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Posts Tagged ‘salvation’


“A Church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation.” A.A. Hodge

I came across this years ago when reading Hodge’s The Confession of Faith, a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Note: he wrote this in a commentary on a confession of faith.

Since I’m currently putting together SS material on the Westminster Standards I saw the red ink underlining and exclamation points in the margin. John Calvin expresses similar sentiments in his chapter on The Power of the Church in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541). I decided to run an experiment. I put it on my FB page, and in a closed group I belong to connected to Calvinism. I was curious if there would be any difference in responses.

On my FB page, the response was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few questions, but no big deal.

In the group, it was overwhelmingly negative. There were a number of misinterpretations of the quote. People were fairly unreasonable. I know, shocking conduct on the internet.

Here is a sampling:

“I disagree. attendance and membership are two different things. …theology is as important as doxology.. we are there to preserve both.. as a group we draw lines in the sand.. as an open group we do not.

“…maybe we should eliminate membership and just gather together without running church like a business. … If you expect the rent/mortgage on your church’s building to be paid, your pastor to be paid, the facility clean and in good repair, and your favorite ministries to be funded, then yeah, church needs to have a business component to it. Some churches take that too far and forget they’re a church, but churches have to run like a business to some degree.”

I also disagree. The elders are responsible to guard the flock, and you can’t keep the wolves out if you just admit members indiscriminately. Membership lists also have a use in determining who is eligible for church discipline. Just because a person sits in the pews doesn’t mean the church has authority to discipline them.

I would not expect a Pentecostal to accept me as a member since I do not accept their core beliefs about how the Spirit works and manifests itself. There should be some basic doctrinal agreement and some kind of pledge to serve to be a member.

“In order to worship in unity you need to agree on some things that aren’t salvation essentials. I don’t doubt the salvation of my Presbyterian brethren even though I doubt the legitimacy of their baptizing infants. They don’t doubt my salvation either but they would view my refusal to baptize my kids before conversion as disobedience to Christ’s command. Baptism is definitely not an essential doctrine but is practically speaking pretty important in fellowship and worship. …Messianic Christians and seventh day Adventists worship on Saturday, and think we’re misinterpreting the New Covenant when we worship on Sunday. They probably don’t doubt our salvation and in many cases we don’t doubt theirs, but it’d be pretty difficult to worship together weekly because they wouldn’t want to gather on our day nor we on theirs.”

“Nobody has to attend our church regularly in order to be saved, nobody has to agree to our church’s confession and member’s covenant to be saved, even baptism is not a requirement in order to be saved. So obviously this statement as it appears is false. But I wonder if it is explained in context in a way that might show it to have a true meaning.

We see an avalanche of erroneous assumptions, worse-case scenarios and oddities marshaled to reject Hodge’s premise.

What does Hodge mean? What doesn’t he mean?

These words begin that paragraph:

“In all Churches a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership, and the terms upon which office-bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling.”

Hodge is writing a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. He believes in the use of Confessions and Creeds. He believes churches should have and use a Confession of Faith. He held to the Westminster Confession.

So, Hodge is NOT arguing that churches shouldn’t have a confession.

Hodge recognizes the distinction between members and officers. Members are held to a higher standard. He is speaking of the Confession, not extra-biblical conditions (keep reading). The Confession must be accepted, and taught, by the leadership of the church.

What the quote is saying, in part, is that holding to (subscription) the Confession (or any confession) should not be a requirement of membership. There are some denominations, wanting to limit doctrinal controversy. I used to be a pastor in the ARP and the membership questions included: “Do you accept the doctrines and principles of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for far as you understand them, as agreeable to and founded on the Word of God?”  A confusing qualifier to be sure. The URC requires membership subscribe to the Three Forms of Membership. I was surprised upon joining the PCA that there was no similar vow. Many wish there was one, but I tend to think there shouldn’t be.

This does not mean that Hodge didn’t think members didn’t have to believe anything. They had to believe anything necessary for saving faith. The Westminster Confession includes things necessary for saving faith, but has far more in there. The additional topics are for our well-being rather than our salvation. We should require faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as God incarnate & part of the Trinity, who died and rose again. We should also require repentance as well. And baptism as included in the Great Commission. In other words, as far as we can tell, comunicate members should be Christians.

The other thing Hodge is (may be) saying is that membership should not bind the conscience in any way not required for salvation. Some church membership vows include abstinence from alcohol, smoking or dancing. These are not requirements for salvation (or sanctification).

In speaking about “church constitutions” Calvin argues in this way:

“So we must rapidly conclude as we argued earlier that, where God is concerned, our consciences are in no way compelled or obligated by any such constitutions. Their aim is to bind our souls before Go and to lay duties upon us, as if the things which they commanded were essential for salvation. Such today are all those constitutions called ‘church constitutions which they say are necessary if God is to be truly honored and served. They are countless in number, and make for equally countless bonds which keep souls imprisoned.”

If you think it wise not to drink alcohol, or dance or have the occasional cigar, you are able and free to make that decision for yourself. What you are not free to do is to bind the conscience of others to the same extra-biblical command. No church is free to so bind the conscience of its members. The doctrine of Christian Freedom needs to be taught in churches so members won’t fight over these matters (like the discussions I’d had as a young Christian with people who hated Christian rock, or secular music). You don’t resolve the argument biblically by binding consciences. “So you won’t fight about a beer with your pizza, we’ll just prohibit drinking altogether.” Too many churches take this very route and sin against God and their members.

Back to Confessions. Church members should know that the church has a confession, and that the teaching of the church will conform to that confession. I cover this in our membership class. I give them a copy of the Westminster Standards.

Some members will already agree with the Confession. That’s great! But I hope that many members are younger Christians. We are not a Reformed refuge where you need the secret password (John Calvin Owen & Newton). I see holding to the Confession as one of the goals of my teaching. I want people to move toward the Confession, understand it better and increasingly affirm it as a summary of Scripture. We can’t demand that as a condition of membership, however. We should never say to a Christian, you can’t be a member here. We may say, this is what we teach. If you are willing to discover more about this great. But if you fight about it, this may not be where your membership should be. Just as we offer Christ’s Table, this is Christ’s church. We may be Presbyterians, but can’t restrict membership to Presbyterians. I want people to grow in & into their faith in my congregation.

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If you are like me your experience with and knowledge of Eastern Orthodoxy is limited. I grew up Catholic so I understand Roman Catholicism. To many Protestants the Eastern Church is quite mysterious. Rare are the books by Protestants about Eastern Orthodoxy. Robert Letham has written a good book to help people like me understand our brothers and sisters from the East. In this day, with increased persecution in places like Iraq and Syria we hear more about Eastern Orthodoxy. The vast majority of them are not Protestant but either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

Letham’s book, Through Western Eyes, is not a polemical book. His purpose is not to expose the errors of Eastern Orthodoxy. He does compare and contrast its teaching on various doctrines with both Roman Catholicism and Reformed Theology. Why just Reformed Theology (and a bit of Luthernism)? Like Roman Catholicism it is a confessional faith. Much of evangelicalism shuns creeds and confessions therefore exhibiting a wide variety of beliefs. Letham himself also comes from a Reformed perspective and therefore compares it to what he knows and loves best.

Letham structures the book in 3 sections: history, theology and evaluation. The third section is not very long. In it he seeks to point out areas where we could learn from them, where they could learn from us, gross misunderstanding and divergence.

The section on theology spends much of its pages dealing with the ecumenical councils. How they do theology is quite different than how we have done theology. Since the Scholastics and particularly since the Enlightenment theology in the West has been done in the universities, and not necessarily in the church. There have been numerous confessions and catechisms to lay out theology as well as many systematic theology books. Theology in the Eastern Church is grounded on the Councils (which we also affirm for the most part), communicated in their liturgy and is done mostly by church men: pastors and bishops. Their dependence on the creeds reflect their understanding of polity: there is no hierarchical structure. The Patriarchs do not function like archbishops or the Pope. How their theology developed is interesting, at least to me.

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In this barren wasteland of books on the Trinity there are only a few oases out there. If you believe Michael Reeves, and I suspect you should, this is thanks to Schleiermacher who basically treated the Trinity as extraneous to Christianity. In Michael Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith he treats the Trinity as the hub upon which all of Christianity turns. That is part of what makes this particular volume on the Trinity unique. He explicitly states and develops this as a steady drumbeat in the book.

“For God is triune, and it is as triune that he is so good and desireable.”

In part, the book is an apologetic for Christianity in general and the Trinity in particular. He spends some time examining what happens if you don’t have a Trinity, what does that mean about God. To put it simply, God is not love. He is wanting a creation, if he wants a creation that serves him. But if God is love, and there are more than 3 persons in this eternal community of love we understand creation (and redemption) as an overflow of the love they have for one another. This sets Christianity into a different light, a greater light.

“Before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.”

For instance, love is the motive for the mission of God. I am currently reading a book on that subject and the author of this otherwise good book seems to neglect this as the reason. He’s not seeing the mission as the Father sending the Son to adopt more children, but more a Creator wanting to be obeyed. This focus on God as loving community helps to clear the air of many misconceptions and present a more winsome Christianity.

“He creates as a Father and he rules as a Father; and that means the way he rules over creation is most unlike the way any other God would rule over creation.”

For instance, in the last chapter he explores how this focus influences how we view various attributes of God. God’s holiness, for instance, is that he is separate from us in that he loves. In Leviticus 19, he reminds us, that the call to be holy, or perfect, as he is is surrounded by the command to love your neighbor as yourself and explanations of what that looks like (caring for the poor, for instance). So our holiness is not to be mere obedience. Our holiness is to be a love that reaches out to others as God has reached out to us in order to meet the needs of others. Oh, there is obedience but as Jesus said in John’s Gospel this is because love Him who first loved us.

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Vacation is a time to be refreshed. One way I get refreshed is by reading some of those books I’ve been wanting to read but haven’t had the time to read. One of those books is Tim Chester’s Delighting in the Trinity. As I have mentioned in other places, there are far too few books on the subjects of the Trinity and Union with Christ. Those books have taken up a fair amount of my free time in the last few years.

“The root of sin is always idolatry. We turn from the true God to find satisfaction in other things and other ways of life.”

Chester’s book is one of the shorter books on the Trinity. He, I think, is shooting for a different audience than either Saunders or Letham. This is intended to be a more accessible book, and it draws on his experiences and concerns as a faithful Christian living in an increasingly secularized England. He sets up the book, in chapter 1, by mentioning conversations he’s been having with Muslim friends. The Trinity is a huge stumbling block for them. We come to a cross roads. Should we not really focus on this, perhaps even ignoring it (like the Insider Movements) or do we recognize this as an essential part of our theology, the very foundation of the gospel? He chooses wisely and picks the latter.

“It is rooted in the electing love of the Father, the finished work of the Son and the present witness of the Spirit.”

So, he argues that the doctrine of the Trinity is not only foundational, but also practical. That does not mean it is easy to understand. I would remind you of Augustine’s statement, picked up by Anselm, that “we  believe to gain understanding.” It is not the other way around.

“But God always speaks with one voice. Father, Son and Spirit speak with one voice because they are one.”

So he starts with Biblical Foundations. The first foundation is the unity of God in the Bible. He starts with the Shema, the confession that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” He then brings us to 1 Corinthians 8:6, and sees this as an expression of the Shema in light of the progress of revelation. To claim that Jesus is Lord (kuyrios is used in the LXX to translate YHWH) is to claim that Jesus is the LORD our God. Jesus’ statement that the “Father and I are one” helps us to see both the differentiation and unity within God. The unity of God keeps us from tritheism.

He then shifts to the plurality of God in the Bible. He brings us to creation and back to the Shema before going to the gospels to see the Incarnation of Jesus. One cannot escape the divinity of Jesus in the Gospel of John (which I happening to be preparing for a sermon series).  In the opening verses of John we see both the differentiation (with God), and identification (was God). God lives forever in fellowship with Himself, realizing the priestly blessing so to speak, as the Father and Son are “face to face” until that moment on the Cross when Jesus experiences the curse as the Father looks away.

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When I went to seminary, I was fairly ignorant. Some might argue that I still am. They gave us  a series of questions so they could understand the background of their new students. One was whether I held to Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology.

I was in a quandary. As a new believer I had read some Hal Lindsey (never a good idea) and embraced Dispensationalism in its popularized form. But over time I began to have serious questions concerning its validity as I continued to read Scripture. By the time I showed up in Orlando, I was not a Dispensationalist.

But I had no idea what Covenant Theology was. I would learn.

When I got to the congregation I pastor here in the desert, there was a large number of small pink books on a shelf. No, not books by Pink. Pink books.

The book was A Comparison of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology by Richard Belcher. Before using it as a give-away, I thought I had better read it. Was it really a comparison, or was it a polemical book? That is important. We sometimes have people who begin to attend who are new to what we believe. I don’t want to turn them off unnecessarily. If I started to hand this book out, I wanted to be sure it was fair and accurate. So I finally read it.

The book is quite short (46 pages including the bibliography). His main point is that everyone has a theology, and most Protestant embrace one of these two theological systems (it was published in 1986, and since then New Covenant Theology has grown in popularity).

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In preparing for my sermon on Sunday I re-read Jonathan Edwards’ discourse “Men are Naturally God’s Enemy”. Nestled in there was the following:

“All the sin that men commit, is what they do in the service of their idols: there is no one act of sin, but what is an act of service to some false god. And therefore wherein soever God opposes sin in them, his is opposite to their worship of idols: on which account they are his enemies. God opposes them in their service of their idols.”

Idols are our functional saviors, what we use to supplement (or replace) the living and true God. We use them to “save” us from the realities of life in a fallen world. They offer pleasure, distraction, hope and other benefits. Not that they can deliver. But we rely on them, and their false promises, anyway.

As Tim Keller notes, these idols are often good things. We aren’t talking about little statues we bow down to each morning. But they function as gods in our lives. They have our allegiance. We rest our sense of security on them. This we do because, as John Calvin noted, our hearts are factories of idols. Not that we create idols, but turn good things into idols. The problem is not “out there”, but “in here”.

As I lay in bed, wishing I was asleep, I was struck by the fact that our most common idols are found in the first few chapters of Genesis. Sure, there are modern ones like fancy sports cars (or luxury sedans or…), all things Apple, and other inventions. Or science, many bow down there accepting whatever science says (this week) without recognizing that scientists are finite, sinners with (often ungodly) presuppositions instead of purely objective thinkers and observers. But most of our idols have been there from the beginning. As a result, they go unnoticed by most people.

In one of the books I’ve read (it’s been a few years and my aging mind can’t remember which one and I don’t have the free time to chase it down), the author tells of a person from India coming to the States. Now, when people from the States go to India they are struck by the sheer number of little idols, statues to gods, that are seemingly everywhere. Yet, this person arrived on our shores aghast at all of our idols! It is always easier to see other people’s idols. Just like it is easier to see their splinter while not noticing the log in your eye.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1 (ESV)

We see here a number of idols, or functional saviors, that enslave people. I guess I could start with religion. I’m not talking faith in the God of the Bible, but that tendency toward ritual and legalism that provide us with a false sense of assurance. But I won’t.

Marriage is a frequent idol for people. They think it a refuge from loneliness, economic insecurity and hopelessness. Many single people think life would be tolerable if only they were married. Many married people live in fear of their marriage ending and don’t take the necessary steps to make that relationship healthier and godly. They so need the approval of their spouse they never say ‘no’ and live in misery because they fear a greater misery.

Connected to marriage by God, but disconnected by humanity, is sex. We live in a society of sex addicts, or idolators. Sex offers them, they think, enough pleasure to overcome the pain and boredom of life that they become enslaved. They think it offers intimacy, but forsake its intended intimacy through objectification of various kinds. It often destroys the relationships we so desperately want.

Also connect to marriage by God, and increasingly disconnected by people, is children. Many seek love from (rather than giving love to) children. They seek immortality through their children. They seek to fulfill their own failed goals through their children. Many people place intolerable burdens on their children, destroying them as a result.

We also find control. We are to subdue and rule creation- under God’s authority. But we try to play God and make everything bend to our authority. We crave control, fearing we are not sufficient to meet the challenges of unexpected events or circumstances. It destroys relationships like acid (then we wonder why the person left even as we try to manipulate them back into the relationship).

We also make a god of creation. Our idol factory hearts twist stewardship of creation into environmentalism so that the environment and/or animals become more important than people made in God’s image. People begin to sacrifice real and potential relationships on the altar of being green. They look to their pets to fill the black hole in their hearts that crave unconditional love. We should care for the environment and animals, including pets, but many give them ultimate status in their universe.

Work is another functional savior for people. (For others the avoidance of work is their idol). They seek to be utterly independent, secure and safe thru their work. It provides an ultimate meaning for them that only God is intended to have. They turn the image of God in on itself. God works, and calls us to work. It is the ordinary means of providing our needs. But in God’s providence, at times we endure hardship that we might be humble and experience grace and compassion so we will be ready to extend grace and compassion.

“A true hope looks forward to the obtaining of happiness in no other way but the way of the gospel, which is by a holy Savior, and in a way of cleaving to and following him.” Jonathan Edwards in Charity and Its Fruits

All of these things, as God gave them to us, is good! But we ceaselessly give them more importance than intended. We use them in the place of God to provide us with satisfaction, security, pleasure and even salvation. All that we have turned into functional saviors can only be returned to their rightful place as we seek all our significance, meaning, security and satisfaction from Christ. This only happens as we see the the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ as Creator and Redeemer. As Jonathan Edwards argues, only when we see Christ as sufficient to bestow all the happiness we need, will we forsake other means to secure earthly happiness.

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I really like Matt Chandler’s preaching. He’s a little edgy, and has that Baptist almost screaming things at times. But I benefit from much of what he says. He also experiences similar reactions to the gospel as I did in small city Florida. He just experiences it on a much larger scale in the Big D. His frustrations with people being inoculated for the gospel ring true in my time in Florida.

I’ve read Jared Wilson’s blog for some time now. I like how he tries to keep the gospel central. You have to like a guy who moves to Vermont to pastor a church, especially when he adopts the local sports teams. That’s good missional thinking, right?

Well, they wrote a book together. Matt was the primary author, and Jared helped him out. The book is The Explicit Gospel, and it has blurbs filled with praise from the likes of Rick Warren, D.A. Carson, Mark Driscoll, David Platt, Ed Stetzer and more. A literal hodge-podge of famous (and some might say infamous) pastors. Incidentally, CavCorollary #167 is don’t believe the blurbs.

I am half way through the book, and thought this would be a good time to process it. The first half focuses on “the gospel on the ground.” The second focuses on the “gospel in the air”.  Think trees versus forest. It is the same gospel, but from different perspectives, or angles.

“If the gospel on the ground is the gospel at the micro level, the gospel in the air is the story at the macro level. … One crucial thing that viewing the gospel on the ground helps us do is distinguish between the gospel’s content and the gospel’s implications. … On the ground, the gospel comes to us as individuals.”

The gospel on the ground, according to Chandler, distinguishes between the gospel and its implications. It focuses on the personal aspects of the gospel instead of the cosmic aspects of the gospel. We need both. But we need to distinguish them or we get all messed up. This is one of the problems that he mentions in some “gospel” preaching- they talk as if the implications of the gospel (social justice, good works, community etc.) were the gospel itself. So they distort and obscure the gospel as a result.

But let’s get back to the beginning.

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