Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Church Tradition and the Sufficiency of Scripture

Recently I was discussing some points of doctrine with a Roman Catholic, and as the discussion moved quickly to the source of doctrinal authority, I was reminded why the Protestant doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is so important. This doctrine is well summarized in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith,
"The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." (WCF 1.6)
This idea can be found in Scripture, such as in 2 Timothy 3:15-17 where Paul tells Timothy,
"from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
It is true that God gave revelation which is not contained in Scripture. Not everything that the prophets prophesied or that Jesus spoke or that the apostles preached was written down. Yet, whatever is necessary for us to believe or obey was written down in Scripture and preserved for the ages to come. Because Scripture can give sufficient knowledge for salvation and can make the man of God complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-17), then the one who knows Scripture does not need to fear that he is missing out on an additional doctrine or duty which is outside of Scripture and in oral tradition alone.

The tradition of the church is important, since Christ appointed pastors and teachers for the benefit of his church. There are some things in the Scriptures that are hard to understand, "which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16). Yet, these pastors and teachers are bound to teach what Scripture says, to give a faithful interpretation of what is there. Not only should they not contradict Scripture, but they should also not add more doctrines or duties to what is in Scripture, for Scripture contains all that we need to believe and obey.

As was evident in the Old Testament church, the oral tradition of the church can error. The leaders of the Jewish church had added to, contradicted, and wrongly interpreted the demands of Scripture. It was Scripture that was infallible and which Jesus and the apostles used to correct these errors (Matt. 15:1-9, Mark 7:1-23, John 7:21-23, Matt. 22:29-31). And so while some lingering oral tradition from the apostles may have given the early fathers help in faithfully interpreting the writings of the apostles, this oral tradition is not infallible and ought not to be relied upon to go beyond what is written in Scripture.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

What Does It Mean to Honor My Parents?

"Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you." (Deuteronomy 5:16)
Today, the spirit of the age is autonomy. In other words, each person wants to create his or her own identity apart from external influences or authorities. Whether it is in a Disney movie or a presidential debate, we are told to look inside ourselves for guidance, and that once we make up our mind, we can be whoever we want to be. We create our identity by pure willpower, by sovereign choice. At the same time, our culture has an epidemic of people trying to find themselves. We feel lost, disoriented, searching for purpose and identity. Our culture produces songs like "A Place in This World":
“I'm alone, on my own,
and that's all I know.
I'll be strong, I'll be wrong,
Oh but life goes on.
Oh, I'm just a girl,
Trying to find a place in this world.”
Finding ourselves on our own, digging deeper into the self, is like trying to find the essence of an onion by looking for its core. We keep peeling and peeling until nothing is left. And in case you think this only applies to the people “out there” or to the music on the radio, I think Christians sometimes have the same problem. Sometimes they dress it up in the language of “finding God’s will.” While Christians have always needed guidance on decision making, the need to “find God’s will for your life” seems to be much more a problem today than at other times in church history.

Not only would our fathers in the faith point to God’s word, prayer, and the fear of God, but they would also point to our callings and the authorities in our lives. Among other things, listen to your parents! What do they counsel? What is your family’s vision and place in life? We are not isolated individuals, making a sovereign choice ex nihilo, out of nothing. But as a culture, we have cut ourselves off from many sources of counsel, calling, and inheritance – no wonder we are so lost when it comes to our identity and work! I bring this to our attention to introduce the subject of honoring our parents. Honoring our parents is actually beneficial for us, since it helps us find our identity, calling, and vision. It is the way we have been made to live. It is desirable.

So what is it to honor your parents?

1. Honor. At its root, the command, "honor your father and your mother" (Ex. 20:12), binds us to an attitude of respect and humility. Leviticus 19:3 repeats this command but instead of "honor" it uses the word "fear" or "revere." This is a humble attitude of reverence which does not treat parents lightly, but honors them. The same chapter goes on to apply this principle more broadly to one's elders, and places it in parallel with our fear of God: "You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:32). Notice this verse also connects honor with physical acts that demonstrate honor. We see this practiced by King Solomon in 1 Kings 2:19. When Bathsheba his mother came to see him, he - the king of Israel - rose from his throne, bowed to her, and had a seat brought for her, placed at his right. While our gestures of honor may vary from culture to culture, some tangible expressions should be used to express this attitude.

2. Obedience. The command to honor parents is quoted by the apostle Paul to support his command, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Eph. 6:1). The exhortation to obedience is also found in Colossians 3:20, "Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord." One way to honor parents is to do what they tell you to do. This is particularly binding on children, those under their parent's authority at home. That seems to be the focus of the commands in Colossians and Ephesians. There comes a time when a young man "leaves" his father and mother in some sense, in anticipation of cleaving to his wife, who in turn also leaves her father's house and joins her husband's (Gen. 2:24, Num. 30). In biblical Israel, men reached the age of majority at age twenty and were then responsible for military service, voting, and the head tax (Num. 1:2-3, 1 Chron. 12:38, Ex. 20:13-14). Yet, there are positive examples in the Bible of adult children obeying their parents, such as the sons of Jonadab (Jer. 35). While the obligation is different than that of children, obedience is still a way to show honor. (The obedience of adult children deserves a closer look at another time, especially with an eye to how different economic arrangements influence this obligation.)

3. Internalizing Commands. Part of the transition from the obedience of a young child and the honor given by an adult child is the internalization of the parent's commands and instructions. The Bible exhorts children not only to obey their parents's commands, but also to adopt them as their own principles. Proverbs 6:20–22 says, "My son, keep your father's commandment, and forsake not your mother's teaching. Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you." Since this passage clearly reflects Deuteronomy 6:7, it is assumed that this parental instruction is based on God's word. But as long as their instruction does not conflict with Scripture, there is a duty to humbly receive what is taught, to hold fast to what is good, and to make it your own. The greatest joy of a godly parent is to see their children walking in truth and wisdom not merely because the parent tells them to do so, but because it has become part of their character (Prov. 10:1; 23:15, 24; 3 John 1:4).

4. Seeking Counsel. Another way to show honor to parents is to seek and prize the counsel of parents. This should not be done as a replacement for internalizing their instruction, but neither should the greater independence of an adult child prevent him from seeking and listening to counsel. Proverbs 23:22 says, "Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old." Why? Because wisdom and counsel is valuable. The next verse follows up this exhortation by saying, "Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding." Your parents' counsel should be treasured. This shows honor for the ones who gave you life. This obligation does not cease then they (and you) get old.

5. Covering Disgrace. Another way you should show honor to parents is to cover their disgrace. There are limits to this - this does not require you to be dishonest or to hide crimes which ought to be reported. But it does mean you should refrain from speaking to others of what brings shame or embarrassment to your parents unless it is necessary. Genesis 9:18-29 recounts how Noah, after the flood, planted a vineyard, became drunk with its wine, and lay naked in his tent. While Ham disgraced his father by leaving his father in this state and spreading a report, Shem and Japheth honored their father by covering his nakedness, walking backwards so that they would not see their father in this state.

6. Caring for Elderly Parents. A very important part of the command to honor parents is the care of elderly parents. Just as parents are responsible to care for their children when their children are incapable of caring for themselves, so children are responsible for caring for their parents when their parents are unable to care for themselves. To ignore this responsibility is quite serious (1 Tim. 5:8). Jesus asserted this aspect of the commandment in Matthew 15:1-9. There he condemned the Pharisees for excusing people from this responsibility through their extra-biblical traditions. Jesus himself, when dying on the cross, cared for his mother. Mary was probably widowed at this point, and Jesus as the oldest son would have been particularly responsible for his mother's care. Thus while he was on the cross he gave John the responsibility to care for his mother: "he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!' And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home" (John 19:26-27).

7. Receiving Your Heritage. The honor of parents comes with promise (Deut. 5:16, Eph. 6:2-3). This promise generally offers long life and prosperity both on an individual level and on a corporate level. In other words, the honor of parents brings continuity and inheritance by the blessing of God. Not only will you live long in the land, but you all (as a family or people) will live long in the land. This continuity, receiving the heritage of your parents, is both a duty and a blessing, while dishonor of parents is both disobedience as well as self-defeating. Even when your parents are unbelievers, your family’s heritage is to be reformed and perfected, not obliterated. All of us are part of a multigenerational project which includes receiving, respecting, reforming, and giving. R.J. Rushdoony insightfully comments on this aspect of honor,
"This brings us to the first general principle inherent in this law: honor to parents, and to all older than ourselves, is a necessary aspect of the basic law of inheritance. What we inherit from our parents is life itself, and also the wisdom of their faith and experience as they transmit it to us. The continuity of history rests in this honor and inheritance. A revolutionary age breaks with the past and turns on parents with animosity and venom: it disinherits itself. To respect our elders other than our parents is to respect all that is good in our cultural inheritance. The world certainly is not perfect, nor even law-abiding, but, although we come into the world naked, we do not enter an empty world. The houses, orchards, fields, and flocks are all the handiwork of the past, and we are richer for this past and must honor it…The basic and central inheritance of culture and all that it includes, faith, training, wisdom, wealth, love, common ties, and traditions are severed and denied where parents and elders are not honored." (Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 166)
"To despise one’s parents, or to hate them and dishonor them is to despise the immediate source of one’s life; it is a form of self-hate, and it is a willful contempt for the basic inheritance of life. From pastoral experience, it can be added that those who, when rebuked for their hatred of and dishonoring activity towards parents, arrogantly say, 'I didn’t ask to be born,' have a limited life span, or, at best, a miserable one. Their course of action is suicidal. They are saying in effect, 'I’m not asking to live.'" (p. 168)
The honor of parents, as with the rest of the commandments, is the good way. Our heavenly Father is pleased when we honor our parents. It may be hard. Sin might get in the way. Forgiveness and love is necessary. If we realize how much we have been forgiven, we will more willingly show forgiveness to our parents. If we fear and honor our heavenly Father, we will seek to reflect that in our fear and honor of our parents. If we are thankful for receiving eternal life, we will be thankful to those who gave us life. If we truly want to know God’s will for our life, we will look to the sources of guidance that he has appointed. And if we honor our parents, we will cover their disgrace, care for them, seek their counsel, internalize their commands, and joyfully carry on the heritage they have given us. May we treasure the talents they have given us, and invest and increase them with confidence in God’s promise of life and prosperity to all such as keep this commandment.

Friday, March 15, 2019

St. Patrick's Confident Message in Dark Times

Saint Patrick was an important 5th century missionary to Ireland. In his day, civilization seemed to be collapsing. Yet, as the Romans withdrew from Britain and as pagans from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany began to raid and invade, Patrick was advancing forward with the gospel. Later in life, he saw these difficulties as signs of God's judgment - his people had ignored the warnings of their priests and fallen into ignorance and apathy. He had done the same as a youth, but when Patrick himself was taken captive by Irish raiders, this caused Patrick to reconsider the gospel he had heard and repent. He turned with all his heart to God. After six years in captivity he escaped, returning later to the land of his captivity as a missionary. Late in life, he wrote his Confession, in which he tells the story of his life. You can read it at this link. Just after recounting his conversion during his captivity he explains his motive for evangelism and describes the faith he preached. 
"That is why I cannot be silent – nor would it be good to do so – about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven. 
"This is because there is no other God, nor will there ever be, nor was there ever, except God the Father. He is the one who was not begotten, the one without a beginning, the one from whom all beginnings come, the one who holds all things in being – this is our teaching. And his son, Jesus Christ, whom we testify has always been, since before the beginning of this age, with the father in a spiritual way. He was begotten in an indescribable way before every beginning. Everything we can see, and everything beyond our sight, was made through him. He became a human being; and, having overcome death, was welcomed to the heavens to the Father. The Father gave him all power over every being, both heavenly and earthly and beneath the earth. Let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, in whom we believe and whom we await to come back to us in the near future, is Lord and God. He is judge of the living and of the dead; he rewards every person according to their deeds. He has generously poured on us the Holy Spirit, the gift and promise of immortality, who makes believers and those who listen to be children of God and co-heirs with Christ. This is the one we acknowledge and adore – one God in a trinity of the sacred name."
May the gratefulness that inspired Patrick give us also the confidence to bear witness to the great wonders of our God. May the message of the triune God and his salvation that Patrick preached be believed and proclaimed by the church today. Even if we face difficulties, may we be confident that Christ will continue to preserve and expand his gospel reign even in the midst of dark times.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Presbyterian Church Government

The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk, by John Lorimer

If someone asked me to define Presbyterianism, I would point to our doctrinal standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) and perhaps list a few notable distinctives like a belief in God's sovereignty in history and salvation, the unity of the Old and New Testaments in terms of covenant theology, and its distinctive form of church government. But it is the last of these, church government, which provides the origin of the word "presbyterian."

The word "presbyterian" comes from the Greek word for elder (πρεσβύτερος). The term began to be used back when the major divisions among English-speaking denominations were defined by church government. On the one hand there was the Church of England with its episcopal system (the word "episcopal" come from the word for bishop, ἐπίσκοπος). In that system, the churches in a region were governed by an individual, the bishop. On the other hand you had congregational churches which were independent local churches governed largely by congregational vote. Presbyterian churches, though, were governed by a plurality of elders, both in the local church and on a regional level.

In the Presbyterian system, the congregation is led and governed by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23), who along with deacons are elected by the congregation and ordained by other elders (Acts 6:1-6, 14:23, 1 Tim. 4:14). These elders also meet with the elders of other churches to lead and govern the church on regional and denominational levels (Acts 15). The assembly of elders in a local church we call a session, the regional assembly we call the presbytery, and the denominational assembly we call the general assembly. As the Scripture citations above indicate, we adopt this form of government because it is what Christ and the apostles appointed for the church. The Bible does not appoint all the details of how this system operates, leaving some room for flexibility where wisdom and prudence must dictate. Yet, it does describe these basic principles.

Biblically speaking, elders can also be called overseers, bishops, pastors, and shepherds (Titus 1:5-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4). While all elders are equal in authority, there is a difference between what we call “ruling elders” and what we usually call “teaching elders” or “ministers of the word.” These teaching elders are those elders “who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). They are are called to preach the gospel, and to do so as their life calling (1 Cor. 9). And as the sacraments are signs and seals of the gospel, they are administered by preachers of the gospel. Like teaching elders, ruling elders are church shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4) who join in the care and oversight of the congregation, but they are not preachers and they usually make their living in another way. To many people, ruling elders seem to be laymen since they usually do not have a seminary degree and are not part of a paid staff, but ruling elders are ordained officers of the church and serve on the ruling bodies of the local, regional, and denominational levels.

We also believe deacons fulfill an important office in the church (Acts 6:1-7). They oversee and administer the mercy ministry of the church, helping those in need and coordinating the efforts of the congregation to that end. 

In this form of government, both church members and church officers are held accountable. No individual governs by himself. If things go wrong on a local level, there is the ability to appeal to the regional presbytery (and the general assembly, if necessary). This connection between local churches not only helps coordinate church discipline and settle doctrinal controversies, but it also helps coordinate and strengthen efforts like home and foreign missions, Christian education, and diaconal assistance. It is not foolproof or infallible - no system of government can save a church on its own - but it is a wise system, established by our wise Lord, for the good of His people. As Ephesians 4:7-16 teaches, Christ gave His church its leaders to strengthen the body so that it may attain to "the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Eph. 4:13–14). May Christ bless what He has appointed and give His church shepherds that reflect Him, our chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4).


For more on this topic, you can read our Book of Church Order at this link and chapters 30 and 31 of the Westminster Confession at this link. A short book which serves as a helpful introduction to the biblical basis for Presbyterian church government is Which is the Apostolic Church? by Thomas Witherow, which can be read for free online at this link

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Viewing the World as God's Creation

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith...who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”
1 Timothy 4:1-5
The truth that God is the Creator of this world has implications for us literally all over the place. Rather than rejecting marriage and certain foods, we can say that these earthly physical things are good. They have a purpose and definition from God. We are held responsible for our use of them. Our relation to the Creator is foundational to our relation to the world. If we are in rebellion to God, we will be frustrated in this world. We might then say with T.S. Eliot before his conversion:
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.” 
But if we have been reconciled to the Creator as our Father, we look at the sunset as a glorious manifestation of His beauty for our enjoyment. We can receive it as it was intended to be received - with thanksgiving.

One of our Missouri sunsets
But from where does evil and suffering come? Unless we believe in the doctrine of creation, it will seem that suffering is natural to this world and that man is a victim. But believing that God created all things good, we see that evil is an intruder into the world, suffering being a result of this, and the responsibility for this is laid at our feet. Sin is not natural, but it became natural to us when we rebelled against God in Adam. Humanity’s relation to God, as covenant-keeper or covenant-breaker, determines the fate of the world. When humanity fell morally, the whole world was cursed. Evil is not nature’s fault. We can’t blame suffering on the fact that we are physical. Rather, our relation to God is central.

This leads us back to the creedal recounting of Christ’s life given in 1 Timothy 3:16, which immediately precedes 1 Timothy 4:1-5 (quoted above). Jesus did not save us from our flesh. He did not save us by forbidding things like food and marriage. Salvation is not defined as escape from creation. Rather, He saved us, body and soul, by becoming man and bearing the curse in His death. He restored our relationship with God. Humanity had become the source of the problem, therefore He created a new humanity. He rose again to new life and was taken up into glory. Those who participate in His work through faith are restored us to a life of godliness – a life that is just as human, but not under bondage to sin’s guilt and power.

This teaches us to see sin and suffering as invasive and unnatural. Christians learn to see their sin as repulsive and antithetical to their identity. We have died with Christ and have been raised with Him to new life, to a renewed creation, one which is alien to sin. We also groan with lament and expectation, knowing that suffering, death, and decay still abide in this world but will not be here forever. Yet we also can enjoy the goodness of creation that still exists. Marriage, food, work, art, and community can be pursued with joy. We have been restored to the good work of living in our Father’s world. Rather than being the out-of-tune instrument in the band, we have been repaired to join back in the song of creation. In other words, Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Good doctrine leads us back to our callings in the world. God’s story leads us to godliness. Saturating in this truth should make it more and more natural to serve our Creator in all of life with thanksgiving for all He has given us.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Contentment and Generosity

I finished a sermon series on Paul's letter to the Philippians this past Lord's Day (you can listen to the series here). One point I noticed at the end of this letter was how Paul ended by highlighting both contentment and generosity.

Paul notes that he received their gift with joy, but not because he was discontent and desperate until he received it. Rather, he had learned to be content in whatever situation (4:10-13). And since Paul had just exhorted the Philippians to imitate him (3:17, 4:9), Paul intends for his reader to practice this contentment as well. But at this point, his readers could have wondered, "should we have sent this gift? If Paul was content, we could have saved ourselves the trouble and kept the gift."

Valuing contentment without also valuing generosity could leave you thinking that you don’t need to help others - they just need to be content. If they are content like they should be, why should I send help?

Paul correct this false inference: "Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble" (4:14). In fact, he notes that this generosity contributed to their own credit (4:17) and that it was a "a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God" (4:18). This gift was an expression of the partnership they had with him (4:15). It gave him joy (4:10).

When God's people exercise both contentment and generosity, they steer clear of the temptations of envy, greed, and selfishness and learn to live in unity and love. Both of these traits depend upon a trust in God found in the gospel. Contentment is only possible "through him who strengthens me" (4:13), and generosity is motivated by its value in the sight of God and the assurance that God "will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (4:19). The peace of God comes to us as individuals and as a community when we turn from trust in our self and our stuff unto trust in God through Christ, leading us to both contentment and generosity.