Three Necessary Commitments for Planting New ARP Churches

The number of Americans not affiliated with Christian Churches is rising, and the Christian Church’s influence in our society is declining. This reality gives many Christians, myself included, a great sense of burden for non-Christians and for the future of the Christian Church, which we dearly love.

What can we do? The best thing we can do, out of the many possibilities, is to plant more Christ-centered churches. Planting new, biblical, Christ-centered, and confessional churches is the most effective way to impact the lost world for Christ. Period.

I have experienced this first hand over the past 4 years as I have overseen the church planting and revitalization efforts of Catawba Presbytery of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC). God has worked mightily and wonderfully in our church plants.

Three Commitments

As the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church moves into the future, we must view our church planting efforts as intentional missionary endeavors of the denomination and our presbyteries. To do that, we must make the following three commitments.

1. We must commit to planting more churches.

Tim Keller has written, “The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else — not crusades, outreach programs, para-church ministries, growing mega-churches, congregation consulting, nor church renewal processes — will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting.”[1]

He’s right. New and reclaimed Christians are often better served by new congregations because, unlike older, established ones, they do not have long-standing traditions, leadership and social structures, and other baggage that must be adopted, broken into, or carried. Additionally, new churches can think creatively about ministering to our diverse and transient society more so than established, mature congregations can. Research bears this out, indicating that 60-80% of attendees of church plants do not have any affiliation with other Christian congregations.

2. We must commit to viewing our church planters as missionaries.

Our church planters are missionaries, and they are planting in a “foreign” culture, full of idols with constantly changing norms. This is true even though their mission field oftentimes is within a 30-minute drive of our existing congregations. Planters must learn how to effectively communicate the gospel, the essence of the church, and the principles of the faith in a complex and changing environment. This takes time, and time takes a long-term financial commitment from those who support them.

3. We must commit to rethinking the timeline and funding paradigm for our church planters.

Our (ARPC) current funding paradigm was designed for a time when Christianity was the dominant influence in general culture. The social, political, moral, and intellectual landscape has changed drastically in the last 15 years, leaving Christianity to be simply one of the many voices being heard around the table of American religious and public life. Therefore, we can’t expect our planters to plant on the same timeline and have the same financial expectations now as they did in the early 2000s.

Presbyteries and the General Synod through Outreach North America should continue to support church planters financially with a lump sum to be disbursed over a period of 3-5 years. In addition, local congregations and individuals should be strongly encouraged to partner with the planters’ efforts by making long-term commitments to pray for and financially support our planters in much the same way as they partner with missionaries in foreign countries.

Furthermore, we must consider the church planting model that the planter has chosen and the context in which he will be planting when developing a timeline for his church plant. For instance, a church planter planting among the rural poor should take longer to develop solid leaders and become financially solvent than a planter planting among highly educated, upwardly mobile suburbanites. Any timeline that disregards these realities will be insufficient.

Christ will be faithful.

We plant churches expecting that Christ will be faithful to bless the work of his people as we go into the world and make disciples of all nations. Making disciples cannot be done completely apart from planting new churches. May we go forward and plant many churches for Christ’s glory, trusting him in his sovereignty.

[1] “Why Plant Churches,” Redeemer PCA, http://download.redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/Why_Plant_Churches-Keller.pdf

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Growing in Grace

One of the hardest lessons to learn about the Christian life is that the Christian life isn’t about me. This is a hard pill to swallow for ‘rugged individualists’ who think that the answer to all our own problems is to ‘pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’ and carry on. When we say the Christian life is not about me, we are saying that “I” am not the answer to my problems at any level of the Christian life. Justification? That’s is an act of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ. Adoption? That’s is an act of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ. Sanctification? That’s is the work of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ.

Image result for bible and prayerThe Christian faith, life, walk, or whatever else you want to call it is about Jesus. It is looking out of ourselves and to Him. It is focusing on Him and the work that He has done for sinners. He is the grounds and content of the Christian faith and life. The promises of the Christian faith are fulfilled and given to us in Christ at every level of the Christian’s existence. He is the focus and object of our faith (Colossians 3:1-4).

Why then do we so often think that our growth in grace (sanctification) comes from focusing on our own weaknesses? Let me illustrate. Let’s say that I have been convicted over a particular sin: impatience. The natural inclination of my heart is to turn inward and to focus on ways that I am impatient, and to say to myself, ‘I have to do better in this. I must not be so impatient with my coworkers/fellow drivers/cashier/children.’ What we do so often is then think on how impatient we are, and how sinful it is, and how we can remedy that.

Did you catch it?! I have made my sanctification about me, and how I can improve. Christianity is no self-help center!! The answer to your growth in grace is God’s appointed means of grace, not your ability to stop some outward actions. (Even lost men can stop outward actions that are deemed bad.) It takes a change of heart and growth in grace! (cf. Romans 12:1-2)

So, what is the primary way we grow in grace and die to sin? It is through focusing on Christ–(again) by His appointed means (Word, sacraments, and prayer, along with godly fellowship with other believers).  This is why the author of Hebrews tells us to lay aside sin and those things which easily entangle us, and to do so by fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-3). It is not introspective navel gazing that will draw us close to Christ–it is through looking outward to the One who is the object and grounds of our faith. When I fall into sin, the remedy is not looking at me and/or the sin. It is by hating and repenting of it, and looking to the sinless One and by reflecting on His holiness in the way that I am unholy, and God uses this to make me more like Jesus.

An Empire of Desire or Death?

The book of Revelation overwhelms its reader with God’s victory over sin and death, not merely in the future, but already, and even in John’s “past.” One is confronted with this truth at the beginning of the letter when one reads that the revelation that John received is not only from the Lord Jesus Christ but about the Lord Jesus Christ, who is “the Alpha and Omega,” “who is, who was and is to come, the Almighty” (1:8). If that is not enough to get the point across, then surely the saturation of the entire text in references, allusions and quotes from the Old Testament does. John is told of Jesus’ reign in his day by references to how it was expressed in the Old Covenant era and through its text. It is not merely that Jesus began to reign at his resurrection, but that Jesus reigned at the beginning of creation and he never relinquished it. Looks can be deceiving. Our looks deceive us.

When one actually reads the book of Revelation on its own terms one receives from it hope and the message of the Lord Jesus’ reign, because he is, was and is to come (1:8). He IS reigning; always has. The message of the entire Old and New Testament is that the Triune God reigns, not merely that he will one day reign. Among the glaring flaws of the Classic Dispensationalism that C. I. Scofield and John Nelson Darby pawned off on several generations of professing Christians in the late 19th century, and beyond, surely one of the most obvious is its failure to recognize who the God of the Bible is.

To actually receive the text of God’s word is to rightly receive its message of who God is. To receive that message one has not merely received right thoughts about God, although one is receiving them, but more accurately, one is receiving God himself. This means one’s very being is arrested and transformed—changed, so that one lives in the light and life of which the text speaks and transmits by the power of God’s Spirit. The message of Scripture is that God reigns, whether particular earthly people and powers recognize it or not. His kingdom shall have no end and it is, and it was present at creation. The world’s babel notwithstanding.

One of John’s primary points is that the “empire of desire” of his day as expressed in the Roman Empire in all its governmental and economic largesse with all its social entanglements was not what it appeared to be. It did not have the power it thought it had. Oh, it had a particular kind of power to be sure, but it was and is the power of death, not life. Jesus is life, not enticing and enslaving Babylon. Jesus is. Babylon is not.

The world’s babel, of course, is expressed in Adam and Eve’s sin, in Cain’s unacceptable worship and murder of his brother, in the decadence of the people of Noah’s day, and then clarified for us in Genesis 11. Babylon is the great prostitute, the mother of them all; she birthed them. Her description in Revelation 17 does not merely express the wealth and adornments of economic and political power but also the beauty and identification that marked the priests and kings of God’s Old Covenant people. Babylon is a deceiving, enticing and enslaving false religion. The economic and political power expressed by nation-states of the world along with the various corporate and cultural entities of which they are comprised is a false religion. No sacred/secular dichotomy here. Babylon is death, because she is idolatrous.

What Revelation identifies we are to do in relation to Babylon was also revealed by John in 1John 2:15, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” By world John did not have reference to the physical creation but the ways of sinful humanity in rebellion against God. To think otherwise and affirm that John, or any writer of Scripture, taught a fundamental rejection of the physical creation in the name of serving the Creator Lord is to embrace a way of thinking that, while very popular in the Greek pagan thought of John’s day, is the rejection of biblical Christianity. Setting the physical material realm off against the spiritual realm and imagining that they are disconnected is the product of the human heart or soul, and has been expressed in a variety of ways throughout human history. The Greeks did not invent it, but they gave expression to it. So too does Classic Dispensationalism, as do all other interpretive approaches to Scripture that share its fundamental assertions. And, yes, Progressive Dispensationalism and various applications of the present “Two Kingdoms” approach to biblical interpretation are guilty in various ways of this. Regarding the latter, the issue is not whether there are two kingdoms—God’s kingdom and Man’s—but what actually marks their relation to each other.

Revelation teaches us that Babylon, Man’s kingdom, is not disconnected from God’s so that one can live in the latter and be untouched by the former. Neither is the reverse true. But neither does it mean that they are dissolved into each other. They are distinguished from each other in this current Age, but This Age has already been infiltrated by The Age To Come. It is why this world is passing away. This world marked by rebellion against God and, yes, thereby against God’s people has been, is being, and will be (Jesus was, is, and is to come) brought to its rightful end. Of course, it could not be otherwise, because Babylon is not merely the “empire of desire” but of death.

When one listens and watches what Babylon regards as news, i.e. history and thereby how it interprets itself, one might come away convinced of her impressive and inevitable power. Babylon is “fake news.” Babylon does not know its right hand from its left, does not realize it is butt naked despite telling us it is the emperor with new clothes, and while it has its own prophets, priests and kings peddling its religion and empire of desire, it leaves its proponents hung over and helpless unable to rightly interpret nearly anything. But it does not present itself this way, and its presentation of itself perhaps too easily influences our interpretation of it.

God’s people are always prone to either an over-realized eschatology (minimizing Babylon or thinking more highly than they should of what they are able to experience of God’s kingdom) or an under-realized one (maximizing Babylon, or thinking too lowly of what they are able to experience of God’s kingdom). The Marxists accounts of history that have dominated history departments within Babylon for about a century, and whose influence is not unfelt in allegedly Christian colleges and seminaries, has a vested interest in convincing people that Babylon, or “the empire of desire” is an insurmountable foe. When God’s people think this way they are marked by a defeatist, pessimistic cynicism that makes much of the empire of desire but fails to recognize that this empire of desire is not actually best identified this way. God’s word leads us to conclude that Babylon is more than just a vanity fair of desires marked by people identifying themselves according to their desires. No, the “world is passing away and its desires, but the one who does the Father’s will abides forever” (1John 2:17). Is John merely telling us what will be in the future? No. The verb tenses in that verse are not future, but present. The “empire of desire” is most accurately identified as the “empire of death,” not simply because one eventually perishes eternally in hell for living according to its desires, but because it and all the people who remain committed to it are presently dying. Satan has been defeated and thrown down not merely out of heaven but even now from the earth, because “the salvation and the power and the kingdom and the authority of the Christ have come” (Rev. 12:10).

Given the captivating, comprehensive and corrupting character of Babylon’s desires, that are in fact nothing less than the expression of the sinful human soul, Christians are always susceptible to the proverbial pendulum swing. Some make too little of Babylon. Some make too much.

We currently have examples of both. Some speak of “engaging the culture” and do so primarily on the basis of not merely borrowing the culture’s language for trying to communicate the gospel (a dangerous difficulty to say the least), but on the basis of its most fundamental commitments that emphasize the supremacy of human desires for self-identification, self-expression and self-empowerment. The gospel turns out to be how Jesus helps you get comfortable with who you think you are, what you want to do, and how you want to do it. This gets expressed in various ways to varying degree among individuals and congregations. It is not merely individual Christians identifying themselves according to their sin, or their particular niche group, but entire congregations (we are the congregation for the _____________ demographic). Church is “done” in a “new way” and anything popular within the broader culture is rather unthinkingly assimilated into the congregation without a serious questioning of whether the practice or object used actually expresses that which is antagonistic to the gospel. Some have never heard of Marshall McLuhan or Neil Postman, or come close to stumbling upon a smidgen of their insights.

The seemingly ubiquitous nature of this spiritual foolishness within particular quarters of the American evangelical world that dissolves the church with the culture can perhaps lead some in the church to fail to give God his due regard. The Lord Jesus is building his church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. Even in the midst of Babylon, the Lord Jesus reigns. The Lord Jesus reigns in his church not disconnected from Babylon but in distinction from her while right in her midst. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof and those who dwell in it (Ps. 24:1). Precisely because Babylon presents itself as life when she is death, the one who is life actually reigns over her. He speaks powerfully to her and those enticed by her, points out her foolishness and calls those captured by it to repent of it. This word does not merely bring God’s covenant blessing but administrates his covenant curse (Isaiah 6:9-12; Mt. 13:10-17). The Lord Jesus’ kingdom is the leaven that will fill the whole earth (Mt. 13:33). One day the knowledge of God will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14). There is a progress to redemption. Those captured by Babylon cannot see or hear it. Their blindness and deafness does not nullify Jesus’ reign.

While we certainly should reject the spiritually foolish, intellectually shallow, and unbridled sincerity of those who reject the power of God’s word preached, the administration of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, and prayer in favor of Babylon’s smoke and mirrors, we also need to be careful that in the process we do not fail to recognize and live in the reality of God’s Spirit blowing the smoke away and the One who is the image of the invisible God manifesting himself as Lord, even now, over the whole earth.

They Don’t Know With Whom They Are Dealing or How

It would seem obvious, but nonetheless it must be stated—all human knowledge is theological. Why? Because God is the creator and redeemer who reveals himself in all his creation. The Triune God is both the creator of humans—those who know—and the objects and concepts they know. The personal or subjective element in knowledge is unavoidably united to and seen in the objective element of knowledge. In the Christian view of human knowledge, subjectivity and objectivity are not irreconcilably opposed to each other. God created we who know. God created how we know. God created what we know, yet ultimately what we know is the uncreated Triune God.

Among the many implications that follow from these points is the following from B. B. Warfield in “The Idea of Systematic Theology” in his Collected Works, vol. 9: “All science [by this he meant all knowledge, not merely the physical sciences] without God is mutilated science, and no account of a single branch of knowledge can ever be complete until it is pushed back to find its completion and ground in him” (70). Quoting approvingly E. B. Pusey, Warfield affirmed, “All things must speak of God, refer to God, or they are atheistic. History, without God, is a chaos without design, or end or aim . . . Metaphysics, without God, would make man his own temporary god to be resolved, after his brief hour here, into the nothingness out of which he proceeded.” (CW 9:70-71).

Warfield continued: “It is thus as true of sciences as it of creatures, that in Him they all live and move and have their being. The sciences of Him and His relations is the necessary ground of all science. All speculation takes us back to Him; all inquiry presupposes Him; and every phase of science consciously or unconsciously rests at every step on the science that makes Him known. Theology, thus, as the science which treats of God lies at the root of all sciences. . . . It is only in theology, therefore, that the other sciences find their completion.”

If we are looking for one of the chief reasons why so many allegedly Christian institutions of higher education decline into philosophically naturalistic thinking while maintaining an outward allegiance to Christianity we perhaps need look no further than this point—the vast majority of their teachers have never learned a faithfully Christian view of their subject. They are simply poor systematic theologians. They were trained as scholars in institutions that are in profound rebellion against Christ and his kingdom. Their thinking has been shaped in anti-Christian ways despite their self-conscious intent otherwise. Their sincerity was not, and still is not, a sufficient defense against receiving a view of their subject that is, in fundamental and pervasive ways, antagonistic to biblical thinking. For them their subject is not theology; they think they have to relate it to theology. But their subject is theology. As it turns out, they don’t know with whom they are dealing, because they don’t know how they are dealing with him.

Wishing Upon a Star

From 2003-2010 I had the privilege to teach apologetics to 12th graders at a Christian school near Philadelphia, PA. In order to try and communicate to my students the character of the culture in which we all lived I would sometimes use, and yes, even sing, phrases or lines from popular songs. Well, they were popular to me, even if I did sing them badly. Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” and B. J. Thomas’s “Hooked On a Feeling,” were two of my favorites, but perhaps the one I used the most was “When You Wish Upon a Star” from the 1940 Disney classic Pinocchio. Anyone who thinks that a self-absorbed, retreat-inside-yourself, feelings-obsessed-activism got started at the turn of the millennium really never paid attention to Pinocchio.

After all, Pinocchio teaches us that all we have to do is wish upon a star and anything your heart desires will come to you. All that matters is whether your heart is in your dreams. It does not matter who you are. You wish sincerely and hard enough your dreams will come true.

The object bends to the will of the knowing and desiring subject. The media need not report on or about reality; they can create it. You know, it all depends on what the meaning of the word is is. There are no borders, no boundaries. The Constitution is a document that says what I want it to say. I find in it a right to X, therefore that is what the Constitution says. Without borders or boundaries, there are no such things as contradictions, and we certainly are not going to confront our favorite politician on his or her contradictions, well, I mean, those do not exist anyway, because, after all, we don’t want them to.

All that matters is feelings. “I feel like you are not listening to me.” Therefore, I am not listening. “I feel like I got the right answer.” I had a Christian school student say this to me a couple years ago. He wanted me to give him credit for a correct answer, when, in point of fact, he had given an incorrect answer. The question was a straight factual question about the number of soldiers in a particular army. He felt like he got it correct, therefore he should have been given credit for a correct answer.

Of course, what happens when you live long enough is that the empirically objective character to life slaps you around. Well, as long as you are unable to insulate yourself from it by political power and money. If you have enough money and political power, you can get away with every criminal activity under the sun, and you are free to convince yourself that you are completely right in doing so. You see how this works? Your crimes are transformed into non-crimes because of your desire. You meant well. That is the only thing that matters. The ends completely justify the means. You borrowed money, well you don’t have to pay it back, because your intentions are good, so that was money you deserved. You cannot require students to pay back loans in a border-less world. In a border-less world there are no crimes, just people who have more money and power than others.

But you have to be taught all this. This is what a lot of young people have been taught over the past 30 years. They have been taught it by some of the older people in their lives. Hard to call them adults. Just older children. And, after all, isn’t that what we are talking about? Children love to play “make believe;” the will determines everything. But alas, reality resists my will and yours and everyone’s, and eventually you are left screaming at people because they won’t bend to your game of “make believe.”

Objective, empirically verifiable realities smack you right in the face and you do not know how to handle it. Well, you did not have to because your mom and dad, and the rich people on the school board who were friends with your mom and dad made sure that the principal told the teacher that you were free from the consequences of your behavior. It was grace, you see. No borders. Mom and dad’s reach extends past the principal and teacher. No borders means no bodies. So her body becomes mine, because I want it. There is just power. The will to power. Yes, we can. A president’s re-election slogan and Bob the Builder’s mantra. A make-believe world for 4 yr. old’s. Meanwhile, the sun comes up and the sun goes down.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer

Here are a few thoughts on praying the Lord’s Prayer from Bishop JC Ryle. I shared these with our congregation last Wednesday evening as we prayed our way through the prayer. Take a moment to read them and then pray through the prayer the Jesus taught us to pray.

Petition 1: Hallowed Be Thy Name

The [first petition] is a petition respecting God’s name: “Hallowed be thy name.” By the “name” of God we mean all those attributes under which He is revealed to us, — His power, wisdom, holiness, justice, mercy, and truth. By asking that they may be “hallowed,” we mean that they may be made known and glorified. The glory of God is the first thing that God’s children should desire.

Petition 2: Thy Kingdom Come

The [second petition] is a petition concerning God’s kingdom: “thy Kingdom come.” By His kingdom we mean first, the kingdom of grace which God sets up and maintains in the hearts of all living members of Christ, by His Spirit and word. But we mean chiefly, the kingdom of glory which shall one day be set up, when Jesus shall come the second time, and “all men shall know Him from the least to the greatest.” This is the time when sin, and sorrow, and Satan shall be cast out of the world. It is a time when the Jews shall be converted, and the fullness of the Gentiles shall come in, and a time that is above all things to be desired.

Petition 3: Thy Will Be Done on Earth as it is in Heaven

The [third petition] is a petition concerning God’s will: “thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” We here pray that God’s laws may be obeyed by men as perfectly, readily, and unceasingly, as they are by angels in heaven. We ask that those who now obey not His laws, may be taught to obey them, and that those who do obey them, may obey them better. Our truest happiness is perfect submission to God’s will, and it is the highest charity to pray that all mankind may know it, obey it, and submit to it.

Petition 4: Give Us This Day our Daily Bread

The [fourth petition] is a petition respecting our own daily wants: “give us this day our daily bread.” We are here taught to acknowledge our entire dependence on God, for the supply of our daily necessities. As Israel required daily manna, so we require daily “bread.” We confess that we are poor, weak, wanting creatures, and beseech Him who is our Maker to take care of us.

Petition 5: Forgive Us Our Debts

The [fifth petition] is a petition respecting our sins: “Forgive us our debts.” We confess that we are sinners, and need daily grants of pardon and forgiveness. This is a part of the Lord’s prayer which deserves especially to be remembered. It condemns all self-righteousness and self-justifying. We are instructed here to keep up a continual habit of confession at the throne of grace, and a continual habit of seeking mercy and remission.

Petition 6: Forgive us Our Debts, as we Forgive Our Debtors

The [sixth petition] is a profession respecting our own feelings towards others: we ask our Father to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” This is the only profession in the whole prayer, and the only part on which our Lord comments and dwells, when He has concluded the prayer. The plain object of it is, to remind us that we must not expect our prayers for forgiveness to be heard, if we pray with malice and spite in our hearts. To pray in such a frame of mind is mere formality and hypocrisy.

Petition 7: Lead Us Not Into Temptation

The [seventh petition] is a petition respecting our weakness: “lead us not into temptation.” It teaches us that we are liable, at all times, to be led astray, and fall. It instructs us to confess our infirmity, and beseech God to hold us up, and not allow us to run into sin.

Petition 8: Deliver Us From Evil

The [eighth petition] is a petition respecting our dangers: “deliver us from evil.” We are here taught to ask God to deliver us from the evil that is in the world, the evil that is within our own hearts, and not least from the evil one, the devil. We confess that, so long as we are in the body, we are constantly seeing, hearing, and feeling the presence of evil. It is about us, and within us, and around us on every side. And we entreat Him, who alone can preserve us, to be continually delivering us from its power.

The Practicality of God’s Word

One of the common pleas made of preachers and teachers of God’s word is for them to be practical or relevant. The pleas is not without warrant. One merely need consider the alternative. Do we want them to be impractical? Obviously not. Well, on second thought, maybe so. It depends. What do we mean by practical and impractical?

Some will simply assume that the answers are obvious. Such obviousness can often amount to simply repeating the term practical: “You know make it practical!” Perhaps they will expand on that statement with: “Make it something we can put into practice! Show us how to do it!” Again, the pleas is not without merit. But in a culture that has largely rejected the One True Living Triune God the desire for practicality is often controlled by pragmatism. The latter is the chasing after the results one wants based on the means one has for achieving them for the purposes that one wants to achieve. God’s Word is practical, but its notion of practicality confronts human idolatry and its pragmatism. That is another way of saying that the practicality of God’s Word exposes human pride, presumption and impotence that masquerades as gospel humility, truth and power. Among other things this raises the question: How does God’s word mandate that we define the word practical? Put another way: What does God word teach us about how we ought to think about putting it into practice?

The practice of God’s word can only be rightly understood when we recognize these two truths: God’s word gets to define all the words we use and all our words are part of a system of truth, apart from which we cannot arrive at these definitions. Everyone has a system of truth, or a systematic theology, whether they know it or not, by which they arrive at their definitions of the words they use. And everyone’s system of truth has an ultimate, final and authoritative resting point. Systems of truth that are rooted in and the reflection of nothing more than what finite humans can achieve are left with an insurmountable problem. This problem is simply that they are left groping in an endless search for a final reference point by which they can define anything. Apart from reliance upon the One True & Living Triune Infinite and Eternal God one is left with only endless questions. But humans cannot live without answers. So, in the face of this dilemma, the non-Christian must simply choose an answer.

Oh, of course, he or she will offer any number of rationalizations or justifications for their answers. But as the apostle Paul stated in Romans 1:20, “they are anapologetous,” that is, they are without a rational justification for their beliefs and practices. This term in Romans 1:20 that is often translated “excuse” is a form of the Greek term from which we derive apologetics. While Peter wrote in 1Peter 3:15 that the Christian is to always be ready to give an apologian—a term that can be translated reason, answer or defense—Paul tells us that the one who rejects God’s Truth has anapologetous—no justifiable answer, reason or defense for what they believe and do. Paul is not saying that they don’t give one. Paul obviously heard and refuted many of the answers given by non-Christians. Paul’s statement must be understood within the whole system of truth given by God’s Word that is the reflection of Him Who is the Truth & the Word of God in human flesh.

In essence what Paul affirms is that the non-Christian’s explanation for their thinking and behavior is ultimately irrational, or does not correspond to God’s word or system of truth. Does the non-Christian believe in being practical? Sure they do. And what is practical to them fits within their system of truth. The non-Christian does not stop using many of the same terms the Christian will and should use. The difference between the two uses of the terms has to do with how they fit (or at least should in the case of the Christian) within a particular system of truth. Among other things, this raises the question as to the Christian’s knowledge and use of the system of truth mandated by God’s Word. You see, systematic theology that is warranted by God’s word is very practical.

One of the demonstrations of the rejection of God’s Word that is put on display in so much of American culture is the resistance to defining terms in relation to a standard outside of individual personal preference. Reject God and his system of truth and all you are left with is yourself as the standard of truth. Among other things, it means that the results an individual or institution wants to achieve, and the way they will measure whether such results have been achieved becomes the test for practicality. When God and his system of truth define the results we want to achieve, then measuring whether such results have been achieved looks quite different then what is on display within humanistic systems of truth.

We in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ are particularly susceptible to pragmatism—the pandering after the results we want by the means we want to use to achieve them. After all, it is our Lord who is at work building his kingdom on earth, bringing the knowledge of himself that will one day cover the earth like the water covers the sea. Jesus is all about results, and he gives his disciples, his covenant people the eternal privilege to participate with him in bringing those results. But these kingdom results are brought in the way Jesus’ chooses, when he chooses to bring them, with whom he chooses to bring them and for the reasons he chooses to bring them. What we are constantly tempted to do because of our proud and arrogant hearts, and the pragmatic pride and arrogance in which we are immersed in American culture, is to think that we can harness God’s word to grow the church and God’s kingdom according to our strategies, methods or programs. Give something to the Christian so that they know what to do, go do it and see measurable results. It is dressing up in Christian clothes the idols of the culture.

How is God’s Word practical? By God’s Spirit giving knowledge of God’s truth we are convicted of sin, given the gift of repentance—no, not just once, but continuously—so that we believe the gospel—no, not just once, but continuously—so that we grow or mature in the grace and knowledge of Christ so that the fruit of God’s Spirit marks our lives. The non-Christian does not understand this; it is foolishness to them (1Cor. 1:18). They cannot make sense of it. It appears to them as utterly impractical. It is not measured by mere numbers, dollar signs, or verbal decisions to follow Jesus. It is not demonstrated by the kind of power that the non-Christian defines as power. It will not put our greatness, or our congregation’s greatness, or our pastor’s greatness, or our denominations greatness on display. It will put the Triune God’s greatness on display, and this is a greatness that is defined according to him and his system of truth. It is a greatness that the world finds weak, foolish and quite impractical.

More in Play Than Meets the Eye

The recent debate that has flamed up (it actually has never left the church; it just flames up higher in particular sectors of the church from time to time) regarding the biblical doctrine of the Trinity should be welcomed by all who love God, his written word, and his church. Doctrine pulsates through all of the latter, and the doctrine of the Trinity, we might say, is the lifeblood of all the church’s doctrines. To profit from the debate we are in need of understanding that there is more involved in it than appears on the surface of the exchanges. And of the many fruits that we might hope to see generated from the debate, one is surely that a better understanding of the very nature of Christian doctrine will emerge.

Most recently Dr. Christopher Cleveland at the Mere Orthodoxy blog wrote on why in particular this debate is taking place now. He offers some excellent insights regarding the way (methodology) in which theological work has been done in major seminaries and universities around the world, at least since the second half of the twentieth century. As he stated, it amounted to a “lack of confidence in traditional doctrine and classical categories of dogmatics.” This traditional doctrine, and the classical categories of thought to which it is organically joined, marks the entire history of Christian theology. What in particular might shock a few people is that he claims that “an entire group of evangelical scholars” “were trained in seminaries or in other related fields but were not trained in a way that cultivated in them an appreciation for the task of traditional dogmatics.” The majority of people to whom this applies would self-identify as “conservative” theologically. The shock hits when we recognize that Cleveland’s point is that their alleged conservatism actually is corrupted by a festering virus hostile to the Christian faith.

Now, let me be clear: I am not accusing the people to whom this applies as having abandoned their devotion to Christ. Their fault, and here I am speaking only for myself while using Dr. Cleveland’s point, is not that they have self-consciously rejected Jesus as Lord; rather, it is that they have unknowingly been corrupted by a malignant pattern of thinking that has acted undetected upon them and others, and is now surfacing. What I want to do here is address more of what marks this “beneath the surface cancer.” Among other things, it has to do with what we think Christian doctrine, in general, is.

How we think about doctrine in general is not only vitally important but also very revealing, yet often unaddressed. It’s sort of like the foundation of a building. When we are in the building we are normally not thinking about its foundation. After all, it is not immediately perceived by our senses. Yet the foundation of every building is necessary to the entire building. Perhaps we should change the illustration to fit more appropriately with the topic of biblical doctrine. Our conception of doctrine is like the root of a plant. Ah, now we are dealing with a living organism.

The root of a plant, of course, is vital to its growth. The entire plant ultimately depends on its root system. Our conception of doctrine is one of the aspects of the root system of the doctrine we hold. What we think doctrine is, will greatly determine the role we think it has in our lives individually and in the church corporately. I would submit to you that many, likely even the vast majority of Christians, even perhaps many pastors and seminary professors, think of Christian doctrine in an overly rationalistic way. For those of you who cannot seem to read that last sentence without immediately thinking that I am a closet liberal who disdains propositional truth, keep in mind that all three of my kids have already memorized, or are in the process of memorizing, the entire Shorter Catechism, have memorized countless bible verses, and my oldest recently completed saying all of Romans 8 from memory. I do believe that God’s word in both its written and made flesh forms is living and holy and profitable for every good work.

To regard Christian doctrine in an overly rationalistic way is not to automatically fall prey to rationalism; they are two different, albeit related ways of thinking. Their difference is in degrees. Of course, how we define rationalism depends in part on the specific subject matter with which it is identified. With respects to Christian doctrine, to fall prey to rationalism is to regard human reason as the chief authority for determining what one will believe is a Christian doctrine. For instance, the Socinians of the 16th century and the Unitarians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries can be seen to fall prey to rationalism because they denied the doctrine of the Trinity on the grounds that it did not conform to human reason. This is to elevate human reason above divine revelation. In other words, it is one thing to say that the doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in the historic creeds and confessions of the church is beyond the ability of human reason to fully comprehend, and another thing altogether to say that it is completely false precisely because human reason cannot fully comprehend it. The latter expresses rationalism. We can be guilty of thinking too rationalistically about Christian doctrine without falling victim to a full-blown rationalism. I should also add that, as far as I can tell, no one in these debates is self-consciously denying the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Instead, some are calling into question how that doctrine has been understood as formulated by and expressed in the historic creeds and confessions of the church.

The very fact that I wrote “too rationalistically” indicates where the problem lies and where it does not. The issue is one of emphasis, degree or extent. When we take note of this we can perhaps begin to see that the issue has to do with the relationship our reasoning has to something else. In this case it has to do with the relationship that our reasoning has to this thing we call “Christian doctrine.” Now, I am well aware that many men and women more holy and learned than I have wrestled with this matter. And on this matter I am not trying to say anything that has not already been said in the history of the church. In fact, my point is to try and alert our attention to something that has been mentioned in the history of the church, that is present in God’s word, and yet seems to me to be often overlooked among many in allegedly conservative evangelical and Reformed circles in North America. It is something that I learned from B. B. Warfield. It is this: Christian doctrine is an organism.

Throughout his writings on the nature and function of the biblical concept of revelation and doctrine, Warfield repeatedly identified and analyzed them as organisms. Ironically, while the majority opinion from historians of American Christianity criticizes the Old Princetonians in general and Warfield in particular for their and his alleged rationalistic dependency on Scottish Common Sense Realism, it is more accurate to say that one of the chief ways in which one can see how they were related to their 19th century context is in their emphasis on the organic nature of human thought and the Christian faith. Warfield in particular never seemed to tire of referring to Christian doctrine and Christian revelation as organisms, or of expressing the nature of systematic theology along organic lines. His thought on these matters is nothing short of revolutionary. His thought calls into question whose thinking is plagued with rationalistic tendencies and a full blown rationalism.

This emphasis on Christian doctrine as an organism meshes quite well with Dr. Cleveland’s observation and indictment of the ahistorical theological method of some of those in the current debates on the Trinity. After all, to identify something as an organism is to say that it is living, which is to say it has a history. To fail to recognize a living organism for the precise organism that it is will always lead us to mistreat that organism in some way. That is, we don’t treat it in a way that is consistent with what it actually is.

What is!? Oh, but since at least the philosophical machinations of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Friedrich Schleiermacher’s infecting Christian theology with the virus of Kant’s dogmatic faith commitment to his own metaphysical claims that we cannot get to what is, Protestant Liberal theology has made generations of pastors, church members and the seminaries that they support sick. Sadly, some don’t think they are sick. Gary Dorrien in his magisterial treatment of Protestant Liberal Theology (The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900) readily acknowledges its dependency on Kant and Schleiermacher, and thinks it was a necessary and good thing. The written word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament and the history of the church tell a different story, especially since the early 19th century.

Perhaps just as sad is that generations of allegedly conservative evangelicals who thought they were presenting a contrasting alternative to Protestant Liberalism were actually infected with its virus. The difference was in how that virus manifested itself among them as opposed to how it manifested itself in those self-consciously embracing Protestant Liberalism. In part this is why Warfield showed (Collected Works, vol. 7 & 8 ) that the rationalism of Protestant Liberal theology resulted in its own doctrine of perfectionism and that same strain of corrupt thought was present in things like the Higher Life Movement of the early 20th century. This was also why J. Gresham Machen resisted in meaningful ways the Fundamentalist label. Warfield and Machen recognized that Christian doctrine is an organism that expresses itself in a particular kind of life with a whole array of doctrinal beliefs. And this Christian doctrine has a history. It is why if you read Warfield’s rather lengthy, dense and devastating criticism of Protestant Liberal theology in his essay “The Right of Systematic Theology” and then read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism you will detect that the latter is the fuller fruit of the former. Both men were saturated in the Scriptures and the creeds and confessions of the church. Warfield had the Shorter Catechism memorized by the age of 6 and the Larger Catechism and Scripture proofs memorized by 16.

All this makes Dr. Cleveland’s criticism of an ahistorical methodology among some who are self-identified conservative evangelical and Reformed scholars all the more perceptive. It also may help explain what has been and continues to go on with respects to an ahistorical treatment of the Old Princetonians by both those in Protestant Liberal and conservative evangelical and Reformed circles.

Carl Trueman was correct to call into question Wayne Grudem’s imposing on various men from various eras of church history a definition of a term that those men did not hold. Words can change meaning over time. Language, like Christian doctrine, has a history. People use terms in particular ways for particular reasons in their particular historical contexts. Is it a mere coincidence that for years now some have attributed to the Old Princetonians a view of the terms “right reason” and “science” that they did not hold, or a view of doctrine they did not hold?

One of the consequences of living in a culture that has overwhelmingly caved to, and expresses the fundamental commitments of, Kant and Schleiermacher is that it causes us to retreat within the recesses of our own minds, severs us from history, because after all, there really is nothing outside of us that has ontological status. Reality is what we say it is. Reality is determined by the categories of thought we choose to use in interpreting the data before us. This way of thinking has had a virtual death grip on Western academia for well over a century. Ironically, when I state it severs us from history we must understand that I am using the term “history” in a particular way that historians in Western academies reject. As George Marsden has admitted, one cannot get a seat at the academic table unless one plays by the rules of the academy. And yet in principle, Western academia rules out of court Christian presuppositions about the very nature of reality. To say that this raises a whole host of questions is an understatement.

And, yes, I realize that many of these questions have been asked and have had answers given to them by several generations of scholars. But perhaps it is time for many of these questions to be raised again, and for at least some of the current answers that the last few generations of allegedly Christian scholars have given be re-examined. After all, Western academia defines “ahistorical” in a very different way than how it was used by Dr. Cleveland in his criticism of some of the current evangelical and Reformed scholars. In short, what we may have are hundreds of allegedly Christian scholars who have been inoculated with the virus of anti-Christian thought. Among other things, this mean that in various ways and to varying degrees they are a carrier of the very virus that they think they are protecting others from. It calls into question how they are going to detect it in themselves. Perhaps this might explain why many confessed evangelical and Reformed scholars still do not understand what Warfield meant by “right reason” or how he viewed doctrine. All of the allegedly Reformed seminaries are in the cross-hairs on this.

In the end, to be ahistorical in one’s method of study is fundamentally to have failed to understand the object of your study on its terms, for what it actually is, for what he or she actually meant by the words he or she used. It is simply a manifestation of human sin. We are all plagued with it. Kant and Schleiermacher did not invent it, and we are foolish to think that we in conservative Christian circles along with our institutions, and our favorite scholars are not in some way powerfully infected with it. For we are not only a people of an unclean view of knowledge and history, but we dwell among a people of an unclean view of these matters.

The Life That is Christian

Christianity is not a program of conduct it is the power of a new life, so wrote B. B. Warfield. He was correct. Yet, humans, the sinners that we are, enjoy thinking that God desires or even needs help. We foolishly and ignorantly think that because God gives us commands to be obeyed that we must have the ability to obey the commands. From this belief we begin to interpret the rest of God’s word weaving together a perspective regarding ourselves and the world that is a distortion of the Christian faith and life. It is rather difficult to live the Christian life when you have overlooked what is, in truth, the most obvious thing about it—it’s a life. And we humans are not the authors or originators of life; God is.

The Bible begins by telling us that God created. God is life. God brings life. God also brings death. It could not be otherwise. God wills there to be life, and therefore it is his will that withdraws the life of which he is Lord (Isaiah 45:6—among the many that could be listed). One of the chief ways to express what is wrong with so much of what passes for faithful Christian living and faithful Christian counsel with respects to any and everything is that it adopts the idea that we need to do what God alone can do, does do, has already done, is doing and will do. It is another way of saying we have fundamentally misunderstood who we are and what we are able to do and should do. When that takes place we do not lack for doing something. Oh, no. We will act. We will be frenetically busy with all sorts of things. They might even to some degree be good and right things to do, but done while thinking that we can control or determine the results. Sadly, this God-denying and dishonoring pragmatism abundant in American culture controls so much of what passes for Christianity in America.

A few years ago I sat at a table having lunch with some of my colleagues at a Christian school. A man who had worked tirelessly in Christian education his whole life as a teacher and headmaster, who was well-conditioned in the Reformed tradition and who even in his “retirement” was joyfully working away in it asked me a question: “How do we get a Christian worldview into our students?” Side-stepping the discussion about whether the term “worldview” is the best term to use for what Christian educators ought to try and “give” their students, I addressed the more fundamental issue. I had to state state the obvious that was overlooked: “We don’t.” The conversation was short; the foundation of his entire way of thinking had not been granted. At another time, I had a similar conversation with a grandparent of one of my students. She said, “I understand that you are making my grandson into a Calvinist.” My reply? I smiled: “Oh, no ma’am. I don’t have that kind of power.” The irony, as they say, was lost on her. What she and the former teacher and administrator failed to recognize is that God alone gives life. That truth has consequences.

God blesses whom he chooses to bless; curses whom he chooses to curse. God is the Sovereign Lord or King of all creation. He brings his kingdom. He brought it, is bringing it and will bring it. A whole host of things follow from this truth. To the degree that we do not live in the reality of this truth then to that degree we are confused and busy ourselves in ways that we do not need to. We become a bunch of “Martha’s” (Luke 10:38-42).

So much of what I hear and read from pastors and denominational leaders is the advice and alleged wisdom of a bunch of “Martha’s.” Trying to accomplish for God what God never asked for and what in fact distracts people away from receiving from God the one thing that God uses to give, sustain and perfect his life. But see, to do that means you have to submit to what God decides to bring and not bring and when he decides to bring it. Too many well-meaning Christians, and, perhaps above all, pastors and denominational leaders, want to have the fruits of the gospel when they want them. In the sophisticated theological world it is called having an “over-realized” eschatology. Or as my wife puts it: “They want to hew out the heaven in the here and now.” Too many of them speak and act as if God handed over his sovereignty to them so that they could decide where, when and how God’s kingdom would come. They have 7 ways to do X and 6 ways to do Y and 5 things to avoid when not wanting to do Z. Success is measured by money and numbers and the congratulations of all the right people. I saw the same thing in junior high (uh, “middle school” for those of you born after 1980). The whole non-Christian world runs on this. In fact, if you pay attention to what is in the Bible you can read about this same way of thinking and acting from Genesis 3 all the way to the end of Revelation.

Because God alone is life, he alone brings life. Salvation is eternal life. We don’t decide whether there will be a church or what it will “look like.” We don’t decide precisely what the Christian life must look like with any particular person or in any given marriage. God’s life for salvation reproduced in a sinner is itself characterized by a particular kind of uniqueness because that sinner has had his or her qualified uniqueness given to them by God—not you or me! Any egalitarians and complementarians out there? Life is way beyond our abilities to fully comprehend. No, that does not mean we cannot know anything true about it. It means we are not God—there will always be aspects of life we do not fully understand. Among other things it means we cannot control life. Life cannot be reduced to bullet statements or pithy formulas that are harnessed to try and manufacture life. Pithy formulas for manufacturing life are used by people who fundamentally do not know life, who do not know the gospel of the Lord Jesus, at least not very well, and who in their pithy formulas suck the life out of whatever activity they are involved. It’s because in their pithy practical program of conduct THEY are on display—their sin and death. Only God has  power for life.

The Simple Gospel?

What is the simple gospel? This is not a trick question. I simply don’t know. My difficulty is that I am quite sure I do rightly understand the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament and illumined by the Holy Spirit. Now, please understand. By affirming that I rightly understand the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ I am not affirming that I exhaustively understand it, or know everything there is possible for a sinner saved by the mercy and grace of God to know regarding the biblical gospel. I do know that I do not know all that I could or should know regarding the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are two basic reasons for my degree of ignorance.

First, I am sinfully fallen. In various ways and to varying degrees every moment of every day I resist learning more about the gospel. Second, I am a finite human. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is about the eternal Son of God and what he has done, is doing and will do to save his people from their sins. You will note, then, that my sinfully fallen condition is related unavoidably to my finitude and my Savior’s infinity. In fact, this is, perhaps, the very point at which I have difficulties with the gospel of the Lord Jesus getting modified by the adjective simple. Thus, my question is: If you rightly understand the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that is revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, would you ever regard it as wise or accurate to describe it as simple?

Of course, author’s have intentions in the terms they use, and there is the English translation of 2Cor. 11:3. The text expresses Paul’s concern that the church members at Corinth not be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ as the New American Standard translation has it. But the term in the Greek New Testament is perhaps more accurately translated sincerity, which is the way the NIV, RSV and ESV translate the term. But let’s grant that simplicity is just as legitimate, if not the better term to use. We are still left with the truth that the context of Paul’s words reveal that his concern has to do with them falling prey to Satan’s craftiness, just as Eve did, and thus departing from obedience to Christ. Furthermore, Paul’s statement cannot be disconnected from all of what Paul had written to them prior to that point in 2Cor11:3 not only in his second letter to them but in his first. One need merely read 1 and 2Corinthians to understand that there were a number of, shall we say, involved and difficult matters that Paul obviously identified as united to the gospel of the Lord Jesus.

Our English word simple, however, is, pardon the statement, not so simple of a term. If one seeks for a dictionary definition of the term one can find some of the following words listed as synonyms and explanations given to help one know how to use the term rightly. Simple equals 1) easily understood or done, straightforward, easy, uncomplicated, uninvolved, effortless, painless, undemanding; 2) composed of a single compound (hardly relevant in this matter); 3) free from guile: innocent; 4) free from vanity: modest; 5) lacking in knowledge; 6) not socially or culturally sophisticated; 7) free from elaboration; 8) not subdivided into branches; 9) readily understood. So, I ask again: Would you ever regard it as wise or accurate to describe the saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as simple?

Certainly we can present the gospel in a way that might be rightly described as straightforward. Indeed, I would argue that this is precisely how pastors and all Christians ought to present the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe it is consistent with the apostle’s words when he told the Ephesian church to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) instead of being “carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). So we should be willing to recognize that there is a kind of simplicity to the gospel. Perhaps one could use the term simple to modify gospel when affirming the simplicity of the gospel, but that is sort of like saying that brain surgery is simple. You can describe it simply; it has its own simplicity. They give you drugs, cut your skull open, take instruments and try to fix your problem, and then sew you up. Pretty simple—description. There is a kind of simplicity to it, as the description communicates. Still, it is hardly a procedure that is rightly described as easy, uncomplicated, uninvolved or undemanding, free from elaboration or readily understood, at least not by the great majority of the eight billion or so people who populate the planet.

The apostle Paul wrote that he was “determined to know nothing among” the Corinthians “except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” and that his preaching of the gospel was “not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power so that” the Corinthians “faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (1Cor. 2:2, 4-5). Here again, though, Paul’s point does not warrant us to conclude that the incomparable gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes it is simple. Paul’s words that I just quoted stress that the gospel was regarded as foolish to the Greeks of his day and as an offense to the Jews. A simple gospel? Hmm . . . It seems that Paul affirmed that it is rightly understood when we understand it as the foolish gospel and offensive gospel. At least those are the adjectives that Paul used to describe what Christ crucified meant to the people who have not yet believed the gospel and to whom we must proclaim the eternal gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

What exactly brings a professing Christian to conclude that the term simple is a good way to describe the gospel of God, who loved his Son so much that he ordained to have him crucified on a cross, and that this only took place because he sent his Son through His Holy Spirit to be born of a virgin, because this same God made promises to the first people he created and that lived who knows how many years before Jesus was born of a virgin? What exactly is simple about any and all of this? And I have not even mentioned anything about how all this fits with the life that God calls each of his beloved children to live because they believe the gospel of his kingdom. What exactly does it mean to be saved from sin when sin is against this Triune God who crucified his own Son?

What exactly does it mean to evangelize someone to this allegedly simple gospel? Perhaps the chief problem with a view of evangelism that thinks that it is evangelistically strategic to refer to the glorious and eternal gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ as simple is that it is seriously out of step with the gospel revealed in the Old and New Testament. The biblical gospel can be described as many things. I have mentioned a few of them. Simple is not one that fits. It leaves one wondering just how biblically faithful and successful evangelism to the biblical gospel will be under the leadership of those who think it strategic to compel God’s people to proclaim the simple gospel. This allegedly simple gospel sounds a lot like a distortion of the gospel that is no gospel at all.