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We are a church of the PCA

FPC-Clarksdale is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). What does this mean and why is it significant to our identity?

PRESBYTERIAN IS A FORM OF CHURCH GOVERNMENT

The word “Presbyterian” refers specifically to a system of church government in which authority resides in the hands of elders, who are chosen from and by the people. The elders’ authority is exercised in three tiers of church “courts”—the Session (elders of a local church), the Presbytery (pastors and elder representatives of churches in a geographical area), and the General Assembly (pastors and elder representatives of the Presbyteries).

Some of the strengths of our system of government are:

  • Accountability: We answer to those outside of our church for our life and doctrine, which accountability is particularly crucial in times of conflict.
  • Connectedness: We are part of something bigger than our church. We share resources, supporting ministries and missionaries, and use gifts for the edification of the broader church.
  • Leadership Plurality. Members of each church court share authority equally. As pastor of our church I have no more authority than the other elders, which is a good check on everyone’s ego and an attempt institutionalize the proverb, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22).

THE STORY OF THE PCA

Logo-620-e1466640354284The PCA was born out of the old Southern Presbyterian Church (the PCUS) in 1973.

After years of concern about the theological direction of the denomination, theological conservatives banded together to form a new denomination with the stated purpose to be “faithful to the Scriptures, true to the reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.” Our denomination has been exactly what our founders imagined. 40+ years later the PCA continues as an evangelical, Reformed, and evangelistic denomination. We are the largest evangelical Presbyterian denomination in America, with 1900 churches and 370k members, but still are dwarfed in size by the mainline Presbyterian denomination, the PCUSA, which boasts 10k churches and 2.8 million members.

I love being a part of the PCA and give thanks to God regularly for it. Yet the story of our denomination is not without its imperfections. One of these is our ambivalence towards the struggle for the human rights of black Americans going on in the days of our inception. At our 2016 General Assembly, we passed overwhelming the Resolution on Civil Rights, owning and repenting of these sins.

THE WONDERFUL AND WIDE WORK OF THE PCA

It’s difficult to summarize the wonderful and wide work of our denomination, so I’ll leave it to the interested to dig deeper. Here’s an overview of the committees and ministries:

Administration Committee (AC): Oversees the planning and execution of the yearly General Assembly (which is a massive undertaking). Publishes our excellent denominational magazine, byFaith. Helps connect pastors looking for churches with churches looking for pastors.

UnknownChristian Discipleship Ministries (CDM): Publishes Sunday School
curriculum, offers conferences for training teachers and
discipleship leaders.

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Mission to the World (MTW) The missionary-sending agency of the PCA. There are MTW missionaries all over the world, working in teams to evangelize the lost and plant new churches. This video is awesome.

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Mission to North America (MNA) Coordinates church planting and missional partnerships to serve PCA churches and presbyteries in North America in their mission to grow and multiply biblically healthy churches.

logo-ruf.jpgReformed University Fellowship(RUF): The campus ministry of the PCA, RUF has ordained ministers serving on 140 university campuses throughout the US and even around the world. Many of the young generation in the PCA who did not grow up in the denomination have come in through the influence of RUF, me among them! RUF at the University of Georgia is a prime reason I am a PCA minister now.

Covenant Seminary: Located in St. Louis,covenant.png MO, Covenant is our excellent denominational seminary. Most PCA ministers were educated either at Covenant or Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS).

Covenant College: The PCA’s undergraduate college is also called Covenant—told you we are serious about our Covenant Theology! It’s one of the most scenic colleges around, nestled on the summit of Lookout Mountain on the Georgia-Tennessee state line near Chattanooga.

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PCA Foundation: Financial planning arm that assists those looking to give large gifts to the ministries and churches of the PCA.

RBILOGOSWebColor16-.pngRetirement & Benefits Incorporated (RBI): RBI provides financial direction and benefits to ministers in the PCA and all employees of our churches. It’s basically the financial advisor arm of the denomination.

Unknown-1.jpegRidge Haven Conference & Retreat Center: Ridge Haven is a retreat center in the Western North Carolina mountains—one of my favorite areas in the world. They host camps and conferences for PCA folks and beyond.

We Are Reformed, Covenant Theology

When we say that FPC is “Reformed” that doesn’t mean only that we believe the Five Points of Calvinism. It refers also to how we read the Bible and understand its storyline—we hold to what is called “Covenant Theology” (CT).

This entry will ask and answer two questions: WHAT IS COVENANT THEOLOGY?and HOW DOES COVENANT THEOLOGY SHAPE FPC?

WHAT IS COVENANT THEOLOGY?

CT understands the storyline of the Bible and history to be ordered by a series of covenants, bonds-in-blood by which God establishes and maintains relationship with his people.

Here’s a simple picture illustrating the Bible’s covenants.

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What’s important to note is that the covenants are not given independently; rather, each one builds upon the foundation of the previous ones, progressively revealing God’s plan of salvation unto the coming of Jesus. CT teaches that ultimately there are not many covenants, but one Covenant of Grace unfolded incrementally.

Let’s look at each covenant and see how each progressed God’s unfolding plan of redemption.

  1. Garden of Eve. God’s Covenant of Grace, his plan to reverse the curse and save a people for himself, is first spoken in mid-sentence of his cursing Adam, Eve, and the Serpent for their sins. What theologians call the “First Gospel” is in Genesis 3:15:

And I will put enmity between you (the Devil) and the woman (Eve), and between your offspring and hers; he (the offspring of the woman) will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

The offspring of the woman will deal a mortal head-blow to Serpent, just as a person would kill a snake by stomping on its head. Despite this the Serpent will be allowed to wound the offspring of the woman but only with a bite on the heel—a non-mortal wound. This is a covenant promise fulfilled on Calvary, as Jesus is given over to death (his heel struck) but three days later rises (Satan’s head crushed).

  1. Noahic Covenant. After the flood God expands his covenant by promising never to flood the world again. We call this a “covenant of preservation,” because it serves to preserve the world until the final judgment.

The promises of the covenant to Noah are given with a sign: a physical symbol that reveals and reminds of the covenant’s promises. The rainbow is now to be a reminder of God’s promise to withhold judgment until the end of time.

  1. Abrahamic Covenant: In Genesis 12, God narrows his salvation plans to one man—Abraham. God reveals himself to Abraham, calling him to leave his homeland and go to a place he will show him. Along with this command, he gives incredible covenant promises:

“I will make you into a great nation  and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing; I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth  will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).

The promised offspring of Adam and Eve, the One who would crush the head of the Serpent, would come through Abraham’s body. By this offspring, the entire world and all the families of the world, who now live under God’s curse, will be blessed.

God formalizes his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 through a bloody ceremony and gives circumcision as the visible sign of the covenant in chapter 17.

  1. Mosaic Covenant. God’s covenant with his people through Moses is a gigantic step forward in God’s unfolding covenant. He saves his people from slavery in Egypt and leads them out into the wilderness where on Mt. Sinai he reveals his Law to them.

It’s tempting to contrast the Law and the promises as if they are utterly distinct, but truth is (as Paul reminds repeatedly in his letters) that the Law doesn’t nullify the promises made to Abraham. Rather, it is added because of sin—to show our total depravity and God’s holy hatred of sin, a combination that makes us wholly unable to save ourselves.

The Mosaic covenant is a complicated development in God’s plan and is accompanied by tons of outward signs. Lots of regulations, laws (civil and moral), elaborate sacrifices to deal with sin, a series of feasts and festivals, etc. All these are meant to humble the people and cause them to feel their need for the promised Savior.

  1. Davidic Covenant: That salvation will not come through God’s people keeping his Law is illustrated by the history of the nation (not good!). As always it’s through the promised offspring of Eve and Abraham, and now—we learn—David.

 ‘The Lord declares to you (David)  that the Lord himself will establish a house for you:  When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.  I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’(2 Samuel 7:11-16)

Some of this is fulfilled in and specific to Solomon, but the ultimate fulfillment will be in a coming Davidic Messiah, one who will have a Kingdom of universal scope and eternal duration. God will make this happen in spite of his people’s sin. All the prophets from this time on look for and long for the coming Son of David.

  1. New Covenant. Through this Davidic king, God would fulfill his ancient covenant promises and establish his new, final covenant. By this new covenant all families of the earth would realize the blessings promised to Eve, Abraham, and David.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,  “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant  I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me,  from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”(Jeremiah 31:31-34).

It goes without saying that Jesus of Nazareth is this promised one, the mediator of this new covenant. The new covenant is established in his blood, as he fulfills the Law of God and takes the curses of the covenant upon his body. Now, Satan’s head is crushed and it is only a matter of time until all things will be remade according to God’s blessing.

HOW DOES COVENANT THEOLOGY SHAPE FPC?

First of all, CT shapes the way we preach and teach the Bible. As I (Ryan) am preparing to preach I always consider the question, “Where does this passage fit in the covenant structure of the Bible?” The answer to this question is crucial to the right understanding of any particular passage, especially in the Old Testament.

On that note, we are not afraid to teach the Old Testament because we don’t see it as the text of another faith—it is Christian Scripture! Since there is one Covenant of Grace we believe that everyone who has ever been saved, from Adam to you, has been saved through faith alone in Christ alone. We have the fullest revelation of that faith and so are especially blessed, but salvation has never been a matter of being ethnically Jewish or doing your best to obey the Law. For me personally this perspective has brought the Scriptures together and made them come alive.

Another way CT shapes us is in our understanding and practice of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We understand Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as signs God gives to us to establish and confirm his covenant promises, and not first of all as actions we take to express our commitment to God.

God promises to cleanse us of our sin through Christ and has given the sign of Baptism as a token of that promise. God promises to sustain and nourish through the broken body and poured out blood of Christ, and has given us the Lord’s Supper as a token of that promise.

We believe that as Circumcision was in the old covenants, so is Baptism in the New Covenant. We see this connection is Colossians 2:11-12:

In (Christ) also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

“The circumcision of Christ” is Jesus’s death on the cross, by which he bore the penalty of our sin. Jesus fulfilled the bloody, Old Testament sign of circumcision by his bloody, sacrificial death. This is why circumcision is no longer a covenant sign. Rather the sign of baptism now takes the place of circumcision, symbolizing the blessing his “circumcision” on the cross brings to us. By baptism we (and are sins) are “buried with him” and have come out the other side of death cleansed and filled with the Holy Spirit. Now, instead of circumcising those who enter the covenant, God commands us to baptize them (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:37-39).

Grounded in CT, we believe baptism, as circumcision, is to be given both to those professing faith and also to their households (Acts 11:14; 16:15). As in the Old Covenant, God graciously welcomes our children into his family by virtue of their relationship to us as believing parents and commands us to put his sign on them. We are to view our children as set apart from the children of unbelievers and heirs to the covenant of grace. By faith we believe that God is at work in their lives in a special way. As Paul would say of ethnic Israel so would we say of the New Covenant church—there is much advantage in every way being the offspring of believing parents (Romans 3:1-2)!

Nevertheless, as circumcision was of no saving benefit to individual Israelites unless that responded personally to faith in God, so is baptism of no saving benefit to children born into the New Covenant unless they have faith. Baptism doesn’t save automatically any more than circumcision did. Rather, circumcision was and baptism is a outward sign of an inward transformation. It is to serve our children as a means of grace to them—a symbol of God’s claim and their identity, compelling them to embrace the promises in faith.

The Lord’s Supper similarly takes deeper meaning when understood as a covenant sign. The Supper is not a mere “remembering;” it is a communion with Christ together in his death. God feeds us in the bread and wine and is present with us in the elements in a unique way. Communion is a meal of covenant renewal, calling us back to embrace God’s promises and provision.

We Are Reformed, The Five Points of Calvinism

INTRODUCTION

This is the first of two weeks we will spend defining what we mean when we say FPC is a part of the “Reformed” tradition of Protestantism.

The 16th Century Protestant Reformation birthed three large theological traditions: Anabaptists (called the “Radical Reformation” because they rejected the role of the state in the church, were pacifists, and condemned infant baptism), Lutherans (heirs of Luther’s legacy), and the Reformed (heirs of John Calvin’s legacy). Reformed folk are thus often called “Calvinists.”

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John Calvin

Christian people rarely assign the label “Calvinist” dispassionately—it’s given either as the lowest sort of insult or the highest sort of praise. Many I’ve encountered associate “Calvinism” with “those who don’t believe in free will” or “those who don’t evangelize” or “the frozen Chosen.” Thus I (and our church) take on the label with a degree of fear and trembling, recognizing that some damage control goes along with so doing.

Let me say first that being “Reformed” entails more than “Calvinism.” As I’ll explain below, “Calvinism” refers to our understanding of the Bible’s teaching on how we are saved. “Reformed” includes “Calvinism” but is broader, referring to a way of reading the Bible through the lens of God’s covenants with humanity and a belief in the basic unity of the Old and New Testaments (among other emphases). The Reformed tradition offers wisdom and insights useful to all Christians, and I hate that a visceral response to “Calvinism” turns so many away from mining its treasures.

It’s important to note that embracing the particulars of our theology is not a requirement of membership in our church. All that is required to become a full, communing member is a credible profession of faith in Christ Jesus. Officers in our church vow their adherence to the particulars of our doctrine, but none other. Of course, because we believe that the particulars of our doctrine faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture, we teach and disciple according to it. Nevertheless, we have plenty of non-Reformed members who serve and use their gifts as members of our church.

SOME HISTORY

John Calvin didn’t formulate the Five Points of Calvinism. He didn’t even know he was starting an “-ism”! “Calvinism” and its Five Points were a response to the teaching of a Dutch minister named Joseph Arminius, who lived a generation after Calvin. Arminius questioned the Reformed church’s teaching on predestination and election. Disciples of Arminius formulated his teaching into Five Points of belief: 1) Human Free Will, 2) Conditional Election, 3) Universal Atonement, 4) Resistible Grace, and 5) Falling from Grace.

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Jacob Arminius

The Dutch Church summoned pastors and theologians from throughout Europe to the Synod of Dort (1618), to study and issue a verdict on the Arminians’ (as they ere now called) Five Points. The Synod of Dort formulated what we know as the Five Points of Calvinism as a response to these: 1) Total Depravity, 2) Unconditional Election, 3) Limited Atonement, 4) Irresistible Grace, and 5) Perseverance of the Saints. Handily, the first letters of these points formed the acronym TULIP, which also was the official flower of the Dutch!

THE FIVE POINTS OF CALVINISM

  1. Total Depravity. All human beings are sinful in every part of their being, totally unable to love and obey God on their own.

In our natural state we are not merely sick—we are dead! (Ephesians 2:1-3) And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

This applies not just to the notoriously sinful but to all human beings: (Romans 3:11-12) “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

This doctrine doesn’t teach that all people are as evil as they might be. Even non-Christians can be kind, love others, and make good decisions. The point of the doctrine is we are unable to do ultimate good, as it relates to our Creator. Ultimate good is good done to the glory of God, motivated by love for God. By nature, with hearts inherited from Adam, we hate our Creator. We resent his claim of our authority over us. Thus our will is incapable of choosing to love and obey him.

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Put on your cloak and topcoat, we’re going to the Synod of Dort! (1618)

  1. Unconditional Election “Election” refers to God’s choice in eternity past that certain people would be saved. It’s impossible to take the Bible seriously and not deal with its teaching on election.

(Ephesians 1:3-6)  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

So pervasive is the Bible’s teaching of election and predestination that even Arminians acknowledged it. The subject of debate then became, upon what condition does God elect people for salvation? Arminians claimed God’s election is based upon his foreknowledge of those who would make the choice to accept Christ. (I come from a family whose theological tradition took the Bible seriously and yet recoiled against Calvinism, so I can say from personal knowledge that many make sense of election this way.)

As satisfying as election-based-on-the-condition-of-faith seems as a resolution to the conundrum, it stands against the testimony of Scripture.

(2 Timothy 1:9) God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.

(Romans 9:10-13) And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

(John 15:16) You did not choose me, but I chose you…”

This is why Calvinists assert that our election is unconditional.

Someone might ask, “But what about faith? Do we not exercise faith to be saved?” Yes, but we understand that the response of faith is an outworking of an eternal plan.

Check out this explanation for why some responded to the apostles’ teaching with faith and others with rejection: (Acts 13:48) And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.

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Dutch Tulips. How pretty!

  1. Limited Atonement.Christ died for his chosen people in particular, not all humanity in general. “Particular” is a better adjective, since “limited” seems to imply a weakness in Christ’s sacrifice. Many verses teach the particularity of Christ’s atonement:

(John 10:14-15) I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 

(Mark 10:45) For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

(Matthew 1:21) She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

The doctrine of Limited Atonement has the effect of exalting Christ’s atonement, demonstrating that the price paid on the cross wasn’t hypothetical but real. He died not for sins as an idea, but my sins, your sins. If he died for everyone’s sins and then God judges some for their sins, we have a case what in the courts is called “double jeopardy.” Because Christ died for my sins particularly I can have assurance that there is now and forever no condemnation for me. Christ on the cross actually and particularly received the punishment due me for my sin.

  1. Irresistible Grace: See how the points are connecting logically. Those whom God chose unconditionally, for whose sins he sent his Son to die—those he surely and irresistibly calls to faith in due time.

(Ephesians 2:4-5) But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— One who was dead and has been made alive cannot continue in a state of death!

John 10:25-26  The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. Necessarily, those who are his sheep hear his voice, know him, and follow him.

We need to say that we are not teaching that God does violence to our will, forcing us to come to faith. Rather, irresistibly he changes our will so that it is our joy to believe. Further, we are not saying that true believers do not for a time resist God’s call, only that they cannot resist his call ultimately.

  1. Perseverance of the Saints: Those who are chosen unconditional before the foundation of world, for whose sins Christ died, who in the Lord’s time are irresistibly called, will persevere in faith until the end of their lives. This doctrine might better be called preservation of the saints, for ultimately it is not we who keep ourselves but God who keeps us.

(John 10:28-29) I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

(John 6:39) And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.

(Romans 8:38-39) For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This doctrine is similar to the teaching of “eternal security” or “once-saved-always-saved”, yet there is a nuance in Reformed theology’s “perseverance” that distinguishes it from broader evangelicalism’s “eternal security.”

Often “eternal security” teaches the believer to base his assurance of salvation on the memory of his spiritual conversion. The thinking goes, if you truly accepted Christ and can recall the moment, God promises to let you into heaven no matter what happens after that moment. “Perseverance” roots assurance not in the person’s experience of conversion, but God’s eternal purpose, revealed in a person’s life in distinguishable fruit (faith in Christ, true repentance for sin, spiritual and moral growth). In this way, the ongoing fruit of repentance and faith in our lives is means by which we “make our calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10).

The problem is that many use “eternal security” to justify a marginal Christianity and cheap grace: “Well, I accepted Christ as a kid, so I know I’m going to heaven, even though I live however I want, never seek the Lord through prayer and the Word, and don’t desire the fellowship of believers.” The doctrine of perseverance works deep assurance in the true believer while simultaneously divesting the marginal of a false hope.

As a final word, let me say that this does not render our choices, as Christians, inconsequential. You still will reap what you sow, in this life and the next. God will surely preserve all of his people, but some will only be saved “as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor. 3:15). Rosaria Butterfield said it right:

“You cannot lose your salvation, but you can lose everything else.”

 

We Are Protestant

Last week we discussed what it means that we are a Protestant church.

(By “Protestant” I mean the broad umbrella of denominations born from the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. Pretty much every church that’s not Catholic is Protestant, so this includes Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, etc. Of course, there is great diversity in doctrine among these denominations but all trace their origins to this monumental period of history. FPC, as a part of the Presbyterian Church in America, is more self-consciously committed to the doctrines of the Reformers than most other Protestant denominations.)

First, here’s a brief (and fun!) history of the Reformation.

We talk about the “Five Solas” of the Reformation. These are the five “alones” the Reformers taught to call the Church back to a more pure embrace of the Gospel preached by Christ and the Apostles. Let’s look at each of these.

1. Sola Fide, by faith alone. A sinner’s justification (his being-made-right-with-a-holy-God) is based on faith alone, not faith + good works, as taught by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).

The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Question 33) summarizes the Reformers’ teaching compactly:

“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

Notice the language. Justification is an “act.” It is not a process. This is precisely how the RCC thought of justification. It is becoming right-with-God by faith + the Sacraments + good works. Thus, a person is only as justified as she is sanctified. In RCC theology, there is no assurance of salvation.

Westminster also uses the language of “imputed”—which is so important. This word means “credited to our account.” We who are hopelessly indebted to God for our sins are credited Christ’s riches, riches that we can never exhaust. His righteousness is not deposited into our account in small deposits, in response to our good works; by faith we are declared to be forever that which we are not yet in ourselves—perfectly holy and acceptable before God.

2. Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone. The Scriptures alone are our authority for life and doctrine. This means we reject all human authorities (whether a church, the popular philosophy of the day, our own logic) when they stand in contradiction to the Scriptures.

The RCC taught there were two authorities that bound the conscience of Christians—the Scriptures + the Tradition of the Church (including the Ecumenical Councils, the declaration of Popes as the heirs of Peter’s authority). This two-fold nature of authority is vital for understanding and engaging well with our Roman Catholic friends. When you charge some belief they hold is not in the Bible, they might well agree with you. Because they regard the Roman Church as the only authoritative interpreter of the Scripture, that which the Church teaches is to be regarded equally with Scripture.

The Reformers rejected the RCC’s claim to stand alongside Scripture as an authority binding the consciences of Christians. They based this rejection not only on the fact that much of the Church’s tradition contradicts the teaching of Scripture, but that the tradition, in so many places, contradicts itself. The Reformers valued the tradition of the Church but believed Scripture alone as the final and only authority.

3. Sola Christus, through Christ alone. The only mediator between a holy God and sinful humanity is the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Reformers taught “the priesthood of all believers”—that all people, great and small, young and old, rich and poor, have equal and direct access to God through Christ. This was in distinction from the RCC’s teaching and practice of treating mere human beings, both living and dead, as mediators of God’s grace. They rejected the practice of praying to saints and Mary as foreign to the Gospel. They bridged the chasm that had developed between the laity and clergy with the teaching that all Christians have immediate access to God’s pardoning grace and love through Jesus.

4. Sola gratia, through grace alone. The Reformers held that our salvation, from beginning to end, depends upon God’s grace and nothing in us. Faith, the “instrument” of our justification, isn’t something we conjure up—it is a gift of grace. All our days, from the moment of our justification into eternity, his grace upholds us and keeps us. We will persevere to the end not ultimately because of ourselves, but because of his purpose.

Although the RCC recoils at the accusation that its doctrine minimizes God’s grace, that certainly is its effect. If God’s grace merely makes it possible for me to work for my salvation, my salvation is to some degree a reward and not a gift. Consider Paul’s zeal to uphold the doctrine of grace alone:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

5. Sola Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone. By this the Reformers summarized the effect of their doctrine: that God alone receives the glory, since he does all the work. Paul, in the passage quoted above, makes this connection directly:

“…not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9).

The practical effect of RCC doctrine (not to say it’s intended) is to share God’s glory with man. If, to some degree, I receive my salvation as a reward for my obedience, I have reason to boast over others and before God.

CONCLUSION

My prayer is that the “Five Solas” would shape the life of FPC in real ways: that sola fide would make us humble people, that sola Scriptura would cause us to ache for the Word, that sola Christos would deter us from exalting any human leader, that sola gratia would make us hopeful and thankful, that sola Deo gloria would deepen our worship of the only true and living God.

We Are A Church (Part 2)

Last Sunday (1-15-17) was our second “family talk” discussing what it means that FPC-Clarksdale is a church.

In our first talk we saw how, according to the Word, the church is a living institution of Christ organized under the authority of elders, served by deacons, and with each member using his/her gifts for the benefit of the whole. 

In our second talk, we explored what Christ commands the church to do: what activities are essential to our identity as a church?

Westminster Confession of Faith 25:3 helpfully summarizes the Bible’s answer to this question:

“To this worldwide church Jesus Christ has given the ministry of reconciliation, the Scripture, and the revealed law of God. The church shall gather and nurture the saints until the end of the world. By the promised presence of his Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ will enable the church to do this ministry.”

The church has two defining tasks: one outward (“gathering”) and one inward (“nurturing”). It is to look something like the two-faced Roman god Janus (paganism notwithstanding!), simultaneously looking both directions:
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This isn’t just the Confession’s idea; it’s our Savior’s. Before his ascension to the Father, Jesus committed this “two-faced” task to his Church:

(Matthew 28:18-20) All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. 

It is not enough for us to wait for outsiders to summon the courage to come inside our walls, we are tasked with going after them, evangelizing them, gathering them up into the life of our fellowship. But the task doesn’t end there! We also are to nurture believers, teaching those incorporated into the church to obey “all” (that’s a lot!) Jesus commanded.

Let’s explore a bit deeper each of these tasks:

  • Gathering (the outward face)Each local church is to be the hands of Jesus to those in its community, the means by which he gathers and saves those he has chosen.

Jesus’s memorable metaphors of salt and light come to mind. If the salt ceases to season and the light ceases to illumine, they are those things in name only. In the same way, if a local church ceases to penetrate and gather in the world surrounding it, it is a church in name only.

(Matthew 5:13-16)  “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.  “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Outreach is no mere addendum to our church’s life; our future as a vibrant institution of Christ depends upon it. I quoted Edmond Clowney:

“The congregation that ignores mission will atrophy and soon find itself shattered by internal dissension. It will inevitably begin to lose its own young people, disillusioned by hearing the gospel trumpet sounded every Sunday for those who never march.” The Church (160)

We discussed in our time together ways we as a church perform the gathering task well, and ways we can do it better. It was observed that we are a welcoming church, and many extend personal invitations to outsiders. Others mentioned that processes for entering into membership and plugging into ministry are obscure. There was consensus that we need to think more systemically and strategically about how we build bridges to those in our community who don’t know Christ and/or aren’t engaged in a Gospel-preaching church.

  • Nurturing (the inward face): Every local church is tasked to see it’s people discipled, matured in their faith.

This, like gathering, is not a task exclusive to the pastors and elders; rather, it belongs to each member.

The Protestant Reformers talked about 3 primary ways the church nurtures it people: THE WORD, THE SACRAMENTS, and CHURCH DISCIPLINE:

i. THE PREACHING OF THE WORD. Talk of “preaching” automatically summons thoughts of the Sunday service, and, have no doubt, the systemic explanation and application of the Scripture by those specially called, trained, and gifted to preach is central to the spiritual life of God’s people. That public preaching (and worship as a whole) be done well and faithfully was of highest importance to the apostles. Listen to Paul’s charge to the young minister Timothy:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Timothy 4:1-2).

Yet, as important as my or Mark’s preaching is to your spiritual growth, all of us in different ways and to different degrees have a ministry of the Word to one another. Hear Paul again:

(Colossians 3:16) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Our minds and hearts are to be so drenched in the Word that it comes out, in both formal and informal settings, to the edification of others.

ii. THE SACRAMENTS: Jesus gave his church two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are more than empty symbols; they are visible signs of the invisible grace by which God saves his people.

Baptism speaks to the forgiveness of sins cleansing by the Holy Spirit by which we enter into God’s family. The Lord’s Supper speaks to the broken body and poured-out blood of Jesus, which is our true food and true drink.

In my experience, Christians underestimate the role of the Sacraments in their spiritual growth. May we as a church zealously desire to participate in them, as they are a primary means by which God sustains and matures us in our walk.

iii. CHURCH DISCIPLINE: Sounds fun, right? Truth is, so deceitful is our Enemy, so deceitful is our flesh when isolated from others, that all of us need desperately the accountability of the elders and others in the church.  If I am straying off the path, caught in some sin, or screwy in my doctrine, it is for my eternal good that you step in and call me on it.

In rare cases, discipline is severe (consider 1 Cor. 5, where Paul commands the elders to excommunicate the unrepentant sinner), but in most it’s gentle, the work of friends in accountable relationships. Consider Galatians 6:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2)

Church discipline is awkward and hard, but an absolutely necessary task of the church. The church that fails to hold its people accountable for their lives and doctrine fails to love them as Christ does.

Time was short, so we weren’t able to discuss particular ways FPC does the task of nurturing well and not-so-well. Let me offer my humble observations.

That the Word is honored and preaching is valued is a strength of our church. Our church loves its members well. The shepherding ministry of the elders is a sign of our spiritual health. WIC does an incredible job of providing discipleship and fellowship opportunities for our ladies.

We could improve in our commitment to Christian Education through Sunday School and Community Groups. More attention needs to be paid, I think, to the discipleship processes for children and youth. It’s important that we equip and spur on our diaconate to do its work well.

Conclusion 

The two tasks of the church are like the two polarities on a battery: both are required for the proper function of the whole. The consequences for neglecting either or making our church about something besides these are cataclysmic. May FPC in the days to come run on both polarities, living “two-faced,” following the example of the very early church:

(Acts 2:42-47)  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

We Are A Church (Part 1)

I (Ryan) will be blogging a weekly summary of the material we cover in Adult Sunday School during our series “Family Talks”, so vital do I believe these discussions to be to the future of our dear church. This way, you will be able to access and engage with the material any weeks you aren’t able to attend.

As I begin my ministry among you, I want to use Sunday School to take us back to the basics: to remember who we are as a church and seek the Lord for the future he has prepared for us. We will ask, What does it mean that we are a church? What does it mean that the Gospel is the center of our church? What does it mean that we are a Protestant church? A Reformed church? A Presbyterian church? Finally, we will spend an extended period exploring who we are as FPC of Clarksdale, MS, a particular church the Lord has given a particular story and prepared for a particular time and place.

Last week (1-8-17) we discussed what it means that we are a church. Sounds simplistic, I know, but there’s a lot of practical confusion about why the church, as an institution matters. Is “the church” the people or the institution?

We saw that the Bible’s answer to this is “yes.” The church, according to Scripture’s testimony, is “a living institution.” (Check out Ephesians 4:1-16 for more on this.) The church is the people, yes! But it is the people organized according to God’s command.So, the defining feature of an “organized church” isn’t its building, committee-structure, or budget, but its people united by a common faith under the authority of elders, supported by deacons, with every member exercising his/her gifts.  

Elders: When people in the New Testament responded to the Gospel and accepted Christ as Savior, the first matter of business was to organize them together under the care of elders (Titus 1:5). In the PCA, a new church is not called officially called by the name “church” until it has trained and elected elders. Elder is unapologetically an office of authority (Matthew 16:13-201 Timothy 5:17-21Hebrews 13:17). (Although the authority resides not in the men themselves but in God and is relative to their obedience to God.)

In the PCA we distinguish “teaching elders” and “ruling elders”: “teaching elders” more commonly called “pastors” and “ruling elders” being lay ministers called to shepherd and lead (1 Timothy 5:17). Nevertheless, there is only one office; teaching and ruling elders have equal authority.

Elders aren’t perfect (I’m guessing that’s not news!) but they are called to a higher standard and will answer to Jesus one day for your souls and their care for the church He loves. Elders aren’t board members running a non-profit organization that dispenses religious goods; we are Christ’s servants given by Him for your eternal good. Our job isn’t to pander to you so that you will like us, but to encourage you, teach you, challenge you, spur you on in Christ, and even admonish you.

Deacons: The second role that defines Christ’s church is the deacons. The work of deacons is a spiritual work of service and care for the physical needs of the church and the world. Elders are to be so consumed in the work of the Word, prayer, and shepherding that they have need of others to lead the church in caring for physical needs. See Acts 6:1-7.

An active, motivated, passionately compassionate diaconate is a key pillar to the health of Christ’s local church.

You: God’s purpose in giving elders and deacons to his church is not so that they will do the work of ministry themselves, but “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). You are not a mere pew-filler. You are not a mere number. You are a vital, living member of the Body, gifted in particular ways for the good of the other members. Check out Romans 12:3-8 for more on this.

This brings up how utterly foreign to the testimony of the Scriptures and church history is the idea that one can be a committed Christian and not have a committed relationship with a local church. It makes sense to our modern Western minds, so drunk on individualism as we are, but Jesus and the apostles and the giants of our faith across the ages would shake their heads at bewilderment at such a concept.

Church-less Christianity inevitably grows into Christ-less Christianity. The words of Kevin DeYoung have proved demonstrably true in my experience. “The man who attempts Christianity without the church shoots himself in the foot, shoots his children in the leg, and shoots his grandchildren in the heart” (The Hole in Our Holiness, 132).

May we, the people of FPC, value the local church not only for our sakes, but for the sakes of the generations yet to come.