Friday, December 23, 2022

From Nebuchadnezzar to Herod

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” 
(Galatians 4:4-5)

When the New Testament begins its narrative, centuries had passed since the events recorded in the historical parts of the Old Testament. What happened in between? That is what I sought to explain in a recent Sunday school lesson, which you can listen to here. What I have written below is adapted from that lesson. Much of this time period is reviewed in the prophecies of Daniel. Four empires would hold sway from the time of Nebuchadnezzar to the coming of the Christ: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. 

1. The Jews under the Babylonians

Babylon gained control over Jerusalem in 605 BC, which is when Daniel was taken to Jerusalem. After a rebellion against Babylon, King Jehoiachin of Judah surrendered in 597 BC and was brought to Babylon. His uncle Zedekiah later rebelled against Babylon and was captured in 587 BC. Yet Jehoiachin was elevated from prison in 561 BC and his grandson Zerubbabel was appointed as the Persian governor of Judah in 538 BC.

2. The Jews under the Persians

Cyrus the Great consolidated control over the Medes and Persians and then conquered Lydia and Babylon. His son conquered Egypt. After his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, Cyrus issued a decree in 538 BC encouraging the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple. A group returned under Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest, and they finished the new temple in 516 BC.

The Bible also records the reforming work of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi in the mid-400s. After this, prophecy ceases and emphasis is given to the work of priests and scribes who copy and teach Scripture, continuing the legacy of Ezra. The Jews remained under Persian rule until 332 BC.

3. The Jews under the Greeks 

Alexander the Great, a Macedonian king who was Greek by education and culture, took over Persia and beyond. He allowed the Jews to follow their customs. After his death, his kingdom broke up into four successor kingdoms. 

The Ptolemys, the “kings of the south” (i.e. Egypt) maintained control of Judea throughout the 200s and were relatively lenient. A number of Jews moved to Egypt and the Old Testament was translated into Greek during this time (this translation was called the Septuagint).

The Seleucids, the “kings of the north” (i.e. Syria) gained control of the region in 198 BC and were initially supported by the Jews. King Antiochus III was favorable toward them. He was also friends with the enemies of Rome, like Hannibal, and was defeated in battle by the Romans.

His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, fought the Ptolemys. After one unsuccessful campaign in Egypt, he sacked Jerusalem because of their revolt against his appointed high priest, Menelaus (169 BC). After another unsuccessful Egyptian campaign, foiled by Rome, he sent a general to Jerusalem who slaughtered many and promoted pagan worship and customs (168 BC). Antiochus then adopted an official policy of forced Hellenization. As Daniel had prophesied (Dan. 8, 11), Antiochus took action against the holy covenant and persecuted the saints. As 1 Maccabees 1:41-42, 44-50 recounts,
“Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. … And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt-offerings and sacrifices and drink-offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances. He added, ‘And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.’”
Some Jews compromised while others remained faithful despite torture and execution. In 167 BC, Antiochus had the temple desecrated with the abomination of desolation. An image of Zeus was placed on the altar of burnt offerings and pig’s flesh was offered on it.

Resistance was first offered by Mattathias, a priest and local leader, in a village 17 miles north of Jerusalem, when an official sought to force them to sacrifice to an idol. He and his five sons (John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan) would lead the Jews against the Seleucids for decades. In this way, the faithful would “receive a little help” (Dan. 11:34). Judas defeated the forces of Antiochus, and in 165 BC he led the restoration of the temple on the anniversary of its desecration.

4. The Jews and the Hasmoneans

The descendants of Mattathias were known as the Hasmoneans. They established a largely independent kingdom and ruled the Jews from the 160s to 37 BC, often as both king and high priest, along with the Council (the Sanhedrin). They allied themselves with the Roman Republic. Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus, expanded the Hasmonean kingdom and forcefully converted the Idumeans (Edomites) in the south.

Yet, these kings, beginning with John Hyrcanus, gradually declined in faithfulness to the law and became increasingly corrupt. Different approaches to the situation led to the formation of various groups in Judea, such as the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Eventually their Roman allies had to intervene in a Jewish civil war in 63 BC and took over.
  • The Sadducees valued stability, the high priest, and the temple. They supported the Hasmoneans, as well as the Romans when they came to power. They were usually associated with the priests and the upper classes. They prioritized the Torah over the rest of Scripture and tradition. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or the final judgment.
  • The Pharisees were usually laymen and were more popular with the common people and critical of the compromises of the establishment. They stressed purity and faithfulness to the law as defined by Scripture and the traditions of the elders. They believed in the existence of angels, demons, the resurrection (which had been a source of hope for the Maccabean martyrs), and the final judgment.
  • The Essenes stressed purity and were more separatistic and ascetic than the Pharisees. Many of them retreated from society altogether into desert communities such as Qumran.
  • Many Jews were not members of any party.

5. The Jews under King Herod and Rome

In 63 BC, Pompey, a Roman governor, intervened in a Jewish civil war between two Hasmonean rivals. He conquered Jerusalem and installed one of them as a ruler and high priest under a Roman governor. But wars between rival claimants continued. In 40 BC Antigonus seized the throne with the help of the Parthians from the east. Herod escaped and was appointed king by the Roman senate. With Roman help, he defeated Antigonus and took possession of the kingdom in 37 BC.

Herod the Great replaced the Hasmonean dynasty (his wife Mariamne was Hasmonean). “By religion he was a Jew, by race an Idumaean, by cultural sympathies a Greek, and by political allegiance a Roman” (D.S. Russell). Herod was “the king of the Jews” and a rex socius (a “confederate king”) of Rome, a client king directly under Caesar and the Roman senate (not under a provincial governor). He became famous for his building projects, especially for his reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem.


The spread of Greek culture and education under Alexander and his successors known as “Hellenization” provided both temptations and opportunities. On the one hand, the Jews were faced with the temptation to compromise with paganism. Some gave way to temptation while others remained faithful, although there were disagreements on the exact boundaries of faithfulness. On the other hand, the spread of the Greek language fostered international communication. The Old Testament was translated into Greek, the language of the nations, and some Gentiles became proselytes at synagogues throughout the world, from Rome to Alexandria to Babylon. The New Testament would be written in this international language, proclaiming the gospel to Jew and Gentile alike. 

By the time of Christ’s birth, the Roman Empire had been established and its government held sway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates River, over all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. On the one hand, this meant that Gentiles still held supreme power over the kingdom of the Jews. But the Romans had established the Pax Romana, a period of remarkable relative peace for 200 years beginning with the reign of Caesar Augustus. Rome had brought peace to lands that had been torn by warring rivals, not only Judea, but also Rome itself and most of the Mediterranean world. Rome and Herod also engaged in significant building projects, such as the Roman roads and the temple. Although the roads were built for the military and trade, they would also be used by apostles and evangelists of Christ.

The Jews had been prepared by various trials for the coming of the Christ. The prophecies and promises regarding the heir of David had been fostering messianic expectations for centuries. Astute readers of Daniel would have noted that they were living the in the days of the kings of the fourth kingdom, in which God would set up his kingdom through the Christ (Dan. 2, 7, 9). Belief in the resurrection of the dead had grown more clear and certain through reflection on Scripture and the trials of persecution. And even though there were various solutions offered, there was a general sense that Israel was being humbled for its sins and defilement and in need of deliverance. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Thy Will Be Done

Question 103: What do we pray for in the third petition?
Answer: In the third petition, which is, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven, we pray, that God, by his grace, would make us able and willing to know, obey, and submit to his will in all things, as the angels do in heaven. (WSC
Sometimes we use these words, “thy will be done” to say, “Let your eternal decree be fulfilled in history. I am content with your providential guidance of history, even when I don’t like it, for you love me and are wiser than I am.” This is a good prayer. Nevertheless, it is not the main point of this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, although contentment and submission to God are part of it.

“Your will,” in this passage, refers primarily to God’s law. It refers to his revealed will, contained in Scripture. It “being done” refers to obedience and submission. His revealed will is currently not being done on earth as it is in heaven. Much of earth is in rebellion against him. In heaven his will is perfectly obeyed by angels (Ps. 103:20-21). This prayer asks God to bring humanity on earth into the same conformity to his righteous will (Ps. 119:33-37).

We have rebelled and it is only through God’s grace that we can do his will. His grace gives us the ability to understand his revealed will. His grace renews our will so that we want to obey and submit to his will. More and more, God brings our thoughts and actions into conformity with his good will, and we look forward to the day in which this work will be complete in glory.

We desire obedience to his will, because God deserves obedience and we are zealous for our Father. We desire it because God’s will is good. If we love God’s character, we will want his will obeyed. We desire it because rebellion against God’s will is a source of disorder, judgement, and misery. We desire it for ourselves and we desire it for all the peoples of the earth, that earth may be as heaven.

As John Chrysostom, a noted preacher of the early church, said concerning this verse:
“He hath enjoined each one of us, who pray, to take upon himself the care of the whole world. For He did not say, ‘Thy will be done’ in me, or in us, but everywhere on the earth; so that error may be destroyed, and truth implanted, and all wickedness cast out, and virtue return, and no difference in this respect be henceforth between heaven and earth.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Thy Kingdom Come

Question 102: What do we pray for in the second petition?
Answer: In the second petition, which is, Thy kingdom come, we pray, that Satan's kingdom may be destroyed; and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced, ourselves and others brought into it, and kept in it; and that the kingdom of glory may be hastened. (WSC)
We pray that God’s kingdom would come. This coming is further explained by the phrase that concludes the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer, "on earth as it is in heaven." God's kingdom comes to earth from heaven. The Gospel of Matthew usually calls it the "kingdom of heaven" even while teaching that it comes to earth. When man sinned, earth revolted from heaven and joined Satan’s kingdom, but now the king has come and God is reasserting his reign on earth. 

When does God’s kingdom come? It came with Jesus’ coming, as he himself proclaimed (Matt. 4:17, Luke 11:20). It comes more and more throughout this age, as a tree grows and as leaven works in bread, not all at once (Matt. 13:31-33). It will come in its consummated state when Jesus returns and judges all men, glorifying his people and purifying and restoring creation (Matt. 13:36-43, 2 Peter 3:4-13).

The kingdom of God is administered by Jesus in his capacity as our mediator. It comes by his gospel and Spirit at work in the salvation of sinners (“the kingdom of grace”) and by his providence and judgment (“the kingdom of his power,” see WLC 191 below). Only by being born again by water and the Spirit can a person enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5). Within this kingdom there is peace and protection through Christ the king. The kingdom comes as the word is preached, as disciples are baptized and trained, as they obey the king willingly in all areas of life, and as Christ guides history for the sake of his church. The world is transformed by this process, as dough is transformed by leaven. As Calvin comments
"The substance of this prayer is, that God would enlighten the world by the light of his Word, — would form the hearts of men, by the influences of his Spirit, to obey his justice, and would restore to order, by the gracious exercise of his power, all the disorder that exists in the world." 
The visible church is the institutional expression of this kingdom in history (Matt. 13:47-50) and its officers bear the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:18-19, 18:17-20). The members of the visible church manifest the reign of Christ as they confess him as Lord and Savior and serve him in every sphere of human endeavor with “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). When he returns, the kingdom will be brought to perfection and glory (“the kingdom of glory”).

Here is the Westminster Larger Catechism’s version of this answer:
“In the second petition, (which is, Thy kingdom come,) acknowledging ourselves and all mankind to be by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan, we pray, that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in; the church furnished with all gospel-officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate: that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up of those that are already converted: that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.” (WLC, Q. 191)


Monday, November 14, 2022

Hallowed Be Thy Name

Question 101: What do we pray for in the first petition?
Answer: In the first petition, which is, Hallowed be thy name, we pray, that God would enable us, and others, to glorify him in all that whereby he maketh himself known; and that he would dispose all things to his own glory. (WSC)
To be hallowed is to be made or regarded as holy, set apart from what is common. God’s name is holy, and we pray that it would be honored and glorified as such. God’s name refers to his revelation of himself, including the names and titles applied to him in Scripture, and his reputation and fame. This request aims at the way people treat God’s good name and whether he is honored or despised. Rebellious man tears down God’s good name, slanders it, despises it, treats it lightly. But it ought to be reverenced and glorified - esteemed in your heart and publicly praised.

The prophet Malachi condemned the priests of his day for despising God’s name (Malachi 1). How did they despise God’s name? By despising his worship and offering blind and lame sacrifices not even worthy of a human ruler. In response God said that he would make his name great among the nations. He would cause the nations to fear his name, to honor him as a great king, and to offer pure worship fitting for such a king.

Our Father is worthy to be praised. It is right and fitting that we recount in our prayers the reasons why he is worthy of glory and reverence, as many of the Psalms do. We should meditate on his perfect attributes and his mighty works.

Our Father does not yet receive the praise due to him. We are unable of ourselves to glorify him, but are rebellious and seek our own glory and praise. The world ought to glorify God, but much of it despises and distorts his name. Part of our motivation for evangelism is a zeal for the glory that is due God’s name. But this is also a motivation for prayer.

Knowing the depravity of man, we pray that God would enable all his creation to glorify him and join in the worship of heaven. We desire and pray that God would enable ourselves to treat God as holy in our hearts, in our words of praise and witness, in our reception of his word, and in our lives, that they might be lived to the glory of God. Let us pray that God would vindicate his name, uphold his reputation, and bring all men to honor him as the true God. 

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Praying to Our Heavenly Father

Question 100: What doth the preface of the Lord's Prayer teach us?
Answer: The preface of the Lord's Prayer, which is, Our Father which art in heaven, teacheth us to draw near to God with all holy reverence and confidence, as children to a father, able and ready to help us; and that we should pray with and for others. (WSC)
In Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus taught his disciples to pray using a prayer commonly known as the Lord's Prayer. This prayer begins by addressing God, “Our Father, who is in heaven…” (6:9, NASB). These opening words remind us of several truths:
  • We should pray to God through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who gives us the right to be called children of God (John 1:12). We become children of God by grace. Jesus makes God our Father through regeneration and through adoption. We become children of God by union with the only-begotten Son of God. We know God as our Father and not as a hostile judge through faith in Christ.  
  • God is our Father, therefore we should give him reverence. We are commanded to honor our earthly fathers and mothers in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12). Honor and revere, then, your Father in heaven (Malachi 1:6). 
  • God is our Father, therefore we should come with confidence. He cares for his children. “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? ... If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:9–11)
  • God is our Father in heaven, therefore we should distinguish him from the faults of earthly fathers and remember that God is all-powerful, and therefore able to do what we ask. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
  • God is our Father, therefore we pray with brothers and sisters, children of the same Father. I do not just mean the people that you connect with - I mean the people that God has brought into his family, the church. If you love God, you will love his children (1 John 4:20-5:1). You should pray with God’s children, since Jesus envisions the disciples praying this together. You should pray for God’s children, since you make these requests for “us.” You should remember God’s children even when you “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt. 6:6). 

Friday, November 4, 2022

The Life of William Brewster

Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Walter Weir 

Birth and Early Years

William Brewster was born in c. 1566. This was twenty years after Martin Luther died, two years after John Calvin died, and six years before John Knox would die. The early stages of the Reformation was over, and now various nations were seeking to implement its implications in church and society. What had started as a debate about justification now was impacting liturgy, church government, and politics. 

William Brewster grew up in a family that was well connected to the times. His father, also named William Brewster, was the bailiff of Scrooby Manor, a manor that belonged to the archbishop of York. The estate included a manor-house surrounded by a moat, a chapel, bake-house, brew-house, gallery, barns and stables, farmland, and the archbishop’s offices. His father had also been appointed in the Queen’s service as the keeper of the post at Scrooby. This role as postmaster, though, did not consist of sorting mail. It consisted in the running of a tavern and inn and keeping a change of horses for official courtiers. The manor was on the Great North Road, going from London to Edinburgh. This manor was close to Sherwood forest, near Nottingham, and royalty still loved to hunt in those woods, just as in the days of Robin Hood.


The Brewster family was able to send their son to Peterhouse College at Cambridge University  in 1580 when he was about 14 years of age. At that time, Peterhouse College was designed to train clergy and “enlightened and competent statesmen and administrators.” Brewster was probably training to be a government official like his father. His time at Cambridge was important, for it was there that Brewster was “first seasoned with the seeds of grace and virtue” (Bradford). Cambridge University had fueled the English Reformation. Cambridge was the place where many reformers were trained and where many taught. The White Horse Inn, where men like Tyndale, Bilney, and Latimer had discussed theology, was in Cambridge. William Perkins, whose writings the Pilgrims prized, was also studying at Cambridge at this time. The Pilgrims' first four pastors, including John Robinson, were all trained at Cambridge. The Puritans prized learning, especially the study of Scripture. Here Brewster would learn Latin and some Greek, but his first application of this learning was not in the church, but in the colorful adventures of Sir William Davison. 

Political Service

Sir William Davison was Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth, and he took on William Brewster as an assistant. For three years, Brewster followed Davison in Scotland and Holland, assisting him in matters of greatest trust and secrecy. At the time, Brewster was in his late teens. At one point, Brewster was given the keys of a Dutch city that Davison had been given on behalf of the Queen. At another point, Davison gave Brewster a golden chain he had been given to wear as they rode through London. In the end, Davison was used as a scapegoat after the execution of Mary Stuart and was imprisoned for a time in the Tower of London. William Brewster assisted him during this time. Thus, it seems that Brewster was living in London when Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Life at Scrooby Manor

In 1589, at the age of 23, William Brewster was back in Scrooby, assisting his father in his role. The next year his father died, and Brewster become the new bailiff and master of the Queen’s post. The next year, he married Mary Wentworth, whose father had also been the bailiff at one point. And so at age 25, William Brewster had received a good education in the university and by experience in the world and he had a good position in a busy estate with good connections, serving as an official of the archbishop and the Queen. He and his wife would have several children in the years to come: Jonathan (b. 1593), Patience (b. 1600), Fear (b. 1606), Love (b. 1611), and Wrestling (b. 1614). It seemed like he was living the English version of the American dream. 

Yet, in 1606, things would change. The ideas of the Puritans which he had picked up at Cambridge continued to work in his mind. He likely heard of the struggles of his classmates, some of whom had sought to reform the church. A few of them had broken away from the church of England. Like many others in that day, he began to be dissatisfied with the low condition of religion and insufficient reforms in worship and church government. At first, he used his position to promote reformation on a local scale. He set a good example, exhorted his people, and promoted good preachers. But when some people in his region decided to break away and form a church of their own, he offered his manor as a meeting place and joined them. This would become the congregation of the Pilgrims.

This choice had enormous repercussions upon his career. He was soon fined for not attending the established church and he had to resign his position as postmaster. Soon, he was being called to court on the charge of "Brownisim," that is, separatism. Some of the more radical sort of Brownists had been executed for what was seen as subversive activity. Brewster did not stay to find out his end. He did not appear at court. It was soon evident that the congregation would be more free in Holland than in England.

Thus, in two years, William Brewster had gone from a prosperous official, operating a tavern and manor, to a refugee, fleeing with his family and a separatist congregation to Holland.

Life in Holland

Not only did Brewster join the separatist congregation, but he also became a ruling elder in that church after they arrived in Holland. While living in Leiden, he found a job teaching English to the university students in that town. In 1616, he and Thomas Brewer and Edward Winslow set up a publishing operation at Brewster's house. They published books that promoted the reform of the church and criticized the errors of the Church of England, books that were they to be smuggled into England. They also published two books by David Calderwood, a Scottish Presbyterian who criticized the Perth Assembly and King James' attempt to roll back Presbyterianism in Scotland. This caught the king's attention, and Brewster had to lay low for a while to escape the king's men. 

Mayflower, Plymouth Colony

When the congregation began to consider leaving Holland and beginning a colony in North America, William Brewster spoke in favor of the idea. He began to assist with the negotiations with the officials in London, but then as he sought to avoid arrest, he handed over these duties to others. When the Pilgrims finally left on the Mayflower in 1620, William Brewster was 54 years old. During the first winter in Plymouth, he served both the religious and physical needs of the settlers. As William Bradford recounts, 
“And of these in the time of most distress, there was but 6 or 7 sound persons, who, to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beads, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them; in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, shewing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren. A rare example and worthy to be remembered. Two of these 7 were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Myles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom my self, and many others, were much beholden in our low and sick condition.”
Elder Brewster

Since their pastor, John Robinson, remained with part of the congregation in Holland, William Brewster was the only church officer in Plymouth from 1620 until they successfully called a pastor in 1629. He continued to serve as a ruling elder until his death, and remained a rock of stability when the first couple pastors did not stay long and various controversies arose in the church. William Bradford said of Elder Brewster's ministry, 
“he would labour with his hands in the fields as long as he was able; yet when the church had no other minister, he taught twice every Sabbath, and that both powerfully and profitably, to the great contentment of the hearers, and their comfortable edification; yea, many were brought to God by his ministry. He did more in this behalf in a year, than many that have their hundreds a year do in all their lives.”
Bradford praised Elder Brewster's leadership in teaching, prayer, and church government. 
“In teaching, he was very moving and stirring of affections, also very plain and distinct in what he taught; by which means he became the more profitable to the hearers. He had a singular good gift in prayer, both public and private, in ripping up the hart and conscience before God, in the humble confession of sin, and begging the mercies of God in Christ for the pardon of the same. He always thought it were better for ministers to pray oftener, and divide their prayers, then be long and tedious in the same (excepts upon solemn and special occasions, as in days of humiliation and the like). His reason was, that the hearts and spirits of all, especially the weak, could hardly continue and stand bent (as it were) so long towards God, as they ought to doe in that duty, without flagging and falling of. For the government of the church, (which was most proper to his office,) he was carful to preserve good order in the same, and to preserve purity, both in the doctrine and communion of the same; and to suppress any error or contention that might begin to rise up amongst them; and accordingly God gave good success to his endeavors herein all his days, and he saw the fruit of his labors in that behalf.”

William Brewster established a farm in nearby Duxbury in 1632, and his son Love would acquire a farm next door a few years later. William Brewster died peacefully in 1644, nearly 80 years of old. Included among his belongings were a violet coat, black silk stockings, a doublet, caps, pistol, rapier, and a tobacco case. He also had over 400 books, inventoried here, including books by Luther, Calvin, Beza, Erasmus, Thomas Cartwright, William Perkins, Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, as well as books on geography, silkworms, and medicine (62 of the books were in Latin and 302 of them were in English).  

William Brewster sacrificed much over the years and held fast to his principles. Though he had moved in influential circles, he was not haughty, but associated with the lowly. He served faithfully as an elder, shepherding his people amid many and various difficulties. As his younger contemporary recounted, William Brewster was
“a man that had done and suffered much for the Lord Jesus and the gospels sake, and had bore his part in well and woe with this poor persecuted church above 36 years in England, Holland, and in this wilderness, and done the Lord and them faithful service in his place and calling. And notwithstanding the many troubles and sorrows he passed throw, the Lord upheld him to a great age” (Bradford). 

Thursday, November 3, 2022

How Shall We Pray?

Question 99: What rule hath God given for our direction in prayer?
Answer: The whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer; but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called The Lord’s Prayer. (WSC)
All of God’s word helps us to pray rightly. Prayer is a response of faith to God’s word. It is useful when reading Scripture to pray in response to it. When it gives commands, ask for forgiveness for breaking them and ask for grace and wisdom to obey them. When it gives promises, express faith in them and beseech God to fulfill them. When it describes God’s attributes and works, praise and thank him for them and appeal to them. The book of Psalms and the various prayers recorded elsewhere in Scripture are especially helpful in teaching us how to pray.

In particular, Jesus taught his disciples how to pray using what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Observing his commands on how to pray is part of our discipleship. Jesus teaches us to pray this prayer, with understanding and faith, as well as to use it as a model for our prayers (Matt. 6:9, Luke 11:2).

By teaching you how to pray, Jesus also directs your desires and gives you your priorities. Because of our depravity, our priorities are messed up and our desires are confused and corrupt. But as a good teacher, Jesus shows you what is important and what you should desire. Prayer is an offering up of our desires to God, and so if we ought to offer up these requests, then these requests ought to be our desires. And through prayer, these desires are deepened.

In this prayer, Jesus also shows you what to expect. He teaches you that these are not vain wishes. You will not receive them all at once, but they will come to pass for his disciples. These things are God’s will which he will accomplish in response to the prayers of his people. So in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches you how to pray, what is important, and what to expect by faith.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

The Reformation in England and Scotland

Master Latimer, preaching before King Edward the sixth
Like my last post, this comes from my notes for a Sunday school class I taught last year on the history of the Reformation. You can listen to the two-part series at this link

Early Martyrs in Scotland

Patrick Hamilton (1504-1528) was a young professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. George Wishart (1513-1546) was a teacher at Montrose and Cambridge who then preached throughout Scotland for a few years. Both of them were burnt at the stake at St. Andrews. 

Reform in England during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI (1520s-1553): 

Henry VIII reigned in England from 1509 to 1547. He remained largely Romanist in his doctrine, but he broke with the pope in 1534 and allowed Protestantism to spread in fits and starts. His last queen, Katherine Parr, was a devout Protestant. His children were Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, and Edward VI. 

William Tyndale was a teacher at Cambridge and an English reformer during the reign of Henry VIII. After translating much of the Bible into English while living abroad, he was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1536. 

Hugh Latimer was one of several reformers who met at the University of Cambridge. Latimer rose and fell several times under Henry VIII. Under Edward VI, Latimer was a popular and powerful preacher.

Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, supported Henry VIII’s break with Rome and was the primary author of the Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552) and the 42 Articles (1553).

Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli came from Strasbourg to teach at Cambridge and Oxford and to assist with the reform under Edward VI. Vermigli had the more difficult task at Oxford. Bucer wrote On the Kingdom of Christ to encourage the Reformation in England.

John Knox was a Scottish priest, notary, and tutor who served as George Wishart’s bodyguard for a time. When Protestants gathered in St. Andrews castle, he was called to be a preacher. After being a prisoner on a French galley, became a preacher in England and a chaplain to Edward VI.

Marian persecutions and exile (1553-1558)

In the reign of Mary Tudor, a number of leading Protestants were executed. When Latimer and Ridley were burned, Latimer called out, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Thomas Cranmer was also burned at the stake. Many fled, especially reform-minded clergy, theological students, and gentry. About 800 exiles from England regrouped in Holland, Germany, and Switzerland. About 233 lived in Geneva, while others went to cities like Zurich, Frankfort, and Strasbourg. 

Reformed churches (re)established (1558-1580)

England - The Anglican Church

When Mary Tudor died, Elizabeth I came to the throne in England and reestablished Protestantism in 1558-1559. She reigned until 1603.

The Marian exiles brought back an agenda for reform in England and Scotland informed by Reformed teaching and models in Europe. The exile church in Geneva came back to Britain with the Geneva Bible, an English Psalter, and Calvinist orders for worship and church government. But Elizabeth retained the Book of Common Prayer and government by bishops. Tensions within the exile community concerning worship and church government would produce the Puritan movement, which sought further reformation of the English church from within the church. Despite not going as far as some wanted, most of the Anglican bishops appointed by Elizabeth were returning exiles from Zurich, influenced by Heinrich Bullinger and Peter Martyr Vermigli. Under Elizabeth and James I, the Church of England would be Calvinist in theology and episcopalian in government. 

Important documents for the English Church would include the Book of Common Prayer (1559), the 39 Articles (1571), the Book of Homilies (1571), Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), and the Geneva Bible (1560). 

Scotland - The Kirk of Scotland

The Genevan model of worship and government found a better reception in Scotland. After a few visits, John Knox returned permanently in 1559. In 1560 Scotland adopted the Scots Confession of Faith, written by John Knox and five other men named John. The Book of Discipline (1560) defined the kirk’s presbyterian government (this was expanded in a second book in 1578) and The Book of Order (1556) brought the Genevan liturgy to Scotland.

John Knox and the “Lords of the Congregation” overcame opposition to reform from Regent Mary of Guise and her daughter Queen Mary Stuart. In both cases, this struggle eventually led to fighting, with Catholic France and Protestant England in the background. After Mary Stuart was forced to abdicate, the regents for young James VI (later James I of England) gave time for Presbyterianism to grow strong. John Knox died in 1572, about 59 years old. The King's Confession, which became the core of the Scottish National Covenant, was signed in 1580.
“Yea, whatever shall become of us and of our mortal carcases, I doubt not but that this cause, in despite of Satan, shall prevail in the realm of Scotland. For, as it is the eternal truth of the eternal God, so shall it once prevail, howsoever for a time it be impugned.” 
- John Knox (1559)

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

The Reformation in Germany and Switzerland

Luther at the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner (1877)
Here are two timelines I put together for a Sunday school class I taught last year on the history of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland. You can listen to the lesson at this link

The Reformation in Germany

1511 - Martin Luther arrives in Wittenberg after a visit to Rome the previous year.

1512 - Luther receives his doctorate and joins the faculty at the university in Wittenberg

1513-1517 - Luther studies and lectures on the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians.

October 31, 1517 - Luther publishes his 95 theses concerning indulgences.

1518 - The Heidelberg Disputation; Luther defends his ideas before the Augustinian order and university student Martin Bucer meets Luther.

1519 - The Disputation of Leipzig; 22-year-old Philip Melanchthon assists his fellow professors Luther and Karlstadt in their debate with Johann Eck.

1520 - Luther writes four short books: On the Papacy of Rome, The Address to the German Nobility, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of the Christian Man. In December, Luther burns the Papal bull that threatened him with excommunication if he did not recant 41 statements. He is excommunicated by the Pope the next month.

1521 - The Imperial Diet of Worms; Luther refuses to recant before the emperor, Charles V. After he leaves he is declared an outlaw but is saved by Elector Frederick and kept safe for a time in Wartburg Castle. There Luther translates the New Testament (the Old Testament would be completed in 1534). In the same year, 24-year-old Philip Melanchthon writes the first Protestant systematic theology, Loci communes.

1525 - Martin Luther marries Katharina von Bora.

1526 - At the Diet of Speyer, local princes are permitted to decide religious issues. This is allowed to gain political unity in the Holy Roman Empire amid a war with France and the Pope. This gives opportunity for Protestant reforms.

1529 - Following the emperor’s sack of Rome, an attempt is made to nullify the earlier agreement. Five princes protest this attempt, earning the name “Protestants.”

1530 - The Protestants present their confession of faith, written by Melanchthon with Luther’s approval, to the emperor at the Diet of Augsburg. Protestant princes form the Schmalkald league for defense. But pressure from the Turks force the emperor to tolerate Protestants to maintain political unity. Protestantism also spreads to Scandinavia during this time.

1540-1541 - The Colloquy of Regensburg; Roman Catholics (led by Cardinal Contarini and Johann Gropper) and Protestants (led by Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon) dialogue and seek agreement, but fail to reach agreement on transubstantiation and papal authority.

1546 - Martin Luther dies in February. In June, the emperor launches the Schmalkald War to subdue the Protestants.

1555 - A treaty is made, the Peace of Augsburg, which allows each territorial prince to decide whether the territory would be Lutheran or Roman Catholic.

The Reformation in Switzerland

1516 - Ulrich Zwingli, a parish priest, influenced by Erasmus and the study of Scripture, begins preaching through the books of the New Testament. He also begins criticizing the use of Swiss Mercenaries in foreign wars after serving as a chaplain to them.

1519 - Zwingli becomes the preacher at the Grossmunster in Zurich. Plague hits the town and he stays to minister to the people and becomes sick himself, earning the trust of the people.

1522 - Zwingli defends members of his congregation who participated in the “sausage affair” (eating meat during Lent).

1523-1525 - Through preaching and public disputations, Zwingli persuades the people and city council to embrace Protestant teachings. The city abolishes the mass in 1525. He also debates the first Anabaptists (doctrinal and political radicals) and persuades the city to reject them as well.

1529 - The Colloquy of Marburg; the reformers in Germany and Switzerland attempt to unite. They reach agreement on fourteen and a half articles, but failed to reach sufficient agreement on the fifteenth article concerning Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. Thus two branches of Protestantism would develop, Lutheran (e.g. Luther and Melanchthon) and Reformed (e.g. Zwingli and Bucer).

1531 - Zwingli dies in battle as Catholic Swiss attack Zurich after Zurich sought to pressure them to allow Protestant preachers in their cantons. A treaty is signed allowing each canton to decide for itself. 27-year-old Heinrich Bullinger succeeds Zwingli as the leading preacher in Zurich and goes on to serve in that capacity for over forty years.

1535 - William Farel persuades the independent city of Geneva to abolish the mass and embrace Protestantism.

1536 - 26-year-old John Calvin publishes the first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Later that year, while traveling from France to Strasbourg, Calvin is forcefully persuaded by Farel to stay in Geneva and minister there.

1538-1541 - Calvin spends time with Martin Bucer ministering in Strasbourg after being banished by the city council of Geneva, before being invited back to Geneva after his reply to Cardinal Sadoleto.

1542 - Peter Martyr Vermigli is forced to flee Italy after attempting reform there and takes up a teaching post with Martin Bucer in Strasbourg.

1541-1564 - Calvin leads the reformation of Geneva, turning it into a refuge for Protestant refugees, a center of learning, and a model for the reformation of church and city. Preachers trained in Geneva are sent throughout Europe and even to Brazil. The final edition of the Institutes is published in 1559. Calvin dies at the age of 54.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

What is Prayer?

Question 98: What is prayer?
Answer: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies. (WSC)
Prayer, like the word of God and the sacraments, is an outward and ordinary means by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of his redemption. Prayer is a means ordained by God though which and in response to which he blesses his people. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). God himself exhorts and invites people to call upon him (Is. 55:6, Ps. 50:14-15). We pray as a response to his word.

Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God. We are taught to “pour out your heart before him” (Ps. 62:8). In prayer, we make our requests known to God and we make a case for them, appealing to his character and promises, describing our situation and desires. The prayers of Scripture are sometimes bare requests (e.g. Luke 18:13), while other times they include arguments, appeals, and descriptions that support their requests (e.g. Gen. 32:9-12, 2 Chron. 20:5-12, Ps. 143).

We ought to offer up desires for things agreeable to his will and not for things unlawful. Sinful desires ought to be confessed to him with sorrow (see below), while lawful desires ought to be offered to him. We should especially seek the good things God has promised, knowing that prayer is a means by which he grants them. As Thomas Watson put it, “The tree of promise will not drop its fruit unless shaken by the hand of prayer.”

Prayer is to be offered in the name of Christ. That is, we should offer our prayers through his mediation, coming to God through Christ. No sinner can have access to God without a mediator, and there is but one mediator, Jesus Christ. Through faith in him, we gain confidence to approach God for help. We ask for mercy for Christ’s sake, “not by bare mentioning of his name, but by drawing our encouragement to pray, and our boldness, strength, and hope of acceptance in prayer, from Christ and his mediation” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 180).

And prayer does not only consist in offering up our desires, but also in confessing our sins and giving thanks for his mercies (Dan. 9:1-19, Phil. 4:6). We confess our sins and admit our guilt, express our grief and hatred of sin, and seek his forgiveness and renewing grace. We also give thanks to him and praise him for his excellencies and blessings, expressing our faith, awe, love, and hope.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Partaking of the Lord's Supper in a Worthy Manner

Question 97: What is required for the worthy receiving of the Lord's Supper?
Answer: It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord's Supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord's body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves. (WCF)
In this supper, Jesus holds out his hand to us. He testifies to his death, his promise, and our blessings and obligations as his people. But in this supper we also reach out and take his hand. We take and eat and drink. By receiving the bread and wine, we claim Christ's redemptive death on our behalf, expressing our faith in him. By partaking, we testify and renew our thankfulness, our engagement to God, and our mutual love and fellowship with each other, as members of the same body.

It is important to approach the Supper with this intent. To do otherwise is to partake in an unworthy manner, bringing judgment upon oneself (1 Cor. 11:27-31). We must not treat holy things with contempt. We must not, as it were, cross our fingers behind our back while shaking hands with God. Instead, we should examine ourselves and consider the meaning of the Supper as we approach it. The Lord’s Supper is for those who are resting upon Christ for salvation, repenting of their sins, and seeking after godliness. Examine, therefore, your knowledge of Christ, faith in him, repentance, love, and new obedience. Then receive the bread and wine with this knowledge and faith, remembering Christ’s death, feeding upon him by faith, giving thanks for his grace, and renewing your covenant with God and love for the saints.

In addition, not only do we have a responsibility to partake in a worthy manner, but the church also has a duty to guard the holy things (1 Cor. 5, Matt. 7:6, 16:19, 18:15-18). Thus, the Lord’s Supper is given to those who have been baptized, have publicly professed faith in Christ, and are members in good standing of a faithful Christian church.

At the same time, all of this does not mean we must wait until we feel worthy of Jesus, as if we must be free from sin to partake. He came to save sinners and in this sacrament promises remission of sins to those who believe in him. This sacrament is meant to increase the assurance, faith, and spiritual vitality of believers. It reminds us that Jesus is our strength, apart from him we can do nothing, and it is through him that we have peace with God. “So come to Jesus and find rest, refreshing, and nourishment for your weak and weary soul” (OPC BCO). 

Saturday, October 8, 2022

What Is the Lord's Supper?

Question 96: What is the Lord's Supper?
Answer: The Lord's Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ's appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace. (WSC)
The Lord’s Supper was instituted by the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed, to be observed by his church until he comes again. In this supper, his sacrifice of himself is not repeated or offered again to God (Heb. 10:14), but his death is showed forth and proclaimed to us (1 Cor. 11:26). Christ crucified is portrayed and presented to believers in the gospel and in the sacrament, the bread and wine being symbols of his body and blood. We partake of the Lord's Supper in remembrance of the Lord Jesus and his once-for-all sacrifice of himself on the cross. And we do not merely remember that he died, but that he died for us. For this supper is a sign and seal of his promise to believers that this body and blood was given for them and the remission of their sins (Matt. 26:28). This sacrament is a seal of the covenant of grace in the way that people shake hands to confirm a deal. The physical act confirms the words spoken.

As we respond to this sign and seal with faith, it works as a means of grace by which Christ feeds us with himself. In this supper, he invites us to take and eat and drink of his body and blood. The apostle Paul calls this bread and wine a communion (or “participation”) in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). It is akin, he says, to the sacrificial meals of the Old Testament, in which those who ate of the sacrifice were participants in the sacrifice (1 Cor. 10:18). The sacrifice on the cross happened long ago, but we continue to feed on it and draw strength from it today. As 1 Corinthians 5:7 says, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” The lamb was slain long ago. Yet 1 Corinthians 5:8 goes on to exhort believers: “Therefore let us keep the feast.” We continue to feed on the Lamb that was slain, participating in the benefits of his death. And in our case the Lamb is risen and alive and we abide in him (John 6:56), like branches in a vine (John 15:1-7). This sacrament is one means by which he gives himself to us, bringing us life from heaven.

While we do feed on Christ in this supper, we do not do so with our teeth and stomach. Jesus did not say that the bread and wine become his body and blood, or that his body and blood is inclosed in the bread and wine. His body remains a human body even when glorified, visible and limited to one place. His body is in heaven. Nevertheless, Christ’s words of institution do indicate that his body and blood is truly offered to believers in this supper. Those who outwardly partake of the visible elements in a worthy manner do inwardly by faith receive and feed upon Christ’s body and blood, receiving life and strength from him. This is done by the Spirit, who makes us living members of Christ’s body and conveys to us all the benefits of his death (1 Cor. 12:12-13, John 6:63).

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

To Whom is Baptism to be Administered?

Question 95: To whom is Baptism to be administered?
Answer: Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized. (WSC)
Baptism is a sign and seal of our ingrafting into Christ, our partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s. Who then ought to be baptized?

At first we might be tempted to say that the regenerate should be baptized. But we cannot look into the heart and see the new birth directly. The question then is, whom does Scripture tell us should be welcomed as members of the covenant? Who are the members of the visible church? The visible church is a society made up of those who profess faith and obedience to Christ, and of their children. The baptism of infants was not contested for much of church history, but it is contested in our day, so consider these points:

1. Since God makes his covenant of grace with believers and their children, welcoming believers and their children into his church, therefore believers and their children ought to be baptized (Gen. 17:7, Acts 2:39, 16:31-34). The New Testament does not teach that the new covenant takes a different approach to children, but rather demonstrates continuity with the Old Testament on this matter.

2. Since in the Old Testament the sign of entrance into the covenant (circumcision) was given to believers and their children, so in the New Testament, the sign of entrance into the covenant (baptism) ought to be given to believers and their children (Gen. 17:1-14, Col. 2:11-12).

3. Just as circumcision was a sign of benefits which were received by faith and was nevertheless applied to the infants of believers before they could express their faith (Rom. 4:11), so baptism is a sign of benefits which are received by faith and is nevertheless applied to the infants of believers before they can express their faith.

4. Since baptism is our initiation as disciples of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 28:18-20), and the children of believers are disciples of the Lord Jesus, to be raised by their parents as such (Eph. 6:1-4, Matt. 19:13-15), therefore we should baptize the children of believers.

What does baptism mean for the infants of believers? It means the same thing as it does for adult believers. They bear the name of God, they have been called out of the world, they are disciples of Christ, his benefits are theirs, and they are his, provided they keep the covenant through faith in him. It means they are visible saints, having the identity of Christians rather than pagans, to be treated as such, with hope and charity, as brothers and sisters.

Baptism is not a guarantee of salvation if it is without true faith. We have the examples of the circumcised and “baptized” Israelites in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-14) and the baptism of Simon the magician (Acts 8:9-24). And so parents ought to be diligent in bringing up their children in the ways of the Lord, knowing that God uses the instrumentality of parents to raise up another generation to serve him (Gen. 18:19, Eph. 6:4). And all the church, of whatever age, ought to be exhorted to repent and believe in Christ, living in accord with their baptism and embracing its promises.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Symbolism of Baptism

Question 94: What is Baptism?
Answer: Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s. (WSC)

Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the new covenant. It is the sacrament of initiation. Baptism ratifies one’s identity as a disciple of Christ. It is like the membership card of the church. It symbolizes and confirms the benefits you have by faith as a disciple of Jesus, and it also obligates you to live as his disciple. 

It is essential that the minister baptizes with water and that he does so in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism requires the use of water, but not a certain amount of water. Baptism is legitimate whether it done by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring, although sprinkling and pouring are especially appropriate (Is. 44:3, 52:15, Ezek. 36:25-27, 39:29, Acts 2:17-18, Heb. 9:19-22, 10:22). The essential thing is washing with water.

Jesus speaks of baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 28:19. Earlier, in chapter 3, Matthew had recounted the baptism of Jesus himself. When Jesus was baptized, the Father reaffirmed his identity as his Son and the Spirit descended upon him. For us, baptism is a sign and seal of our ingrafting into Christ (Rom. 6:3-5), who brings us to the Father and pours out upon us the Spirit. Baptism symbolizes our union with the Son, adoption by the Father, and sanctification by the Holy Spirit. Through our union with Christ we partake of the benefits of the covenant of grace (Gal. 3:27-29). The washing of baptism thus symbolizes the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16) and the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5). It makes visible the transition from the world into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). It also signifies and seals our covenant obligation to the Lord, to live as his holy people in newness of life (Rom. 6:4, 13). Baptism is thus designed to strengthen, direct, and distinguish you for the rest of your life, summoning you to faith in the promises it symbolizes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

What Is a Sacrament?

Question 92: What is a sacrament?
Answer: A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.

Question 93: Which are the sacraments of the New Testament?
Answer: The sacraments of the New Testament are, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper. (WSC)
The medieval church had developed a list of seven sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Marriage, and Ordination. The Reformers saw that not only had these seven practices been distorted by error, but also that they had been improperly grouped together as sacraments. For example, while marriage is a divine ordinance, marriage is unlike Baptism and the Lord’s Supper because marriage is a creation ordinance that is common to all humanity. And while marriage is an earthly analogy of Christ and the church, it is not a sensible sign of invisible grace in the way Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are.

A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ for his church in his capacity as our Redeemer. Not only that, but a sacrament is an ordinance with two parts: a sensible sign and spiritual grace. There are other ordinances appointed for the church, such as the reading and preaching of the word, but sacraments are those ordinances instituted by Christ in which sensible signs represent, seal, and apply Christ to believers.

The sacraments of the New Testament are two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The old covenant had sacraments as well, which also pointed to Christ and built up the faith of believers in those days (1 Cor. 10:1-4, Rom. 4:11, Heb. 8-10). But with the coming of Christ, new sacraments were instituted by him as part of the clearer and more powerful new covenant administration (Matt. 26:26-29, 28:18-20).

In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Christ and the benefits of the new covenant are represented, sealed, and applied to believers by sensible signs, i.e. water, bread, and wine (Gal. 3:27, Acts 22:16, 1 Cor. 10:16-17, 11:23-26). They represent Christ and these benefits to us. They seal and confirm them to us, assuring us of our share in them, as a handshake or wedding ring seals a promise. They apply them to us, truly offering us what they symbolize, that we might participate in them by faith.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Efficacy of the Sacraments

Question 91: How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
Answer: The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them. (WSC)
The word of God is not the only means by which the benefits of Christ’s redemption are applied to us. Christ has also appointed the sacraments to build us up in his saving grace. The sacraments must not be separated from the word, but are signs and seals that symbolize and confirm God’s word to God’s people.

The sacraments do not become effectual from any virtue (i.e. power) in them. They do not work automatically or by the work itself. Not all who are baptized or who take the Lord’s Supper are saved. Simon Magnus was baptized but proved himself to be in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity (Acts 8:12-24). Paul warns Christians with the example of the Israelites in the wilderness who partook of the equivalents of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and yet perished for their apostasy (1 Cor. 10:1-6). Some people partake of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner and are disciplined by God for it (1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Nor do the sacraments become effectual from any virtue in the one who administers them. As Paul wrote, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). While the godliness of a minister is important, it does not give the word and sacraments their saving power. They can be effectual even if they are administered by hypocrites (Phil. 1:15-18). If the minister who baptized you later proves to be an unbeliever, this does not make your baptism invalid.

Instead, the sacraments become effectual means of salvation only by the blessing of Christ and the working of his Spirit in those who receive them by faith (Matt. 3:11). Men may plant and water, but God gives the increase. When Jesus sent out his church to disciple the nations by word and sacrament, he also promised to be with them, making his ordinances effectual, for it is Jesus who disciples his people by these means (Matt. 28:18-20). He fulfills the promises that are sealed by these sacraments. He makes baptism effectual, washing and incorporating his people into his body by his Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13, Titus 3:5). He makes the Lord’s Supper effectual, feeding his people with his flesh and blood by his Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13, John 6:53-63).

These truths help keep us from idolizing the symbols and resting in mere formality, idolizing particularly gifted ministers, or placing our trust in man, but direct us through the sacraments to Jesus Christ himself, that we might rest upon him for salvation.

Friday, September 2, 2022

How to Read and Listen to God's Word

Question 90: How is the Word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?
Answer: That the Word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives. (WSC)
If you want to benefit from the word of God, you should read and listen to it in a devout manner. The church described in Acts 2 set a good example when they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). We have been given the word of God, and “you will do well to pay attention [to it] as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). Diligence and teachableness is essential to profiting from its instruction. As the book of Proverbs teaches, life-giving knowledge and wisdom comes to those who fear the Lord and eagerly seek and call out for knowledge and wisdom from him (Prov. 2, 4, 9:7-12). Psalm 119 is an extended meditation on the surpassing worth of God’s word, the believer’s devotion to that word, and his prayer to be instructed and guided by that word.
“I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you … Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law … I open my mouth and pant, because I long for your commandments … Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.” (Ps. 119:11, 18, 131, 135)
To attend to the word with diligence refers to consistently reading and listening to the word, diligently observing what it means. Preparation refers to putting yourself in a teachable frame of mind, turning away from rebellion, and remembering whose word this is that you are receiving. The prayer we should pray is that God would give us a true understanding of his word and bring it to us, not only in word, “but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5).

Hebrews 4:2 tells us that the gospel did not benefit the generation that died in the wilderness because they did not receive the word with faith. 2 Thessalonians 2:10 says of those who are perishing, “that they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” Therefore, we should seek to receive the word with faith and love, that we might benefit from it. The Westminster Confession of Faith has an excellent summary of what it means to receive the word with faith,
“By this faith a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come.” (WCF 14.2)
Out of faith and love, a person will lay up God’s word in his heart and practice it in his life. And likewise, this faith and love is further supported and strengthened as we keep God’s word on our heart, in our mouths, and before our eyes as we go about our lives (Deut. 6:4-7).

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The Power of God's Word

Question 89: How is the word made effectual to salvation?
Answer: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation. (WSC)
The Holy Scriptures are the word of God, and they “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). God has appointed that his word be read (both publicly and privately) and preached. The apostle told Timothy to devote himself to “the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13) because if he kept a close watch on himself and on the teaching, he would save both himself and his hearers (1 Tim. 4:16).

The Spirit of God is the one who delivered the word of God to us, producing Scripture by working through its authors (2 Tim. 3:16, 1 Peter 1:10-12, 2 Peter 1:20-21, 1 Cor. 2:13). The Spirit of God is also the one who makes the word effectual to salvation. The natural person is not able to understand the word of God, but the spiritual person - the one who has received the Spirit of God - is able to understand it (1 Cor. 2:11-14). While men may “plant” and “water” by preaching, yet it is God who gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6-7).

The Spirit uses the reading and preaching of the word to convince and convert sinners. It is the instrument he uses to bring sinners from darkness to light, from death to life. The word of God, when the Spirit makes it effective, is like the voice by which Jesus called Lazarus to life, or the word by which God created light on the first day. It is through the word that the Spirit convicts the sinner of his sin, convinces him of his misery and danger, enlightens him in the knowledge of Christ, and persuades and enables him to embrace Christ. It is the ordinary means by which the Spirit produces faith and repentance in sinners (Rom. 10:17, Acts 26:18, 1 Peter 1:23-25).

The Spirit also uses the reading and preaching of the word to build up in holiness and comfort those who have been converted. Those who have been born again by the word ought to long for the word, as infants long for milk, that by it they may grow up into salvation (1 Peter 2:2). Christ gave the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers not only for the gathering of the elect, but also for the perfecting of the saints (Eph. 4:12, Col. 1:28, 2 Tim. 3:16). The word of God shows us the way of holiness and motivates us to walk in it. The word of God is also the means by which the Spirit - the Comforter - comforts and strengthens us, giving us hope and confidence (Rom. 15:4, John 14:26).

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The Ordinances of the Lord

Question 88: What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
Answer: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation. (WSC)
We saw in questions 29-31 that we are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ by the internal work of the Spirit, who applies it to us by working faith in us and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling. Question 88 points out that Christ ordinarily uses outward means to give us the benefits of redemption (Rom. 10:14-17, 1 Tim. 4:15-16). He uses these outward means to convert us and to continually supply us with the benefits of redemption. Sometimes we refer to these outward and ordinary means as “the means of grace.”

To use the word “ordinary” is to note that there may be exceptions, such as with elect infants who die in infancy and are nevertheless regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases (John 3:8). The catechism also notes that these means do not work automatically, but that God makes them effectual to the elect for salvation. But with respect to our responsibility, we should seek Christ and his benefits by a right use of the ordinary means appointed by him.

The outward and ordinary means are “his ordinances.” As Thomas Vincent (1634-1678) explains,
“By the ordinances of the Lord are meant those means of grace and salvation which are of the Lord’s institution, which he hath appointed and commanded in his Word, and no other … We ought not to make use of any ordinances which are of men’s appointment only, in order unto salvation, because this is will-worship, which is both vain and offensive; and we cannot groundedly expect the blessing of the Lord upon, or to receive any true benefit of any ordinances, but by those alone which are of his own appointment only.”
The chief ordinances of Christ are the word of God, the sacraments, and prayer (Matt. 6:5-13, 26:26-29, 28:18-20). Acts 2:41-42, 47 describes how these ordinances were diligently observed by the apostolic church, and how God made them effectual to the elect for salvation. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

Monday, August 1, 2022

Repentance unto Life

Question 87: What is repentance unto life?
Answer: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience. (WSC)
Repentance ought to be preached as part of the gospel proclamation (Luke 24:47). “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). Along with faith, repentance ought to be our response to the gospel of Christ. While our repentance does not earn salvation or pardon, yet the promise of the gospel is often conditioned on repentance (Luke 13:3, 5, Acts 2:38). “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out…” (Acts 3:19). The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it well when it says, “Although repentance be not to be rested in as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet is it of such necessity to all sinners that none may expect pardon without it” (WCF 15.3).

Repentance begins with a true sense of your sin and an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ. Hinderances to repentance include the deceptiveness of sin, the willful blindness of a sinful heart, an ignorance of the gospel, as well as doubt and despair. If you do not think you are a sinner, there is little reason to repent. Likewise, if there is no mercy for repentant sinners, then there is little reason to repent. And so Scripture exhorts people to repent by revealing the truth about their sin and God’s mercy in Christ (Acts 2:36-38).

With this knowledge, a repentant person grieves for his sin and hates his sin, and therefore turns from it unto God (2 Cor. 7:10-11, Ezek. 36:31, Joel 2:12-13). This involves confessing our sins, praying for God’s mercy and pardon. It involves repudiating the ways of sin which we formerly practiced and devoting ourselves to the Lord. It involves seeking to give restitution and to repair the damage caused by our sins when possible, with full purpose of new obedience to God. Those who truly repent will sincerely endeavor to obey the commandments of God, being exhorted to live in a manner consistent with their repentance. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8, see also 3:10-14). “... that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20).

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Saving Faith

Question 86: What is faith in Jesus Christ?
Answer: Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel. (WSC)
Saving faith is faith in Jesus Christ. It is not a mere sense of dependance or optimism. The object of our faith matters greatly. Those who place their faith in false gods, money, or themselves will be disappointed and put to shame. Those who believe in Jesus Christ shall be saved (Acts 16:31).

Saving faith is not always equal in relative strength - it may be weak or strong, small or great. We pray that God would increase our faith (Mark 9:24). But whether weak or strong, this faith is equally precious in its nature, object, and saving efficacy, giving an equal share in Christ and his promises (2 Peter 1:1). In this respect, the weakest believer can take heart that he or she has a faith of equal standing to that of the apostles, a precious faith of great worth - not because of its virtue, but because of its object: Jesus Christ and his promises.

Saving faith is not a mere awareness of Christ and his claims about himself. Nor is it merely assenting to the truth of his claims. The demons recognized that Jesus was the Son of God, and yet they remained his enemies. Saving faith is not only knowledge and assent, but also trust. A believer not only recognizes that Jesus is the Savior, but owns Jesus as his Savior and entrusts himself to Jesus (John 1:12, Acts 10:43, Matt. 10:32).

Saving faith does not take hold of some invention of the imagination, but it takes hold of Jesus as he is offered to us in the gospel, as God presents him to us. In the Old Testament, God presented this Savior to his people by promises, sacrifices, and other types and ceremonies. In the New Testament, the Christ who has come is offered in the gospel and the new covenant sacraments with greater clarity and efficacy to all nations. But in both administrations, sinners have been saved by faith in Christ, by whom they have had full remission of sins and eternal salvation.
“Accordingly, faith is nothing else than trust in the divine mercy promised in Christ, and it makes no difference with what sign it has been promised. This trust in the goodwill or mercy of God first calms our hearts and then inflames us to give thanks to God for his mercy so that we keep the law gladly and willingly.” (Philip Melanchthon, Loci Communes, 1521)

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Problem and the Solution

Q. 84: What doth every sin deserve?
Answer: Every sin deserveth God's wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.

Q. 85: What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse, due to us for sin?
Answer: To escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption. (WSC)
While some sins are more heinous in the sight of God than others, every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse. As the catechism has already explained, the moral law of God requires perfect conformity and, falling short of that, mankind has fallen into an estate of sin and misery. All mankind has lost communion with God and has been condemned to temporary and eternal judgment for Adam’s first sin, for the depravity of our hearts, and for the sins which proceed from it. Every sin we commit deserves death, temporal and eternal (Jam. 2:9-11, Gal. 3:10). Those who continue in this way are storing up wrath for themselves on the day of wrath (Rom. 2:5). “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6).

So then, how may we escape from God’s wrath and curse? As the people asked the apostles on the day of Pentecost, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Or as the Philippian jailer asked Paul, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).

The gospel proclaims the saving work of God in Christ (see questions 20-38 of the catechism). It also calls sinners to respond to the message and receive this salvation. The gospel does not merely state the facts. It also urges people to respond. “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God ... Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 5:20, 6:2). In particular, God calls us to respond to the gospel with faith in Jesus, repentance unto life, and a diligent use of the means of grace. In other words, if you want to escape God's wrath and curse, you should receive and rest upon Jesus alone for salvation and turn from sin unto the service of God, diligently making use of the preaching and reading of Scripture, the sacraments, and prayer.
“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:38, 41–42)

“And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” (Acts 16:31–33)

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

The Heavens Declare the Glory of God

We look to the space above and find great forces in an orderly system that displays beautify and usefulness. God has provided you this a vast display of overwhelming size and force at a safe distance for your observation. He has provided a seemingly inexhaustible realm of discoveries. Even though those in the ancient world had a better view of the night sky with the natural eye, we have a better ability to see and understand the stars through technology, and we continue to learn more and more.

From what we have found through modern scientific observation, our solar system has eight planets and five dwarf planets that rotate around the sun, with at least 200 moons orbiting those planets. The sun is over 100 times the diameter of the earth and is 93 million miles from us. The sun is one of an estimated 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Our whole solar system is orbiting around the center of the galaxy. And astronomers have most recently estimated there are 2 trillion galaxies in the universe. Truly, while only God is infinite, the wonders of the heavens seem inexhaustible.

Did all of this come about on its own from nothing? No, simply adding billions of years does not solve the issue, and it creates as many problems as it seems to solve. We are told in Scripture the answer that accords with the vast power and design we see: God created all of this by his powerful word - “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens…” (Genesis 1:14).

God brought them into existence, set them in order, and put them on their circuits. He directs each one of them and they do his bidding. As Psalm 147:4-5 says, “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.”

As Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Their speechless voice extends to all the earth. Their words go to the end of the earth. There is nothing hidden from the heat and light of the sun. Their regular course in joyful obedience to their Maker proclaims his existence, wisdom, and power. These lights are a witness to all the earth, calling all people to worship their Creator.

And they put man’s pride to shame. As God asked Job in Job 38:31–32, “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children?”

God has appointed the ordinances of the heavens. He created gravity and the forces and patterns we discover through science. He has given his law to all the lights of outer space. He commanded, and they came to be; he set them in the expanse, and they go as he directed. The sun, moon, and trillions of stars follow his decree in glory and splendor and order, and thereby fulfill their purposes and bring glory to God. And so should you and I! As a creature with reason and will, you ought to do so with knowledge and delight.

God’s law is not a checklist, but a way of life. His sovereignty over his creatures is comprehensive, and so is his law. It says, this is the way, walk in it! It does not give you a few things to do, but it directs your whole life. It directs the whole life of man and his society. As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” There is no neutrality, no room for autonomy from God. Your whole being is designed to move in accord with his moral law, directed by love for God and neighbor.

This may sound like a burden to some, but look up! Is the moon burdened by the orbit God has given it? Is God’s command a burden to the sun? Does the earth wish to be free of its rotation? No! The sun comes out in the morning “like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy” (Psalm 19:5). He sets them in honor and glory, and we admire the beauty of the spheres. His law is a blessing and a glory to them. So likewise for us, the law of God is good and wise. By it, we live according to our design, fulfilling our purpose and bringing glory to God.

But you go off the path appointed for you into the destructive ways of sin. You abandon your appointed course and rebel against the King of the cosmos. You treat the Ruler of the galaxies with contempt. You treat his appoint way with contempt and seek out your own ways, foolish ways, evil ways, ways of death.

And so what has God done about this? The one by whom all these stars and lights were made was made flesh and dwelt among us. And when the mighty Maker was dying for man the creature’s sin, the sun was darkened and the moon was turned to blood and our earth was shaken. He died that you and I might be reconciled and restored to the Triune Creator of all. So hold fast to the mercy of God in Christ, receiving this salvation by faith. And let your heart break with sorrow for your sin and joy at his power and love.

For the lights of the heavens do not only display God’s power and wisdom. They display his love. Look up and say with Psalm 8:3–4,
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?”
Even before sin, God was incredibly generous to draw near to man and give him glory and honor, to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden. And how much more now does his vast power displayed in the heavens magnify the graciousness, steadfastness, unmerited generosity of his love for you. “Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, should die for me!”


Image Credit: NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)