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(9 posts)

God, the Gospel, and the Church

When my wife and I returned home from Together for the Gospel we brought with us a very large stack of books. In fact, since we were both registered for and attended the conference, we had two identical stacks. I’ve given a few of the duplicates away, some of them to our pastor. One of those was The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline by Jonathan Leeman of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and 9Marks. A few Sundays ago, Pastor reported to me that he had begun reading the book, was enjoying it and finding it very interesting, and had I read it? No, I had not yet. I was told that I should, and so now I am. I have thus far only read the introduction, and I am hooked. Rather than a compartmentalized manual on biblical church membership and discipline, Leeman’s thesis begins with Theology Proper, or the doctrine of God. Our doctrine of the church is only as good as our doctrine of God. He writes: What we need, I believe, is a truly systematic theology of church membership and discipline. We need to consider how the practices of local church membership and discipline fit into the larger matters of God’s love, God’s judgment, God’s authority, and the gospel. when thinking or writing about the church, it’s easy to err in one direction by sidelining questions of polity. it’s also easy to err in the other direction by quickly jumping to our favorite proof-texts about elders and deacons, the Lord’s Supper, or church discipline, but doing so in a way that doesn’t carefully consider the larger theological context. A proper doctrine of the church should be informed by everything else we know about God, his love, and his plan of salvation. It should reflect everything we know about God’s love and holiness; about humanity as created in God’s image but fallen into guilt and corruption; about Christ’s sinless life, sacrificial death, victorious resurrection, and the imputation of his own righteousness to sinners; and about life beneath his inaugurated rule through repentance and faith. . . . Theologian John Webster captures the spirit of what I’m getting at when he says, “A doctrine of the church is only as good as the doctrine of God which underlies it.” You will understand what or who the church is if you understand who God is. The same relationship abides between our doctrine of the gospel and our doctrine of the church. Webster also writes, “It is . . . an especial concern for evangelical ecclesiology to demonstrate not only that the church is a necessary implicate of the gospel but also that the gospel and church exist in a strict and irreversible order, one in which the gospel precedes and the church follows.” In other words, you will only understand what or who the church is if you first understand what God’s gospel is. —Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, (Crossway, 2010), 17–18.

The Idolatry of Love: My Thoughts

Last week, I posted my summary of the first chapter of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love by Jonathan Leeman. Today, I offer something of lesser value: my own impressions. And unlike my summary, I’ll keep this short. Leeman nails American Christians—and any others who share American ideals—right where it hurts: in our independent, self-sufficient, self-serving selves. Dragging our American ideals into the church, we have polluted our faith. If Leeman’s analysis is correct, American churches and Christians have a lot of repenting to do. And we have a lot to learn about who God is, what biblical love is, what the church is, and what it means to be a part of it. The attitude of many in confessing evangelical churches toward the church indicates that they don’t love the Lord with all their hearts, or their neighbors as themselves. It indicates that there are probably a lot more tares among the wheat than even a cynic like me suspects. Therefore, a correct doctrine and practice of church membership and discipline is far from secondary. It is absolutely essential to the purity of the church and to the gospel itself.

A Foundation and a Blueprint

Jesus built the foundation. When writing his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul explained that his readers were part of God’s household, “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the corner stone” (Eph. 2:19–20 NASB). That passage equates the apostles with the church’s foundation. It means nothing if it doesn’t decisively limit apostleship to the earliest stages of church history. After all, a foundation is not something that can be rebuilt during every phase of construction. The foundation is unique, and it is always laid first, with the rest of the structure resting firmly above it. —John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Thomas Nelson, 2014), 96–97. The Holy Spirit gave instructions for the completion of the building. When the apostles gave instruction regarding the future of the church and how the church ought to be organized, they did not suggest new apostles should be appointed. Instead, they spoke of pastors, elders, and deacons. Thus, Peter instructed elders to “shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Peter 5:2 NASB). And Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5 NASB); he similarly outlined the qualifications for both elders and deacons in the third chapter of 1 Timothy. Nowhere in the Pastoral Epistles does Paul say anything about the perpetuation of apostleship, but he says a lot about the organization of the church under the leadership of qualified elders and deacons. As faithful men filled those offices, the church would thrive. Thus, Paul told Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2 NASB). —Ibid., 97–98.

More Than a Two-Week Notice, Please

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want Until he leaves me for another flock. —Psalm 23:1 MMV (Modern Ministerial Version) Imagine a shepherd herding his sheep, seeing that they have good pasture in Spring, Summer, and Fall, providing good feed and shelter through the winter, treating their illnesses and injuries, and protecting them from predators. Imagine he does all this with the greatest skill and care. Then imagine, one day, another flock catches his eye. Maybe his own flock is not producing like it should, like he had hoped. Maybe it is not behaving as it should. Maybe he is discouraged. Maybe the other flock is just more attractive. Whatever the reason, the shepherd just packs up and goes, leaving his flock to fend for itself until it finds a new shepherd.1 Inconceivable! But it happens all the time, in churches everywhere. Shepherds leave their flocks, to escape unpleasant circumstances, seek greener pastures, or follow some mystical, indefinable, and, I dare say, unsupportable, “call.” Some are legitimately called (not by the voices in their heads, fatuously assumed to be the Holy Spirit) to go elsewhere.2 But whether to leave and how to leave—and prepare for leaving—are two connected, yet separate issues. Yes, pastors, I am talking to you. When you tender your resignation, do you know what you are leaving behind? Have you prepared your congregation? Have you provided your replacement? Many of you have, and I commend you. Many—I suspect most—have not. My passion for this need is borne of the experience of seeing two good pastors, in two separate churches, leave, with disastrous results. I will not question their reasons for leaving (both left on good terms). I do lament the vacuum they left behind. I have seen congregations left to flounder and fight “like sheep without a shepherd.” I have seen an elder thrown under the bus for questioning the errors—nay, heresies—of an interim pastor whom I am now pretty well convinced does not understand the gospel, which is to say, is not saved. This is not as it should be. Pastors, you may be planning on making your current congregation your life’s work. If so, I commend you, and pray it will be so. But you do not know the future. You do not know what God has planned for you, or your church. You might legitimately be called elsewhere. In a best-case scenario, you will die. Your congregation needs to be prepared. Towards that end, here are a few questions to ask: Have you taught your congregation to be theologically astute and discerning? Have you raised up co-elders who are theologically astute and discerning? Does your congregation, especially the elders, know what you do, why you do it, and how it is done? Are any of your co-elders prepared to step into your shoes? If not, do they know what to look for in a replacement, and how to examine a candidate's qualifications? How detailed is your confession of faith?3 When asking candidates to affirm the confession, are they only confessing to be generically evangelical? If so, are you insane? I am sure there are many more to add,4 but I think that is a good start. Please, do not just leave. Your church needs more than two weeks notice. 1 Real sheep, of course, wouldn't go looking for a shepherd, or even know they needed one. No analogy is perfect. 2 The question of what constitutes a legitimate “call” is a topic for another time. 3 For example, this. You may need to alter a few details for your church, but this is a good model. 4 Feel free to add suggestions via email, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

The Church’s One Foundation?

If I’m going to criticize erroneous hymnody, I suppose I should be fair and include hymns I like. This doesn’t constitute any grave error—I’m sure I’ll continue singing the song—but the distinction is still important. The hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” contains the lyrics, “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.” I do not like the language used in that line of the hymn because, in the New Testament, the primary sense of the role of Jesus in the building is not that of the foundation. The New Testament says that no foundation can be laid except that which is laid in Christ Jesus, but He is not the foundation. When the New Testament speaks of the building, it speaks of the foundation as being the Prophets and the Apostles. They gave us the Word of God, which is established as the foundation of the whole edifice. —R. C. Sproul, 1–2 Peter: Be All the More Diligent to Make Your Calling and Election Sure (Crossway, 2011), 64. Now I’ll wait for some over-caffeinated zealot to call me a papist.

Christ the Builder

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. Matthew 16:15–18 Jesus calls the church “my church,” and rightly so, since it is comprised of “all that the Father gives [him]” (John 6:37), whom he has redeemed and is purifying “for his own possession” (Titus 2:14). And he is not only the Lord of the church, he is its builder—a builder who will complete what he has begun. The Lord Jesus Christ declares, ‘I will build my Church.’ The true Church of Christ is tenderly cared for by all the three Persons in the blessed Trinity. In the plan of salvation revealed in the Bible, beyond doubt God the Father chooses, God the Son redeems, and God the Holy Ghost sanctifies every member of Christ’s mystical body. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, three Persons and one God, co-operate for the salvation of every saved soul. This is truth, which ought never to be forgotten. Nevertheless, there is a peculiar sense in which the help of the Church is laid on the Lord Jesus Christ. He is peculiarly and pre-eminently the Redeemer and Saviour of the Church. Therefore it is that we find Him saying in our text, ‘I will build—the work of building is my special work.’ It is Christ who calls the members of the Church in due time. They are ‘the called of Jesus Christ.’ (Rom. 1:6.) It is Christ who quickens them. ‘The Son quickeneth whom He will.’ (John 5:21.) It is Christ who washes away their sins. He ‘has loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood.’ (Rev. 1:5.) It is Christ who gives them peace. ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’ (John 14:27.) It is Christ who gives them eternal life. ‘I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish.’ (John 10:28.) It is Christ who grants them repentance. ‘Him hath God exalted to be a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance.’ (Acts 5:31.) It is Christ who enables them to become God’s children. ‘To as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God.’ (John 1:12.) It is Christ who carries on the work within them when it is begun ‘Because I live, ye shall live also.’ (John 14:19.) In short, it has ‘pleased the Father that in Christ should all fullness dwell.’ (Col. 1:19.) He is the author and finisher of faith. He is the life. He is the head. From Him every joint and member of the mystical body of Christians is supplied. Through Him they are kept from falling. He shall preserve them to the end, and present them faultless before the Father’s throne with exceeding great joy. He is all things in all believers. The mighty agent by whom the Lord Jesus Christ carries out this work in the members of His Church is without doubt the Holy Ghost. He it is who is ever renewing, awakening, convincing, leading to the cross, transforming, taking out of the world stone after stone, and adding to the mystical building. But the great chief Builder, who has undertaken to execute the work of redemption and bring it to completion, is the Son of God, the ‘Word who was made flesh.’ It is Jesus Christ who ‘builds.’ . . . We ought to feel deeply thankful that the building of the true Church is laid on the shoulders of One that is mighty. If the work depended on man, it would soon stand still. But, blessed be God, the work is in the hands of a Builder who never fails to accomplish His designs! Christ is the almighty Builder. He will carry on His work, though nations and visible Churches may not know their duty. Christ will never fail. That which He has undertaken He will certainly accomplish. . . . —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 290–293.

Christ the Foundation

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. Matthew 16:15–18 The church is built on the solid rock of Christ. What is the foundation on which your faith is built? The Lord Jesus Christ tells us, ‘Upon this rock will I build my Church.’ What did the Lord Jesus Christ mean when He spoke of this foundation? Did He mean the Apostle Peter, to whom He was speaking? I think assuredly not. I can see no reason, if He meant Peter, why He did not say, ‘Upon thee’ will I build my Church. If He had meant Peter, He would surely have said, I will build my Church on thee, as plainly as He said, ‘to thee will I give the keys.’—No, it was not the person of the Apostle Peter, but the good confession which the Apostle had just made! It was not Peter, the erring, unstable man, but the mighty truth which the Father had revealed to Peter. It was the truth concerning Jesus Christ Himself which was the rock. It was Christ’s Mediatorship, and Christ’s Messiahship. It was the blessed truth that Jesus was the promised Saviour, the true Surety, the real Intercessor between God and man. This was the rock, and this the foundation, upon which the Church of Christ was to be built. . .  Look to your foundation, if you would know whether or not you are a member of the one true Church. It is a point that may be known to yourself. Your public worship we can see; but we cannot see whether you are personally built upon the rock. Your attendance at the Lord’s table we can see; but we cannot see whether you are joined to Christ, and one with Christ, and Christ in you. Take heed that you make no mistake about your own personal salvation. See that your own soul is upon the rock. Without this, all else is nothing. Without this, you will never stand in the day of judgment. Better a thousand times in that day to be found in a cottage ‘upon the rock,’ than in a palace upon the sand! —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 293–294.

Christ’s Church Stands

Jesus promised that he would build his church, and preserve it against all the forces of evil (Matthew 16:18). After more than two millennia, we can see that he has kept his word. The earliest visible Churches have in many cases decayed and perished. Where is the Church of Ephesus and the Church of Antioch? Where is the Church of Alexandria and the Church of Constantinople? Where are the Corinthian, and Philippian, and Thessalonian Churches? Where, indeed, are they all? They departed from the Word of God. They were proud of their bishops, and synods, and ceremonies, and learning, and antiquity. They did not glory in the true cross of Christ. They did not hold fast the Gospel. They did not give the Lord Jesus His rightful office, or faith its rightful place. They are now among the things that have been. Their candlestick has been taken away. But all this time the true Church has lived on. Has the true Church been oppressed in one country? It has fled to another.—Has it been trampled on and oppressed in one soil? It has taken root and flourished in some other climate.—Fire, sword, prisons, fines, penalties, have never been able to destroy its vitality. Its persecutors have died and gone to their own place, but the Word of God has lived, and grown, and multiplied. Weak as this true Church may appear to the eye of man, it is an anvil which has broken many a hammer in times past, and perhaps will break many more before the end. . . . The true Church is Christ’s body. Not one bone in that mystical body shall ever be broken.—The true Church is Christ’s bride. Those whom God has joined in everlasting covenant, shall never be put asunder.—The true Church is Christ’s flock. When the lion came and took a lamb out of David’s flock, David arose and delivered the lamb from his mouth. Christ will do the same. He is David’s greater son. Not a single sick lamb in Christ’s flock shall perish. He will say to His Father in the last day, ‘Of them which Thou gavest Me I have lost none’ (John 18:9).—The true Church is the wheat of the earth. It may be sifted, winnowed, buffeted, tossed to and fro. But not one grain shall! be lost. The tares and chaff shall be burned. The wheat shall be gathered into the barn.—The true Church is Christ’s army. The Captain of our salvation loses none of His soldiers. His plans are never defeated. His supplies never fail. His muster-roll is the same at the end as it was at the beginning. Of the men that marched gallantly out of England many years ago in the Crimean war, how many ever came back! Regiments that went forth, strong and cheerful, with bands playing and banners flying, laid their bones in a foreign land and never returned to their native country. But it is not so with Christ’s army. Not one of His soldiers shall be missing at last. He Himself declares, ‘They shall never perish’ (John 10:28). —J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth, 2014), 297–299.

Random Selections: Zwingli on “the rights of every Christian church” (J. H. Merle d’Aubigne)

This is the third of these randomly selected quotations I’ve posted here, and I’m wondering how long I can do this before I land on a paragraph that makes no sense by itself. So far, so good. This one is from the even page, final paragraph. On Monday, the 26th of October [1523], more than nine hundred persons—among whom were members of the Grand Council—and no less than three hundred and fifty priests, were assembled after sermon in the large room of the Town Hall. Zwingle and Leo Juda were seated at a table on which lay the Old and New Testament in the originals. Zwingle spoke first, and first disposing of the authority of the hierarchy and its councils, he laid down the rights of every Christian Church, and claimed the liberty of the first ages, when the Church had as yet no council either œcumenical or provincial. “The Universal Church,” said he, “is diffused throughout world, wherever faith in Jesus Christ has spread: in India as well as in Zurich . . . And as to particular churches, we have them at Berne, at Schaffhausen, and even here. But the popes, with their cardinals and their councils, are neither the Universal Church nor a particular Church. The assembly whch hears me,” exclaimed he with energy, “is the Church of Zurich:—it desires to hear the word of God, and can rightfully decree whatever it shall see to be conformable to the Scriptures.” —J. H. Merle d’Aubigne, History of the Great Reformation of the Sixteenth Century in Germany, Switzerland, &c. (London: D. Walther, 1843), 3:314.


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