In the coming months, I’ve decided I’m going to be posting more general theological material which, while it will all come from an Old School Presbyterian (OSP) perspective, is not necessarily specifically about church planting or ecclesiology. This will mean a lot more posts, but far fewer on the subject of church planting and building.
Preaching that dwells on or even mentions the reality of hell and eternal punishment has fallen into disfavor these days, but in his The Doctine of Endless Punishment, Reformed Theologian W.G.T. Shedd pointed out why we must continue to preach on hell regardless of public opinion. Among them we list these three reasons:
1) Just as a ship will not steer clear of rocks that are not marked on a map or warned against with a lighthouse, men will not be zealous to avoid a danger they do not know exists, W.G.T. Shedd therefore counseled, “The kindest way, therefore, for both the preacher and the hearer is, to follow the revealed word of God, and teach the plain and exact truth. Eternal perdition is like any other danger. In order to escape danger, one must believe in it. Disbelief of it is sure destruction. To be forewarned, is to be forearmed. They who foresee an evil, prepare for it and avoid it; but “the simple pass on and are punished.” Speaking generally, those who believe that there is a hell, and intelligently fear it, as they are commanded to do by Christ himself, will escape it; and those who deny that there is a hell, and ridicule it, will fall into it. Hence the minister of Christ must be as plain as Christ, as solemn as Christ, and as tender as Christ, in the announcement of this fearful truth. When he was come near, he beheld the city and wept over it, saying, “If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes” (Luke 19:41,42).” Read More…
I was recently asked to outline some of the major differences between the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) and my own denomination the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and I came up with the following 13 point list:
1) The PCA does not ordain women to either of the offices in the church (Teaching/Ruling Elder, Deacon). The PCUSA by contrast ordains women to both offices.
2) The PCA affirms that the bible is inerrant and infallible in all that it teaches. The PCUSA does not.
3) The PCA repudiates abortion and considers it a violation of the sixth commandment. The PCUSA believes, there should be no limits on access to abortions, there should be public funding of abortions, and that there should be limits placed on people who demonstrate against abortion.
4) The PCA is against homosexual behavior and same sex marriage and believes both are sins. The PCUSA does not consider homosexuality to be a sin, ordains practicing homosexuals and came within 30 votes of giving the go ahead to same sex marriage ceremonies in the church. Their next General Assemby (GA) will probably do so.
5) The PCA is against divorce except in cases of adultery or desertion. The PCUSA by contrast allows for no-fault divorce and remarriage. Read More…
1) Have an eternal perspective when it comes to moving. Follow the example of the Apostolic church and put prayer, preaching, and the fellowship of the saints ahead of career and possessions. That means always being part of a church (ekklesia – assembly of the saints) where you can find all of those things. NEVER put your career or income ahead of your and your family’s spiritual welfare. The Christian life is supposed to attended with hardships, sacrifices, and tribulation. Jesus didn’t say “Do whatever it takes to make sure your brief life here on earth is a comfortable as possible!” He said “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24) Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that a move will fix significant life problems or discontentment. Remember, wherever you go, there YOU are. You bring the problems and the discontent with you. Deal with the problems first, then move.
2) Before moving to a new area, get a map and a compass (the bow kind with a pencil), mark the good churches in the area, then figure out what your maximum reasonable driving distance is, set the compass to that distance via the map legend, and draw a circle around the church. Then look for houses ONLY within those map circles. The closer the better.
3) Visit the churches before you move or at least listen to the sermons. Talk to the pastor and members if at all possible. Remember, you aren’t looking for a congregation where everyone is EXACTLY LIKE YOU, you are looking for a congregation where the members are becoming MORE AND MORE LIKE CHRIST through the means of grace and the work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:29, Romans 12:1-2).
When your ministry (or life) is full of big, pressing, chronic problems, BEWARE:
1) You may unconsciously make your problems the center and organizing principle of your ministry or even your life, and the first thing you think of in any given situation instead of Christ and the Gospel.
2) You may begin to forget that even the worst of problems “are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
3) You may forget that your problems were ordained before creation by a God who loves you and that all of them will “work together for good to those who love God.”
4) You may start to feel your problems are actually bigger and more important than the problems of other people.
5) You may actually start to believe that people or rearranged circumstances and not faith, perseverance, and above all PRAYER, PRAYER, PRAYER are the answer to your problems.
6) You may start to demand sympathy for your problems and end up making sympathy into an entitlement. If you do that don’t be surprised if after a while people begin to stop giving you genuine sympathy.
7) The very hugeness of problems often makes it impossible to see the equally pressing problems of others, and if you become blind to the needs of others, how can you possibly minister to them?
8) You may focus on the molehill of your temporal problems instead of the mountain of your eternal blessings.
9) You may be tempted to compromise the gospel and your calling in order to pragmatically deal with your problems.
10) You may fall prey to thinking of yourself as a victim instead of more than a conqueror through Him who loved us.
11) You may forget that problems are a God-given necessity, and that “tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
While I love Old School Presbyterian worship, there is one part of it that seems to a be a problem wherever you go or whichever congregation you visit, and that’s our singing.
We Reformed Confessional types do a lot of arguing over what we should sing. Should we sing only psalms, or psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? And even when we’ve agreed on that point, we can still argue over which psalms and hymns should we sing? Old hymns, new hymns, modern praise choruses? Should we sing psalms set to old melodies or psalms set to contemporary arrangements? But regardless of whether the congregation are exclusive psalmodists or contemporary choristers, they tend to both suffer from the same malady –
lackluster and unimpressive singing amongst the congregants.
While the Westminster Confession teaches us in chapter 21 that singing is part of the worship of God, it doesn’t merely say that “mere singing” is to be part of our worship but singing “with grace in the heart” and here many congregations fall short of that mark. In many cases members of the congregation don’t sing at all or when they do, they are merely reading and then speaking the words on the page or overhead, at no point is their heart actually engaged in the process. Often we sing as though we not only don’t believe the things we are singing, but that the things we are singing about aren’t very important. Thus our singing becomes a formality, a tick box that has to be endured before we can move on to the other parts of worship.
For literally years I have been uncomfortable with both the Supralapsarian and the Infralapsarian (or sublapsarian) views of Predestination. I suppose for the sake of those who may be wondering what on earth they are, I should go ahead and define them both before I explain why I don’t subscribe to either view.
Both views concern the logical order of the decrees in the mind of God and seek to answer the question of which decree logically came first, the decree to permit the fall of man or the decree of election and reprobation? The Supralapsarian believes that God determined to glorify Himself via the salvation of certain number of men (the elect) and the damnation of another certain number of men (the reprobate). Therefore he believes the decree of election and reprobation came logically prior to the decree to permit the fall. The men thus chosen were not considered as fallen. The Infralapsarian believes that the decree to permit the fall came first, and that therefore the men thus elected were considered as already fallen and thus chosen from “the perishing mass of humanity.” Read More…
In ten years of marriage counseling, I’ve noticed certain problems that tend to be present in almost every marriage that is either in trouble or headed for trouble. Here are some tips that if sincerely followed, would eliminate many of those problems and make your marriage more successful and your faith stronger. Some are practical and some are spiritual. I hope they will all be valuable. Read More…
You don’t have to be a theologian to realize that while heaven and salvation are still popular, hell and Divine judgment are taking a beating these days. Whether it’s Gallup polls that reveal that many more Christian Americans believe in heaven than hell or books by self-described evangelicals that dismiss the idea of eternal punishment and teach that eventually everyone will eventually be saved, it all seems to indicate that Christians have become very uncomfortable with the idea of God’s wrath.
I was reminded of that recently when, as I went through the book of Esther in my daily devotions, I once again discovered that Esther doesn’t end at chapter eight with the death of Haman the Agagite and the decree of Mordecai. I say I discovered it again, because I am prone to forget that fact. This is probably because in most modern evangelical treatments, the events of chapter 9 are conveniently skipped over and we move directly from Mordecai’s decree in chapter 8 to his exaltation in chapter 10. This is the case for instance with the popular movie One Night With the King which essentially turns the book of Esther into an evangelical romance novel. Read More…
It seems to me that there are three ways you can preach the gospel defectively and as a result not see much if any lasting fruit:
1) The First and Most Catastrophic form of defective preaching is preaching that is completely devoid of biblical substance: No Law, No Gospel. This is what Michael Horton has described as “Christless Christianity” or what a pollster has nicknamed “moral and therapeutic deism.” In this form of preaching, the pastor stands up and tells stories, he makes people laugh, he makes them weep a little as well, he makes them feel good, he encourages, he entertains, he gives tips, he tells them they are OK, and that god loves them just the way they are. In other words, he or she does the Christian version of motivational speaking. Maybe he does it well, or maybe he does it poorly, but regardless, it puts people to sleep about their true state, and no reformation ever results from it. Jeremiah tells us this was the most popular form of preaching in Judah: “From the prophet even to the priest Everyone deals falsely. For they have healed the hurt of the daughter of My people slightly, Saying, ‘Peace, peace!’ When there is no peace” (Jer. 6:13). Unfortunately, surveys tell us that this is the most popular form of preaching in America today. Read More…
Far too many of us spend time in the world, before we spend time in the Word and as a result we begin the day with the wrong frame of mind and perspective, and not having “broken our fast” by partaking of the bread of heaven. For many people, this means that they begin the day having partaken of things that cause them to be irritable, anxious, or distracted, rather than filled with the things that promote peace, contentment, and knowledge. If we wonder why we are weak in the faith, it might just be because our primary diet consists of things that are not spiritual food. Let your first meal in the morning be the milk and meat of the Word of God!
“Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; For they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation.” (Psalm 119:97-99)
2) Start attending the church events you normally miss
If there is one thing we learn from the Apostolic church, it is that they never missed an opportunity to worship together. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (Acts 2:42) This should still be the fondest desire of every Christian’s heart. “I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go into the house of the LORD.” (Psalm 122:1) But it is also something that we desperately need for our growth. Indeed, the Christians who are growing the most in the faith are almost invariably the ones who spend the most time in worship and study. Sometimes people really are providentially hindered from attending the services of the church, but more often than not we have simply made a decision not to go. There are many excuses we can generate for not coming to both worship services on Sunday or the Bible Study or the Prayer Meeting, but how often can we honestly say, “Lord, the thing that I am doing instead of going to church is more important than worshipping you with the saints and is better for my spiritual growth?” Do we really think that the eternal blessings that we gain from attending on the means of grace will not outweigh the temporary hassles of traveling to church? Do we expect that in heaven we will say, “I’m glad I didn’t go to church more often?” or that if we did attend all the church services we could that we will regret doing so?
Finally, before you protest that you would be physically exhausted if you attended more of the services of the church, make sure that there aren’t other activities you could cut out that would enable you to get more rest. Often church is the first thing we remove from our schedule rather than the last. Christians are by definition people who hope to spend eternity in the corporate worship of the Lord, and we need to begin living now as we mean to continue forever afterwards. Remember, we can suffer from a lack of grace, but it is impossible to suffer from having gotten too much of it!
“not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:25)
I’m currently preaching through Jeremiah, and reading the minor prophets for my devotions. Although they were sometimes separated in time by hundreds of years, the message they brought was uniform. They identified the same sins, and brought they same counsel as the solution to those sins – repentance, exclusive love, faith and trust in God, and obedience to his commands. Their society was self-exulting and satisfied with itself and it did not want to hear a message from God’s prophets that they were actually idolatrous, apostate, wicked, and not far from destruction. The people of their time preferred smooth words, and as a result their land was filled with false prophets who told the people what they wanted to hear (Jer. 5:31, 8:6-12). The themes of the false prophets were all too familiar: prosperity, patriotism, progress, tolerance, and that God was NOT angry with them – rather He loved them just the way they were.
The interesting thing to me is that I’m sure that those contemporary prophets were almost certainly producing their own scrolls and letters that conveyed their positive report on the nations stability, the righteousness of their religious progress and the wisdom of their leaders. These scrolls were probably enormously popular in their time and no doubt had a much wider readership. They have not survived though, while the massively unpopular scrolls of the “repent or perish” prophets have. This is because in order to survive, they would have had to have been copied, preserved, and passed down. But the generations of Jews that followed saw them for what they were – self-serving lies that didn’t pan out. They were abandoned on the ash-heap of history while the more uncomfortable truths were preserved because while they were unpopular at the time, history made clear that Jeremiah and his ilk were telling the truth. Their prophecies came to pass, while the prophecies of the smooth liars did not. Read More…
On October 15-16th Providence PCA in Fayetteville will be hosting a Bible Conference entitled: “Is the END in Sight?” Our special guest speaker will be Dr. Derek Thomas who will be discussing (as you probably guessed) the subject of Eschatology (the end times).
The Provisional Conference Schedule will be:
Friday, October 15
7:00 pm: The END is NOW
Saturday, October 16
9:00 am: Signs of The END
10:30 am: The END is just the BEGINNING
We will also have Q&A sessions on Friday Evening and Saturday Morning.
Dr. Thomas, in common with 50% of our pastoral staff, is originally from Wales and is the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. After pastoring for 17 years in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dr Thomas returned to the USA in 1996 where, in addition to his work at the seminary, he serves as the Minister of Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson.
He is also the author of a number of books including a commentary on the book of Revelation entitled “Let’s Study Revelation” The first 50 people to register for the conference will receive free copies of this book!
Lodging is available for those who will need to stay overnight on Friday, and further details will follow.
It is almost inevitable that Old School Presbyterian (OSP) church planters will have people from differing theological backgrounds visiting their congregations, and some of the most common visitors will be Reformed Baptists.
Obviously having Reformed Baptists (RBs) visit your congregation isn’t a problem, but problems may arise if they desire to become members of your congregation, particularly if they have young children who have not yet been baptized.
We have had several wonderful RB couples who have wanted to join our church, but who have not be able to do so because of the Baptism issue and others who have become members, and I am personally very sympathetic to the desire of Reformed Baptists to become part of an OSP church, particularly when it is the only Reformed church in their area.
What then should be the position of an OSP church regarding this matter? Well rather than making a dogmatic declaration on the subject, here are some general guidelines for church planters along with an outline of our own particular practice: Read More…
One often hears complaints about how Christmas is becoming a time of superstition, commerce, and generally pagan revelry, but what American Christians don’t seem to realize is that this isn’t something new to our age, it’s been part and parcel of the celebration ever since it was instituted in the 4th century to replace the Saturnalia, and has been lamented by pious and godly men ever since. Writing in 1633 the English Puritan William Prynne wrote regarding the coming of the Christmas season: “Into what a stupendous height of more than pagan impiety… have we not now degenerated!” In Colonial American times the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists who did not observe the holiday were often appalled by the way the Anglicans did observe it for as Penne Restad commented, “Celebrants devoted much of the season to pagan pleasures that were discouraged during the remainder of the year. The annual indulgence in eating, dancing, singing, sporting, card playing, and gambling escalated to magnificent proportions.”
During the Revolutionary war on December 25th 1776, this difference was turned to good advantage by General Washington and the Continental Army who crossed the Delaware on Christmas morning and launched a surprise attack on the Hessian troops occupying Trenton. The Hessians who were Lutheran had been “reveling” on Christmas eve and in some cases celebrating and playing cards was still going on, they were so carried away with the feast that they hadn’t even bothered to put out a dawn sentry. Many of the Hessians were in no state to fight, and in any event would have been appalled that anyone would profane “Christmas” with an attack. The Americans, on the other hand, did not generally regard the 25th as a holy day and were raring to fight. As a result, the Hessian garrison was quickly overwhelmed with only two casualties on the American side, and as many have correctly argued, the faltering American Revolution, which had suffered nothing but disasters that year, was saved. I think we might be able to say that non-observance was one of the keys to American freedom!
I noted in a previous post that Samuel Miller, the first professor of ecclesiastical history and Church Government at Princeton, New Jersey had been asked by the Presbyterian Board of Publication to write a book on what Presbyterians believed. When that book was published in 1835 it included Miller’s detailed explanations for why, as he put it, “Presbyterians do not observe Holy Days.” With those explanations, Miller also included a scholarly explanation of the origins of two of the most widely celebrated Holy Days amongst Christians – Christmas and Easter. Having previously included an explanation of the origins of Christmas, I thought it would be worthwhile to also include an explanation for the origins of Easter, drawing on what Miller, the early British church historian the Venerable Bede (673- 735), and Socrates of Constantinople (b.380 – d.?) wrote on the subject:
Miller writes: “The festival of Easter, no doubt, was introduced in the second century, in place of the Passover, and in accommodation to the same Jewish prejudice which had said, even during the apostolic age, “Except ye be circumcised, after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” Hence, it was generally called pascha, and pasch, in conformity with the name of the Jewish festival, whose place it took. It seems to have received the title of Easter in Great Britain, from the circumstance, that, when Christianity was introduced into that country, a great Pagan festival, celebrated at the same season of the year, in honour of the Pagan goddess Eostre, yielded its place to the Christian festival, which received, substantially, the name of the Pagan deity. The title of Easter, it is believed, is seldom used but by Britons and their descendants.” Read More…
WHY DO PRESBYTERIANS OBSERVE HOLY DAYS?
Dr. Samuel Miller, Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at Princeton Seminary wrote confidently in 1835 “Presbyterians do not observe Holy Days.” 1 Yet some 164 years after the book in which Miller made that bold declaration was published, an informal survey of 30 churches in the Presbyterian Church in America, the largest of the theologically conservative Presbyterian bodies in the United States, indicated that 83% of the churches do regularly celebrate Holy Days.
What happened in those intervening 164 years? Did the practice of Presbyterians change significantly in that time or was Miller’s declaration inaccurate when he made it? What might have brought about such a radical change if it did in fact occur? This essay will seek to answer these questions. Because of space constraints, considerably more time will be spent examining the history of the development of Presbyterian practice in the United States regarding Holy Days than in examining the theological foundations for that practice. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to begin by discussing the theological reasoning behind Dr. Miller’s declaration. Read More…
In looking over the posts here at BOSC, it occurred to me that we don’t much material explaining why Old School Presbyterians like myself don’t observe Holy Days like Christmas and Easter. In the following days, I’ll try to remedy that by posting some essays and sermons on the subject. I’m going to start with a sermon that I preached on the subject back in 2005.
“What should the Church Teach Disciples to Observe?”
“Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
I have come to refer half-jokingly to this sermon as my yearly Grinch sermon, because in it I try to explain why it is I and the rest of the mean old session have stolen Christmas. But I don’t want to just address the issue of Holy Days today, if I may, what I would like to do is speak to you from the heart about the guiding confession of this church and what it is that directs us in our faith and worship. I am not lying when I say that this is the most difficult sermon for me to preach every year, because I know that I’m messing with tradition, and disconnecting tradition and emotion is virtually impossible. It’s also because people tend to be naturally conservative. We tend to resist change.
And it’s also personally difficult because I hate disappointing people. I’m not lying when I say that I really do want everyone in the church to be happy and contented all the time. After all, every week I ask you to make a decision that if taken will result in your being perfectly happy and well-content forever, and try to persuade you not to follow a course that will result in your being absolutely miserable for all eternity. Read More…
On Saturday, October 17th Providence PCA in Fayetteville, NC will be hosting a one day conference entitled “Building an Old School Church”.
In an age when many churches seek to mimic the culture as closely as possible, Old School Presbyterian churches are committed to the principle that God’s Unchanging Word and not the preferences of the age should be our rule and guide when it comes to every aspect of our ministry. An Old School Church therefore is self-consciously simple and biblical and believes that the primary calling of the church is to preach the Gospel in a manner that is warm, winsome, and aimed both at men’s minds and hearts. It is our hope that this conference would encourage the planting of new churches and the reforming of existing churches along “Old School” lines.
The Speakers will be Pastor Bill Harrell, who planted Immanuel PCA church in Norfolk Virginia, Pastor Irfon Hughes, and Pastor Andrew Webb who planted Providence PCA church, in Fayetteville.
The lectures will include: Read More…
“It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates , to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates’ just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them”
(From the Westminster Confession of Faith, 23.4)
Before I begin to discuss the issue at hand, let me begin by making a confession; I was born with a rebellious heart. I’ve never personally enjoyed submitting to any authority just or unjust, and I spent the first 23 years of my life rebelling against the authority of parents, teachers, and most importantly, God. I refused to honor or obey any of them regardless of any punishment or reward. It wasn’t until I became a Christian that the most important issue of my rebellion against God was finally dealt with and only when my heart was finally subdued and made teachable by the Holy Spirit did I begin to seriously deal with my unwillingness to submit to the human authorities he has appointed. I will confess that I don’t like submitting to authorities I don’t respect or agree with, and as a result, submitting to the current U.S. administration has been hard. I must admit that I am still learning to do it, especially in the matter of my speech. I am practicing, for instance, saying and writing “President Obama” and “Speaker Pelosi” and “Senator Reid” instead of simply referring to them by them last names.
I suppose it is partly because of all the mortifying of my natural tendencies that has been going on, that I’m particularly alarmed at the growing tendency amongst conservative American Christians to state that they do not believe that they are required to honor or be subject to the current U.S. government even in matters lawful or indifferent. Often this claim is buttressed by the belief that the only authority they have to honor and be subject to is the Constitution, and that while they are subject to the highest law of the land, they are not subject to the actual magistrates who are called upon to interpret, apply, and enforce it. In practice, this often amounts to a refusal to accept or honor any authority one does not personally choose to recognize as legitimate. While this view may be gaining in popularity during the Obama administration, it was to be found during the administrations of Clinton and Bush as well.
Popular or not, the practice flies in the face of the biblical teaching that we are to be subject to all authorities, that we are to respect them, and that we are to obey their commands when they do not force us to disobey the law of God (Exodus 20:12, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-18) . This is regardless of whether they are good authorities, and regardless of how they came to power. Let us recall that Paul was able to submit to the authority of a corrupt and incompetent Roman official like Festus and even honor him with the title kratistos – “most noble” because his authority and appointment ultimately came from God. Certainly in and of himself, there was nothing in Festus that was “most noble.” Read More…
Ralph Erskine (1685 – 1752) is known with men like Thomas Boston and his Brother Ebeneezer Erskine as one of the Marrow Men, who stood for Justification by Faith Alone and against the spread of legalism and Arminianism in the 18th century Scottish Presbyterian church. What he is less well known for however, are his wonderful gospel poems, few of which are still in print. Here is one particularly moving example:
The bride with open eyes, that once were dim,
Sees now her whole salvation lies in him;
The Prince, who is not in dispensing nice,
But freely gives without her pains or price.
This magnifies the wonder in her eye,
Who not a farthing has wherewith to buy ;
For now her humbled mind can disavow,
Her boasted beauty and assuming brow;
With conscious eye discern her emptiness,
With candid lips her poverty confess.
O glory to the Lord that grace is free,
Else never would it light on guilty me.
I nothing have with me to be its price,
But hellish blackness, enmity and vice.
Most Presbyterian and Reformed Denominations theoretically have a strong view of the doctrine of vocation. For instance the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) states the following in chapter 16 “Church Orders – The Doctrine of Vocation“:
16-1. Ordinary vocation to office in the Church is the calling of God by the
Spirit, through the inward testimony of a good conscience, the manifest
approbation of God’s people, and the concurring judgment of a lawful court
of the Church.
16-3. Upon those whom God calls to bear office in His Church He bestows
suitable gifts for the discharge of their various duties. And it is indispensable
that, besides possessing the necessary gifts and abilities, natural and
acquired, every one admitted to an office should be sound in the faith, and
his life be according to godliness. Wherefore every candidate for office is to
be approved by the court by which he is to be ordained.
Thus making it quite clear that church officers are only those men whom God has clearly called and gifted. Therefore, conversely, if a man isn’t manifestly gifted for an office by God, then no matter how much he may want it, he should not be allowed to serve in it.
Unfortunately that is the theory, in actual practice we’ve been laboring for far too long under the delusion that men can put in what God leaves out. If a man honestly isn’t called to the ministry, he will not have been given gifts to preach and teach. However, we have a multitude of for-profit seminaries that will attempt to teach anyone to do both (including a growing number of women) regardless of whether they are honestly called to do so. Since most presbyteries these days view an M.Div. as proof positive of a man’s calling to the ministry, it is virtually unheard of to deny a man with a degree “his” call, and in my 11 years as a Presbyter, I’ve never seen a man denied on the grounds that he can’t preach. These days the sermon part of the ordination trial is generally pro-forma. In essence, we have for all intents and purposes lost the doctrine of vocation and have ceded the right to determine who can and who can’t be a Pastor to the academy.
And speaking of the academy, the process of actually of getting your M.Div is getting easier all the time. At one particular Candidates committee meeting this was graphically illustrated when an RE held up a candidate’s two transcripts. The first was his transcript from a seminary in the RTS system – it was all A’s and B’s, the other was his previous transcript from a community college which was all Cs, Ds, incompletes, and even an F or two. The RE’s comment was “Look! It’s a miracle!” CTS President Bryan Chapell acknowledged in an interview for the White Horse Inn that it used to be that 1/3 of the incoming CTS class failed the English Bible Exam, now 2/3 of the class does, Chapell rightly noted that this indicates a profound ignorance of the bible amongst our churches and our future pastors – yet the vast majority of these “profoundly ignorant of the bible when they got here” applicants still graduate and go on to the ministry!
Many of our candidates for ministry spend their entire lives essentially “training” for ministry in the same way one might train for a position in which God’s calling is not a consideration. They go from Christian College directly to Seminary without ever passing through the real world or even having a chance to determine if they really have been gifted. Unfortunately, this process also tends to leave them soft, without much discernment, and usually naive.
All of these factors have actually combined to create a glut of pastoral candidates in the PCA. We have more candidates than open pulpits at present and as such there is no real pressure that might lead us to fill pulpits with barely qualified candidates. The pressure, if it exists, comes from the seminaries who would be aghast if Presbyteries started rejecting the majority of their graduates instead of dutifully plugging them into whatever positions they can find. Because of this many a Presbytery is in danger of becoming merely the final rubber stamp that a man receives after training for ministry.
The sad truth of the matter is that the pulpit committee is really the only gatekeeper in this process. Therefore, here’s a few hints I’d offer to a pulpit committee:
1) Aside from the fact that the candidate has a seminary degree, you can disregard it’s importance. It simply means he had enough money to pay for his education and enough diligence to complete it. Anyone who can get through college can get through seminary, it has no bearing on whether he is actually called. My wife could easily have gotten the same degree from the same institution I did (in fact I have no doubt she would have done better in several courses), this does not, however, make her equally qualified to be a pastor.
2) When it comes to the candidate’s preaching, take the liberty of actually assigning him a text to preach on instead of allowing him to preach his “best” sermon on a safe text. Make your text choice something controversial that should actually extract his views on subjects you consider to be of critical importance.
3) When you call his references don’t ask questions related to personality, you can safely assume that everyone he listed thinks he’s a nice guy. Ask questions related to calling – “what signs do you see that the Lord has called and gifted this man?” and “What examples can you think of where he took a hard stand for the truth?”
4) Keep in mind, you aren’t under pressure to accept any one man. Be willing to keep searching until you find a candidate you are confident the Lord has called and gifted to be your shepherd. There are plenty of nice guys who speak well and have nice families looking for callings, not all of them are actually called though and consequently an embarrassingly large number of these “nice men” will fail and leave the ministry in their first 7 years. More disturbingly, many will labor on, damaging churches, people, and denominations as they do so.
5) Finally remember, there are plenty of conservatives who graduate but don’t have a calling as well. Just because a man is Old School in his views, knows his theology, and isn’t soft about anything doesn’t necessarily mean he’s called either. History is full of thoroughly conservative guys couldn’t preach or pastor their way out of a paper bag.
Pastors are sometimes more reticent than reporters when it comes to revealing their sources. But I’ll go ahead and and let you know that I first encountered EM Bound’s advice regarding the link between the pastor’s piety and the power of his preaching through Iain Hamilton, who in turn discovered it via Eric Alexander. But that particular emphasis certainly isn’t original to to modern preachers like Alexander or even 19th century writers like Bounds, you’ll find it in the writings of experimental Calvinists through the ages, including Princetonians like Archibald Alexander, Puritans like Watson, Baxter, and Owen, and even Reformers of the 16th century (there is a great vein of this in the writings of Tyndale and even Calvin, for instance)
In any event, given the modern day cynicism regarding the notion that there might be a link between prayer, piety, and the efficacy of preaching, I want to strongly recommend a wonderful little booklet recently published by P&R as part of their Basics of the Reformed Faith series entitled “What is Biblical Preaching?” The booklet is by the aforementioned Eric Alexander, and while the series itself is intended to introduce laymen to Reformed doctrine, this particular pamphlet is more applicable to the needs of pastors. Indeed, it is actually based on a series of lectures originally delivered to pastors on the subject of preaching. entitled
Anyway, in keeping with the theme of the earlier post, here’s a section from the booklet, in which Alexander discusses the vital spiritual dimension in preaching. I hope this will help to sharpen and clarify the previous post: Read More…
It was Robert Murray M’Cheyne who penned the immortal lines “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
That sentiment remains just as true 168 years later but the lesson still needs to be learned by the church. Are we perhaps guilty of thinking that all that is needed to make a good preacher is charisma, people skills, and a seminary education? Have we too been deluded into thinking that the ingredients that make a great salesman or CEO will also inevitably make a great pastor? Or do we believe that if we could just find the right methods and programs we could overcome all our personal weaknesses? Certainly if we look at the broadly evangelical church, we’d find copious examples of that kind of thinking. But what was it that made great preachers in the New Testament? Well, it wasn’t education alone. With the exception of Paul most of the Apostles were uneducated men. It also wasn’t programs, personality, charm, or business acumen that spread the gospel. Rather the Apostles were above all men of prayer and holiness who strove simply to minister like their Master and to be conformed to His image. I am convinced that one of the greatest weaknesses even in Reformed churches is a lack of men of the apostolic mold. To piggy-back on the title of a book by John Piper, we have far too many “professionals” and far too few humble men of prayer and piety. As EM Bounds points out in the following article, men of that type are desperately needed if we are ever to see revival…
Men of Prayer Needed
Study universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this, for your sermons last but an hour or two; your life preaches all the week. If Satan can only make a covetous minister a lover of praise, of pleasure, of good eating, he has ruined your ministry. Give yourself to prayer, and get your texts, your thoughts, your words from God. Luther spent his best three hours in prayer.—Robert Murray McCheyne
We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organizations to advance the Church and secure enlargement and efficiency for the gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man or sink the man in the plan or organization. God’s plan is to make much of the man, far more of him than of anything else. Men are God’s method. The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” The dispensation that heralded and prepared the way for Christ was bound up in that man John. … When God declares that “the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him,” he declares the necessity of men and his dependence on them as a channel through which to exert his power upon the world. This vital, urgent truth is one that this age of machinery is apt to forget. The forgetting of it is as baneful on the work of God as would be the striking of the sun from his sphere. Darkness, confusion, and death would ensue. Read More…
Should the teaching of a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ be clear and easy to understand or difficult and inscrutable to fathom? Should understanding his teaching require that one have at the very least a post-graduate degree and copious training in the subject he is discussing? While those might sound like easy questions to answer, history is full of examples of men who have served in both the ministry and the seminary whose teaching was anything but clear and easy to understand. Often the teaching of such men has been so unclear that they have been thought to be saying things they have later denied they taught. In the case of the recent Federal Vision controversy, for instance, the teachers of the Federal Vision are constantly claiming that even men with advanced theological degrees have not understood their teaching.
What is the real value of teaching that is either unclear, confusing, or unintelligible to most listeners, especially when that teaching is supposed to be an exposition of the clear and perspicuous content of scripture? If a man cannot explain what scripture teaches on subjects like salvation and the sacraments in a manner that even a trained theologian can understand, then surely the problem is likely to be that either the matter or manner of his teaching is confused and quite possibly erroneous. Read More…
The Reformed have long held that scripture teaches us that a true church of the Lord Jesus Christ will manifest three definite marks by which all men might know that it is truly a church. The Belgic Confession summed up these three marks this way:
“The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in chastening of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.” (The Belgic Confession of Faith, Article XXIX )
Now in the present day if we look at the problems of the evangelical churches, we would have to say that gospel preaching is at a low ebb, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the administration of the sacraments has fallen into a sad state in many a church. For instance, I heard one brother say that at one church he visited in California, they served the Lord’s Supper by putting out juice and crackers on tables on the sides of the auditorium and then flashed an invitation for people to take some when they wanted to on the screens up front. Read More…
With the Jewish celebration of Chanukkah just around the corner, I thought it might be worthwhile to briefly consider that portion of the history of God’s people, and determine if there is anything we can learn from the villian and (small “a”) antichrist in the Channukah story, Antiochus Epiphanes (215 BC-164 BC), ruler of the Seleucid empire.
Antiochus was a sinister schemer (Daniel 8:23), a deceitful man, and quite crafty in the way he attempted to overthrow the worship of the living God. First, he did it through cultural influence. He wanted his empire to have one culture and one religion that he would be at the center of.
Almost every antichrist (1 John 2:18) has attempted to do that; Stalin with his program of Russianization and the spread of Communism, Napoleon who attempted to bring the philosophy of the French Revolution to every state in Europe, Hitler with his Pagan vision of an empire of Aryan Nordic peoples, Muhammad with his vision of one world-wide Dar-El-Islam. Now, what were these antichrists doing? They were creating a counterfeit kingdom of God, where instead of Christ at the center, these men who styled themselves as gods were at the center. That’s important to note about the devil – the best he can do is create a counterfeit by perverting that which is true and the good, he can create nothing.
But Israel and the Jewish people stood in the way of Antiochus’ counterfeit kingdom of god. So his aim was to corrupt the culture of the people of God, to Hellenize them, to replace a Jewish culture based on the teaching of the Bible with a Greek culture, based on humanism and Greek religion. Read More…
Those who desire to keep the Lord’s Day Holy are necessarily faced with the question of deciding when it begins. Should we consider the Lord’s day to begin at sundown on Saturday or 12:00 AM on Sunday Morning, or is there, as I would argue, another and better option?
Surprisingly, very few Reformed commentators have sought to answer this question, and I believe the reason for that is related to the broader concern that we not develop the same kind of petty legalism that marked the Pharisees. I’ve known people who will literally wait with TV remote in hand for the clock to strike 12 before turning on the TV. If we are constantly watching the hands of the clock to see when the Sabbath begins and ends, is it not possible that we have a little too much in common with the merchants who camped outside the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath anticipating the moment when the gates would open again and they could get on with their trade? (Neh. 13:19-21) If we are looking forward to the end of the Sabbath so we can get on with what we want to do how are we really keeping the spirit of Isaiah 58:13? After all, we are preparing for an eternal Sabbath, are we not? (Heb. 4:9-11) Shouldn’t we rather be saddened when the best day of the week ends and desire that it would last longer? Read More…
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
For some time now, I’ve wanted to put together a conference specifically aimed at planting and building Old School Presbyterian Churches and it looks like we will finally be able to host such a conference some time next year. The details are slowly coming together and we currently have three speakers lined up (we’ll probably have four speakers total). The conference will be three days long and will cover aspects of the history, theology, and practice of building an Old School Congregation.
More details will follow, including the date, the speakers, and the location.
Please feel free to comment if you have questions or if you would be interested in attending.
Over the next few months it’s my intention (D.V.) to post links to helpful audio resources on the subject of Pastoral ministry. I’d like to start by posting a link to an amazingly helpful lecture by J.I. Packer on preaching methodology of the Puritans. It’s mistakenly labeled on Sermon Audio as “Elizabethan Puritans”
Just as a teaser for the content, here’s a quote from the lecture which concerns the sound Puritan belief that one should carefully prepare one’s sermons and carry notes into the pulpit. This ran against the belief of enthusiasts like the Quakers that all preaching should simply be done in the moment and without preparation (this is also the belief of some Pentecostals today). In replying to this erroneous view Richard Baxter proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that Puritans were not devoid of a sense of humor!
“Richard Baxter got into a controversy with the Quakers and they accused him of not having the Spirit and not preaching in the Spirit because, they said, you read your sermons out of a paper, you use notes, you have a script and Baxter replied ‘as wisely should the Quakers argue that because we use spectacles and hourglasses and pulpits we have not the Spirit. It is not want of your abilities that makes ministers use notes but its regard to the work and the good of the hearers. I use notes as much as any man when I take pains and as little as any man when I am lazy or busy and haven’t leisure to prepare. It’s easier to preach three sermons without notes than one with them. He is a simple preacher that isn’t able to preach all day without preparation if he preacheth your way.‘ In other words if you intend to get up and blather in the name of the Lord, then there is no limit to what you can do!“
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