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Archive for the ‘The Visible Church’ Category

Years back, my heart got large for missions — especially urban missions to those on the ‘other side of the tracks.’ At about the same time, I became Reformed (a high octane, old school Presbyterian no less!), putting me in a a sub-subset of a subset. My life and ministry has ever since lived somewhat in the frontiers the unlikely and the implausible. A straightlaced, tall gringo Presbyterian goes out among immigrants, trying to evangelize in broken Spanish and recruit sinners to the “outward and ordinary means” in a humble, little Reformed church 15 minutes to the south. And to sing Psalms. Without musical accompaniment. In English.

I admit that there are all kinds of problems with this model, from a human perspective. But it is actually more plausible than one might think. Yet before I deal with the plausibles, let me first set forth some principles.

The first principle is principle! Principle precedes the practical. We must first determine whether something should be done before we decide whether or not we think it is practical. We ought to go out and bring the Gospel to all. None excluded. Politics quite aside, we may and must not discriminate based on sex, ethnicity, gender, or for that matter even sexual ‘preference.’ By the mandate of our King, we must go and tell them. Yes, as Calvinists, we know that not every “all” means “all.” But “every creature” does in fact mean “every creature.” Even if they don’t look like us, eat like us, or even use our language. It doesn’t matter whether they ‘have papers’ or not, vote Democrat or not. How they got here and whether they should by law be here, is a separate issue for a different discussion (and full disclosure: I lean quite “red” when it comes to immigration policy!). But that they are here means they are here for us to evangelize. And not just gripe about and avoid them as much as possible.

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Another theological diagram as a teaching aid for my next lesson on the Westminster Shorter Catechism this Sabbath. I designed this some time back and got some feedback on it from a couple of my ministerial colleagues.

Like any diagram, it doesn’t say it all. But I think it helps distinguish the Reformed position from extremes on either side. What think ye?

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I designed the following diagrams to illustrate my recent lesson on the Reformed doctrine of the “Catholic Visible Church” (WCF 25.2-6; cf. 30.2, 31.1). Watch the class here.

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I once read somewhere that one of the Puritans recognized they were very odd ducks. As I recall, the term was “speckled birds.” Who likes being the outsider, the stranger in a strange land?

Kids can have an especially nasty way of tapping into this instinctual longing for inclusion and reinforcing herd-conformity. As a boy, I distinctly remember a time when a group of my friends and I took a break from our game of street baseball. Somehow it came up in discussion that one boy’s family didn’t observe Christmas. “What!” Replied another. “You don’t observe Christmas? Man, if I didn’t observe Christmas, I’d kill myself!” Oof. Of course, it was adolescent hyperbole; and we were soon back to the diamond. But I must confess, I also was on the shocked side. Not having Christmas? Not having the stockings hung by the chimney with care? Not waking up at dark-thirty to wake up the parents? No giddy, vulture-like descent on the presents? I mean, come on! My quirky friend felt the sting. He was not one of us! He might as well have had three eyes.

Then about seven years later, I swam the Tweed. After my evangelical conversion, I eventually found Calvinism (or Calvinism found me!). And after Calvinism, I found Puritanism; and after Puritanism, I found Presbyterianism. But not just any kind, mind ye! No, I’d say it was full-on “Scottish Old Believer” Presbyterianism. And that, among other things, meant no Christmas. Right. Just like my crestfallen boyhood buddy. Who would have imagined!

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IMG_2869We often say (and rightly so) that the church building is not the church.  After the advent of Christ, true worship was untethered to a sacred site.  And yet, while the structure of a Christian congregation possess no inherent sacredness, it is the theater where the drama of eternal things is played out.  Chalmers put it this way:

“What is to be done here may tell on the everlasting destiny not of ourselves only, but of our children’s children throughout many generations. We are sometimes told of the mighty doings which go on within the walls of an exchange, where the bargains that are made from week to week, the commercial transactions which are there settled bear on the state and fortune of whole classes of society—or within the walls of a university, where the lessons daily given are deposited (more…)

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A revealing (and heartbreaking!) article on the secularizing migration of America into the frontiers of heathenism. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof” (Psa. 137:1-2).

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“Is the end and effect of the work of the ecclesiastical ministry only the confirmation of those who are already converted and true church members, so that ministers of churches are not more obliged by virtue of their ecclesiastical function to convert the straying souls of such as live in the world and in sin out of church communion, than are all other believers endowed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit by the common duty of Christian love? Do they never convert any by virtue of their ecclesiastical ministry except by chance? …

“The end and effect of the work of the ecclesiastical ministry is not only the confirmation and edification of those who are already converted and are true church members, but by virtue of their ecclesiastical function ministers of churches are obliged to convert the straying souls of such as live in the world and in sin out of church communion. Their obligation to do so is far greater than that of any of the rest of the faithful endowed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and bound by the common duty of Christian love. And when by virtue of their ecclesiastical ministry (divine grace cooperating) they make converts, the conversion is an effect of their ecclesiastical ministry as such and is not by chance.”

-John Norton (1606-1663)

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A pure and true unity within the Visible Church seems a pipe dream to many.  And yet, as Thomas M’Crie (1772-1835) reminds us below, such a work is nothing with God.  If Omnipotence can devise and execute a plan of higher reconciliation, what obstacle can he face for a lower?

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Call to your minds the amazing plan, conceived by “wisdom dwelling with prudence,” for reconciling the world to himself, and for repairing and closing up the wide and tremendous breach opened by the apostasy of man from his Maker.  Survey this ” wisdom of God in a mystery,” as it is now unfolded by the Gospel. Consider the disposition of its parts, the perfect adaptation of the means to the end, and the nice adjustment of each of these means to the rest. See how it tends to vindicate the authority of the divine law, to assert the honour of the supreme lawgiver, and to stamp heaven’s broadest, blackest brand of infamy on sin, at the same time that it provides a way of escape and salvation to the rebellious sinner. See those attributes of Deity, whose claims were apparently conflicting and irreconcilable, harmonising and conspiring together to promote the gracious design, reflecting lustre upon one another, mingling their rays and concentrating their lights, until at last they burst forth in one united blaze of glories more effulgent and overwhelming than is to be seen in all the other works of God. See “mercy and truth meeting together; righteousness and peace kissing each other; truth springing out of the earth, and righteousness looking down from heaven.”  Surely the God of Peace, who has displayed such “manifold wisdom” in restoring us to His favour by Christ Jesus, can be at no loss to reconcile His followers, and to terminate their minor differences, in such a way as shall be fully consistent with the claims of truth and holiness.

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“Let there be no strife between us and you, for we are brethren (Gen. 13:7, 8): and is not the Canaanite and the Perizzite yet in the land?  O let it not be told in Gath, nor published in the streets of Ashkelon. Let it not be said, that there can be no unity in the Church without Prelacy.  Brethren I charge you by the roes and by the hinds of the field, that ye awake not nor stir up Jesus Christ till he please (Song. 2:7); for his rest is sweet and glorious with his well-beloved.  It shall be no grief of heart to you afterward, that you have pleased others as well as yourselves, and have stretched your principles for accommodation in church government, as well as in worship, and that for the Church’s peace and edification; and that the ears of our common enemies may tingle, when it shall be said, “The Churches of Christ in England have rest, and are edified, and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the joy of the Holy Ghost are multiplied (Act 9:31).”  Alas how shall our divisions and contentions hinder the preaching and learning of Christ, and the edifying one another in love!  Is Christ divided? says the apostle.  There is but one Christ, yea the head and the body make one Christ, so that you cannot divide the body without dividing Christ.  Is there so much as a seam in all Christ’s garment?  Is it not woven throughout from the top to the bottom? Will you have one half of Israel to follow Tibni, and another half to follow Omri?  O brethren, we shall be one in heaven, let us pack up differences in this place of our pilgrimage, the best way we can. Nay, we will not despair of unity in this world. Hath not God promised to give us one heart and one way (Jer. 32:39, Ezek. 11:19)? and that Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim, but they shall flee upon the shoulders of the Philistines toward the East, they shall spoil them of the East together (Isa. 11:13, 14)?  Has not the Mediator (whom the Father hears always) prayed that all his may be one?  Brethren, it is not impossible, pray for it, endeavor it, press hard toward the mark of accommodation. How much better is it that you be one with the other Reformed Churches, though somewhat straitened and bound up, than to be divided though at full liberty and elbow room? Better is a dry morsel and quietness therewith, than a house full of sacrifices with strife (Prov. 17:1).”

– George Gillespie (1613-1648)

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olaus-magnus-jpeg1I serve in a Presbyterian denomination with congregations generally consisting of first-generation converts to the Reformed faith and their children.  We don’t have swarms of young people, and many of them either leave for ‘greener’ Christian pastures or, sadly, go prodigal.  So retention is a problem, and ‘sustainability’ (to use an overused term) is a regular worry.  Sometimes, it is easy to feel like we’re on the high seas in a leaky rowboat, and the winds are kicking up.

I must confess that I look wistfully at some of those Presbyterian and Reformed congregations that are large, established, and multi-generational.  Without having sold out.  They are not many, of course.  Usually in the present day large equals compromised.  But God has been faithful to some communions.  The ones I know are Dutch Reformed.  They don’t just have Christian but Reformed schools.  That is, teachers have to subscribe to the subordinate standards.  Many of the children usually profess the faith in the congregations where they were baptized.  They then find mates, marry, settle down, bear children and further populate their ranks.  If not in their original congregation, then not far off.  Often in the same denomination. (more…)

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