Preaching Christ at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary

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As some of you might know, I spent four years at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary before taking a call to a congregation of the United Reformed Churches in Prince Edward Island. I did internships with 4 consistories and 3 pastors in the United Reformed Churches on my way through seminary and I have always been a member of the United Reformed Churches since I was knee-high, so I am unable to say much about the Canadian Reformed Churches at large. I have heard some excellent sermons from Rev. den Hollander Sr. in Rehoboth URC and some excellent sermons from Rev. William den Hollander Jr. and Rev. VandeBurgt while visiting my wife who was a member of the Langley CanRC while we were dating.

I found that CRTS during my time there had a strong homiletics (the art of preaching) department. This was confirmed by various conversations I had with leaders and members in both the URCNA and Canadian Reformed Churches in the opportunities that I had to preach in close to 35 URCNA and CanRC churches across Canada and into the States (over the course of 3 years and 4 internships).

One of the highlights of taking this particular homiletics program was the 9 sermons (3 per year) that were publicly presented before 1 or 2 professors and the entire student body. There was then a public critique from the professor and the floor was then opened up to our colleagues to bring up questions, concerns, and encouragements. The intense self-reflection following an evaluation was not particularly fun, but I can’t imagine a better way to teach men to preach a message that is faithful to the text and centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Another highlight was the two homiletics classes (in 1st year and 3rd year). We read a lot of articles on preaching: anywhere from ones by professor de Visser to Sydney Greidanus and Cornelis Trimp. We also read some great books on finding the glories of the cross and resurrection of Christ throughout the pages of the Bible. We read David Helm’s “Expository Preaching.” We read Timothy Keller’s “Preaching.” We also read Bryan Chappell’s “Christ-Centered Preaching.” We studied and reflected (and yes, debated) each book closely. Various Church Fathers, Reformers, Lloyd-Jones, Stott, and other preachers were also discussed in class.

One of the points that Dr. de Visser underscored to our class in first year is that the difference between good preaching and great preaching is the work of the Holy Spirit in the work of the preacher. We were also encouraged to reflect on that in the grading system. Of course, there an was an effort to grill us based on objective principles for preaching, like whether the text was preached, how we drew our lines to Christ, and how Christ was preached. But an “A” sermon might just be a good sermon, whereas a “B” or a “C” sermon might be a great sermon because the Holy Spirit is working powerfully through it (I believe that Tim Keller also presents this important reminder). 

Between 5 professors and 20 students, a variety of perspectives and intellectual/spiritual gifts are brought to the table. Yes, there are weaknesses and points for growth in both individuals and institutions. And so we see every institution, individual and denomination growing also in conversation with the broader Reformed/Presbyterian and evangelical world. For individuals, mentorships bring further gifts to the table, and prior education also brings various gifts to the table. Seminaries should not operate in isolation from broader ideas and the authority of the local consistory. It was also great to hear lectures from OPC pastor Eric Watkins on redemptive historical preaching at the conferences one year. Over my years at seminary, we heard lectures on various topics from members from the RPCNA, OPC, FRCNA, PCA, URCNA. 

I would recommend the Canadian Reformed Seminary for the Christ-centered nature of their homiletics program and for the way that both OT/NT/dogmatic disciplines also lead to the glory of the cross and resurrection.

I would love to reflect further here on the need for greater union between the Canadian Reformed Churches and the United Reformed Churches. Maybe one day I will also reflect further on unity with the many other congregations and federations in North America. I have many thoughts on the importance of organic and geographic unity and the danger of stereotypes and lack of charity. I hope to shape and formulate these thoughts in the coming months and years also in conversation with the wisdom of older pastors and the wisdom of my consistory and other consistories. We must not neglect good debate and healthy communication. Christ-centered preaching leads to Christ-centered unity. Those who preach the cross, after all, must be examples of life under the cross and resurrection. And so we also find unity at the cross, in our worship of the Triune God and on the bedrock of the Bible:

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:13–22


Photo by James L.W on Unsplash

Trinitarian Christianity

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A number of good books and articles have been written in the last 20-30 years on the centrality and importance of the Trinity in Christian theology. One of the best has been Michael Reeves book “Delighting in the Trinity.” He writes: “‘God is love’: those three words could hardly be more bouncy. They seem lively, lovely and as warming as a crackling fire. But ‘God is a Trinity’? No, hardly the same effect: that just sounds cold and stodgy. All quite understandable, but the aim of this book is to stop the madness. Yes, the Trinity can be presented as a dusty and irrelevant dogma, but the truth is that God is love because God is a Trinity.”

St. Patrick’s Prayer is quite well known for the words: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me…” But the beginning and end of this song are often neglected among us: “I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.”

Just this last week I had to prepare a teaching sermon on Lord’s Day 8 in the Heidelberg Catechism. This of course, is on the subject of the divine Trinity. It was a good week, I sat down and decided to use the sermon of the Apostle Peter to the crowd in Jerusalem as my main text. Of course, the rest of the sermon had me going all over the Bible to show the glory of the Trinity in the prayers, praise, greetings, and blessings of the Apostles and all over the Gospels. It was intimidating since this about God and these truths are so deep. It also brought me to reflect on how a truth that has been so central to the church for 2000 years is so undervalued today.

I have encountered modalist heresies that actually do teach falsehoods about Christ. There is this idea afoot in Toronto that God is one person who changes his clothing to Father clothing and then Spirit clothing. Such groups might even teach that we must only baptize in the Name of Jesus. This of course, is in direct conflict with the clear teaching of Christ Himself in Matthew 28:16-20. 

I would wager that there is also a shift in modern day evangelicalism towards grounding orthodoxy in a right understanding of the person of Christ. This of course is a noble enterprise since liberalism has so heavily attacked the divine nature of Christ.

The problem with basing orthodoxy solely in orthodox language about the person of Christ is that sometimes the Trinity is sidelined. You cannot speak of Christ without speaking of the Trinity (or at least you must speak of the Trinity at some point). Christ reveals the glory of the Trinity to us: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (I Cor. 4:6). He brings us to a knowledge of the Triune God: ““And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (I John 5:20-21) Read the Gospel of John and you see very clearly the love that the Triune God contains within unity and community. 

This is why the Athanasian Creed combines its theological formulations in two parts: on the Trinity and on the incarnation of Christ. With regards to the first, it concludes in this way: “So in everything, as was said earlier, the unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in unity, is to be worshipped. Anyone then who desires to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.” With regards to the second, it begins this way: “But it is necessary for eternal salvation that one also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully.”

The Apostle Paul delights in the Trinity and teaches this truth about God to his congregation in Ephesus in Ephesians 3:14–19 “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

If we learn from the missionaries of old like St. Patrick, we should also inject our missional theology with more Trinitarian theology: “I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.”


 

Chapter Review: the Interrogative in Preaching

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I will now move on from the indicative and the exclamative in preaching to consider John Carrick’s chapter on the interrogative, or the use of the question in preaching. 

Basic grammar is important for good communication, thus the importance of studying Hebrew and Greek grammar. In the same way, this study of the indicative, the exclamative, and the interrogative are important for understanding how to better communicate the gospel. Carrick understands the interrogative to be an aspect of the indicative. Both consider objective fact, but one states it while the other questions it. It is searching and it brings more of a connotation of dialogue to it. He recognizes three basic types of interrogative: the analytical, the rhetorical, and the searching. The analytical looks for an answer, the rhetorical assumes an answer, and the searching searches and probes the hearts of men.

  • Analytical: “What is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” (Rom. 3:27-28)
  • Rhetorical: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'” (Rom. 10:14-15)
  • Searching: “You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?” (Rom. 2:21b)

He then shares a number of examples from the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Samuel Davies, Asahel Nettleton, and Martyn-Lloyd Jones. He writes about Jonathan Edwards: “Edwards individualizes is hearers; indeed, there is a sense in which Edwards thus interrogates his hearers. He reasons with them; he searches them; he almost hounds them.” (p. 73) It is often commented that Martyn Lloyd-Jones did not observe his congregation as passive, but he would seek to engage them with the Word. They were to be involved, not just sitting there as spectators. Here, Carrick emphasizes that this questioning moves the preaching of the Word from explication to application. The encouragement of self-reflection or self-examination in the hearer moves the sermon from being a lecture to a sermon. He concludes this section with this comment referring to a quote from CS Lewis: “There can be no question but that the sins of the pulpit have come home to roost in the pew. It is, therefore, high time for the pulpit to see to it that God is reinstated to the bench and that man is relegated to the dock.” (p. 80) He concludes the chapter in this way: “There can be no doubt that, under God and with God’s blessing, the interrogative is one of the foremost weapons in the preacher’s arsenal in the battle for the souls for men.” (p. 81).

I found that this chapter left me with a lot to reflect on. Again, as with the exclamative, the interrogative should never be contrived.

I have often found myself inclined to the interrogative because it brings about the reasoning aspect of the preacher’s task. Of course, the Holy Spirit must also be at work through the interrogative otherwise people will just enjoy the rhetoric without coming to a fuller realization of the truth of God’s Word. That being said, this is exactly what the Word of God does. It helps me to realize my condition and my need for a Savior. Pointed questions only drive that point home. This is one reason why I love the Book of Romans. As he writes in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul is relentless in driving these questions into the hearts and minds of his readers. It is then with this passion of the Apostle Paul that we also must engage congregations with the Word of God. 

The value of the interrogative is that it doesn’t necessarily assume certain things about people, but it forces them to put themselves under the scrutiny of God’s Word and Spirit. Used rightly, it avoids the dangers of preaching at, and instead focuses on preaching to.

Nathan Zekveld

Chapter Review: Preaching the Exclamative

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I am now moving from a summary of Carrick’s chapter on the indicative in preaching to his chapter on the exclamative. And yes, Reformed preaching is allowed to contain exclamation marks! Even if it is a Dutch guy on the pulpit.

He begins with the four types of sentences which include: statements, requests, questions, and exclamations. Statements are indicative, requests are imperative, questions are a branch of the indicative except with interrogative, and exclamations imply emotion. Digging deeper into the exclamative itself, it is usually expressed by words like how, what, oh, woe, etc. The purpose is to give a certain truth more emphasis. 

All these indicators of exclamatives are used in Scripture and I will record an example of each below focusing on the examples he gives from the Apostle Paul:

  1. Romans 10:15 “And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'”
  2. 2 Corinthians 7:11 “For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.”
  3. Romans 11:33 “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
  4. Micah 2:1 “Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand.”

In each case it is important to bring the emphasis and feeling that are appropriate in context. 

We can find examples of this in the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Samuel Davies, Asahel Nettleton, and Martyn-Lloyd Jones. All of these men use and abundance of exclamations in their sermons. Jonathan Edwards, for example, used these exclamations to emphasize the greatness of man’s sin. Harry S. Stout writes that “words or phrases such as ‘Hark!’ ‘Behold!’ ‘Alas!’ and ‘Oh!’ invariably signaled the pathos Whitefield dramatically recreated with his whole body.” Of course, contrary to his naturalistic evaluation, we have to consider how the Spirit was at work through his piety. Martin Lloyd-Jones once wrote that “Preaching a sermon is not to be confused with giving a lecture” and that “a sermon is not an essay”. On the opposite side, JI Packer has critiqued the type of sermon that only expresses “calm and chatty intimacy.” 

But of course, the real meat of the exclamative comes the preacher’s own heart and piety as the Spirit works through the preacher. J.W. Alexander writes: “No rhetorical appliance can make a cold passage truly warm. If, for any cause, an inanimate sermon must needs be uttered, it ought to be delivered with no more emotion than its contents engender in the speaker’s soul. Everything beyond that is pretence; and here is the source of all mock-passion, which is the fixed habit of many speakers.” We must remember that this is not simply rhetoric, but sacred rhetoric. And so Dabney challenges the preacher: “affectation in the preacher, in the orator, the damning sin.” This exclamative, then, is not primarily a rhetorical device, but flows from a heart that is overwhelmed by the goodness and mercy of God. 

Again, I appreciate Carrick’s exhortation to use exclamation marks in preaching as well as his warning against affectation. I have found it worthwhile to reflect on what the preaching does to me before I bring it onto the pulpit. Hebrews 4:12–13 states: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” This has always been an incredibly important truth to me as I am preparing for a sermon. No creature is hidden from His sight, that includes the preacher. And so if I am honest with myself, then I realize that this word must act first on my own pride, my own hypocrisy, my own sin! And so preaching must continue to be an overflow of my own faith life and union with Christ. This is why it is so important that true godliness accompany intellectual knowledge.

It’s like the old adage goes: “Theology leads to doxology.”

I will conclude with another quote from Dabney: “Nothing, therefore, is a true oration which is not a life, a spiritual action, transacted in the utterance.” 

 

Chapter Review: Preaching the Indicative

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Over the next couple weeks I will do a series of blog posts on preaching as I read through John Carrick’s book “The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric.” Today, I will work through his introduction and his first chapter.

Carrick introduces his book with a discussion as to whether the use of the terminology “sacred rhetoric” is appropriate when speaking of preaching. He comments on how our culture sets rhetoric in antithesis to action. He also comments on the words of the Apostle Paul where Paul contrasts the preaching of himself and his colleagues with human wisdom of the Greeks (I Cor. 2:4). Of course, the abuse of a thing does not invalidate its proper use and so he points out how the Apostle Paul did use rhetoric, just not in the dishonest and manipulative way that it was used by the Greeks. The preacher’s task is one of persuasion. Carrick points out that the four main rhetorical voices that are used in Scripture are these: indicative, exclamative, interrogative, and imperative. He then points out the two sides to preaching: the crucial use of the means (the Scriptures) and the crucial role of the Holy Spirit. These two are necessary for good preaching when we consider the “rhetorical voices” of preaching.

His first chapter turns to the indicative, which as Machen remarks in his classic Christianity & Liberalism is central to the proclamation of the gospel. He writes that “Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative.” This matter is no light matter but comes down to the contrast between Christianity & Liberalism itself: “The liberal preacher offers us exhortation… The Christian evangelist… offers… not exhortation but a gospel.” Carrick points that in much of the preaching of the Apostles and of course the great preaching of history, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ are presented in the indicative. We can see the many indicative statements of triumph throughout the New Testament. Just consider the message of the Apostle Peter in Acts 2. The imperative ‘repent and believe the gospel’ rests on historical fact, what really happened. Preaching is not primarily application, but it is explication of historical facts.

This is also the difference between Augustinianism and Pelagianism. Augustine argued that man is morally dead, whereas Pelagius argued that he is simply morally sick. Augustine then had to begin with the indicative, whereas Pelagius could begin with the imperative. 

Carrick quotes Murray: “The indicative underlies the imperative, and the assurance of the indicative is the urge and incentive to the fulfilment of the imperative.” Or to quote John Stott: “The invitation cannot properly be given before the declaration has been made. Men must grasp the truth before they are asked to respond to it.” Again, Stott writes: “So the true herald of God is careful to make a thorough and thoughtful proclamation of God’s great deed of redemption through Christ’s cross, and then to issue a sincere and earnest appeal to men to repent and believe. Not one without the other, but both.” 

There are fatal consequences to not taking this route. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes about certain ministers: “…they spend the whole time ‘getting at’ their people, and slashing them and exhorting them, calling them to do this and forcing them to do that.’ They start with the imperative rather than the indicative. The indicative and the imperative are inseparable: the indicative must move to the imperative, the imperative needs the indicative. What God has done must move men to respond. 

I appreciate Carrick’s grammatical approach to preaching. It puts into clear language the difference between Arminian preaching and Reformed preaching. It grounds all Biblical exhortation in the gospel and it bases the evangelical call of Christianity in the evangelical truths of Christianity. It is a reminder to preachers to begin with the gospel, the historical fact that Jesus died and rose again. But of course, when Paul was standing before Festus, he pointed out that these facts of the gospel were compelling reason for Festus to bow his knee to Jesus Christ: “For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” (Acts 2:26-27).

I trust that this is helpful food for thought. Next week I will reflect on Carrick’s 3rd chapter on the exclamative in preaching. 

How Shall We Then Fight?

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Reformed and Presbyterians, at least of the more conservative brand, are known to be scrappy. J. Gresham Machen, one of the founding pastors of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, wrote in his book Christianity & Liberalism: “In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.” While Machen’s “Warrior Children” took this a little too far when they began to scrap over the type of wood in the pews of the sanctuary, Machen’s point itself is one that should not be easily dismissed.

It is a Biblical point that Machen begins to formulate here in his polemic against liberalism in the church. Jude writes, calling on Christians to contend for the faith (Jude 3). Paul’s letter to Titus and Timothy are both a code of conduct in the battles that they must fight in the church and the world. Especially when it came to really important matters like Jewish people eating with Greek people in the church, the Apostle Paul was willing to stand up and confront his colleague the Apostle Peter (Gal. 2:11-14). I’m sure I could come up with many more examples of a call to conflict. We must contend for the truth.

Of course, I can already hear cheering from the bleachers, but you might realize that it is mainly the church foot ball team and a few farmers. On the other hand, there are a number of people who are wondering if this is tactful and helpful for the church. This group refers to Christ’s blessing on the peacemakers. Or as The Apostle Paul states in his letter to Timothy: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;” (I Tim. 2:8). This is probably one of the most unpopular verses in Scripture among the anti-effeminacy crowd. Remember, even King David says: “Your gentleness made me great.” (Psalm 18:35)

Calvin’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount was helpful for me. I recall that he explains that the word ‘peacemaker’ is a compound one. It involves peace, but it also involves an active making of peace. Machen realized that the peace of his time was a false peace. But he was also very careful making distinctions between members and office-bearers. Although Presbyterian, he was careful to recognize his solidarity with other variations of Protestantism and even Roman Catholicism to some degree against liberalism.

So if fight we must, how shall we then fight? Obviously any warfare in the church should engage with the whole counsel of God including Paul’s command to lift holy hands without anger or quarreling. This mean that we should also engage with the whole counsel of God for Christian living. So asking the question “how shall we fight?” brings up other questions “who shall we fight?” “what ideas shall we fight?” “when shall we fight?”. Is direct confrontation always the best mode of attack? Much more could be said about what is a hill to die on and what exactly is worth dividing over.

But there are other important questions. In your fights, is your speech exemplary and are your actions just as exemplary? Is your combat shaped by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition (James 3:14), or is it shaped by the wisdom from above which “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere” (James 3:17)? Again, James permits an active “peacemaking” here, but it must have a goal: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:18)

I am thankful for the battles that Machen fought almost 100 years ago. I am thankful for the battles that leaders in the Christian Reformed Church fought 25 years ago as they worked to form the United Reformed Churches. But in a church of splinters and fragments we should not forget to ask the question “how should we then fight?” Yes, we must fight, but we must also lift holy hands without quarreling and anger, as well as submit to the wisdom that is from above in all our contention for truth. Machen himself wrote at the close of his book on Christianity and Liberalism:

Is there no refuge from the strife? Is there no place of refreshing where a man can prepare for the battle of life? Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling over industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? if there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive a weary world.

I have more questions than answers here. But I believe that some of the Biblical principles laid out above are a good start. One thing that I have learned is that if men who love the Holy Bible don’t contend for peace, those who love brawling and error/heresy and sin will win the day. So yes, the word ‘peacemaker’ does indeed involve contention.


 

 

Baptism is Warfare

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“Do you renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world and all sinful lusts of the flesh?” This is one of the questions that commonly shows up in baptismal liturgies of the early church. This was asked when new converts would come up for baptism. Baptism is no light matter.

“The subjects of baptism are all the covenanted, whether they are truly such or are regarded as probably on account of external calling and profession of faith and communion with the believers, without any distinction of  sex, nation and age.” (Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 3, 383) In light of this, then would this baptismal vow apply to those who are baptized in infancy? Turretin also writes about baptism with regards to repentance: “Baptism is called the sacrament of repentance; not because it requires that beforehand in everyone to be baptized, but because it binds the baptized to the desire of it, whether in the present (when they are capable of it) or in the future” (Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 3, 419).

I have heard a number of people tell me that it would be helpful if all young people in Reformed churches could see the baptism of a new convert to Christianity just so that they can understand the full weight of what their baptism calls them too. To see a new Christian make a drastic change from past ways, to defy the works of darkness, to renounce the kingdom of darkness, is an important reminder that Christ has brought us from out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13). This involves a necessary rejection of the patterns of sin. Baptism is warfare.

Of course, no matter what the age, nation, or sex of the one being baptized, the call is to fight. John the Baptist was a man of God, and it seems that he had already undergone a transformation already in his mother’s womb, seeing as he leapt for joy when he heard Mary’s greeting (Lk. 1:41). The Apostle Paul calls on young children in the Church of Ephesus to be faithful in how they honor their parents (Eph. 6:1-3), just as he calls on the young children in the church of Colossae to obey their parents (Col. 3:20). More broadly, they were included in the exhortations to the Christian communities in the New Testament. Indeed, children are called upon to renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world and all sinful lusts of the flesh.

How often do we conceive of baptism in this dynamic language? Even Reformed people can fall into the trap of waiting for children in the covenant community to come to a moment of decision or a drastic conversion. But life is conversion. Consider the language of Canons of Dort 3.11:

But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them and powerfully illuminates their mind by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; He opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.

The weightiness of this black and white difference between living in the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of Christ must be impressed upon children as well from the youngest age. When they see other little girls and boys being baptized and ask what it means, they must be reminded who they are and who Christ is. They must also rest in the work of Christ and His Spirit in transforming dirty hearts. They must ask for the Spirit to resist the temptations of the kingdom of darkness. This baptism then really does bind them to repentance.

“Do you renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world and all sinful lusts of the flesh?” This is an important question to ask. Not only for the one who is preparing for baptism, but also for the one who is already baptized. Not only does the call of the gospel and knowing Christ go out to them, but they are in fact bound to respond in faith and trust. To reject such a serious call that goes out in the baptism of a Christian is then to incur a greater judgement (Heb. 10:26-31).

The answer of every Christian child, the answer of every Christian adult should be: “Yes! I renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world and all the sinful lusts of the flesh.” Or as we confess in LD 52 of the Heidelberg Catechism when explaining what it means to pray “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one”:

That is: In ourselves we are so weak that we cannot stand even for a moment. Moreover, our sworn enemies – the devil, the world, 3 and our own flesh 4 – do not cease to attack us. Will you, therefore, uphold and strengthen us by the power of your Holy Spirit, so that in this spiritual war we may not go down to defeat, but always firmly resist our enemies, until we finally obtain the complete victory.

Baptism is a call to warfare.

 

An Argument for Singing Hymns in Worship

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There have been times where I have almost been convinced of the argument for exclusive psalm-singing in public worship. The argument is generally connected to a strict reading of the regulative principle. This is essentially: that which is not commanded is forbidden.

Ephesians 5:19 reads: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,” Many Protestants think this refers to the modern distinction between Psalms (from Book of Psalms) and hymns (modern and historic songs of praise to God). But groups like the Reformed Presbyterians (RPCNA) will respond that this is a technical term for the Book of Psalms in Scripture. It definitely seems that they are probably right in their understanding of this verse in Ephesians.

But does this mean that we should scrap the use of the hymnal in worship and only sing the Psalter with the potential addition of songs taken directly out of Scripture (like the song of Moses and Zechariah)?

Danny Hyde defines the Regulative Principle here:

“The Regulative Principle of Worship holds that we worship God in the manner He has commanded us in His Word. As the Westminster Confession says, ‘But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited to his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture’ (21.1)..”

So then, does the singing of hymns in worship break this principle? Has God commanded that we only sing the Psalms in worship? I might add to this the questions: (1) Has God commanded that we only read Scripture in worship and not explain the Scriptures through the preaching of the Word? (2) Has God commanded that we have no creed but Christ, and that we should avoid reciting creeds and confessions in worship? (3) Should we only pray the prayers of Scripture in worship or can ministers call out to God before the congregation on behalf of the concerns and struggles in the congregation?

One of the principles for worship which is broadly agreed upon in Reformed and Presbyterian Churches, is that worship is a dialogue or a conversation between man and God. We recognize that God speaks and we respond. This could be called covenant renewal worship, but the principle is that when God speaks He demands a response.

When God speaks, He speaks through His Word. Of course the two primary pictures of the Gospel are Baptism and Lord’s Supper. So in Christian worship, the Scriptures must be the basis for the preaching, the singing, the prayers, our confession. It is the Word that regenerates men and women (I Peter 1) and so everything must be tested in accordance with the Scriptures in the Old Testament and the New Testament (whether songs, prayers, preaching, use of the sacraments, or confessions/creeds).

Being Scripture and divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Psalms should definitely hold a high place of priority in worship. The language of our praise should be shaped by the language of the Psalms. But we must also respond to the Word with the hymns and confessions of the Church. We must sing about the triumphs of God in the Scriptures, but we should also sing about the continuing triumphs of God in the history of the Church, as the Gospel spreads to the ends of the earth..

Along with the Theses of Bern, the Christian argument is that: “The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger.” And so Psalm-singing gives birth to the songs of the Church. In obedience to Christ and in faithfulness to His Word, we respond to the Word of God. We do this by singing the great hymns of the Church, and the songs of His ever expanding Kingdom.


 

The Public Nature of Christian Preaching: These Things Were Not Done in a Corner

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The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that the pulpits in church buildings are not our pulpits, but they are the pulpits of Jesus Christ. Throughout His time on earth, Jesus lead a very public ministry, his death was a national matter, and his resurrection made folly of the Roman guards who were stationed outside His tomb. His ascension into heaven means that He is ruling there. As such, any ambassador who steps up onto the pulpit to declare the Word of the Lord is not doing this in a corner, but before all men under heaven and earth.


We want our language in the public square to be fitting for public discourse. Yes, Christians should be in the public square. But if you think about it, the pulpit is in the public square. From the Christian pulpit, the summons of God to all men to repent and believe goes out. We must not draw a line between the pulpit and the public square. This would be a fictional line.


Acts 1 and Matthew 28 set out the Christian Church as witnesses to the Name of Jesus Christ. We have been sent out by Jesus Christ to witness to the world. On the confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus is building His Church, and against that Church the gates of Hell will not prevail (Matt. 16:13-21).


Reformed Christians confess in Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism that “the kingdom of heaven is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified…” The Son of God accomplishes three actions through His Church: “gathers, defends, and preserves for himself.” (LD 21) We also pray: “Preserve and increase your church.” (LD 48). You can find all of these references in this catechism.


When the Apostle Paul brought his testimony before Agrippa in Acts 26, he affirms that this was not done in a corner: “that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:23). The Apostle Paul writes: “For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.” (Acts 26:26)


If the death and resurrection of Jesus did not happen in a corner, then the Word of God declared on the pulpit is also message that takes place in the public square. This is no private message.

A Summary of Christianity & Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen

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Machen rarely calls out particular names in this book. On page 10, he makes reference to Mr. H. G. Wells in writing “Outline of History.” In this book, he maintains theological objectivity by focusing on ideas being promoted in the church at large. It also was not Machen’s aim to be in conflict a particular denomination. Instead, his target is what he refers to as the “Liberal Church” which he regards as another church. It is interesting that in his section on Christian doctrine, Machen even writes positively concerning the Roman Catholic Church: “The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.”1

In introducing this work, Machen opens up with an appeal to the necessity of controversy in the sphere of religion. He begins with definitions of both liberalism and naturalism. Liberalism and modernism are also partners. He uses the full term “modern naturalistic liberalism.” ‘Liberal’ refers to the open-mindedness of the position, which as he points out, is only used by the friends of liberals. Liberalism is an attack on the Christian faith while using traditional terminology. It comes accompanied by naturalism which focuses on the processes of nature as opposed to “the entrance of the creative power of God.”2 This modern naturalistic liberalism is characterized by a questioning of historical claims. It is also characterized by the promotion of modern scientific methods which are then regarded as separate from religion. He argues that two lines of criticism can be promoted against this modern naturalistic liberalism: first, that it is un-Christian; second, that it is unscientific.3 He proves these two lines of criticism in various ways throughout the book. It should be stated that one of his primary critiques of his opponents is their disregard for history. After all, science is done in history, and so the two studies should not be divorced from one another. Above all, his goal in this book is not only to show what Christianity is not but also what Christianity is.4

In the following chapter on doctrine, Machen begins by arguing that this debate over liberalism is no longer an intellectual debate but that it has entered the Sunday School class as well. Liberals will argue first that teaching is unimportant in the Church because Christian creeds are always changing anyways. And so liberals say that even though their teachings are different than historical Christianity, they are essentially the same as Christianity. Second, they argue that Christianity is about life, not doctrine. Third, they promote a toleration of other doctrines. Fourth, they first try to appeal to Paul and then to Jesus to prove their points. And last, Machen considers the carelessness to theological difference in liberalism. Machen points out the skepticism of the first comment. The second is internally incoherent because to say that “Christianity is a life” is a doctrinal statement. The third is related to the fifth and Machen distinguishes between recognizing error while still accepting someone as Christian as opposed to tolerating differences as if they don’t matter. Machen proves from the life and doctrine of both Jesus and Paul the incoherence of appealing to them to diminish the importance of doctrine.

Machen then turns to the issue of how liberals and Christians view the topic of “God and Man.” With regards to God, liberalism says that it is unnecessary to have a conception of God. This of course, messes with the divinity of Jesus, because without a conception of God, to say that “Jesus is God” is meaningless. He then mentions that liberalism speaks of the fatherhood of God, but its meaning is hard to discern. Similarly, in reference to man, liberalism struggles with the meaning of sin. Machen responds to their claims by pushing the importance of the doctrine of God and man again, and pushing the claims of Scripture itself. In the fog of liberal definitions, he speaks with clarity and conciseness.

Having disposed of the Christian conception of a sovereign God and the fact of sin, the Bible also is under attack. Here, Machen is not only concerned with defending the historical account of Scripture, but also its necessity for us living today. In particular, he responds to the attack on plenary inspiration by those who want to depict it as a mechanical process. He responds by arguing for the individuality of the Biblical writers. He also realizes that many who deny the doctrine of plenary inspiration are true Christians because they still accept the Bible “as a true message on which Christianity depends.”5 As such, they are not liberals. Modern liberalism rejects not only plenary inspiration, but they also attack Scripture’s authority by bringing up questions about the historical Jesus, etc. Thus, Machen’s challenge is that they base Christianity not on the Bible, but on their own feelings and intellect.

Machen then writes a large chapter on the topic of Christ. He affirms the Christian teaching that Jesus is no mere teacher, but as a Saviour in whom men can trust. But the liberal teacher regards Jesus “as an example for faith, not the object of faith.”6 In their studies of the historic Jesus, they claim that his Messianic consciousness arose late in life. But Machen claims that the liberals find themselves in a quandary when it comes to the lack of consciousness of sin in Jesus and more importantly the fact that he is continually dealing with the problem of sin. This then creates a massive difference between the experience of Jesus and our experience. Machen claims: “Jesus is an example, moreover, not merely for the relations of man to man but also for the relation of man to God.”7 In order to approach Jesus as a Christian we must not simply see Him as an exemplary man, but as supernatural. This does not deny His humanity, but it means He is the Saviour of the world. Of course, the teachings of Paul also lead us to this view of Jesus Christ. This means that we must also defend the miracles of Jesus against the claims of scientific naturalism: “Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Saviour.”8 But liberalism rejects miracles, and thus they reject the divinity of Christ and the sovereignty of God in nature. Machen then poses the question: “Shall we accept the Jesus of the New Testament as our Saviour, or shall we reject Him with the liberal Church?”9 Machen then deals with the problem of honesty among liberal preachers. They might still say “Jesus is God” but they mean something different by the term “God”. Thus that man is lying when he uses this phrase in front of old-fashioned Christians. In the end, we must reject the liberal Jesus as a manufactured figment of the imagination, and not as the Jesus who is the Christ and the Son of the Living God.

Machen summarizes: “Liberalism finds salvation (so far as it is willing to speak at all of ‘salvation’) in man; Christianity finds it in an act of God.”10 When we have considered all the above – Jesus as Saviour, the problem of sin, the truth of Scripture, the sovereignty of God – the reader can imagine where liberalism and Christianity diverge at this point. Machen challenges liberal doctrine on the atonement, and then defends its necessity. Because of their minimizing of the atonement, they then attack the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross. But the biggest problem that liberals have with the cross and salvation is that it is dependent on history, and they lack confidence in the authentic history of Scripture. Christianity is “dependent upon history.”11 Without the cross, there is no good news, because then there is no way to deal with sin. Thus, the liberals seek to create an entirely inoffensive gospel that negates sin and the necessity of the cross in dealing with sin. Liberal preachers get sick of an angry God. But the Bible speaks of this fact. As opposed to the soft God of modern liberals, Christianity holds to a God who is alive and sovereign. And so we must see that “at the beginning of every Christian life, there stands, not a process, but a definite act of God.”12 Again, Christianity and liberalism diverge at the topic of faith: Christianity is based on faith, liberalism is based on legalism. While liberalism pits spiritual religion against ceremonialism, Paul pits God’s free grace against human merit.13 Machen then responds to the issue of social gospel and responds with the fact that the Christian gospel first deals with the problem of sin rather than dealing with the problems in society first. He focuses on the fact that Christianity focuses on the act of God in history while liberalism tells men to be good.

In this final section, Machen explains the liberal and Christian conception of Church. Here he contrasts the importance of social institutions in liberalism and the social institution of the Church. The Church is the only place where we experience true brotherhood. While the liberals erase creed, Machen maintains that human society can only be truly built by redeemed men and that central institution is the Church. Here he gets into matters of trying to remove liberalism from the church. Even though they don’t hold to a creed, real Christianity does hold to a creed. He then focuses on challenging pastors and makes a clear distinction to really hold the teachers in the church to account. He then challenges those who seek the ministry in order to promote their liberalism. He urges preachers to speak the Word with power and concludes with a call to unity with integrity.


This is part of a paper that I wrote on Christianity & Liberalism for Church History class at CRTs.



1 Machen, 52.

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Ibid., 7.

4 Ibid., 16.

5 Ibid., 75.

6 Ibid., 84.

7 Ibid., 93.

8 Ibid., 104.

9 Ibid., 109.

10 Ibid., 117.

11 Ibid., 121.

12 Ibid., 140.

13 Ibid., 144.