Theology


Back only a few years ago you could open up the Yellow Pages and find all the churches within your given area. Now you can open up Google Maps and find all the churches in your city. If you are “church shopping” you have a plethora of choices within any populated place in the United States. The problem arises when you happen to be discerning about which church to attend. We live in a situation when any group of people can open its doors to the public, and can call itself a “church.” But are all churches the same, and does it matter which one you should attach yourself to? Quick answers: are all churches the same? No; Does it matter which one you attend, Yes.

Back in the time of the Reformation in Europe (mid 1500s) the choices were very limited: The Church of Rome, Protestants (Reformed and Lutheran), or Anabaptists. Granted there were differences in all three groups, but if you were a Protestant walking around a city it was easy to figure out which church to attend. As long as the church wasn’t Roman or Anabaptist, you were in all likelihood okay! Since that time the Protestant Tradition has splintered into thousands and thousands of denominations, and the Anabaptist and Roman churches are still around as well, which makes our discernment much more difficult.

One of the ways that the Reformed tradition has talked about this discernment is to use the category of true/false churches or the later Reformed categories of pure/less pure. The Belgic Confession uses the former language in Article 29 when it gives the “three marks of a true church.” If a church bears these three marks, then it can be considered a “true church.” In today’s world these marks need to be explored in greater depth as to their proper meaning because the distinction isn’t as black and white as it was at the time of the confession’s writing in 1561.

I hope to, in the next week or so, explore these three marks of a true church and how a URC church plant in Gig Harbor would seek to bear faithfully those three marks. There is more in Article 29 than just these “three marks of a true church,” which I hope to also talk about in our discussion. If you have any questions and would like to get the conversation started, then please leave a comment!

To lay the groundwork here are the “three marks”: 1) the pure preaching of the Holy Gospel, 2) the pure administration of the Sacraments, and 3) the exercise of church discipline. Stay tuned as we flesh out these marks.

Finally, here is the text of Article 29 of The Belgic Confession:

We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church– for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.”

We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there.
But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

They love the true God and their neighbors, They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.

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This Lord’s Day I am preaching a sermon on Exodus 20:7 – the third commandment. Quick… what is it?

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

As I was studying for and writing this sermon it was fascinating to unpack all that this seemingly short commandment tells us as children of God. One of the areas that I was most fascinated with was how this commandment speaks of our salvation. How in the heck can “not taking the Lord’s name in vain” lead to talking about our salvation?

Blasphemy is the direct or the indirect detracting from the glory and honor of God. Doing anything to take away from the glory and the honor that is due the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) alone is blasphemous.

There are many preachers today who are telling believers that they can lose their election and their salvation if they are not righteous enough, if they are not faithful enough. When Christ comes again, in that final judgment these teachers say that when you are standing before God the Judge he will look at your obedience and render a verdict based on what you have done. To put it another way some would have us believe that God’s favor and acceptance of us ultimately depends on our obedience. This has taken root in many churches across the world (unfortunately) under the heading of “Federal Vision Theology.” It is amazing that the Reformed Confessions (both the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity) speak so clearly against this errant theology, but yet somehow they are tolerated even in so-called Reformed churches.

Teaching such as this takes away from the finished and completed work of Christ! Christ’s active obedience is our obedience and righteousness before God. Anybody that teaches or believes otherwise is diminishing the finished work of Christ and making our acceptance before God based, at least partly on our own work. Put simply, this is blasphemy!

Maybe you think that this is too strong. Really? Blasphemy? If you think that then listen to what The Belgic Confession says in article 22:

We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery [what Christ has done for us] the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him. (Not even looking at ourselves.)

For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely. (Its one or the other. Either completely not in Christ, or entirely in Christ)

Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God– for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior.

This is serious! “A most enormous blasphemy against God.” If this is misusing the name of God, then what does the commandment say? “… And the Lord will not hold him guiltless.” This blasphemy means that you will stand before God still clothed in your own filthy rags trying to impress him. God is not going to look on these blasphemers and see the perfect righteousness of Christ, but their own pitiful merits which the Heidelberg Catechism says in Q&A 114 “even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience.” The name of God and of his Christ is the basis of our salvation. Looking to anything or anybody else means that we are misusing the Name of God and breaking the Third Commandment.

I hope and pray that if you believe in teaching such as this that you will seriously consider the ramifications of holding that position. The Federal Vision is not just a benign, innocent interpretation of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions and the only difference is just a misunderstanding. This theology is breaking one of the Ten Commandments, and one of the commandments that speaks of God’s just punishment for those who break it – “you will not be held guiltless.” Not quite the position that one wants to be in when they are standing before God. I am thankful everyday that I am standing before God guiltless, not because of anything I have done, but because I have been clothed in the pure garments of Christ and that he is my righteousness before God.

This morning I was reading article 12 of the Belgic Confession. This article deals with the creation of the world and of the angels. The article goes onto state that some of the angels have fallen and that even now “devils and evil spirits are watching to ruin the church and every member thereof, and by their wicked stratagems to destroy all.” This is a sobering thought, and precisely the reason why God has ordained the office of elder to protect the church and her sheep during this present evil age.

Throughout the New Testament we are told to be on watch for false prophets inside the church. Think about Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 4:3-5; 1 John 2:18-25; 4:1-6; 2 John 7. Whenever false prophets come into the church they are going to be well disguised and will even say some true things and use the right words. But they are going to twist the meanings of those words, and ultimately depart from the singular truth of the Gospel and lead people to look to something or someone other than Christ.

J. Greshem Machen early in the 20th century wrote this, “The enemy has not really been changed into a friend merely because he has been received within the camp” (Christianity & Liberalism, p.19). It is not hard to see that Machen’s words have not been heeded and that throughout the church the enemy has been considered a friend. We need to constantly pray that God will give us (and especially our elders) the wisdom to discern these false prophets, antichrists, deceivers, evil spirits, who are within our midst even in good and solid Reformed churches.

No church is immune and the history of the Reformed churches in America shows how slowly and quietly the devil works in the church seemingly benign until the church has strayed so far from the Biblical faith thinking it is still faithful when, in fact, it has abandoned everything of value. May the Lord continue to raise up courageous men who will lead his church with conviction, resting only on the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther coined the terms “Theology of Glory” and “Theology of the Cross” after seeing in his own day (the mid 1500s) the church’s striving to obtain things that were only promised of believers and the church once we enter into the glory of heaven. Luther pointed people to a “Theology of the Cross” which is the Biblical approach that pilgrims in this present evil, passing age are to understand our current situation awaiting the second advent of Christ.

Today, many people have gone back to a “Theology of Glory” as the recent post of Joel Osteen’s new book points out. They expect God to bless them right now with blessings that really are only promised to us once we are in heaven. This is what is called an “over-realized eschatology.” Let me explain. “Eschatology” is simply the study of the end times. Usually in popular theology this centers around the events that will take place when Christ comes again and when those particular events will happen. However, eschatology really encompases everything concerning not only Christ’s return, but the eternity that comes after! It is in the New Heavens and the New Earth where we are going to be blessed by God beyond imagination. When one has an “over-realized eschatology” then they are pulling out of the future (so to speak) events and blessings and expecting them right now.

It is true that we live in a weird time in redemptive history, the kingdom of God has been inaugurated (with the coming of Christ), but it has not yet been consummated. Christians are living in a time of already and not-yet. We already do experience some of the blessings of God (we do have a realized eschatology!), but those blessings are centered around the church as the visible manifestation of the kingdom of God here on earth. These blessings include the Holy Spirit regenerating and empowering us, the Word and Sacrament creating and sustaining faith, and the providential care of God over all creation. But as Christians there is a not-yet element to our lives as well. We are pilgrims wandering through this age looking for that place where we can settle down, fully and finally. We live in bodies that sin, see decay, and fail us constantly. We aren’t living in our permanent home, and times can be very tough for us here on earth (as Christ told us they would).

A Theology of Glory and an over-realized eschatology takes a Christian’s eyes off of the cross of Christ and looks to one’s own situation as the measure of what God has done and is doing for us. What if things go horribly wrong in your life? What if you loose your job and have to declare bankruptcy? If these things happen to you as a Christian with an overly-realized eschatology then you are going to determine that either your faith isn’t strong enough or that God is not the all-powerful deity that you were led to believe. If it is the former then what despair you will be under as you try to constantly build your faith on a false foundation? If you determine the latter, then why wouldn’t you go to Buddism, Islam, or atheism to try and obtain the life that you want?

An overly-realized eschatology can also lead one to expect that their complete sanctification will be a reality in this life. We will expect to conquer all sins in our life and stand before God holding out our own obtained sanctification as the grounds of our being justified and one of the elect. Being fully sanctified is not something we will ever be able to achieve here on earth in non-glorified mortal bodies. Every part of our being: body, mind, and soul is tainted with sin, and will be so until we die. When we are given glorified bodies on that great and final day, only then we will be fully sanctified.

Looking to the cross of Christ constantly in a Theology of the Cross keeps our faith properly grounded in the life and work of Christ. We realize that we cannot keep any of the commands of God, but we also realize that Christ has kept all the laws of God perfectly for us!. We thank God for his condescension to us in Word and Sacrament every Lord’s Day and we long for that day when our faith will be made sight and the ordinary means of grace will be made obsolete. Let us remember that we do have “realized eschatology” but one that is grounded in the already and not-yet where we are not trying to pull heaven down to make an overly-realized eschatology in this present evil age.

JoelSo Joel Osteen is coming out with a new book on November 3. The title of the book is It’s Your Time, which considering the current economic depression a title like that is bound to sell millions. Obviously I am not angry with Joel for writing a book–he can write whatever he wants–but he cannot call this a “Christian” book. Why do I say that? Well, Joel is offering an excerpt from his book that contains an introduction and the first chapter. All in all this selection is 14 pages long and not once, NOT ONCE, does he pen the words “Jesus” or “Christ”. How can you write a whole chapter of a book without mentioning the central character of our faith? This is just another sad case of American Evangelicalism reducing its message to nothing more than platitudes that narcissistic man can’t get enough of.

Joel does talk a lot about “faith”, but he never gives that faith an object. It is just generic faith, at least what I read here. Faith has to have an object and that object is Christ and all he accomplished. From what I can tell, faith for Joel is a belief in blessings from God, material and physical blessings right here and now. Sure we can trust in God to provide for our needs, but our faith is in Christ and Christ alone. What Joel is giving is what Martin Luther called a “Theology of Glory” instead of the proper “Theology of the Cross.”

There is a lot more I could say, and I might use this popular form of Evangelicalism to springboard into the truth of the Bible concerning Christ and our redemption through him. In the mean time I want to point you to two resources that are invaluable in evaluating the theology of Joel Osteen. The first is a “Case Study” on Joel Osteen and the Glory Story which can be found here. This essay discusses the “Prosperity Gospel” and the need for a proper understanding of the Law of God especially as it relates to our sin. The second is a review of Joel’s last book, Become a Better You, which gives a really great insight into the “theology” of Joel and how it works itself out. That great review can be found here. If you know people who are enamored with the message of Joel Osteen then please pass along these documents to them.

In today’s Christian climate it is thought that one’s personal “testimony” is the pinnacle of Christian witness. Doctrine has its place maybe, but being able to tell a person what has happened to you is the ideal way to “convince” somebody to be a Christian. This sort of thinking has been shown to be true on the White Horse Inn program a number of times when the producer will ask Christian leaders questions like “What is better to win somebody to Christ, doctrine or your personal testimony?” Time and time again, the respondents answer back, “Oh, your personal testimony of course. I mean what else do you have? Telling people what actually happened to you personally in becoming a Christian is something people can believe.”

The Apostle Peter is an interesting test case here. Peter was the Apostle upon whom Christ said the church will be built. He was one of Christ’s closest friends and confidants. Peter even was on the Mount when Christ was transfigured and heard the very voice of God and saw the Glory-cloud of the Spirit. What a testimony!! Peter could have played that card throughout his ministry to the nations after Christ’s ascension. In fact in 2 Peter 1, Peter mentions this experience in verses 16-18:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

Now if Peter was a 21st century Evangelical he would have continued with something like: “This is what I saw and experienced and you can’t take that away from me. You too should believe in Christ because of these things that I saw and heard. But more than that look at how my life has changed! I used to fish to scrape by a living, but now I fish for men!”

But that is not the path that Peter takes. Look at what he says in verses 19-21 remembering this is Peter talking and after he tells his readers of his wonderful experience on the holy mountain:

19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Isn’t that amazing! Paul immediately points his readers to something more sure than his personal experience–the Holy Scriptures!! These are more sure because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit as the passage goes on to tell us. Peter, even in the first decades of the early church, was pointing people to the Scriptures to prove who Christ was. That is what Peter did in Acts 2 in that first Pentecost sermon, and was still doing for this audience as well.

When it comes to telling others about Christ we have “something more sure” and today we have something even better than Peter had because we have the completed canon containing all the revealed Word of God concerning our redemption in Jesus Christ. Our lives are totally fallible and we can never use ourselves as proof that Christ has secured redemption, but we have the infallible Word of God that through the working of the Holy Spirit people come to a saving knowledge of Christ. Let us use what we have been given and don’t make “cleverly devised myths” (1 Pet 1:16) of our own making.

I once heard that if you continue on in your schooling and education from your Bachelor’s degree to your Masters all the way up to your Doctorate that you know more and more about less and less. In a way that it is very true because your interests are becoming more and more specialized. Part of that specialization is understanding the vocabulary of your field. You don’t pick up everything overnight, but it takes time, patience, and most of all study.

The same thing is true when it comes to Christianity. There is a very special vocabulary that Christians use to explain the truth of the Gospel and the truths contained in the Word of God. One of those words is “justification.” In the June 28 broadcast of the White Horse Inn (to listen to the June 28 broadcast click here) the hosts talk about this very subject/word as being the “heart of Christianity.” The producer even went around at the National Religious Broadcasters Association convention and asked people if they had heard of “justification” and if so what does it mean. There were a few people that got decent answers, but many, many others who fell flat on their face.

But is this really that big of a deal? YES!! There is a reason why we as Protestants are not part of the Roman Catholic church. The Reformed (and Lutherans) in the 1500s rediscoverd key Biblical truths that got to the very heart of what it meant to be a Christian, that is, how to be in a right standing with God. One of the key doctrines that they expounded on was justification. Every Evangelical church is a product of the Reformation, and therefore, this is their heritage, this is their vocabulary, but yet their churches are not doing their job.

So what is justification? Many people might be familiar with the phrase “just as if I never sinned” as being the definition of justification. However, this is only half of what it entails!! There is a very important idea that must come next in order to properly think about justificaton and how we are right before God. That part is the imputation (clothing/crediting) of Christ’s righteousness to us. God demands perfect obedience to his law, and we cannot fulfill those requirements, but Christ has for us!

A few months ago I was teaching this subject at my church and I gave this illustration which seemed to help bring out the concept in different terms. Imagine you wanted to buy a house that was $500,000. However, your bank account reads -$500,000. There is no way that you can buy a house with half a million dollars overdrawn in your account. But what if that debt was forgiven completely and your bank account read $0? You are no longer in debt, but you still wouldn’t be able to buy a house with absolutely no money. This is the “just as if I had never sinned” part of justification. Our debt to God, in the form of punishment of sins, has been completely paid for by the death of Jesus Christ. Back to the analogy… In order to buy that house you need to have the cash. What if, then, somebody gave you another $500,000 to bring your bank account up to a positive $500,000. You could then go and buy that house because your account was given the proper funds. This is where the second part of justification comes, in order to be in a right standing before God, one needs to not only have their sins forgiven, but they also need to be completely righteous and to have kept all of God’s laws perfectly. In Christ we can say that about us because his perfect righteousness is given to us as well! We are clothed (imputed) with his perfect and righteous garments.

Many people who think of only the first half of justification believe that once their sins are forgiven that it is up to them to do the rest of what God requires… to “trust and obey” in order to then gain that right standing before God. Sure we are to “trust and obey” but that is part of our sanctification not our justification (which will be another big and important word to discuss later).

In that White Horse Inn show, the producer asked the people whether or not their churches should actually teach them these important words. I believe that almost all of them said “Yes” they should and that they were not being taught that at their church right now. If this characterizes your church, then think about becoming part of our Bible study which, Lord willing, will lead to a church that will preach the whole counsel of God and the wonderful truths of Scripture concerning our redemption. You can contact us at gigharborreformed*at*gmail.com. If you have any questions then post a comment and we will discuss!