Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Church History

A REVIVAL

 

 

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  Owasco Dutch Reformed Church

 

 

                           

Note: The Second Great Awakening was a powerful revival that swept across the country during the early Nineteenth Century. (The First Great Awakening took place during the 1740’s).  The Second Great Awakening began in the 1790’s and lasted until the 1830’s.  Much of it was centered in Northern, Central and Western New York State, an area that became known as “The Burned Over District.”  Here is an account of one small part of the Awakening, a revival that began at a Dutch Reformed church in Owasco, NY, in 1816.  Owasco is a small village located in Cayuga County about 7 miles southeast of Auburn.  This building was constructed in 1815, just before the revival described.  The account also mentions a sister congregation at Sand Beach, located just outside of Auburn.  The account is taken from Accounts of Religious Revivals by Joshua Bradley, originally published in 1819 and republished in 1980 by Richard Owen Roberts.

 

“A most wonderful work of grace commenced in this place in 1816.  Seventeen persons were added to the church in January.  The number was rather unexpected, and produced a more than ordinary excitement in old professors, who generally before this had lain in a state of spiritual torpor.  In February, Rev. Mr. Ten Eych pastor of the above church, visited and preached in that part of his congregation bordering on Skaneateles Lake.  Here the power of God came down, and about thirty mostly young persons were soon discovered to be under the most pungent conviction.  He appointed another meeting for the next week, and then found a very large assembly who in the time of worship appeared to be in tears.  After closing meeting, he conversed with many and found some, under the most awful apprehensions of their ruin and wretchedness, while others were rejoicing in the hope of the gospel.  This induced him to propose to his consistory, the appointment of a meeting for the examination of such as felt the freedom of offering themselves for church membership.  By this time the flame had extended to every part of the society, and almost every day new cases occurred: Conferences were unusually thronged; God’s children were awake to their best interest; additional places for meeting were appointed and generally crowded.  The consistory had two meetings for the examination of candidates, about the last of February and first of March.  Sixty seven came before their first meeting, and thirty four before their last meeting.  One hundred and one joined the church on the first Lord’s day in march and sat down at their Lord’s table to commemorate his death.

“As several young persons from Sandbeach congregation were present, when these candidates were examined, there returned home deeply impressed.  That society had remained in a state of spiritual stupor: but the news of the large accession to the church of Owasco, together with the impressions made on the minds of those before mentioned, operated like an electrical spark: the flame spread with a rapidity unequalled by anything ever before seen in that region.  In the course of a few days there was scarcely a family in the neighborhood, where there were not some, more or less, under serious impressions; and in some families, all who were not church members were anxiously inquiring what they should do to be saved.  Conference meetings were held on every evening in the week, except Saturday evening.

“The Rev. Ten Eych appointed one evening a week for religious conversation.  This he found peculiarly serviceable.  It had a happy tendency to give freedom to many, who were before backward to open the state of their minds: and many received encouragement in hearing the state of others.  In May seventy one were examined and admitted to the communion of Sandbeach church.  The work still progressed in Owasco, and every sermon seemed to have a tendency either of comforting or awakening some present.  In July one hundred and forty were examined and admitted to the communion.  In one year there were admitted into those two churches, three hundred and fifty one. . . .

“In this revival God’s Spirit has operated differently on the minds of sinners from anything seen in some other places.  In relation to three fourths of those, who have been the subjects of hopeful conversion; the time between their first alarm, and their being set free in the liberty of God’s children, has not exceeded two weeks; — and respecting some, not more than half that time.

“Two instances I may here mention worthy of notice; a man who had previously spoken disrespectfully of the work, was with difficulty persuaded by his wife to attend conference, that was held I his neighborhood.  During the singing of the last psalm, he was awakened to a sense of his deplorable condition.  This was on Thursday afternoon.  On Friday morning he was distressed beyond any language to describe.  On Saturday morning he appeared to be the most happy person, on this side the perfect mansions of endless glory.  He rejoiced in the government of God, and seemed fully to approve of God’s plan of saving sinners through the meritorious righteousness of Jesus Christ.

“Another man, of seventy years, whose days had been wholly occupied in accumulating wealth, was awakened to a sense of his danger by a sudden death in his family, and in the course of a few days, was made to rejoice in the glorious hope the gospel presents.

“The whole work has been free from noise confusion and enthusiasm; nay, while distress and anguish of heart were seen depicted in their countenances, they strove to keep the same concealed from others, until constrained to apply to some pious friends to pray for them, or give them some spiritual instruction.

“Three fourths, at least, of those who have joined the above churches, are between the age of nine, and twenty five years, and perhaps an equal number of both sexes.  These have been led to own their unworthiness, wretchedness and entire sinfulness in a state of nature: that salvation alone is by free, sovereign, rich grace abounding to sinners through the atonement.  In about two hundred families, which compose the Owasco congregation, one hundred and eighty have more or less praying persons; and there are several instances where every branch of the family give evident tokens of a change of heart.  Many of these young converts promise fair to be peculiarly useful to the church of Christ.  They manifest sincere repentance, humility, a confident reliance on the all sufficient merits of a risen Redeemer, and a heart glowing with the warmest affection to his cause and interest in the world.”

 

A word on the vocabulary:

A “professor” is someone who professes faith in Christ.  Older writers would sometimes use the word in a negative sense to refer to someone whose profession of faith was weak or insincere, i.e., a nominal Christian.

A “consistory,” in the Reformed tradition, is a group of elders who oversee a church.  It is the rough equivalent to a “session” in a Presbyterian church.

A “society” is a legal entity that would own a church building and pay the pastor.  It would often include a large number of people in a given community.  A “church” is a smaller group of people who profess faith in Christ, are admitted to communion, and are subject to church discipline.

A “conference” would be a gathering to discuss the practical implications of the morning sermon or some other religious topic.

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WHAT GOD THINKS OF THE MODERN CHURCH

 

            Near the beginning of his controversial novel The Shack author Wm. Paul Young has his main character Mackenzie Phillips (Mack) complain that “. . .Sunday prayers and hymns were cutting it anymore, if they ever really had.  Cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of the people he knew . . . He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that don’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes” (The Shack, p. 66).  Most of us would probably have to acknowledge that there is more truth to this accusation than we would care to admit.

In many ways the condition of the modern American evangelical church resembles that of the church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3:14-22.  Ancient Laodicea was a prosperous city, situated on a fertile plain in Asia Minor.  Located at an important crossroads, it was a center of trade and commerce.  But its material prosperity affected the spiritual life of the Christian church located there.  It was the infamous “lukewarm” church of the seven churches of Asia that were addressed in Revelation chapters two and three.

What is especially striking about this particular church is how different its perception of itself was from the way God saw it.  Their self-perception is summed up in verse 17: “You say ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing . . .’” (NKJV).  Material prosperity leads to a sense of self-sufficiency.  Outwardly they appeared to be doing very well – they had financial resources at their disposal and could pretty much do as they wanted.

But how very different was God’s perception of them!  “You . . . do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked . . .” Their material prosperity masked a spiritual poverty.  “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot . . .you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot” (vv. 15,16).  They were half-hearted Christians, content to go through the formalities of public worship, but not really devoted to Christ; precisely the kind of church life described by Young in his book.

And so it is with us today.  We have impressive looking buildings and institutions and “ministries” galore, but can scarcely bring ourselves to spend any meaningful time in prayer.  What passes for “worship” is hardly more than glorified entertainment.  We sit passively in the pews (or theater seats) and when the service is over we go our merry ways, scarcely giving any thought at all at how we may serve Christ in our daily lives.  We are all too prone to ethical compromise.  “ . . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men . . .” (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).

The problem is that the modern American evangelical church is a holdover from the Victorian era.  The early nineteenth century was marked by genuine revival – the Second Great Awakening (the First Great Awakening had taken place in the 1740’s).  But during the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century it became quite popular and respectable to identify oneself as a Christian.  Being a Christian came to be equated with being a respectable middle-class American.  It was easy to attract an audience, and impressive looking church edifices were built, complete with stone masonry, stained glass windows, and carved wooden pulpits and pews.  But an institutionalized form of church life developed that was unhealthy.  The theology was watered down, the sermons were filled with sentimental commonplaces, and a variety of religious practices were developed – processionals, robed choirs, responsive readings – that had little to do with actual discipleship or developing the spiritual life.  In short, Protestant Christianity became an American civil religion – comforting, supportive of the standing order, but superficial.

And then the twentieth century arrived, along with the intellectual challenges of evolution and higher criticism.  The more affluent churches in the urban centers tried to change with the times, adopting a liberal theology.  The more conservative churches in the rural areas clung to the older ways.  But the surrounding culture continued to change and drift further and further away from its Judeo-Christian moorings.  First it was the denial of the supernatural, and then it was the abandonment of basic moral principles” the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.  Churches were faced with a painful dilemma: either conform to the changing mores of society or risk being marginalized and irrelevant.  The liberal churches caved in; the more conservative churches tried to keep the faith, although with many of the Victorian trappings.

But what does God think about all of this?  What He told the church at Laodicea in our text is striking: “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich: and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v. 18).  What they needed was true wealth – spiritual wealth.  And the way He described it has an ominous ring to it – “gold refined in the fire.”  Gold is a precious metal, but it is refined or purified in the fire.  Likewise the Christian’s true spiritual worth is sometimes tested by the fire of persecution.  And this gold, the Lord says, must be “bought from Me.”  Genuine life must come from God himself – it is the fruit of the Spirit.  We cannot work it up ourselves.

Likewise the church at Laodicea was counselled to buy “white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.”  They were so utterly destitute of genuine godliness that they were spiritually “naked.”  They were the proverbial emperor with no clothes.  In Rev. 19:8 the bride of Christ (the church) is “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”  God wants His people to live lives that are pleasing to Him; only then will we be attractive in His sight.

And then the church was advised to “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.”  They were so spiritually blind that they could not see their own true spiritual condition.  What they needed was spiritual insight and discernment so that they would have a clear view of God’s will for their lives.

The Lord goes on to say, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.  There be zealous and repent” (v. 19).  If God truly loves us, what will He do to us when we are in this condition? What will He do to us now?  Our text says that He will “rebuke and chasten” us.  God loves us, but that means that He will not stand by idly while we wander into sin and apostasy.  A loving parent will discipline his children when they misbehave, because he wants what is best for them.  But the same token God may bring pain, suffering or hardship into our lives to awaken us, humble us, and make us feel our dependence upon Him, and thus restore full fellowship with Him.

What Christ tells the church next is nothing less than stunning: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20).  This verse is often taken out of context and given an evangelistic meaning.  But taken in its context Christ is standing outside of the church.  This, of course, is not where we would expect to find Him, and yet that is where He is all too often.  He has, in effect, been excluded from the life of the church, so used has it become to operating without Him.  But there may be a few within the church who are still listening to His voice, and to them He makes a promise: “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Even in the worst state of the church it is still possible for individual Christians to maintain a meaningful relationship with Christ.

The aim of the modern evangelical church, then, should not be to revive  the American civil religion of the past; it ought to be to become authentic disciples of Jesus Christ – and that means going back to the first century and sitting, as it were, at His feet.  The answer is not to try to become more relevant; it is to become more spiritual.  It is not to become more accepted by the world; it is to become more conformed to the will of God.  The aim is not to become more like the world but to be lights shining in the darkness.  When the world looks at the church, it should not see a reflection of itself, but rather the image of Christ.  Only then can the church have the kind of testimony to the world that it ought to have.

AN EXAMPLE OF A REVIVAL

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Jonathan Edwards

We have been discussing the subject of revival and have examined a Scriptural passage (Jer. 29:11-13) that contains a promise for revival.  But what does one look like in real life?  What happens in a revival?

One historical example of a revival is the one that broke out in Northampton, MA during the winter of 1734-1735 under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards.  The town had experienced revivals before, but by 1730 there had arisen a new generation of young people who were as mischievous and spiritually careless as any generation before it.  Edwards worked to bring things under control, and to a large extent there was an improvement.  Then the sudden deaths of two young people in the spring of 1734 had a sobering effect on the entire community.

That fall Edwards proposed having the young people meet in small groups on Sunday evenings for their spiritual edification.  The practice was soon taken up by the adults as well.  In other words, the people were starting to seek after God, just as we have seen in the Book of Jeremiah.

It just so happened that at about that time a controversy arose over Arminianism, and Edwards was led to preach a series of sermons on the subject of justification by faith (Edwards was a staunch Calvinist).  It was a clear and forceful presentation of the gospel, and people began to respond.  The spiritual life of the community was deepened, conversions resulted, and the revival spread to neighboring towns.

What is significant about all of this is that people did not just add their names to the membership roll of the church.  There was a genuine interest in spiritual things.  “The only thing in their view was to get the kingdom of heaven, and everyone appeared to be pressing into it,” Edwards wrote (Works, 1:348).  The town was filled with joy; the public worship became alive.  “Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive to God’s service, everyone earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth . . .”   Some were weeping in sorrow, while others wept for joy.

At the outset Edwards had preached a sermon entitled “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, Shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.”  The title says it all.  The sermon explains the dynamic of a genuine spiritual experience.  Edwards tells us that the spiritual light consists of “a true sense of the divine and superlative excellency of the things of religion; a real sense of the excellency of God and Jesus Christ, and of the work of redemption, and the ways and works of God revealed in the gospel” (Works, 2.14).  He goes on to explain: the spiritually enlightened person “does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.”  He points out that “there is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.”  It is one thing to know about honey; it is another thing actually to have tasted it, and appreciate its taste.  And so it is with spiritual things.  “There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing, but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness.”

Edwards points out that this spiritual light is supernatural – it is something that is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit.  “. . .this light is immediately given by God, and not obtained by natural means.”  “The Holy Spirit operates in the minds of the godly, by uniting himself to them, and living in them, exerting his own nature in the exercise of their faculties” (p. 13).  Edwards is careful to emphasize that “This spiritual light is not the suggesting of any new truths or propositions not contained in the word of God.”  It “only gives a due apprehension of those things that are taught in the word of God” (p. 13).

And what are the effects of this spiritual enlightenment?  “This knowledge will wean from the world, and raise the inclination to heavenly things.  It will turn the heart to God as the fountain of good, and to choose him for the only portion” (p. 17).

This spiritual light also leads to a holy life.  “It shows God as worthy to be obeyed and served.  It draws forth the heart in a sincere love to God, which is the only principle of a true, gracious, and universal obedience; and it convinces of the reality of those glorious rewards that God has promised to them that obey him.”

And that is exactly what happened shortly afterwards at Northampton.  May it happen to us as well!

 

Note: All quotes of Jonathan Edwards are taken from the 1974 Banner of Truth edition of his Works.

WHAT IS A REVIVAL?

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George Whitefield

Today in Evangelical circles we sometimes hear people speak of a need for “revival.”  We witness some of the awful things going on in the world today, and we may have heard that in the past there were “revivals,” and we imagine that if only we had one today things would be better.  The problem: scarcely anyone alive today has any idea of what a revival is.

There actually were revivals in the past.  Probably the most famous one was the First Great Awakening during the 1730’s and ‘40’s, led by such figures as George Whitefield, the famous British evangelist, and Jonathan Edwards, the colonial theologian.  There was also a Second Great Awakening, which was actually a series of revivals that occurred during the early 19th Century.  And then there was the Great Prayer Revival of 1857-1858.

But what exactly were these “revivals”?  Strictly speaking, they were revivals of spiritual life within the churches.  Unfortunately it sometimes happens that churches fall into a pattern of spiritual apathy and decay.  The institutional life of the church goes forward: people continue to show up for services on Sunday morning, they follow a prescribed order of service, the pastor delivers his sermon.  But it is all largely a matter of form.  The problem is that it does not go beyond the outward form and activity, and the people are largely unmoved by what they see and hear.  And we have become so accustomed to this that we accept it as normal.

What is missing is God Himself.  There is little sense of His presence, and very little reverence, joy or love.  And aside from the formal worship service on Sunday morning there is little or no prayer at all, and sometimes even professing Christians are too willing to make ethical compromises in their business and personal relationships.  In other words, there is precious little spiritual life in the churches.

What we need to understand is that there is something seriously wrong with this picture.  In the Old Testament God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, put it this way.  Speaking of ancient Israel He said:

“. . .these people draw near with their mouths

And honor me with their lips,

But have removed their hearts far from Me,

And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment

of men. . .”

(Isa. 29:13: NKJV)

In other words, the people of Israel continued to maintain the outward forms of worship, but their heart was not in it.  And since God looks on the heart, He was not at all impressed by their half-hearted religiosity.

Israel, sadly, did not heed the warning, and was sent into exile as a result.  But then God made a promise to them: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.  And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all you heart” (Jer. 29:11-13).

There are several important things to notice about this passage.  First of all, there were to seek God – not an institution, not a system of theology, not a liturgy, but God Himself.  Secondly, they were to seek Him, to look for Him, to search until they found Him.  Our problem today is that we take God for granted – we just assume that He is there, even in the absence of any evidence that He is actively at work in our lives.  What we need to do is to look for Him, to make a conscious effort to find Him; and that entails prayer.  Without a prayer life there is no meaningful connection with God.  And it may also mean the confession of sin.

Thirdly, we must seek Him “with all our heart.”  God is not impressed with half-hearted or insincere attempts at formal “worship.”  The whole object of true religion is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Dt. 6:5).  Jesus said that this was “the first and great commandment” (Matt. 22:37,38).  If we fail here we have missed the whole point of Christianity.  Everything else we may think or do is utterly beside the point.

And, to return to Jeremiah 29, the promise is that if we earnestly seek God we will find Him.  Note: we will find Him – not just the church, not just the fellowship with other Christians, but find God Himself.  And to find God is to be overawed and overjoyed at the same time.  We sense that we are in the presence of God, on holy ground, and nothing else matters.  Everything else is subordinate to knowing God Himself.

It is generally acknowledged that our country is in awful shape today.  But what is not so widely recognized is that it is the church that needs revival.  Sadly, today, most Evangelical Christians think that the Church of Laodicea, described in Rev. 3:14-22, is normal, because it is the only church they have ever known.  They can scarcely imagine anything else.  May God have mercy on His church and revive it in the midst of years!  How desperately we need a genuine spiritual awakening!

THEOLOGY: ATHENS OR JERUSALEM?

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Princeton  Theological Seminary in the 19th Century

One of the most serious problems facing the church today is the quality of preaching we hear.  Too often sermons are dull, lifeless, and often boring.  The exegesis is often poor, the delivery flat, and the practical application trivial.  And the result, sadly, are congregations that are biblically illiterate and spiritually immature.

The problem can at least partially be traced back to the way our pastors are trained.  Most pastors today receive an academic training in a seminary or Bible college.  “The professor walks into the classroom, delivers his lecture, and leaves.  If the course happens to be systematic theology, the professor will state definitions, marshal proof texts, and attack opposing points of view.  The students take notes, hopefully pass the final, and that is the end of it.  Then when the pastor finally arrives in the pulpit of a local church he is not quite sure of what to do with what he had been taught in the classroom.  If he has an intellectual bent of mind, he might try to repeat what he had heard in the classroom.  The congregation struggles to stay awake through the sermon in dreary anticipation of the closing hymn.  Or if the pastor is more practically minded he might decide that what he had been taught in the classroom was irrelevant – no one is interested in dry, abstruse points of theology.  And so he moves on to something more practical and relevant – marriage, child-rearing, or personal finance.  But the congregation comes away knowing little about God.

Part of the problem, I say, is the way theology is taught in the classroom.  It is an academic approach.  And I use the word “academic” purposefully, for this approach can be traced back to an institution by that name, the “Academy” in ancient Athens founded by the Greek philosopher Plato.  Plato was a seminal figure in the history of Western thought, and his approach to knowledge has very much influenced the way educational institutions operate, even today.

What set the Greeks apart from other ancient peoples is that the Greeks were struck by the rational order of the universe.  They struggled to explain, however, what the source of that rational order was.  Plato’s attempted solution to the problem was to posit the existence of an abstract world of ideas, of which the physical world is an imperfect copy.  Thus the true philosopher was to turn his attention from the constantly changing physical world to the eternal world of abstract ideas.

But that eternal world of abstract ideas was impersonal.  One could form a mental conception of it, and even be devoted to it as a matter of principle; but one could never form a personal relationship with it.  It is, at the bottom of it, lifeless and inanimate.

Greek thought, however, was far in advance of anything else in the ancient world.  The Romans soon came to admire and emulate it, and from there is came to have a profound influence on Western thought.  To one extent or other it came to represent the educational ideal of colleges, universities and seminaries ever since.

Unfortunately it came to have an influence, not altogether good, on Christian theology as well.  Charles Hodge, for example, the famous 19th Century Princeton theologian, begins his monumental Systematic Theology by asserting that theology is a science in which the task of the theologian is to collect the facts of Scripture and arrange them in logical order.  He does allow that “The Scriptures teach not only the truth, but what are the effects of the truth on the heart and conscience, when applied with saving power by the Holy Ghost” (Vol. I, p. 11).  But in the remaining 2,249 pages of his opus magnum he scarcely mentions these “effects of the truth on the heart and conscience” at all.*

When we turn to the Scriptures themselves, however, a whole different view of things emerges.  In Psalm 139, for example, when David contemplates God’s omniscience and omnipresence, he does not just define the terms and attack opposing points of view.  Rather, the psalm takes the form of a prayer addressed to God himself, and David states the issue in strikingly personal terms:

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.”

(Ps. 139:1; NKJV).

And in the end the discussion comes down to moral and practical concerns:

“Try me, and know my anxieties;

And see if there is any wicked way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting.”

(vv. 23,24).

The difference between Athens and Jerusalem, then, comes down to our view of ultimate reality, our worldview.  For Plato it was the “form” (idea) of the good.  For David it was the true and living God, who is both personal and infinite.  And the world that God created has a real, concrete existence.  Ideas we can contemplate with cold objectivity; but we are personally accountable to the living God.

We are called in Scripture to love God, to worship Him and obey Him.  Thus any theology that does not lead us to do that misses the whole point of what is revealed to us in Scripture.  And any academic institution that fails in this regard is worse than useless – it is downright criminal.

The academic world typically lays stress on objectivity.  And truth, real truth, is indeed objective.  But it is also subjective as well.   We are not just merely to contemplate the bare fact of God’s existence; we are to respond to it personally.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4,5).  This does not mean that we are free to create our own “personal truth.”  Man does not create reality; he must adapt to the reality created for him by God.  But we must appropriate the truth as our own and act upon it.  God is neither pleased nor honored with dead orthodoxy.  What He wants is a genuine, heart-felt piety!

 

*At Princeton Seminary the limitations of the classroom instruction were partially offset by the famous “Sabbath Afternoon Conference,” a weekly discussion about the practical aspects of religion.  It was that which typically left the deepest impression upon the students.

THE HOUSEHOLD OF GOD

 

The apostle Paul found himself in a unique position in the history of redemption. Originally a devout Jew, trained as a rabbi, he converted to Christianity and became “the apostle to the Gentiles.” He spent his ministry travelling through the Graeco-Roman world preaching the message of salvation far and wide. And people from every conceivable background responded. Churches were established throughout Asia Minor and Greece.

This was revolutionary. Up until this point Christianity had been largely a Jewish phenomenon. Christianity was an offshoot from Judaism. But now Gentiles were flocking into the church, and this created a theological problem. What was the relationship of these Gentile converts to Judaism? Should they become Jewish proselytes, get circumcised, and keep the Jewish Law? Or did they occupy a different place in the overall scheme of things. And Paul, the Jewish rabbi turned Christian missionary, found himself right in the very center of the controversy.

But for Paul it was more than just an abstract, theoretical problem. It was an intensely practical one as well. He had established churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece. These churches contained believers who came from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. But how were they to get along together? They had practically nothing in common. The Jews were used to living a very moral life, bound by strict rules and regulations. The Gentiles were used to wine, women and song. How, then, would believers from these two very different backgrounds to get along with each other in church?

Thus it was in this context that Paul wrote his epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. And while these two letters are very similar to each other, they are also noticeably different. Ephesians is apparently aimed at a predominately Gentile audience, while Colossians appears to have been addressed to believers from a Jewish background.

And thus Paul, in Eph. 2:11-3:13, comes to reflect on the Gentiles in God’s overall plan. And in the process he describes for us the nature of the universal church, which he calls “the household of God.”

Paul notes that the Gentiles, in their former life, were “without Christ, being aliens from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12; NKJV). “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). Paul goes on to explain that Christ, through His death on the cross, brought salvation to both Jews and Gentiles.

But now what? “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God’ (v. 19). Here Paul uses two metaphors to describe the position of believers in Christ: he says that we are “fellow citizens” and “members of the household of God.” “Fellow citizens” suggests that Christians are all members of a common political entity, with all the rights and privileges thereof, as we would say. “Members of the household of God” means that we are all part of a common household headed by God Himself.

But Paul goes on to elaborate. This “household,” to change the imagery a bit, has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (v. 20). The church, the universal church, was founded by Christ Himself; at first through His own earthly ministry, and then through the apostles and prophets of the First Century church. And what happens since then is that in Him “the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). The church is “fitted together,” it is a coherent whole. Moreover, it is “a holy temple in the Lord.” The imagery would have been unmistakable for a First Century Christian, especially for one from a Jewish background. A temple was a sacred building, a building in which the divine presence resided. And thus God is pictured as being personally present among His people. The church is not just a human social organization; rather, it is characterized by the very presence of God Himself.

Thus it becomes apparent that what Paul is describing here is the universal church, the sum total of all Christian believers throughout history, from the time of Christ until now.

Thus Paul brings it all home to the specific church in Ephesus: “in Whom you also are being build together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v. 22). The church at Ephesus was a local expression of the universal church. Each local church is “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” It is not a mere social club; it is the communion of the saints built around the presence of God Himself. And specifically, this communion is realized “in the Spirit.” It is specifically the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, who is a t work in the church creating the spiritual life. At the practical level it is the Holy Spirit who creates the church and makes its ministries effective.

Because the church is based on union with Christ two logical corollaries follow: 1) True believers who are united to Christ are united to each other by virtue of their common bond with the Savior, and 2) anyone who is not united with Christ is not a part of the universal church, and therefore there can be no thought of “fellowship” between believers and unbelievers. In other words, evangelical Christians should be united with each other and separate from the world, including apostate liberal denominations.

Unfortunately two dangerous and opposing tendencies have made themselves felt in the modern evangelical community. The first is a spirit of accommodation which manifests itself in the misguided notion that the way to win others to Christ is to make ourselves look like the world. This was seen in the Neo-evangelical movement of the 1940’s and then in the “Young Evangelicals” and more recently in the “Emerging Church.”

But then there is the opposite tendency as well, manifested in self-described fundamentalist churches that practice “Second Degree” separation. That is, they separate not just from unbelievers but from fellow believers whom they deem to be in error over one doctrine or practice or another. Thus they refuse to have fellowship with other Bible-believing Christians because they use the wrong translation of the Bible or the wrong kind of music in worship. The result is endless divisions within the professing church, and this hardly glorifies Christ at all.

What we need to do is to focus on our relationship with Christ, and as we do so we will draw closer together with each other and farther apart from the world. And then the church will start to look like it should be.

EFFECTIVE PREACHING

George Whitefield preaching

George Whitefield preaching

 

In our last blog post we noted that a proper understanding of Christian doctrine involves spiritual discernment – the inward ability, imparted by the Holy Spirit, to understand and appreciate the great spiritual truths of Scripture. And we briefly alluded to several great preachers down through history who demonstrated this quality in their preaching. This week I thought it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at some of them in particular.

The first one we shall look at is the great Scottish Reformer John Knox. James Melville described Knox’s preaching this way: Knox would typically begin by quietly exegeting the passage at hand, and then after about a half an hour he would turn to application. And the, as Melville put it, he would become “so active and vigorous, that he was likely to ding the pulpit in blades and fly out of it . . . he made me so to quake and tremble, that I could not hold a pen to write” (W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God, p. 270. I have modernized somewhat the archaic Scots’ English.).

John Bunyan was a 17th Century English Baptist preacher and the author of the famous book The Pilgrim’s Progress.   Even though he had very little in the way of formal education he was a very effective preacher. Huge crowds would gather to hear him preach, including, among others, the learned Puritan theologian John Owen. Once King Charles II asked Owen how a learned man like himself co go “to hear a tinker prate.” Owen is said to have replied, “May it please your majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning” (Owen, Works, Vol. I, p. xcii).

So what was Bunyan’s secret? He himself tells us. After having gone through a long and arduous conversion experience, Bunyan was eventually called to preach. He describes his approach this way:

“In my preaching of the word, I too special notice of this one thing,

namely, that the Lord did lead me to begin where his word begins

with sinners; that is, to condemn all flesh, and to open and allege,

that the curse of God by the law doth belong to, and lay hold on all

men as they come into the world, because of sin. Now this part of

my work I fulfilled with great sense, for the terrors of the law, and

guilt for my transgressions, lay heavy on my conscience. I preached

what I felt, what I smartingly did feel, even that under which my poor

soul did groan and tremble to astonishment.

Indeed I have been as one sent to them from the dead; I went

myself in chains; and carried that fire in my own conscience, that I

persuaded them to beware of . . .”

(Grace Abounding, ¶¶ 276,277)

One of the greatest preachers of all time was the 18th Century English evangelist George Whitefield. In 1740 he had the occasion to visit Northampton, MA where the famous colonial American theologian Jonathan Edwards was pastor. Shortly afterwards Edwards’ wife, Sarah Edwards, wrote to her brother James Pierrepont in New Haven, CT and gave him this description of Whitefield:

“It is wonderful to see what a spell he casts over an audience by

proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible. I have seen upwards

of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence,

broken only by an occasional half-suppressed sob . . .

“. . . our mechanics shut up their shops, and the day-labourers

throw down their tools, to go and hear him preach, and few

return unaffected. A prejudiced person, I know, might say that

this is all theatrical artifice and display; but not so will anyone

think who has seen and known him.

“He is a very devout and godly man, and his only aim seems to

be to reach and influence men the best way. He speaks from a

heart aglow with love, and pours out a torrent of eloquence which

is almost irresistible . . . “

(Dallimore, Whitefield, Vol. I, p. 539).

Likewise Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous 19th Century English Baptist preacher, had no formal theological training. And yet here is how one listener described his preaching: It was

“. . .one of the richest and ripest sermons, as regards Christian

experience, all the more wonderful as being the sermon of so

young a man, I ever heard . . . such was the simplicity of his

style, the richness and quaintness of his illustrations, his intense

\                       earnestness, and the absolute and admirable naturalness of his

delivery, it told upon his audience generally, and told powerfully . . .

But to return to the sermon, and its effects on the faces! How

intensely fixed were they on the preacher – how eager to hear

every word he uttered – how fearful lest they should fail to

catch the least! Tears were now to be seen trickling down them;

and then, again, pale and careworn though many of them were,

they might be seen beaming with light and joy, and brightening

into smiles.”

(Spurgeon, Autobiography, Vol. I, p. 337)

The great American evangelist D.L. Moody was a man with practically no formal education at all, and yet he was mightily used of God in the conversion of sinners. One of his addresses was described this way:

“His incentives against sin, and his lashings of the conscience,

were awful. He seemed to be wrestling with an unseen power.

Beneath those burning words men’s faces grew pale under a

a conviction of the broken law of God. Then he began with

the wooings of the Gospel, in a strain of tender and heartbreaking

entreaty; and before he was through the whole audience seemed

completely broken.”

(Pollock, Moody, p. 102)

Billy Sunday was another famous preacher with little or no formal education – he had been a professional baseball player before being converted and becoming an evangelist. Yet even so great a scholar as J. Gresham Machen could not help but be impressed by Sunday’s preaching. Reporting on a meeting in Philadelphia in 1915 at which Sunday spoke Machen wrote:

“. . . the total impact of the sermon was great. At the climax,

the preacher got up on his chair – and if he had used a step-ladder,

nobody could have thought the thing excessive, so dead in

earnest were both speaker and audience! The climax was

the boundlessness of God’s mercy; and so truly had the sinfulness

of sin been presented, that everybody present with any heart at

all ought to have felt mighty glad that God’s mercy is boundless.

In the last five or ten minutes of that sermon, I got a new

realization of the power of the gospel.”

(Stonehouse, Machen, pp. 223-224)

So what was it that made these preachers effective? Certainly part of it was natural gifts, but that does not account for all of it. The deeper reason is that God had done a mighty work of grace in their hearts; the Holy Spirit had made them deeply sensitive to spiritual truths, and had given them an intense love for lost souls. And thus, when the stood up to speak, what struck their listeners was how real it all was – the preacher was real, heaven and hell were real, God was real!

Charles Haddon Spurgeon summed it up like this:

“In preparing a sermon, wait upon the Lord until you have communion

with Christ in it, until the Holy Spirit causes you to fell the power of

the truth which you are to deliver . . . Before you attempt to give out

the word to others, get it into yourself.”

(An all-round Ministry, p. 189).

Oh, that we had preachers like that today!

GROWING UP FUNDY

Review:

Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith

Robb Ryerse

Civitas Press, 2012

206 pp., pb.

What is it like growing up in a Fundamentalist home? Are there any alternatives to Fundamentalism? Is it possible to leave Fundamentalism and still be a Christian? Pastor Robb Ryerse explores these questions and gives us some intriguing answers in his book Fundamorphoses: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith.

As it turns out Pastor Ryerse and myself have quite a bit in common. We were both raised in churches that were affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). We both lived, at least for a while, in Upstate New York – he near Utica and I near Syracuse. We both studied, at least for a time, at Baptist Bible College of Pennsylvania, where we both had the privilege of sitting at the feet of the school’s beloved history professor, Dr. Rembert Byrd Carter, or “Doc Carter” as he was affectionately known. We both went on to study at seminaries connected with the Reformed tradition – he at Biblical and I at Westminster. But then our paths diverged.

Pastor Ryerse went on to pastor some Fundamentalist Baptist churches, but became increasingly frustrated with what he found in them and with the whole Fundamentalist movement in general. He eventually left the GARBC to become involved with the “emerging church” movement. I, on the other hand, never went into the formal ministry, but was involved in a lay capacity in a wide variety of churches – Reformed Episcopal, Primitive Baptist, Mennonite, Plymouth brethren, and Reformed Presbyterian. Theologically I moved in the opposite direction from Pastor Ryerse – I looked to the past for answers – to the Puritans and Reformers – and basically became a Reformed Baptist. I am currently part of an informal house church group. Musically I could do without the guitars and drums – give me the old time shaped-note hymns from The Sacred Harp in four part a cappella harmony. And so, having both left the GARBC, Pastor Ryerse and myself have very different perspectives on life.

Pastor Ryerse’s book is part spiritual autobiography and part treatise on Systematic Theology. He tries to be charitable in describing Fundamentalists, but it is clear that he has major problems with the movement. He describes how Fundamentalism didn’t meet his needs, and explains why he is on a path that he thinks will be more rewarding.

Scripture

So what exactly does Pastor Ryerse think is wrong with Fundamentalism? He has a host of familiar complaints – its narrow-mindedness, its judgmentalism, at times its outright hypocrisy. What is striking, however, is his diagnosis of these ills. He basically criticizes Fundamentalists for taking the Bible too seriously, or at least too literally. He tells us that “Emanating directly from their strict interpretations and applications of the Bible, Christian fundamentalists in America have built a rigid superstructure of legalistic tradition that defines their church and home cultures” (p. 21). He then goes on to assert that “Certitude produces legalism,” and “legalism produces judgmentalism” (Ibid.).

His solution is to argue that the Bible is just one of several sources from which we draw our theology. In particular throughout his book Pastor Ryerse measures doctrine by his own experience. “Theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts, and lives of people who are asking the big questions and seeking answers that resonate,” he says (p. 106).

However, the idea that Scripture should be our only rule of faith and practice did not originate with American Fundamentalists in the 20th Century. What Pastor Ryerse is arguing against is nothing less than the Reformation principle of “sola Scriptura,” and long before the GARBC came into existence orthodox Lutheran and Reformed theologians insisted on the same principle. On this point Fundamentalists are simply following the historic Protestant approach to Scripture.

While I would personally hesitate to say that the “autographs” are “inerrant,” we must nevertheless come to terms with the claims that the Bible makes for itself. “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21; NKJV). If this claim can be taken at face value, then the Bible is, in fact, the inspired Word of God, God’s own revelation to us, and is fully authoritative in all that it teaches. Our role, then, is to submit to its authority, not bend it to fit our own desires.

The problem is that by subjecting Scripture to the test of experience we wind up making our theology conform to our lives instead of making our lives conform to what God has revealed. At the bottom of it we are either pursuing God’s will or we are following our own. And the latter is nothing less than self-delusion.

If Fundamentalist doctrine and practice is shallow and superficial, might not the problem be a failure to take Scripture seriously enough?

The fact of the matter is that virtually the only way we can know about God and salvation is through divine revelation. God must tell us what is true about these things – about the origin, purpose and meaning of life, about what happens after death – we have no other path to knowledge about these things. If God has not spoken then we are in ignorance. Thus any theology not based on sound exegesis is a delusion.

Salvation

Likewise Pastor Ryerse’s view of salvation is problematical. He describes the Fundamentalist view of salvation this way: “For someone to ‘get saved,’ they had to believe a certain set of propositions about Jesus. If a person confessed to having these beliefs, we were willing to give her assurance of her standing before God and eternity in heaven” (p. 69). In other words, in this view “faith” is merely mental assent.

Pastor Ryerse’s own view of salvation is that “The real power of faith is not in leading us to a climactic moment of conversion but in shaping the entirety of our lives. The point of our belief is not punching our ticket to heaven but in growing us and growing with us throughout our lives” (p. 70).

The problem here is that he doesn’t distinguish between justification and sanctification. Justification is an act by which we are declared righteous in the sight of God; it takes place instantaneously. Sanctification is a process that begins at conversion and gradually changes us over time. It lasts throughout our pilgrimage here on earth.

It is easy to see how a person raised in a Christian home could be confused on this point. Young children are often encouraged to make professions of faith before they are old enough to understand the basic concepts of sin and redemption. Some churches are reluctant to talk about sin and repentance, which means that their congregations rarely if ever hear convicting sermons. And in the GARBC the situation is further by the fact that sanctification is often described as “personal separation,” as if the Christian life boiled down to little more than “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew; and I don’t go with girls that do.” Thus it is relatively easy for a young person growing up in a Christian home to think that because he is doing all the right things outwardly he must be genuinely a Christian.

The situation is even further complicated by the fact that the pastors themselves often show little understanding of what the new birth is. Thus they will often accept a candidate for baptism and church membership on a bare profession of faith with little or no evidence of regeneration. Then everyone in the church, including the candidate himself, assumes that he is a genuine believer.

What is missing in this scenario is any conviction of sin. What we forget is that God looks on the heart. No matter how righteous and upright a person may seem outwardly, he still is a human being with a sin nature. What we human observers see is a well-behaved youngster who is active in his church and Christian school. What God sees is a heart filled with pride, anger, selfishness, lust and greed. God knows what we are really like inside, and if the motive is present, even when the outward action is not, we are still guilty in the sight of God. What God wants to see is a pure heart, not a proud hypocrite. And here we all fail, no matter how righteous we may appear to be outwardly.

True conversion, then, begins with the conviction of sin. This is not to say that a person must weep over his sins for at least a half an hour before he can pray and ask for forgiveness. Personalities and circumstances differ. But in order for true conversion to take place there must be a clear understanding of the real issue: our sin and guilt before a holy God whose law we have broken and whose justice we have offended.

By the same token true saving faith is not just assent to a set of propositions; it is an act of the will in which we place our trust in Christ as our Savior. We do not just believe things about Christ; we believe in Christ; we place our trust in Him. We rely on Him for salvation. Faith acts on the promises of God’s Word. Faith obeys. Hebrews 11 is the great roll call of faith.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

What is strikingly absent in Pastor Ryerse’s account of the Christian life is the role of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, many fundamentalist Baptist churches have so reacted against Pentacostalism that they hesitate even to mention the Holy Spirit for fear of sounding like “holy rollers.” And in those churches more inclined toward an Arminian theology there is a tendency to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. And yet the New Testament makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the agent of the new birth, and it is the Holy Spirit who creates the spiritual life of the church and makes its ministries effective. Paul could say, “And my speech and my preaching were not with permissive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Cor. 2:4). Without the Holy Spirit the church is just plain dead.

The new birth itself is a deep, inward change produced by the Holy Spirit. In the case of a person raised in a Christian home there might not be a dramatic outward change. Such a person will continue to be the same outwardly moral and upright person that he always has been. The real change takes place inwardly. The newly regenerated Christian has a new understanding, and new interests and desires. He is conscious of a new relationship with God. He has a prayer life, and he delights to feed upon God’s Word.

It is here that many nominal Christians raised in Christian homes have difficulty. They go through life simply reacting to the opinions of others. It is all a matter of external pressure. But to really know God in a personal, intimate way is liberating. God’s opinion is the only one that matters. Everyone else’s opinion is only secondary. As someone once put it, “the fear of God is the fear that drives away all other fear.” It was this fear of God that prompted Martin Luther to stand before the Emperor and all the assembled nobles of the Holy Roman Empire and declare, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” If we are feeding on God’s Word, if we are spending time with Him in prayer, if we are growing ever closer to Him, the opinions of men simply do not matter. The only question is, what does God think? If I am truly born again, if I have genuine spiritual life within me, it is no longer a matter of trying to please others and live up to their expectations. My aim is to please God and I don’t need any external prompting.

The difference can be illustrated by the life of Paul. In a sense we could say that Paul had a “Fundamentalist” upbringing, if we could use that term in a Jewish context. He was a devout Jew – “circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6). He even had the added advantage of theological training under one of the leading rabbis of his day. But in the end it was of no avail. In a fascinating piece of psychological introspection he describes his inner conflict in Romans chapter 7. Intellectually he had a high regard for Scripture. He could see that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). But he also saw something else at work inside of himself – something dark and sinister. For all of his outward righteousness he was still a human being, born with a sin nature that led him in the complete opposite direction. This created a strange paradox in his psychology. “For what I am doing I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (v. 15; cf. v. 19). “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23). And this led to his anguished cry in verse 24: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”   Is it not fair to say that this describes the experience of many today who were raised in Christian homes?

Parmigianino, ca. 1530

The Conversion of Paul

The answer to the question is found in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). What makes the difference in the life a person who has genuinely been born again is the Holy Spirit, and Paul describes the work of the Spirit at length in chapter 8. The Spirit gives life (vv. 4-11), the assurance of salvation (vv. 14-17), hope (vv. 23-25), and intercession (vv. 26,27). And thus Paul concludes the chapter on a triumphant note: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v. 37). What makes the difference between chapter 7 and chapter 8? The presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer! Is that not what we are missing in our churches today? And Paul is very blunt about the matter: “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:9b). Where does that leave us?

The Church

Which brings us to the subject of the church. In the last chapter of his book Pastor Ryerse describes the type of “emerging church” his is planting in Arkansas. He criticizes traditional churches for putting “belief and behavior ahead of belonging” (p. 202). Candidates for membership have to believe a certain way and behave a certain way in order to belong. At his new church, however, Pastor Ryerse says that “For us, it’s not about who is in and who is out. We see ourselves as a community of people on a journey, trying our best to follow Jesus together. We want to affirm anyone who is on that path, regardless of how far down the trail he or she may be’ (p. 203).

It is a little hard to see how anyone who has sat in Doc Carter’s classes could say such a thing. For Doc Carter, beyond anyone else, was quick to point out that a Baptist church, indeed a New Testament church, should be a believers’ church with a regenerate church membership. And this is important, not just because it is a Baptist distinctive, but because it is the only way that a church can manifest life in Christ to the surrounding community. It is the only way that a church can even begin to function the way a church is supposed to. The operative principle is that each individual member of the church is supposed to be vitally connected to Christ through the indwelling Spirit. The church is supposed to be a spiritual fellowship, the communion of the saints, drawn together by a common love for Christ and for each other. This is why Baptist churches traditionally have had church covenants – you were making a formal commitment to your fellow believers to live the Christian life and to function together as a spiritual body.

Is not our problem today that our churches are not very spiritual? For the most part they have become social clubs, with the paid, professional pastor acting as CEO and master of ceremonies. You can get 90% of the congregation out for a “fellowship” dinner, but scarcely 10% out for prayer meeting. Since when did casseroles become more important than prayer? Is Christ present in our gatherings?

Conclusion

What is largely missing in Pastor Ryerse’s book is any sense of the holiness of God, of the sinfulness of man, of the need for repentance, and of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. Pastor Ryerse seems instead to take a sociological approach to religion. Fundamentalism is a subculture that makes certain demands on its members. But for Pastor Ryerse it was all external pressure – he didn’t feel anything within. At one point he says that “many of us have wondered why some biblical writers speak of God’s presence being so close and near to them while our own experiences have been of a God who is far away” (p. 102). At another point he admitted, “I’m not very good at praying . . . I’ve just never been able to develop prayer as a consistent discipline in my life” (p. 189). In short, what we seem to have here is the psychology of an unconverted person, caught up in a religious milieu but lacking any direct experience with God personally. And thus it was only a matter of time before he would try to redefine his faith to correspond with how he actually felt within.

But in the end as human beings we all have to deal with God as He actually is. In one sense Pastor Ryerse is certainly correct when he says that “theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts and lives of people who are asking the big questions.” That is, in fact, exactly what most of the great preachers and writers down through the centuries did, from John Bunyan to Martyn Lloyd-Jones – most of them had no academic training in theology at all, but they concentrated on asking the big questions, and tried to understand how the answers applied to life. This is what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” or experiential theology as we might say today, if we could even conceive of such a thing. Pastor Ryerse’s problem is that he is “seeking answers that resonate” with him personally. Rather the great preachers and writers of the past went to Scripture for the answers. (And Moses, Jesus and Paul were no ivory tower armchair theologians!). And that is what we must do. We must go to the Bible and try to interpret it honestly and humbly, allowing ourselves to be taught by God’s Word. We must learn to apply it to our lives. Simply to base our theology on our own feelings and experiences is to lead ourselves astray. We cannot afford to go through life making up things about God because they make us feel good. For this reason I am afraid that Pastor Ryerse’s solution to the problem of Fundamenealism is probably a dead end.

AN INCOMPLETE REFORMATION

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

 

Eph. 4:1-16 provides us with the biblical theory behind the church. The church is a mystical body, bound together by the shared presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through spiritual gifts that are distributed throughout the body. The purpose of these gifts is “the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry” (v. 12; NKJV). The church is to grow thereby into a state of spiritual maturity, which, in turn, results in “the unity of the faith . . . and the knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13). Through it all the entire church draws its strength from its union with Christ, who is the Head. The result is that every part does its share, and “causes the growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v. 16).

And yet we don’t often see the church today functioning that way. Why? The story is a long one, and it goes back close to the very beginning. As early as the Second Century we begin to see the emergence of what is sometimes called “Early Catholicism.” This was marked by two innovations: a monarchical episcopate and infant baptism.

In the New Testament the office of bishop and elder were considered the same – the two terms were used interchangeably (e.g., Tit. 1:5 & 7) – and the church was led by a board of elders or “presbytery” (I Tim. 4:14) chosen from within the congregation. But by the Second Century we begin to see the bishop emerging as the single, preeminent leader of the congregation, with the elders below him. Thus Ignatius of Antioch could write to the Church of Ephesus in 108 A.D., and urge them to “be joined together in one subjection, subject to the bishop and to the presbytery . . . “ (Eph. II.2).

Infant baptism apparently came later, but it was attested as early as the time of Tertullian (ca. 200 A.D.). The problem here is that infant baptism shifts the focus away from the faith of the person being baptized to the church’s sacraments as a conduit of grace.

The situation was further complicated when Constantine, who was sympathetic to Christianity, became sole emperor in 323 A.D. Thereafter the Roman government supported the church, but this was a mixed blessing, for it also meant that the government would meddle in the church’s affairs. The emperors were often more interested in political harmony than in doctrinal purity, and the effect on the church was not always salutary.

And thus, gradually, down through the Middle Ages the pure gospel of salvation by grace through faith was buried under layers of tradition, scholastic philosophy and canon law. And this was the situation that faced Martin Luther in 1517 when he published his famous Ninety-five Theses. A gifted biblical scholar, he could see how far the Catholic Church has strayed from the practice of the New Testament Church. His writings caused a sensation and he soon found himself at the center of controversy. The great question of the hour was what to do about all of the abuses that had corrupted and deformed the church.

Luther was by no means alone in this situation. In Switzerland Ulrich Zwingli found himself in pretty much the same position. Both men, however, had the support of their respective local civil magistrates. But, as in the days of Constantine, this was a mixed blessing. Biblical scholars like Luther and Zwingli could see what was taught and practiced in the New Testament church; the civil magistrates, on the other hand, were concerned to maintain public order. Luther, quite plausibly, advocated a cautious approach to reform. Arguing from the New Testament principle of Christian liberty he advocated changing only what was necessary, and leaving the rest alone. Zwingli’s attitude, however, is harder to justify. From the pulpit he had advocated a thorough-going, Bible-based reform. In actual practice, however, he deferred to the City Council of Zurich. It is hard to clear him of the charge of political opportunism.

What both Luther and Zwingli were attempting to do, in effect, was to take existing territorial state churches and “reform” them by introducing certain changes to make them look more biblical. It was hard for them to do otherwise. Were it not for the support of the magistrates they could have literally paid with their lives for the doctrines they were teaching. The whole social order of Western Europe was based on the idea of “Corpus Christianum,” the idea that all of Western society constituted “Christendom.” But an all-inclusive state church can never be anything more than a pale shadow of what a genuine Christian church ought to be. The church is supposed to be a “communion of the saints,” a spiritual fellowship of committed believers who demonstrate the life of Christ in their love toward one another. A state church leads to mere formalism.

Some of Zwingli’s more radical followers saw the nature of the problem, and formed the nucleus of what became the Anabaptist movement, which, among other things, rejected the idea of infant baptism. For Luther and Zwingli, however, this was too much. It threatened to undermine the whole structure of Western society, and they were both patriots at heart!

What we are left with, then, in the cases of the Lutheran and Reformed (and Anglican) churches is an incomplete Reformation. The Reformers recovered the gospel of salvation by grace, but failed to achieve a biblical church life. The Anabaptists attempted a more thorough-going reform, and since that time there have been other attempts to create a more biblical and more spiritual form of church life – everything from the 17th Century Baptists and Quakers to a variety of 19th Century “Restorationist” movements. But these various “Free Church” movements have been marred by divisiveness and sometimes unsound doctrine, and even the ones that started fairly well over time tended to lapse into the same kind of institutionalism and dead formalism that has plagued their state church brethren. Nearly all American churches today have grown accustomed to relying on human means to achieve spiritual ends, and the life of the Spirit is notably absent. Hardly anything existing today can be said to resemble the spiritual life of the First Century church.

We are deeply indebted to Luther and Zwingli, Calvin and Knox, for rediscovering the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, and for making God’s Word, the Bible, available to the common man. If it had not been for them, humanly speaking, we would still be in spiritual darkness. But in our admiration for their achievements we must not overlook the fact that their efforts at reforming the church ultimately fell short of what God requires. And it must be our ever-present task to construct a church that genuinely reflects God’s will – a believers’ church, a spiritual fellowship, a church that shows by deed as well as by word what salvation means in actual practice. We need to look past the highly institutionalized form of church life that we know today to see the true and living God seated upon His throne in heaven. What we need is what some of our forefathers knew as revival – not glib preacher or TV huckster, but a real outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will humble us before the glory and majesty of God, fill our hearts with love, and anoint our verbal testimony with power. May God grant us the grace to live up to His expectations!

ARE PEDOBAPTISTS HERETICS?

 

The Problem of Infant Baptism

Recently we were involved in a discussion with a fellow blogger named Eliza who is especially zealous for the doctrinal purity of the church. The question came up about certain well-known figures in church history such as Luther, Calvin, Whitefield, Wesley and Edwards who believed in or practiced infant baptism. In a comment dealing specifically with Augustine and Calvin Eliza made this remarkable statement:

“Since these men purported to be doctors of the church they should have

known without a shadow of a doubt that what they were attesting was

spurious and without merit. They blindly followed the heresy of the

blind. Those who promulgate false doctrine are false teachers and should

be avoided at all costs according to the Scriptures. They are not serving

Christ but they are serving their own fleshly desires and are led astray by

the enemy of our souls. To allow them the name of Christ, when they

contradict the truth of Christ and his amazing, almighty glorious work

for our salvation, is to side with the enemy of our souls.”

The sweep and scope of this condemnation is astonishing. It would mean that none of the major Reformers – Luther, Zwingli, Farel, Calvin, and Knox – were really Christians. It would mean that most of the Puritans were without Christ. It would mean that most of the leaders of the 18th and 19th Century Evangelical Awakenings – Whitefield, Wesley, Edwards and Zinzendorf – were all false teachers working for the devil. Most of our major hymn writers – Watts, Charles Wesley, Newton, Doddridge and Toplady – were heretics. And the major evangelists of the 19th and early 20th Centuries – Nettleton, Finney, Moody and Sunday – were all leading people astray. Can that really be true?

It must be pointed out that Eliza and myself are both agreed that infant baptism is an unscriptural practice. But it actually originated before Augustine – he was simply following the practice of a number of the church fathers who were before him. Infant baptism was practiced as early as the 2nd Century, and was advocated by both Origen and Cyprian. But there is no question that it played a major role in corrupting the visible church, for it shifted the focus away from the faith of the person being baptized to the ability of the church to dispense grace through the sacraments. At the time of the Reformation the Anabaptists rejected the practice outright. The Lutheran and Reformed churches, however, reacted against the Anabaptist Movement, afraid that it represented a threat to Christian civilization, thus sought to retain infant baptism, but couldn’t come up with a uniform rationale for it. The Lutherans essentially took a mystical approach, holding to a form of baptismal regeneration. Reformed theologians, on the other hand, developed a form of covenant theology and held that baptism was the means of entrance into the covenant community. Frankly, both Lutheran and Reformed theologians struggled to come up with a coherent rationale for baptizing infants. Suffice it to say, there is no direct command and no clear example ins Scripture to support the practice, whereas several passages link baptism to faith and repentance, and tacitly assume that persons who have been baptized are regenerate believers (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom. 6:3-11; Gal. 3:26,27; I Pet. 3:21).

The Unity of the Church

How, then, should we deal with people who practice such things? Do we simply write them off as false teachers? More specifically, what does God Himself think about all of this? As He surveys the scene from His throne in heaven, what does He think?

It must be remembered that in God’s sight the fundamental cleavage dividing the human race is between those who are “in Christ” and those who are not. The body of Christ is composed of all those who have been truly born again and believe on Him. It is the sum total of the elect, and they are His people. All of them: stiff formalists and “holy rollers,” pedobaptists and Anabaptists, Calvinists and Arminians, black evangelicals and white. All of them are fallen human beings, and none of them are perfect – although some in the Wesleyan communion have claimed perfection! Thus the starting point for our position on ecclesiastical separation must be the biblical doctrine of the universal church. The apostle Paul lays this out in Eph. 2:11-22. Here he describes how both Jews and Gentiles have been “reconciled . . . in one body to God through the cross” (v. 16). “. . . through Him we both have the entrance in one Spirit unto the Father’ (v. 18). We have been “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure being framed together grows into a holy temple in the Lord in Whom you also are built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (vv. 20-22). Here we have a beautiful picture of the entire universal church forming a mystical unity in which God Himself is present. Or to put it another way, there is a mystical bond that unites all genuine believers, of whatever denomination, to Christ and to each other. This bond is formed by the living presence of the Holy Spirit in each one of our hearts. The bond that ties believers to each other is more personal and more intimate than any external connections they may have to an organization or creed.

But what are the practical implications of this? The practical implication is that we have a responsibility to preserve the unity of the body. Later on in the epistle Paul exhorts the Ephesians “to walk worthily of the calling with which you have been called . . . endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. . .” (Eph. 4:1,3).

While Paul is addressing a specific local church here, it is apparent that the principle he lays down extends to the entire universal church. It was the universal church that he had described earlier in 2:11-22, and in the passage immediately following (4:4-6) he grounds his exhortation in certain facts that are true of the entire Christian church as a whole: “one body, and one Spirit, just as you have been called in one hope of our calling: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of al, Who is over all things and through all things and in all things.”

It will be noted that this unity is essentially spiritual in nature: it is “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” What unites us as believers as believers to each other is not merely some social tie or common interest, but rather the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us. Thus we become “members of each other” (v. 25), with the consequence that if we indulge in “bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander” (v. 31) we grieve the Holy Spirit (v. 30). As the bond is intimate the wound is felt personally.

Nor is this a peripheral duty, to be treated casually. We are to “endeavor” to keep the unity. The Greek word literally means “to make haste,” and by extension, “to be zealous or eager, to give diligence” (Abbott-Smith). Thus we are to make a conscious effort to maintain the peace and unity of the church.

But how do we do this? It is significant that Paul does not suggest the typical modern solution, viz., more organization. Rather, he looks to something deeper, viz., the underlying attitude of our hearts. “With all lowliness of mind and gentleness, with patience bearing with one another in love . . .” (v. 2). What is required to maintain this unity is a specific attitude: an attitude of humility, gentleness, patience and love; in some ways the exact opposite of what we often associate with the “fightin’ Fundamentalist.”

How to Deal with the Erring Brother

 

This, however, raises an important question: how are we to deal with an erring brother? Once again the Bible offers specific guidance on this question. In II Tim. 2:22-26 Paul gives Timothy directions on how to deal with the problem. He begins by telling him to “flee youthful lusts, but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart” (v. 22). But this entails the negative side of the question: “But foolish and ignorant controversies avoid, knowing that they engender quarrels.” Paul then lays down the general rule for the conduct of a pastor or Christian worker: “But the servant of the Lord must not fight, but be gentle unto all, apt at teaching, patiently forbearing” (v. 24). That is his manner. His method is described in the next verse: “in gentleness correcting those who are in opposition . . .” The problem is real; action is required. The opposer must be corrected. But it is to be done in “gentleness.” We are not trying to hurt the person we are attempting to correct. We are sensitive to his particular situation and his feelings, and are attempting, with gentleness, patience and love, to bring him where he ought to be. Our language is clear, instructive, and respectful. We do not misrepresent him or his motives. But we urge him, as one brother to another, to take the claims of God’s Word seriously. In this solemn and sacred duty tirades and harangues are completely out of place. Our goal is that “God may grant them repentance unto a knowledge of the truth, and that they might return to soberness from the devil’s snare, having been taken captive by him unto his will” (vv. 25,26). Our aim is restoration and reconciliation, not permanent estrangement. Any words or actions on our part that would needlessly antagonize our brother is counterproductive.

James asks the telling question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” (James 3:13). Undoubtedly there are many who think that they are wise. “Let him demonstrate from a good lifestyle his works in the gentleness of wisdom.” True wisdom comes from God, and will be consistent with a godly manner of life. To underscore the point, James draws a contrast between two different kinds of “wisdom.” The first kind is marked by “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” (v. 14). This kind of “wisdom” does not come from God. Rather it is “earthy, natural, demonic” (v. 15). It is driven and motivated by our fallen human nature, and by the evil powers at work in the world. Its inevitable result is “disorder and every evil deed” (v. 16). We think that we are being smart by being self-assertive. But where does it lead? To strife, conflict, and ruined relationships. This is hardly “wisdom.”

But what is true wisdom like? It is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (v. 17). In other words, it cares about others, seeks peace with them, and treats them with respect.
James then concludes with this general precept: “But the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (v. 18). Carnal means cannot achieve spiritual ends, and the Lord’s work cannot be done by using the devil’s tools. We may think that we are doing the Lord’s work – that we are earnestly contending for the faith. But if we slander our opponents and vilify them in the press, if we use abusive and contemptuous language, we do exactly what the devil wants us to do: we grieve the Holy Spirit and divide the brethren.

Moreover, we grossly misrepresent Christ by acting in a way that is contrary to His own character and will. Jesus told us, “In this shall all know that you are My disciples if you have love one for another” (Jn. 13:35). Separation from fellow believers (sometimes called “Second Degree Separation”) results in permanent division within the body and makes it all too obvious to the world that we have little love for each other. In this way it brings incalculable reproach on the gospel, a stain not easily erased, a stumbling block to those who might otherwise be led to inquire.

How many have been kept from heaven by our ungodly words and actions? Are we telling the world thereby that we are not His disciples? If we do not live the way He has instructed us to, we are not very good students, are we?