be a fulltime civil-rights activist; however, he never backed down from such fights either. Rev. Shuttlesworth understood that living life in light of the gospel had certain, hard implications. He also understood that the imago Dei had certain, hard implications.

While we don’t carry the contributions of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth around with us in our pockets and purses, it simply cannot be denied that Rev. Shuttlesworth made a tremendous sacrifice in order to fight for the humanity and dignity of all people and therefore had a tremendous impact on our increasingly multi-cultural lives. Bishop Will Willimon wrote a short article on Rev. Shuttlesworth that you can read here, and The New York Times carried a biographical article that you can read here.

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Mattie Ross on Presbyterian History and the Doctrine of Election

“Mrs. Bagby was not a Cumberland Presbyterian but a member of the U.S. or Southern Presbyterian Church. I too am now a member of the Southern Church. I say nothing against the Cumberlands. They broke with the Presbyterian Church because they did not believe a preacher needed a lot of formal education. That is all right but they are not sound on Election. They do not fully accept it. I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it. Read I Corinthians 6:13 and II Timothy 1:9, 10. Also I Peter 1:2, 19, 20 and Romans 11:7. There you have it. It was good enough for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too.”

True Grit, Charles Portis

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The Blessings of Studying Ancient History

For some it is quite easy to write off Christianity as myth, on par with the stories of Zeus, Athena, and Gilgamesh.  However, when we delve into the ancient worlds via the writings of historical figures we find words such as these from Irenaeus, who writes concerning his friend and mentor, Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of John the Apostle, the author of five New Testament books and eyewitness of the ministry of Jesus Christ.

I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which have happened recently, for what we learn as children grows up with the soul and becomes united to it, so I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed, how he came in and went out, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, the discourse which he made to the people, how he reported his converse with John [the apostle] and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, including his miracles and his teaching, and how Polycarp had received them from the eyewitnesses of the word of life, and reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures (H.E.V. xx. 5-6) {D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, (Eerdmans:  Grand Rapids, 1991), 26}

When we take the time to study such ancient history, the historic nature of the person and work of Jesus Christ is brought into increasingly sharp focus.  We are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  We do good to not ignore them.

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The Trinity – Westminster Shorter Catechism #6

“How many persons are there in the Godhead?  There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”

While “Trinity” is not a biblical word, it is the word that theologians have agreed upon to voice the understanding of God put forth in Scripture and summarized in WSC #6.  The idea is that there is one God who exists in three persons.  The three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are all equally God and are one God.

Throughout history, there have been multiple attempts to illustrate or design an analogy to help explain the Trinity.  Some have, and still do, explain the Trinity using the analogy of water and its three states or modes, solid (ice), liquid, and gas (steam).  However, this analogy fails because God does not exist as one substance that is in different modes at different times. God exists at all times as one God in three persons.  The water analogy illustrates the heresy known as modalism.

Others have tried to use the analogy of Neapolitan ice cream.  The problem here is that the three flavors do not actually share the same substance and the only “oneness” they have is based on proximity.  Ultimately, Neapolitan ice cream beautifully illustrates tri-theism, three gods, but fails to properly explain Trinitarian monotheism.

In the end, there has never been an analogy for the Trinity that does not break down in some major way, so if you here the words, “The Trinity is like…” it is probably a good idea to listen with guarded ears.

Based on the biblical teaching the most that can really be said (without getting into longer more technical formulations) is that which has been handed down for generations in the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  “There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”

The Larger Catechism does take one more step saying the three persons can be distinguished by their personal properties, which it then explains in the next question.  “What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?  It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is precious to the church; we would do good to master the simple formulation found in Westminster Shorter Catechism #6.

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Westminster Shorter Catechism #3

Religious skeptics such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins often simplistically boil down Christianity to thought and behavior control.  The critique, more or less says that we want people to act and think a certain way, so we make rules and say they came from a powerful god who is going to get mad if we do not do what he says.  Essentially, all religions are lumped together as legalistic – follow the rules and it will work out for you.  At times, Christians such as John Lennox have attempted to debate these men and explain where they have gone wrong in their boil-all-religions-down-to-a-common-denominator approach.  However, it is as if the explanations of the gospel fall on deaf ears.  Perhaps a greater problem is the debate the rages on within the ranks of those who would call themselves Christian.  Are people saved by faith alone or by faith plus works, or by faith or works, or by works alone?  As a quick answer, consider Ephesians 2.8-9.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (ESV).

The Presbyterian Church in America is in a long line of protestant churches that teach that God saves people by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and the PCA has worked hard to protect that doctrine from heresy.  One avenue of protection is having a set of doctrinal standards, the Westminster Standards, to which the elders in the denomination must subscribe.  The Westminster Standards, as used by the PCA, consist of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, and the Larger Catechism.

Westminster Shorter Catechism #3 asks, “What do the Scriptures principally teach?”  The answer that the Westminster Divines, the cool name for the guys who wrote the standards, gave is, “The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”  On the surface, the answer to WSC #3 seems a bit out of place in a document that churches committed to salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone have long held up as one of the most biblically faithful doctrinal summaries.  WSC #3 seems to be affirming all that people already misunderstand about Christianity.  God is this way and he says you have to do such and such.  However, there is good reason to think through this a bit more.

There are two parts to the answer given by the divines.  First, the Scriptures teach what we are to believe about God.  Second, the Scriptures teach what God requires of us.  In the Bible Belt, our tendency is to think in terms of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5), the Golden Rule (Matthew 7.12), or the Great Commandment (Matthew 22.34-40) first.  Our thought process goes like this, “The Bible is our Basic Instructions before Leaving Earth, our owners manual.  So, if we look inside and see what it says to do, then all this is left is to do it.”  We too often start with the rule(s) and define the god behind the rules accordingly.

When the Westminster Divines made these two statements, they were summarizing the gospel.  The Shorter Catechism is organized as follows:

  1. Introduction – questions 1-3
  2. What man is to believe concerning God – questions 4-38
  3. What duty God requires of man – questions 39-107

If we read the Shorter Catechism with this intentional structure in mind we quickly find, in questions 4-38, God defined not only as lawgiver and judge but also as the author of redemption at the cost of his only Son, Jesus Christ.  Therefore, part of what man is to believe concerning God is that God has sovereignly worked out a salvation for his people that is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  When we continue reading questions 39-107, we find truths that are equally as precious.  While God does have an exacting standard for all people, he also came in the flesh as the God-man, Jesus.  Jesus fulfilled the law on behalf of his people and died in the place of his people.  Salvation comes to the people of God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Therefore, WSC #3 in no way teaches legalism but summarizes gospel in two loaded statements.  What is man to believer concerning God?  God is the Lawgiver, and God secured redemption for his people.  What duty does God require of man?  God requires perfect obedience to his law from every person, and God came in the flesh to satisfy every demand of the law for his people.

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The Gospel and The Church

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, died as a substitute to pay the price for the sins of his people; therefore, all those who profess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hear that God raised him from the dead will be saved.  In this series of articles, we are asking the question, “How does the gospel apply to the church?”  The simple answer is, “Without the gospel there is no church.”

We can talk about the church in a couple of different ways.  We can talk about the universal church, or we can talk about a local church.  The universal church consists of all those from every age and place that rest in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation.  People from every race, nationality, gender, and time period are part of the one universal church.  Some also refer to the universal church as the invisible church.

A local church is a particular congregation of folks that profess faith in Jesus Christ.  In Conway, there are over 120 local churches.  Any local church will contain among its membership some who are not true believers and therefore not part of the universal church.  Also, local churches are necessarily bound by time and location and therefore less diverse that the universal church.  While a local church is necessarily less diverse than the universal church – as it simply cannot contain people from every age or place, it is a grievous situation that the majority of local churches are also less diverse in race and class than the community in which the exist.  Some also refer to local churches as the visible church.

Whether the universal or the local church is in view, belief in Jesus Christ is (in the case of the universal church) and should be (in the case of the particular church), the criterion by which individuals are included as members.  So, “How does the gospel apply to the church?”  Without the gospel there is no church.

Throughout history, there have been churches that have compromised the gospel in numerous ways.  Some have said Jesus was not really the Son of God.  Some have denied that Jesus was born of a virgin.  Some have held that Jesus was not actually sinless.  Some have denied the atoning power of Jesus’ death.  The list could go on.  Those churches that have denied the vitals of the gospel have been referred to as theologically liberal (this is entirely different than being socially or politically liberal).

If the gospel is vital to the church, then redefining the content of the gospel redefines the church. Paul said, “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” (Galatians 1.8, ESV).  In 1923, J. Gresham Machen, a Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, wrote Christianity and Liberalism.  The premise of his book is that Christianity, that is biblically faithful Christianity, and Liberalism, that is theological liberalism, are not two varieties of the same thing but two completely different things.  Machen was right.  If by Jesus Christ I mean God in the flesh and you mean merely a man then we are talking about two completely different ideas.  One, as God, has the power and authority to save men from God’s wrath, and one, as merely a man, has no more power to do so than you or I.

The Bible leaves no room, on the matter of the gospel, for theologically liberal churches and biblically faithful churches to be considered under the same umbrella of being in Christ.  Either the gospel, as it is given in Scripture, is true, or it is not.  We do not have the freedom to alter the gospel in order to make it true. Either the gospel, as it is given in Scripture, defines the church, or it does not.  We do not have the freedom to alter the gospel to make it fit the church.  And frankly, if the gospel needs to be altered to be true or relevant, why bother?  So, again, “How does the gospel apply to the church?”  Without the gospel, as defined by Scripture, there is no church, only country clubs that don’t serve liquor.

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Real Questions and Humble Apologetics

Too often, Christians have given trite, smart-aleck answers to the real questions that people have regarding Christianity or some aspect of it.  1 Peter 3.15 is often quoted as an encouragement to Christians in the task of apologetics.  Peter writes, “…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…”  If you have been around the church for long at all, then you have probably heard this verse quoted.  However, the last clause of the verse, in my experience, is typically left off.  It says, “yet do it with gentleness and respect.”  Peter not only is calling folks to participate in the task of apologetics and evangelism, but also Peter is calling folks to participate in this task in a particular way, with gentleness and respect.

Consider the question that has often come from skeptics, “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?”  The bottom line is we do not know, yet in our pride we come up with all kinds of ridiculous answers to this question.  Some have said (and only some have said this in jest), “He was preparing Hell for people who pry into mysteries.”  What an arrogant, prideful answer.  Saint Augustine addresses this very issue in book XI section 12 of his Confessions.

My answer to those who ask ‘What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?’ is not ‘He was preparing Hell for people who pry into mysteries.’  This frivolous retort has been made before now, so we are told, in order to evade the point of the question.  But it is one thing to make fun of the questioner and another to find the answer.  So I shall refrain from giving this reply.  For in matters of which I am ignorant I would rather admit the fact than gain credit by giving the wrong answer and making a laughing-stock of a man who asks a serious question.

May we continue in such humility.

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Split Pea Soup

Let me first state that what follows is a very brief (despite its appearance) and therefore a very general overview of American Presbyterianism.  If you want more information, I recommend Seeking a Better Country:  300 Years of American Presbyterianism by D. G. Hart and John R. Muether.

The first presbytery meeting in the United States was in Philadelphia in 1706.  A presbytery meeting is a meeting of the elders in a given geographical region to conduct church business.  The church grew, other presbyteries formed, and the first synod convened in 1717.  A synod is a group of presbyteries that gather to conduct church business.  Overtime, the synod became too large to function efficiently, so in 1786 the sixteen presbyteries that made up the synod were divided into four separate synods.  Three years later, in 1789 the first General Assembly (meeting of all the synods) convened. 

However, the eighty-three year journey from the first presbytery meeting to the first General Assembly was not without bumps.  From 1741 to 1758, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America split between the Old Side and New Side over the issue of revivalism.  The New Side, following men such as George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent were pro-revivalism and viewed by the Old Side, represented by John Thomson and George Gillespie, as emotional and theatrical in their preaching.  When the two sides came back together in 1758 the influence of the New Side was apparent.

While the Old Side and New Side were able to reunite, the issue of revivalism continued to cause controversy in the Presbyterian Church.  Following the tradition of the New Side, the Cumberland Presbytery, located in Kentucky, began ordaining men who did not meet the education requirements of the Presbyterian Church and who only loosely subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the long standing doctrinal standard of Presbyterians.  The Cumberland Presbyterian Church began pulling away in 1810, and in 1825, the Presbyterian Church in United States of America officially excluded the Cumberland Presbyterians from the General Assembly. 

In the 1830′s a new debate, or perhaps the same debate with a new focus, arose.  The two sides were the Old School and the New School.  The Old School party pushed for a strict subscription to the Westminster Standards, and accused the New School party of unbiblical views of the depravity of man, the headship of Adam, and other central doctrines.  The split was official in 1838 when the Old School constituents to the General Assembly effectively locked the New School constituents out of the assembly meeting. 

As the Old School New School controversy lingered on, the issues of slavery and states’ rights, the hot political issues of the day, further complicated the debate.  Holding a higher view of states’ rights and seeing slavery as not necessarily condemned in Scripture, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America organized in 1861.  The organizing churches were southern and predominately Old School congregations.  With the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America was renamed the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). 

In 1869, eight years after the Southern church formed, the Old School and New School sides came back together to form the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).  The reuniting of the Old and New School in the North established two main Presbyterian bodies divided less over theological issues and more over Civil War era politics.  The Northern Church was the PCUSA, and the Southern Church was the PCUS.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, theological liberalism grew within the PCUSA, the Northern Church.  In the 1920′s, the debate between fundamentalism and liberalism reached fever pitch.  Harry Emerson Fosdick, a liberal Baptist minister preached a sermon titled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win” at the First Presbyterian Church of New York City in 1922.  In his sermon, Fosdick openly denied fundamentals of the faith such as the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, and the second coming of Jesus Christ.  In 1923 the General Assembly responded by affirming five fundamentals:  1) the inerrancy of Scripture; 2) the miracles of Christ; 3) the virgin birth of Christ; 4) the substitutionary atonement (the doctrine that Christ died in place of his people, as a substitute); and 5) the bodily resurrection.  In addition, J. Gresham Machen, a leading conservative theologian and Princeton professor, sought to address the issue with a book titled, Christianity and Liberalism.  Machen’s argument was that the debate between fundamentalism and liberalism was not a debate between two different varieties of Christianity but a debate between Christianity and a different religion altogether, liberalism.  The liberal camp responded in 1924 with the Auburn Affirmation, a document calling into question the need for men to affirm the five fundamentals in order to be ordained as ministers in the PCUSA.

The controversy continued, resulting in Machen and the fundamentalists opening Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 and forming the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in 1933.  These separatist actions by Machen and others resulted in their suspension from the ministry by the PCUSA in 1935.  In 1936, Machen and the others organized the Presbyterian Church in America, which then changed its name to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in 1939.  Westminster Theological Seminary and the OPC still stand as biblically faithful institutions today.

Forms of liberalism, similar to that in the Northern Church, crept into the Southern Church in the late 20′s and early 30′s.  By the 1940′s, liberalism had firmly taken root in the PCUS.  One of the landmark cases within the PCUS involved Hay Watson Smith, a minister in Little Rock, AR whom the Arkansas Presbytery received as a minister despite his denial of Biblical inerrancy and affirmation of other liberal positions.  In 1929, the General Assembly requested that the Arkansas Presbytery open a disciplinary investigation regarding Smith’s beliefs.  The investigation went on until 1934 and ended with the Presbytery refusing to discipline Smith for his unorthodox and even heretical views. 

As the fight against liberalism in the Southern Church grew, several groups emerged to uphold the conservative, biblical position.  Dr. L. Nelson Bell, Billy Graham’s father-in-law, began the Southern Presbyterian Journal in 1942, which joined with the Association for the Preservation of the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1954.  In 1964, a group of laymen formed the Concerned Presbyterians and joined a conservative group of clergy known as the Presbyterian Churchmen United.  The Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship formed in the same year and eventually formed the Executive Committee on Overseas Missions in 1971.  This group was concerned with carrying out biblically faithful evangelism in the U.S. and abroad.  The education of ministers had always been important to most Presbyterians.  Therefore, a group of men started Reformed Theological Seminary in 1966 in Jackson, MS to educate men to be biblically faithful ministers.  Representatives from each of these groups drafted a Declaration of Commitment in 1969, which was a commitment to take the necessary action in the event that the doctrine of the church was further compromised. 

Only a few years later a Plan of Union was introduced which forced the hand of the conservative groups in the PCUS resulting in a meeting at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL at which the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA – originally called the National Presbyterian Church) was formed.  In 1982, the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES), a micro-denomination made up of groups from various Presbyterian and Reformed backgrounds including the OPC, merged with the PCA.  The RPCES brought with it Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, GA) and Covenant Seminary (St. Louis, MO) which remain as the denominational undergraduate college and seminary of the PCA.

In 1983, the remaining liberal sides of the Southern Church (PCUS) and the Northern Church (PCUSA), which had come to be known as the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, reunited to form the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The OPC and the PCA remain biblically faithful “sister” denominations ministering alongside and in conjunction with one another.

The history of American Presbyterianism is eye opening.  What I have presented in this article is only a fraction of the divisions and mergers that have taken place between various groups over the last 300-or-so years.  With good reason, many refer to Presbyterian history as “split-pea-soup.”  However, the reality is that every denomination shares a similar history made up of various episodes of divisiveness and grace.  

The PCA does not claim to be a perfect denomination.  Nor does the PCA claim to be the only true Christian denomination.  We recognize that there are other biblically sound and faithful denominations alongside whom we have the privilege of proclaiming the wonderful gospel of Jesus Christ.  If our history teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are great sinners in need of a great Savior.

 

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