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Archive for the ‘Ordinary Means Ministry’ Category

Is the Gospel preacher practical?  The man who gives himself to prayer and the ministry of the Word, who delegates to others the lesser ministry of waiting on tables – is such a man a blessing or a bane to the  Church and society?  Perhaps in the short-term, it may seem that way.  But when we take a step back and view aright the man of God who sacredly devotes the lion share of his time to the ‘closet’ labors of his study, we will see him not only as highly practical.  He will emerge as the best doer of good to His fellow men.

The following extracts from Alexander’s Thoughts on Preaching explore this mystery with profound insight.

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§ 74. To do gimagesood to men, is the great work of life; to make them true Christians is the greatest good we can do them. Every investigation brings us round to this point. Begin here, and you are like one who strikes water from a rock on the summits of the mountains; it flows down over all the intervening tracts to the very base. If we could make each man love his neighbour, we should make a happy world. The true method is to begin with ourselves, and so to extend the circle to all around us. It should be perpetually in our minds.

§ 75. Beneficence.—There are two great classes of philanthropists, namely, those who devise plans of beneficence, and those who execute them. If we cannot be among the latter, perhaps we may be among the former. Invention is more creative than execution. Watt has done more for mechanics than a thousand steam-engine makers. The devisers of good may again be divided into those who devise particular plans, such as this or that association or mode of operation, and those who discover and make known great principles. The latter are the rarer and the most important. Hence a man who never stirs out of his study may be a great philanthropist, if he employs himself in discovering from the study of the Scriptures and the study of human nature, those laws which originate and condition all effectual endeavours for human good.

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A masterful and balanced statement from William Young on the duty of self-examination before partaking of the Lord’s Supper:

“Self-examination, conducted according to the directions of Scripture, is a profitable exercise in preparation for the Lord’s Supper. The phantom of morbid introspection is the invention of that proud presumption that fails to distinguish between the precious and the vile. Surely on our American scene, the danger of unhealthy preoccupation with the abominations in our deceitful hearts, to the neglect of the remedy provided in the gospel, is very slight in comparison with the externalism and formality with which presumptuous sinners, puffed up with their imaginations of ‘blessed assurance,’ eat and drink damnation to themselves. Evangelical hypocrites are the natural product on the one hand of Arminian evangelism and on the other of Kuyperian Hyper-Covenantism, opposed to one another as these two errors are. A spurious assurance may arise either from confidence in a ‘decision for Christ’ made by the act of one’s ‘free will,’ or from the presumption that mistakes an external relation to the covenant of grace for a living relation to Christ, the only Mediator of the covenant. Such self-deception can be destroyed, and a well-grounded assurance of grace and salvation be established in the soul, only by way of serious and thorough self-examination.

“The critics of this wholesome exercise often misconstrue its purpose. Self-examination does not aim at the production of doubts and fears, leaving the troubled soul in a state of perpetual uncertainty as to its being in a state of grace. A faithful declaration of the demands of the law and of the deceitfulness of the human heart will, no doubt, give occasion for doubts and fears. But the truth is not the cause of the condition of the soul, arising from the suggestions of Satan and the weakness of the flesh. Self-examination as to whether one is in the faith is designed in fact to bring weak believers to the knowledge that Christ is in them and that they are not reprobates. To this end the Scripture has enumerated an abundance of marks of grace, especially those found in the First Epistle of John.

“In preparation for partaking of the Lord’s Supper, self-examination is in order both as to one’s state and as to one’s frame. If in applying the marks of grace, one finds that the great change has not taken place, then one’s first duty is to come to Christ to receive pardon and cleansing by His blood and only after that, to come to the table in obedience to the command, ‘This do in remembrance of me.’  If the happy result of self-examination is a well grounded assurance, then one may with confidence and thanksgiving enjoy a blessed communion with Christ and one’s fellow Christians. And weak believers may have to be reminded that the Savior’s gracious invitation is also a commandment, and that there is guilt in unworthy refusing as well as unworthy partaking. The assured believer is not called on to doubt as to the soundness of his faith, but may find comfort in seeing his title clear to mansions in the sky, only on the ground of the Redeemer’s merits. At the same time inquiry as to his frame leads him to see both the fruit of the Spirit and the sinful imperfection of his graces, and thus serves to foster spiritual growth in repentance, faith, hope, love, humility and every grace.”

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“And because we are all too fond of ourselves, we are not able to recognize or judge our own deeds properly. Therefore, if we do not have a good and high opinion of those whom the Lord has placed over us, and who are to instruct, exhort, admonish and correct us on his behalf, and do not immediately receive their words and teaching with all fear and trembling as the Lord’s own words and teaching, then we will get nowhere and will not progress in the pursuit of godliness, as is our current and daily practice.”

Martin Bucer (1491-1551)

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Another stately quote below by Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) on the parish system.  Here, he affirms the absolute sovereignty of the Spirit in the conversion of men, yet urges the necessity of ecclesiastical infrastructure for broadest distribution.  Without rain, there is no life.  Yet there is a place for ‘aqueducts!’ 

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“The truth is, that whenever a more copious descent of the Holy Ghost shall come down upon us, it will pass through all the channels of conveyance that have been furnished for it in the land—entering into pulpits, and then spreading itself over congregations, and finding its way, most readily, through the most free and frequented pathways of communication that have been opened up between the ministers of religion and the people among whom they expatiate.  By subdividing parishes, we just multiply these pathways; and by localising parishes, we just make the pathways shorter, and more convenient and accessible, than before. We do not set aside the doctrine of a spiritual influence; for we believe that it is this which will be the primary and the essential agent in that great moral regeneration that awaits our species. But just as in the irrigating processes of Egypt, the reservoirs are constructed, and the furrows are drawn, and every field on the banks of the Nile is put into readiness for the coming inundation—so we, knowing that the Spirit maketh its passage into the human heart, by the word and the ordinances of the gospel, are just labouring at a right process of spiritual irrigation, when we provide such arrangements as will bring the greatest number of human beings into broadest and most recurring contact with this word, and with these ordinances.”

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Call me a curmudgeon.  Or an arch-conservative, allergic to all things new.  And I will freely admit that I romanticize earlier days, fully aware that they were never so rosy as I fancy them.  But I am just not ready to jump on the small (‘cell’) groups bandwagon like so many other Reformed folks.  I have already raised some questions on the subject in a previous post.  I really do question how ecclesiologically Reformed it is after all.

But here’s another thing that makes me nervous of them.  I fear that they detract from a robust pulpit ministry, from Lord’s day to Lord’s day.  In some circles, cell groups aim to provide meaningful biblical study for preachers who want their Sunday services to be ‘seeker sensitive.’   In my judgment, that makes cell groups a crutch for an impotent ministry.

Related, it seems that they are now being touted (or maybe I’m just noticing it) as suitable vehicles for ‘missional’ outreach.  Unbelievers need a ‘safe’ place to be welcomed, where they will not feel judged.  So we can win them over to church, with all its trappings, through the back door.  Now, I am all for loving unbelievers and making them feel loved.  But what about public preaching as a means of grace?   What of God’s choice of the foolishness of preaching?  What of the scandal of the cross?  And does that scandal come in bold face through the small groups, or is it in the fine print on page 236?

Why are Reformed people enthusiastic about this?  Am I off, or is this broad evangelicalism, low churchism, or even anti-churchism sneaking in under the radar?

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The practice of Reformed catechesis is quite counter-cultural.  Having given it a little thought, a few reasons come to mind.  1. Catechesis is an authoritative discipline.  It deals not with opinions, but with dogma.  Not with suggestions, but with commandments.  Not tips and hints, but with divinely mandated means of grace.  2. Catechesis is churchly in orientation.  It is by the church and for the church.  It presumes that membership in the Visible Church – nothing less than the Kingdom of God on earth – is a high privilege, and involves serious preparation.  3. Catechesis is rigorously intellectual.  While seeking to reach those of the smallest capacities, even the “little ones” without offending them, it yet pushes everyone under its influence to think and think deeply.  4. Catechesis is thoroughly covenantal.  It has always had the next generation of the church in view, preparing baptized children to lay hold of the promise that is their birthright (Acts 2:39).  While catechesis leaves regeneration to the sovereignty of the Spirit, it does not leave children to cut their own religious path.  It cuts the path for them.  We do not blush to say that in catechism, the church indoctrinates its children.  5. Catechesis is catholic.  By catholic, I mean that it does not deal with secondary matters, much less the novel, but with the faith once delivered to the saints.  The things “most surely believed among us” (Luke 1:1).  It is not provincial, pedaling its own idiosyncratic theology (African theology, feminist theology, etc.), but it holds forth what unifies all true believers in all ages.  There is “one body, and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-6).   6. Catechesis is confessional.  Contra biblicism, catechesis affirms that the Spirit leads his Church into all truth, and that the Church has a responsibility to articulate that truth using its own words.  Further, it delimits what we must believe from what we must not – heresy.  7. Catechesis is biblical.  “To the law and to the testimony.”  If one seriously studies the great catechisms of the Reformation, one will be confronted not only with lengthy footnoted proof texts undergirding each proposition.  He will also see how their very language is shaped by the Scriptures.  Not surprisingly, then, catechesis is rejected precisely because men will not receive the Word of God.

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The following quote from the First Book of Discipline (1560) illustrates how perceptive the Reformers were in the machinations of Satan – and human vulnerability.  Time and again, he has sought to draw the Church aside to the extremes of hyper-visibility (idolatry) and hyper-invisibility (profanity):

As Satan hath never ceased from the beginning to draw mankind into one of two extremities, to wit, that men should either be so ravished with gazing upon the risible creatures, that forgetting the cause wherefore they are ordained, they attribute unto them a virtue and power which God hath not granted unto them; or else that men should so contemn and despise God’s blessed ordinances and holy institutions, as if that neither in the right use of them there were any profit, neither yet in their profanation there were any danger: as this way, we say, Satan hath blinded the most part of mankind from the beginning; so doubt we not, but that he will strive to continue in his malice even to the end.

The Reformers sought to hold to a biblical via media in these matters.  There is a Visible Church.  Knox wished to alter the Creed from “I believe an holy kirk” to “I see (video) an holy kirk.”  Thus, the Reformers weren’t hyper-invisibilists like so many Anabaptist radicals.  But on the other hand, they were not hyper-visibilists calling believers to walk by sight and not by faith. 

We absolutely must retain this vital balance in the present climate of evangelical low-churchism.  And let us also be aware of the law of extremes.  Like the pendulum, one overreaction begets its opposite.  I’m sure Rome could become appealing to mystified followers of an eccentric old man who has to revise his end-time decrees every few years.

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