Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Confession and Assurance of Pardon as a Part of Worship

When I began attending a Presbyterian church for the first time 17 years ago, one of the primary reasons for that decision was an interest in learning about worship.  In my years as a Baptist pastor, I never had been satisfied that I had a good understanding of what corporate worship should look like. Don't misunderstand:  I am not blaming the Baptists for what I had failed to learn.  There were things that perhaps I should have known, but did not.  Nonetheless, in the intervening years, I have learned a great deal.  Most of what I have learned is not unique to Presbyterianism, and much of it could have been done in Baptist churches -- I am sure it is done in some of those churches, but I had not really seen it in my experience. 

Thus, when I was pastoring, my unfortunately limited view of worship essentially bifurcated the service into two parts -- the singing and the sermon.  Sure, we did other things:  we had some prayers, took an offering, did the Lord's Supper every quarter, baptized as needed, etc.  However, I admit that I placed too little value on corporate prayer and the other weekly worship activities, and while I appreciated the importance of baptism and the Lord's Supper, the Baptist understanding of them as matters of our proclamation rather than God's means of grace somewhat limits their force.  Thus, I tended to see the worship hour primarily in terms of singing and preaching.  As a result, other than the preaching, the main thing that was needed was music that coalesced around a theme, preferably one that would support the sermon.

That is horribly deficient.

While I could write about many things in this regard, today I have one in particular in mind. One of the common elements in a reformed worship service is a time of confession of sin and assurance of pardon.  While the way of doing this can change from week to week and from church to church, a typical format would involve the minister reading a biblical text that confronts us with the reality of our sin and making some brief remarks about it.  This is followed by a time of prayer, which may be silent, a prayer offered by the minister, or a congregational reading of a prayer of general confession. This is followed by words of the minister, who usually reads a scripture promising forgiveness and makes remarks about God's promise of pardon for those who confess their sins and have their only confidence in Christ.

Though I never had this in a service when I was a pastor, I now feel cheated when I am in a church service that doesn't include it. Like Isaiah, I realize that coming into the worship of a holy God brings before me the reality of my own uncleanness, and as Isaiah's confession was followed by an assurance from God's throne of His cleansing grace and power, I need to hear that my sins have been forgiven through the death of Christ and that my heart has been cleansed so that I, too, may worship.  This portion of the worship service functions both to assure me of God's promises and to teach me about the power of the Gospel.  I need this teaching and these promises and assurances regularly.

Our tendency is to think of worship as a time when we bring ourselves and our praises to God.  Fair enough.  But God also brings His gifts of grace to His people.  I arrive with an awareness of my sin, and He pronounces me forgiven in Christ.  With that, I am prepared to worship.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Because God began it, and he will perform it

It seems to me that in far too many churches the understanding of sanctification is monergistic, but not in the way that you may be thinking: it is we that work.  The triune God is a bystander.  Well, he might do something once we've completed our part.

In any evangelical church where the Gospel is preached at all, the pastor and leaders should be expected to understand that we are saved by grace.  "Grace alone," the Protestant reformers proclaimed about justification, and those committed to the gospel, both before and since, from the apostles to the present day, have understood that the Gospel of Christ is received as God's free gift.

And yet, why is it that for so many this message of grace disappears (if it in fact appeared in proclamation in the first place) when they move from justification to sanctification? 

The question should not be misunderstood as implying that there are not distinctions between justification and sanctification.  Justification is a once and for all forensic declaration by God; sanctification is an ongoing process that continues throughout this life.  Justification is a matter of the imputed righteousness of Christ; sanctification adds growth in actual righteousness as we more and more die unto sin and live unto righteousness. Justification is received by faith alone; sanctification is in at least some sense participatory, though it is important to realize that we don't make ourselves holy.  That is the work of the Spirit using God's appointed means.

Certainly, even in reformed circles there are controversies about the issue of sanctification these days.  While those differences are real, they are sometimes exaggerated by those who argue against straw man positions supposedly held by those who either emphasize justification and gratitude as the primary keys to understanding growth in the Christian life or those who give greater attention to strenuous moral effort.    In fact, at the very least there are some general thoughts about sanctification on which all Christians, reformed and otherwise, ought to agree.  Our sanctification is rooted in the finished work of Christ and in our having been brought into union with Christ, occurs as the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in us, and relies upon the promise and power of God, who gives us confidence "that he who began a good work in us will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Ph. 1:6). There is, of course, much more, but that is a good start.

All of those things emphasize the work of the triune God in our Christian growth.

These thoughts were brought to mind as the result of a church service at a large evangelical church I attended yesterday as part of an ongoing research project that I am engaged in.  The minister devoted his sermon to his goal that his parishioners be "fully developing followers of Christ," and to that end, it was sadly astounding to note how little Christ had to do with the development of his followers.

All of the things he said we should commit to do this year had a biblical basis.  I had no quarrel with being urged to worship, read the Bible and pray, commit my time and money to God's work, and so forth.

Yet, no Gospel was preached. The saving acts of Christ were given no mention whatsoever, even in places where one might expect it to creep in. Thus, the minister's call for us to commit to evangelism was described as saying "a positive word about Jesus" and inviting people to church. No further definition was given.

Worship was defined as our response to God's revealed greatness.  A reading of Isaiah 6 reminds us of how utterly disturbing God's greatness can be before we experience God's grace. Yet, there was no mention of God's grace.

No work of the Spirit. No union with Christ. It was just a bunch of stuff for us to do.  There was some mention of preparing ourselves for when God decides to work, but that was vague and lacked the sound of God working consistently through ordinary means. One might even suggest it was semi-pelagian, if he was suggesting that God would meet our initiative half-way.  However, perhaps that would be uncharitable.

Yet, all of this left me very sad for the large congregation.

No doubt, if the pastor of that church reads this blog, I would expect that he would protest the characterization and assure us that he preaches Christ and the grace of God.  This was, after all, about building believers, not about sharing our faith, and I should come back another Sunday to hear about the Gospel.  Perhaps all of that is true.  But, I am still left struck wondering at how it can be possible to speak of fully developing Christian growth while making so much of our work and so little of God's.  And, I am reminded that Christians should ever remember that we continuously stand in need of the message of the Gospel.

According to an old and faithful saying, all of Christian doctrine is grace, and all of Christian conduct is gratitude.  That message needs to permeate our understanding of discipleship.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Marks of the Church: Some Clean up, and a Response to the Second Hypothetical

The blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle and I have been engaged in a discussion of the marks of the church, with the intention of ultimately focusing on the question of the appropriate consideration of the marks of the church.  We have had a cordial exchange of views regarding the sacraments that has helped us to identify areas of common belief and differences.  While the dialogue remains productive, we seem to have taken a step back in the last exchange, and it would seem that I have been misunderstood to the point that LC has managed to cite my own confession against me in what he regards as support of his view.  This may simply be the result of my working so hard at emphasizing a difference that I have appeared to state a view different from what I actually hold.  However, that being said, I can't figure out what he thinks I have written in disagreement with the chapters from the Westminster Confession that he cites.

Perhaps I erred by using the word "symbols" with regard to the sacraments in stating that baptism symbolizes the cleansing of the Spirit and union with Christ.  Perhaps that language sounds to Zwinglian, and I will strike the word "symbol" from my vocabulary as a result.  However, to say that the sacraments symbolize these things in no way suggests that they are mere symbols, and I have explicitly repudiated the Zwinglian view while affirming the sacraments as a means of grace by which God creates and confirms faith in us.  LC's pedantic statement that "something important" happens with regard to the signs and seals of the covenant of grace seems entirely unnecessary, as I have no where indicated otherwise. 

Nor have I in any way denied that there is a "spiritual relation, or sacrificial union between the sign and the thing signified...."  I would affirm that without question.  What I have done is insisted that there must not be confusion between the sign and the thing signified and, outside of the issue of transubstantiation, LC seems to find virtue in confusion, particularly with regard to the seeming affirmation of an ex opere relationship of baptism to regeneration.  The reformed understanding is that there should neither be confusion (as with Rome) nor separation ( as in Zwingli) between the sign and the thing signified.  God uses the visible signs and seals as means of grace through which he works invisibly in the hearts of his people.  This is true not only of these sacraments, but also of his preached word, through which he enlivens hearts and creates faith.

The Second Hypothetical

LC sets up the following hypothetical situation:

Let us consider an adult male member of each church. Let us for a moment assume that this man is baptized and a member in good standing in the church. The obvious theological point is that this man is a covenant member. He is outwardly and visibly a member of the covenant community. However, there is no clear knowledge of his inward or invisible faith. In other words, despite his participation in church, he may not actually be among the elect. Now, let us add a visible sin to the picture. This man owns a local hardware store. His store is open Saturday and Sunday (for clarity and to sure there is a fourth commandment issue), and he not only works in the store himself on these days, but forces his employees to do the same. He is unwilling to hear of anyone telling him otherwise. Let us begin.

I chose this example for several reasons, but there are two compelling issues here. First, many would say that this isn’t really a sin. I fail to see the wiggle room myself, but if MDA chooses, he can change the sin to one more suited to his arguments. Secondly, once we accept this is a true violation of the fourth commandment in the intention of the man, we can easily move past the issue of its habitual nature.

Now, it is to MDA to explain how he views the situation of this man in terms of his ultimate salvation, membership in the church, state of repentance and finally whether and how he is fenced and disciplined. My own thoughts I will save for second place as I have far too much ground to cover without first understanding the process about which we will spar.
Before getting into the particulars of this, I need to state that the chosen issue is a difficult one, as there are varying views regarding the Sabbath within the PCA.  Certainly, the Westminster standards take a very -- many would say excessively -- strict view of of the Christian Sabbath that forbids not only unnecessary work, but also all recreation, in order that the believer would focus entirely on worship.  In the PCA, those seeking licensure or ordination must declare any exceptions that they have to the standards, and the Westminister teaching on the Sabbath is by far the most commonly requested exception.  Presbyteries generally exercise their discretion in permitting the licensiate or ordinand to proceed with this exception on the record.
Having said that, the attitude and conduct of the hypothetical member would be widely regarded as sinful.  With that in mind, I would submit the following:
1. RE this statement:  However, there is no clear knowledge of his inward or invisible faith. In other words, despite his participation in church, he may not actually be among the elect.  Could that not be said of any and every member of the church?
2.  For this type of sin, the primary type of discipline would be the public teaching of the Word of God.  In addition, depending on the church, the pastor and/or the elders might meet with the man to urge him to reconsider his position and repent of his Sabbath breaking.
3.  Even with non-repentance, I would not make any assumptions based on this situation with regard to the person's ultimate salvation.  Nor do I believe that most churches would deny admission to the sacraments or exercise any other judicial process.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Osteen: Antichrist?

So, yesterday, as nicely as possible, I made the statement to a friend that Joel Osteen is antichrist. Why did I say such a thing?

I admit that I partly did so just to be provocative, but that is not to say that I was guilty of provocation without a point. It was not intended as mere insult; it was a statement that I believe I can demonstrate to be true. And, I wish for others to think seriously about this claim.

Before going further, I should emphasize that I did not say that Mr. Osteen was "the" antichrist. In Scripture, the antichrist is the person who appears near the end of the age who personifies all that is opposed to God. That is what gets talked about in much popular Christian teaching. However, the Bible also talks about a spirit or principle of antichrist that presents itself throughout the time between the first and second coming of Christ and that culminates in the ultimate antichrist just mentioned. Thus, I John 4:3 says that "the spirit of the antichrist ... is in the world already." In other words, when the antichrist appears, he will be the culmination of something that has been around throughout this age. It is this more general principle of antichrist that I apply to the ministry of Joel Osteen. Even so, I can imagine that I would be challenged to defend the notion that a popular minister is antichrist.

To answer that challenge, it is important to understand what antichrist (either the principle or the ultimate personification) does. While there are many facets of his work, one area of focus involves an impact on the visible church. I John 4:1-3 associates antichrist with the refusal to make certain confessions about Jesus Christ. II Thessalonians 2 has this "man of lawlessness" taking his seat in the church, soliciting worship of himself, and causing a rebellion (or "apostacy," in the Greek). Thus, antichrist is one who, operating within the church, turns worshippers away from our Lord and Savior.

This is what Joel Osteen does. Establishing himself as a sort of minister in a church, he teaches an odd religion that is not Christianity. That is to say, Mr. Osteen does not offer a version of Christianity that differs from my own. Rather, he teaches an entirely different religion. Let me explain.

While Christianity talks about a great many things, at its foundation, it is a religion that concerns itself with what God does about our sins. Put another way, Christainity can be summed up in three words: God saves sinners. That is to say, God, out of his magnificant grace, has found a people among the ruins of human depravity and by the death and resurrection of his son, has forgiven them and adopted them as his own children, providing to them a glorious future as fellow heirs with Christ. That is what it is all about.

Yet, Mr. Osteen openly avows that he doesn't talk about sin, which he considers too negative. While that sounds kind, it means that his followers are deprived of the great gifts that God offers in Christ. To borrow C.S. Lewis' analogy, he ofers mudpies in street puddles to those who do not know that they could instead enjoy a vacation at the sea. He offers a best life now, ignoring the offer of eternal life in Christ Jesus.

This is not to say that Mr. Osteen should engage in finger pointing denunciations of sinners, but with no doctrine of sin, there are no sinners who need to be saved, and there is no need of a Savior. Mr. Osteen's religion guts the hope offered in Christianity.

It does not help Mr. Osteen's case that he uses some Christian terminology, because he redefines those terms to mean things other than what Christians believe. To illustrate, let me ask the question: who is Harry Monroe? In the movie Stir Crazy, Richard Pryor portrayed a character named Harry Monroe. My father's name is Harry Monroe. A former Catholic priest accused of committing serious crimes in the 1970's was named Harry Monroe. The director of a rescue mission in Chicago many years ago was named Harry Monroe. An on-air personality at Voice of America also shares this name. None of those people are me, and other than my dad, none are related to me. To use my name is not necessarily to make reference to me, and to use Christian terms is not necessarily the same thing as teaching Christianity.

What then does Mr. Osteen teach? Largely, it is the worship of self. Mr. Osteen is often said to be a more smooth talking version of the old name it and claim it religion, but actually he goes much further. In the Bible, it is only God who has the power of ex nihilo creation -- the power to speak, and something is created out of nothing. Misquoting and misapplying various verses, Mr. Osteen asserts this as a power of his followers. In so doing, he echoes the voice of the serpent in the garden of Eden, offering to human beings the claim to be like God. This is nothing short of blasphemy, idolatry, and self-worship.

If the spirit of antichrist entails an effort at supplanting Christianity within the churches in favor of worship of an alternative deity, then Mr. Osteen meets that definition. With that, I rest my case.