29 April, 2008

Scripture: Source

And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
2 Timothy 3:15-17.

The causes for the Reformation have been viewed from many perspectives. Specifically or materially the cause of the Reformation was the nature of salvation: is man saved by a cooperation of works and faith, or by faith alone in Christ alone? Foundationally or formally the issue was one of authority: to whom do we appeal; Scripture and ecclesiastical tradition, or Scripture alone?

There are more reasons for the Reformation, but essentially it lies in this: upon what or whom do we ground our belief and action? At the time of the Reformation this question was applied to the all-important question of our standing before God: how can an unrighteous sinner be accepted by a holy God? The resounding answer rediscovered at the Reformation was, “by grace through faith.” It wasn’t a new answer to the question. It wasn’t as if Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers thought up a better question than that of Roman Catholicism. It was the same that Augustine had given before Luther, and Paul before Augustine. Moreover, before Paul, Moses had left the same record in describing Abraham’s belief: “And he believed in the LORD and he counted it to him for righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6).

The important thing to notice is that the answer was derived from Scripture. Luther, Calvin, Knox, and the Puritans after them had a great appreciation and reverence for the early church Fathers before them. Simply reading through their writings makes this beyond dispute. However, they were willing to take Scripture alone as the final word and ultimate authority by which all writings and actions were to be judged; a decision they were willing to make even in the light of much suffering, difficulty and bloodshed.

Why is this? Were not men such as Augustine, Athanasius, Tertullian and others holy, exemplary and commendable? Surely they were! May the Lord be pleased to raise up many more such men for the church today. So why then did the Reformers and their descendants subject the writings of these men, as well as popes and councils to the Scriptures?

The answer lies in the passage quoted at the beginning. Only the Scriptures were given by inspiration of God. This is that which separates the teaching of mere men, even good and holy men, from the teaching of inspired men in Scripture.

In our day we are ready to misunderstand the meaning of the text before us. Inspiration today usually means something synonymous to motivation. “Inspirational music” is that which motivates us to cherish life, beauty and goodness. An “inspirational speaker” motivates us to live in accordance to his message. It is true that Scripture is in this sense “inspirational.”

However, notice that the verse claims not that “All Scripture is inspirational.” Instead it claims that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” That is, the cause or source of Scripture is inspiration of God.

The way in which our translators understood “inspiration” is somewhat foreign to us today. They were intending a meaning related to breathing. Whereas it is somewhat foreign, it is not altogether so. For instance, one who has trouble breathing makes use of a respirator. Literally “inspiration” could be translated “to breathe into.” Thus the meaning of the verse has to do with God breathing.

This is why Peter wrote, “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Spirit.” The prophets and apostles were not simply wanting to write something that would motivate God’s people unto holiness. They were writing as the Spirit of God moved them along. God was speaking through them.

This is why Scripture is called “the word of God.” Paul makes mention of this in 1 Thessalonians, “when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God…” This is something of a mystery, because the words were “heard of us”. That is, the Thessalonians heard Paul and others speak. However, what they heard was not simply Paul’s message. Ultimately and really this was God’s message, “the word of God.”

Thus, “given by inspiration of God” means that the Scriptures were spoken by God. The Bible is God’s message to his people and his world. This is a glorious truth for all men! When reading the works of the ancients such as Plato’s Symposium, Seneca’s moral essays and other works of renown, one is struck with much that is wise and noble. However, as you read through these works you become chillingly aware of a great mixture of truth and error. Such men offer some of the best that uninspired men can produce. But this is at one and the same time wondrous and dangerous. It stands as a ruined statue. There is a glory to it, but it is imperfect. Why would we imagine anything less when we realize the source of such writing? The source of such writing is fallen man.

This is not the case with Scripture. As we read through its pages we read through the very mind of a perfect and holy God. This is so because the source of Scripture is God himself. This is the God who has perfectly communicated his mind to man. The same God whose message is without spot or stain, because he is holy and cannot mislead or sin. This is why the Reformers were willing to subject the decrees and councils of church history to Scripture alone. This is what led Luther to say at the Diet of Worms with his life on the line, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” (Bainton, Here I Stand).

This has profound implications for all of life. It not only marks out the way to answer the question put forth to the Reformers during Luther and Calvin’s time relating to justification. It also marks out the way to answer all questions dealing with God’s “glory, man’s salvation, faith and life” as the Westminster Confession notes. How should I live? How should we worship? How should the church function? All of these must ultimately be answered by God. How do we know God's answers to such questions? Through Scripture. It is not that the writing of uninspired men is unhelpful. On the contrary, as the Lord has granted teachers to the church to provide aid in understanding Scripture, such teaching is immensely helpful. But it is just that, insofar as they aid in understanding God’s message they are helpful.

Ultimately we do not want to rest such decisions on good men who are prone to err. We must not look merely at how questions have been answered in our generation. Nor can we answer such questions based on an internal feeling or appreciation. These most important questions must be answered by God. How should I live? This is a question God must answer. How should we worship? This question must have a follow-up question: Whom are we worshipping? Jehovah, the triune God of all. When we realize the object of worship, we then realize the answer to the first question. Only God can inform us how we should worship him. And so on with all the other questions of faith and practice. With every question facing us today relating to true religion, let us go to the one treasury of untainted, perfect and sufficient answers – the holy word of God. May the Lord add his needed blessing as we do so.

24 April, 2008

Free Offer of the Gospel

In today's concern for relevant churches people seek out pulpits teaching on practical concerns, ethical demands, cultural issues or family friendly messages. However, what is more relevant than a church that proclaims the free offer of the gospel?

This is not to say that there is no need for such things mentioned above. Scripture certainly handles practical concerns, makes ethical demands and portrays congregations that welcome the entire family. Moreover, as a Presbyterian, the 40 plus questions in the Shorter Catechism opening the meaning of the Ten Commandments ensure that we not neglect such practical concerns. However, there seems to be a growing tendency among Reformed churches to focus exclusively on these issues. Many times in the excitement of being "culturally aware" we neglect that the church first and foremost is to proclaim the gospel to all creatures.

The most unfortunate issue, in my experience, is that it seems many pulpits have forgotten what the proclamation of the gospel sounds like, or even is. It simply is not proclaimed. Many will mention the need to come to the Lord by faith, exhort hearers unto repentance, but fall short of actually offering the good news of Christ Jesus to sinners. It is as if we hesitate at the threshold.

For instance, take the words of Professor John Murray: "It is to lost sinners that Christ is offered, and the demand of that overture is simply and solely that we commit ourselves to him in order that we may be saved. In the gospel overture Christ is brought into the lap of lost sinners and placed there in all the glory of his person and the perfection of his ministry. Here is the grandeur of the ambassador's vocation. There should be no reserve or restraint. Christ cannot be brought too near to men in the free overtures of his grace." ("Faith", in Collected Writings of John Murray, 2:259)

Why are so many Reformed pulpits relatively silent on the matter? It is almost as if we blush to hear these words - "Christ is brought into the lap of lost sinners...there should be no reserve or restraint. Christ cannot be brought too near to men in the free overtures of his grace." But, oh! the beauty of such a thing! As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5, "Now then are we ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." The apostle held out this offer with great affection. There was no hesitance, no worry, no shame in it. This is the glory of the gospel. It comes freely to all who hear. It sets our Savior "into the lap of lost sinners" and says "here is salvation!"

Furthermore, recovering the truth of the free offer affects the hearts of all Christians. John Howe in his "Redeemer's Tears Wept Over Lost Souls" wrote: "And now, shall our Redeemer be left to weep alone over these perishing souls? Have we no tears to spend upon this doleful subject? O that our heads were waters, and our eyes fountains! Is it nothing to us, that multitudes are sinking, going down into perdition, under the name of Christian, under the seal of baptism, from under the means of life and salvation! perishing! and can we can do nothing to prevent it?"

Certainly it is true that "by the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death." (WCF III:3). This decree cannot be undone by anything man does or leaves undone. However, what we sometimes forget to our own and others' hurt is that "As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto." (WCF III:6).

This is why the authors of the Sum and Saving Knowledge wrote, "In the word of God preached by sent messengers, the Lord makes offer of grace to all sinners..." And, "By these outward ordinances, as our Lord makes the reprobate inexcusable, so, by the power of his Spirit, he applies unto the elect, effectually, all saving graces purchased to them in the covenant of redemption, and maketh a change in their persons."

Thus, it is only insofar as the proclamation of the gospel is sent forth that the elect are called in. It is not that we forsake God's sovereignty in such a publication of the gospel. Rather we set before sinners the only means of salvation. Moreover, it is only because God is sovereign that we take any hope at all that the gospel will go forth victoriously. The reprobate are left inexcusable - we should shudder at the thought - but, and this is glorious!, "the elect are drawn unto Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit!

It is as Paul wrote in Romans chapter 10: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe on him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" This is the rationale behind such an offer. The elect must hear of the good news. Without hearing there is no believing. Without believing, there is no salvation.
May our God strengthen the understanding and resolve of his servants, so that once again a full and free gospel would be proclaimed throughout all the world!

08 April, 2008

Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) Efforts in St. Louis

On Thursday, April 3rd the North American Presbytery of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) held worship and informational services in the St. Louis area. Rev. Sherman Isbell of the Metropolitan Washington D.C. Congregation led the services. This is in conjunction with an effort by the Presbytery to plant Churches throughout the nation.

Many thanks unto the Lord for his kind and generous provision in granting the opportunity to meet and worship together. It was personally encouraging to hear the preaching of God’s word, sing the Lord’s praise and enjoy fellowship with fellow Christians. Our prayer is that this would be blessed by God as the beginning of an established work in the area. Currently we have an evening Bible study which meets on the evenings of the Lord’s day, and are looking to establish weekly worship services in the area.

Mr. Jim Merkel, a reporter of the South County Suburban Journal, wrote on the event in an article you can find online here: http://southcountyjournal.stltoday.com/articles/2008/04/07/news/sj2tn20080407-0409ssj-scot0.ii1.txt.I personally offer my gratitude to Mr. Merkel and the Journal for reporting on the event. I thought it might prove helpful and beneficial to offer some further comments regarding the Free Church and some of the principles mentioned in the article. For a quick statement on identifying features of the Free Church, please consult the following link: http://www.masterstrumpet.org/features.pdf. Also the denominational website, http://www.freekirkcontinuing.co.uk/FCC/Welcome.html and the Washington congregational site, http://members.aol.com/RSISBELL/church.html will provide a helpful introduction to the Church.

Some of the principles mentioned in the article by Mr. Merkel include purity of worship, Sabbath observance and the civil establishment of true religion. At the foundation of all the principles held dear by the Free Church is the belief that the true God has revealed himself in Scripture. Thus, we view the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments to be the ultimate authority of all life, including issues of faith and practice. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 states, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” This idea is enshrined in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The second question asks, “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?” To this the answer supplied reads, “The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.”

Consequentially, we believe that Scripture is a sufficient guide and rule for all matters of doctrine and practice. As once prominent American theologian John L. Girardeau wrote, “A divine warrant is necessary for every element of doctrine, government and worship in the Church; that is, whatsoever in these spheres is not commanded in the Scriptures, either expressly or by good and necessary consequence from their statements, is forbidden.” One of our subordinate standards, the Westminster Confession states the same principle in chapter 20, section 1: “the instituted way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to…any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”

This belief manifests in the non-accompanied psalm singing in every worship service. Whereas many of us involved in the Free Church cherish such hymns as “Amazing Grace” by John Newton or “Not What My Hands Have Done” by Horatius Bonar among many other such hymns, we find no warrant given to us in Scripture to offer such hymns to our sovereign and holy God. This is not to say that there is not much edifying and enjoyable content in uninspired hymns. However, when we read the Scriptural testimony we find the command to sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16), which are technical titles referring to the Old Testament book of Psalms. Moreover, we find that God has provided us not only with the command to praise him, but also with an entire book that form the content of that praise. At first glance this seems overly restrictive and unnecessary to many. However, if we take the word of God seriously, we cannot find any command to offer uninspired hymns unto the Lord in public worship. For more on psalm singing, please visit the following weblink: http://members.aol.com/rsichurch/worship.html. Particularly helpful is John Keddie’s, Sing the Lord’s Song, which is available by scrolling down the link above.
With reference to Christian Sabbath observance, we cherish the first day of the week as the instituted day of worship. God has kindly hedged off one day in seven that we can rest from our labors and seek the Lord’s face. To aid us in doing so, he has commanded that we cease from our normal routine. This includes such things as lawful but unnecessary employment and recreation. In the Old Covenant, God had instituted the last day of the week as the Sabbath. From Christ’s resurrection onward, the Sabbath continues on the first day of the week in honor of our Lord’s victory over sin, death and hell. Along with the Sabbath command found in Exodus 20:8-11, we also find the following from the book of Isaiah, chapter 58:13-14: “If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.”Certainly works of necessity and mercy are permitted upon the Christian Sabbath. As our Lord taught, “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath,” (Mark 2:27). We should help those who are in need, visit the sick, orphaned, homeless, and so on. We do these for the very reason we do anything: God has commanded such to be done. Moreover, in such behavior we image God who is a father to the fatherless and merciful in all his ways. It is equally necessary that we tend to the needs of our body in eating, clothing and so on. One may wish to consult the Westminster Confession, chapter 20 for more regarding the Sabbath: http://members.aol.com/rsichurch/faith.html. Also see James MacGregor’s writings on the subject beginning here: http://members.aol.com/RSIGRACE/sabbath1.html.

Something that cannot be expressed so well on paper is the Free Church's commitment to experiencing salvation. Whereas we join with other Presbyterian and Reformed Christians in emphasizing doctrine, the role of reason in religion, and right behavior, we also emphasize the desperate need we have of actually experiencing the grace of God continually. We are far from interested in merely seeing the thinking of the Church and world reformed according to Scripture. Rather, we teach and emphasize doctrine in hope that the Holy Spirit would awaken the conscience of each sinner to his desperate need to repent of his sin and believe in the Lord Jesus. Furthermore, we emphasize the need for the continual ministry of the Spirit in the daily life of each believer. We believe ardently in the necessity of truth and Spirit. Our testimony is: "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). And, "Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God" (Romans 8:12-14).
We recognize that not every believer is at the same state of maturity, discernment and sanctification. Thus we welcome all believers who are interested in worshipping our Lord in accordance to his word. Moreover, as Scripture teaches that God has ordained the preaching of the Gospel to be the means of converting lost sinners to Jesus Christ, we welcome anyone interested in learning more about the truth of God in Christ our Lord.

My last word, and the one I wish to emphasize and be emphasized more than any other, is that at our very root we prize the sovereign grace of God to sinners. This grace we prize has been revealed in Scripture, accomplished by Jesus Christ, and is applied by the Holy Spirit. Our greatest desire and our greatest emphasis is preaching Christ crucified for sinners. Although we deeply treasure and appreciate the Church principles mentioned above, would ever stand fast for their divine authority, and work and pray to the end that they would again be embraced by all believers in Jesus; the most treasured of all is that the true God of all men has sent his Son Jesus Christ to be crucified on behalf of sinners. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:16-17). If we maintain the other principles but forfeit the grace of God in Jesus Christ alone, we have failed and become useless though all men should join with us. Christ crucified, resurrected and reigning is our deepest and most solemn commitment. Christ is our life. Christ is our testimony. Christ is our all.

Please feel free to respond with any comments or questions. You may also email me at jmattull1643@gmail.com.
Kindest regards,
Jonathan Mattull

What's in a Name?

Warm rarely finds connection with presbyterian today. When was the last time the words "What a warm presbyterian" were heard or uttered by you? It is true, most do not speak this way today. Typically we hear or use kind, nice or friendly. With such descriptions as "frozen chosen" and "the split p's" being all too accurate, it is difficult to find presbyterians, or for that matter, believers in general today who might be described as warm.

Regardless of denomination, views of soteriology, church government, worship, etc., most today are more interested in winning a debate, gaining recognition or serving their own agenda in some way. Left in the dust is the "loser" of such debates. What a rebuke to us all! How is it that we who claim to be followers of the Lord Jesus should desire to be better known for our winning of arguments than our living out the truth in love. It is mandatory for us to be zealous for the truth. However it is equally mandatory that we be kind and humble. Is there a way of putting truth and humility together?

To begin with, there is not only hope, it is already a reality. The reality is Jesus Christ who is full of grace and truth. No one cherished truth more than our Lord, who is Truth. No one was more tender hearted than Jesus, who was full of compassion. To put truth and humility together, we must begin, continue and end with Jesus the Messiah.

But, is there a way in today's world to hold zealously to the truth and have gracious and humble hearts in so doing? My hope is that there is. In the past, men such as John Calvin, John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, Robert Murray M'Cheyne, Archibald Alexander, and others have sought to put the two together. The name of this weblog, Presbyterian Pastures, represents what I hope to be a reflection of such an effort: presbyterian in doctrine, government and practice, but pastoral in communication of such beliefs.

I wish to extend an invitation to all who might come across these pages to seek the Lord's blessing, that he would pour out his Spirit afresh upon his people. Oh that he would revive his work in our midst! Oh that the earth would be full of the knowledge of Christ!

All are welcome to read, comment and question. May it be done in a manner that honors the Lord, submits to his word and respects all of our neighbors.