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by John M. Frame

            It has become increasingly common in Reformed circles, as it has long been in Lutheran circles, to say that the distinction between law and gospel is the key to sound theology, even to say that to differ with certain traditional formulations of this distinction is to deny the gospel itself.

            Sometimes this argument employs Scripture passages like Rom. 3:21-31, emphasizing that we are saved by God’s grace, through faith alone, apart from the works of the law. In my judgment, however, none of the parties to the debate questions that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, by the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. But it is one thing to distinguish between faith and works, a different thing to distinguish law and gospel.

1. The Traditional Distinction

            The distinction between law and gospel is not a distinction between a false and a true way of salvation. Rather, it is a distinction between two messages, one that supposedly consists exclusively of commands, threats, and therefore terrors, the other that consists exclusively of promises and comforts. Although I believe that we are saved entirely by God’s grace and not by works, I do not believe that there are two entirely different messages of God in Scripture, one exclusively of command (“law”) and the other exclusively of promise (“gospel”). In Scripture itself, commands and promises are typically found together. With God’s promises come commands to repent of sin and believe the promise. The commands, typically, are not merely announcements of judgment, but God’s gracious opportunities to repent of sin and believe in him. As the Psalmist says, “be gracious to me through your law,” Psm. 119:29.

            The view that I oppose, which sharply separates the two messages, comes mainly out of Lutheran theology, though similar statements can be found in Calvin and in other Reformed writers. [1] The Epitome of the Lutheran Formula of Concord, at V, 5, recognizes that gospel is used in different senses in Scripture, and it cites Mark 1:15 and Acts 20:21 as passages in which gospel preaching “correctly” includes a command to repent of sin. But in section 6, it does something really strange. It says,

But when the Law and the Gospel are compared together, as well as Moses himself, the teacher of the Law, and Christ the teacher of the Gospel, we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a preaching of repentance, convicting of sins, but that it is properly nothing else than a certain most joyful message and preaching full of consolation, not convicting or terrifying, inasmuch as it comforts the conscience against the terrors of the Law, and bids it look at the merit of Christ alone…

I say this is strange, because the Formula gives no biblical support at all for this distinction, and what it says here about the “gospel” flatly contradicts what it  conceded earlier in section 5. What it describes as “correct” in section five contradicts what it calls “proper” in section 6. What section 6 does is to suggest something “improper” about what it admits to be the biblical description of the content of gospel, as in Mark 1:15 and Acts 14:15. [2] Mark 1:15 is correct, but not proper.

2. Law and Gospel in Scripture

I have been told that proper at this point in the Formula means, not “incorrect” or “wrong,” but simply “more common or usual.” I have, however, looked through the uses of the euaggel- terms in the NT, and I cannot find one instance in which the context excludes a demand for repentance (that is, a command of God, a law) as part of the gospel content. That is to say, I cannot find one instance of what the Formula calls the “proper” meaning of gospel, a message of pure comfort, without any suggestion of obligation. And there are important theological reasons why that use does not occur.

Essentially, the “gospel” in the NT is the good news that the kingdom of God has come in Jesus (Matt. 4:23, 9:35, Mark 1:14, Luke 4:43, Acts 20:24f). [3] “Kingdom” is (1) God’s sovereign power, (2) his sovereign authority, and (3) his coming into history to defeat Satan and bring about salvation with all its consequences. [4] God’s kingdom power includes all his mighty acts in history, especially including the Resurrection of Christ. 

God’s kingdom authority is the reiteration of his commandments. When the kingdom appears in power, it is time for people to repent. They must obey (hupakouo) the gospel (2 Thess. 1:8, compare apeitheo in 1 Pet. 4:17). The gospel itself requires a certain kind of conduct (Acts 14:15, Gal. 2:14, Phil. 1:27; cf. Rom 2:16). 

When God comes into history, he brings his power and authority to bear on his creatures. In kingdom power, he establishes peace. So NT writers frequently refer to the “gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15; cf. Acts 10:36, Rom. 10:15), sometimes referring to the “mystery” of God bringing Gentiles and Jews together in one body (Rom. 16:25, Eph. 6:19). 

It is this whole complex: God’s power to save, the reiteration of God’s commands, and his coming into history to execute his plan, that is the gospel. It is good news to know that God is bringing his good plans to fruition. 

Consider Isa. 52:7, one of the most important background passages for the New Testament concept of gospel: 

How beautiful upon the mountains

            Are the feet of him who brings good news,

            Who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,

            Who publishes salvation,

            Who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (ESV)

It is the reign of God that is good news, news that ensures peace and salvation.

Even the demand for repentance is good news, because in context it implies that God, though coming in power to claim his rights, is willing to forgive for Christ’s sake.

            So gospel includes law in an important sense: God’s kingdom authority, his demand to repent. Even on the view of those most committed to the law/gospel distinction, the gospel includes a command to believe. We tend to think of that command as in a different class from the commands of the decalogue. But that too is a command, after all. Generically it is law. And, like the decalogue, that law can be terrifying to someone who wants to trust only on his own resources, rather than resting on the mercy of another. And the demand of faith includes other requirements: the conduct becoming the gospel that I mentioned earlier. Faith itself works through love (Gal. 5:6) and is dead without good works (James 2:17).

      Having faith does not merit salvation for anyone, any more than any other human act merits salvation. Thus we speak of faith, not as the ground of salvation, but as the instrument. Faith saves, not because it merits salvation, but because it reaches out to receive God’s grace in Christ. Nevertheless, faith is an obligation, and in that respect the command to believe is like other divine commands. So it is impossible to say that command, or law, is excluded from the message of the gospel.

It is also true that law includes gospel. God gives his law as part of a covenant, and that covenant is a gift of God’s grace. The decalogue begins, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Only after proclaiming his saving grace does God then issue his commands to Israel. So the decalogue as a whole has the function of offering Israel a new way of life, conferred by grace (cf. Deut. 7:7-8, 9:4-6). Is the decalogue “law” or “gospel?” Surely it is both. Israel was terrified upon hearing it, to be sure (Ex. 20:18-21). But in fact it offers blessing (note verse 6) and promise (verse 12). Moses and the Prophets are sufficient to keep sinners from perishing in Hell (Matt. 16:31).

So the definitions that sharply separate law and gospel break down on careful analysis. In both law and gospel, then, God proclaims his saving work, and he demands that his people respond by obeying his commands. The terms “law” and “gospel” differ in emphasis, but they overlap and intersect. They present the whole Word of God from different perspectives. Indeed, we can say that our Bible as a whole is both law (because as a whole it speaks with divine authority and requires belief) and gospel (because as a whole it is good news to fallen creatures). Each concept is meaningless apart from the other. Each implies the other.

      The law often brings terror, to be sure. Israel was frightened by the Sinai display of God’s wrath against sin (Ex. 20:18-21). But it also brings delight to the redeemed heart (Psm. 1:2; compare 119:34-36, 47, 92, 93, 97, 130, 131, Rom. 7:22). Similarly, the gospel brings comfort and joy; but (as less often noted in the theological literature) it also brings condemnation. Paul says that his gospel preaching is, to those who perish, “a fragrance from death to death” and, to those who believe, “a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15-16; compare 1 Cor. 1:18, 23, 27-29, 2 Cor. 4:3-4, Rom. 9:32). The gospel is good news to those who believe. But to those who are intent on saving themselves by their own righteousness, it is bad news. It is God’s condemnation upon them, a rock of offense.

3. Which Comes First?

            In discussions of law and gospel, one commonly hears that it is important, not only to preach both law and gospel, but also to preach the law first and the gospel second. We are told that people must be frightened by the law before they can be driven to seek salvation in Christ. Certainly there is a great need to preach God’s standards, man’s disobedience, and God’s wrath against sin, especially in an age such as ours where people think God will let them behave as they like. And very often people have been driven to their knees in repentance when the Spirit has convicted them of their transgressions of law.

            But as we have seen, it is really impossible truly to present law without gospel or gospel without law, though various relative emphases are possible. And among those relative emphases, the biblical pattern tends to put the gospel first. That is the pattern of the decalogue, as we have seen: God proclaims that he has redeemed his people (gospel), then asks them to behave as his covenant people (law). Since both gospel and law are aspects of God’s covenants, that pattern pervades Scripture.

            Jesus reflects that pattern in his own evangelism. In John 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that he can give her living water that will take away all thirst. Only after offering that gift does he proclaim the law to her, exposing her adultery. Some have cited Luke 18:18—30 as an example of the contrary order: Jesus expounds the commandments, and only afterward tells the rich ruler to follow him. But in this passage Jesus does not use the law alone to terrorize the man or to plunge him into despair. The man does go sadly away only after Jesus has called him to discipleship, which, though itself a command, is the gospel of this passage.

4. The “New Perspective” and Paul’s Gospel

Since the apostle Paul is most often in the forefront in discussions of the meaning of gospel, something should perhaps be said here about the “new perspective on Paul” in recent scholarship, based on writings of Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and others. In that perspective, the problem with Judaism, according to Paul, was not works righteousness, but its failure to accept God’s new covenant in Christ, which embraced Gentiles as well as Jews. On this perspective, Paul’s gospel is not an answer to the troubled conscience of someone who can’t meet God’s demands. Rather, it is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless all nations. The “works of the law” against which Paul contends are not man’s attempts to satisfy God’s moral law, but the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles such as circumcision, food laws, and cleansings.

Discussions of this new perspective are very complex, entering into details about the nature of Palestinian Judaism at the time of Paul, Paul’s own history, and the exegesis of crucial texts. I cannot enter this controversy in a short paper. I do agree with those who believe that Sanders and others have been too selective in their references to Palestinian Judaism, and I believe that the new perspective fails to deal adequately with a number of Pauline passages, such as Rom. 4:4-5, 11:6, Eph. 2:8-10, Phil. 3:9, which make plain that Paul rejects, not only legal barriers between Jew and Gentile, but also all attempts of people to save themselves by their works. Luther’s doctrines of sola gratia and sola fide are fully scriptural and fully Pauline. [5]

But the new perspective legitimately warns us against reducing Paul’s gospel to soteric justification by faith. Paul’s confrontation with the Jews was on several fronts. And his gospel deals with a number of different issues, as my earlier discussion also implies.

5. Legitimate Use of the Traditional Distinction

Now if people want to define gospel more narrowly for a specific theological purpose, I won’t object too strongly. Scripture does not give us a glossary of English usage. A number of technical theological terms don’t mean exactly what similar terms sometimes mean in the Bible. Regeneration and election are examples, as is covenant. [6] We can define our English terms pretty much as we like, as long as those definitions don’t create confusion in our readers. 

Over the years, we have come to think of gospel as correlative with faith and law as correlative with works. In this usage, law is what condemns and gospel is what saves. Although this distinction differs from the biblical uses of the terms, it does become useful in some contexts. For example, we all know a type of preaching that merely expounds moral obligations (as we usually think of them: don’t kill, don’t steal) and does not give its hearers the knowledge of Christ they need to have in order to be saved. That kind of preaching (especially when it is not balanced by other preaching emphases) we often describe as a preaching of mere law, legalism, or moralism. There is no good news in it. So, we are inclined to say, it is not preaching of the gospel. So in this general way we come to distinguish the preaching of law from the preaching of gospel. That is, I think, the main concern of the Formula: to remind us that we need to do both things. 

We should be reminded of course that there is also an opposite extreme: preaching “gospel” in such a way as to suggest that Christ makes no demands on one’s life. We call that “cheap grace” or “easy believism.” We might also call it preaching “gospel without law.” Taken to an extreme, it is antinomianism, the rejection of God’s law. The traditional law/gospel distinction is not itself antinomian, but those who hold it tend to be more sensitive to the dangers of legalism than to the dangers of antinomianism. 

Such considerations may lead us to distinguish in a rough-and-ready way between preaching of the law and preaching of the gospel. Of course, even in making that distinction, our intention ought to be to bring these together. None of these considerations requires us to posit a sharp distinction. And certainly, this rough-and-ready distinction should never be used to cast doubt on the integration of command and promise that pervades the Scriptures themselves. 

It should be evident that “legalist” preaching as described above is not true preaching of law, any more than it is true preaching of the gospel.  For as I indicated earlier, law itself in Scripture comes to us wrapped in grace.

6. Law/Gospel and the Christian Life

The Formula’s distinction between law and gospel has unfortunate consequences for the Christian life. The document does warrant preaching of the law to the regenerate, [7] but only as threat and terror, to drive them to Christ Epitome, VI, 4. There is nothing here about the law as the delight of the redeemed heart (Psm. 1:2; compare 119:34-36, 47, 92, 93, 97, 130, 131, Rom. 7:22). 

The Formula then goes on to say that believers do conform to the law under the influence of the Spirit, but only as follows: 

Fruits of the Spirit, however, are the works which the Spirit of God who dwells in believers works through the regenerate, and which are done by believers so far as they are regenerate [spontaneously and freely], as though they knew of no command, threat, or reward; for in this manner the children of God live in the Law and walk according to the Law of God, which [mode of living] St. Paul in his epistles calls the Law of Christ and the Law of the mind, Rom. 7, 25; 8, 7; Rom. 8, 2; Gal. 6, 2. (Epitome, VI, 5).

So the law may threaten us to drive us to Christ. But truly good works are never motivated by any command, threat or reward.

            In my view, this teaching is simply unbiblical. It suggests that when you do something in obedience to a divine command, threat, or promise of reward, it is to that extent tainted, unrighteous, something less than a truly good work. I agree that our best works are tainted by sin, but certainly not for this reason. When Scripture presents us with a command, obedience to that command is a righteous action. Indeed, our righteousness is measured by our obedience to God’s commands. When God threatens punishment, and we turn from wickedness to do what he asks, that is not a sin, but a righteous response. When God promises reward, it is a good thing for us to embrace that reward.

            The notion that we should conduct our lives completely apart from the admonitions of God’s word is a terrible notion. To ignore God’s revelation of his righteousness is, indeed, essentially sinful. To read Scripture, but refuse to allow its commands to influence one’s conduct, is the essence of sin.

            And what, then, does motivate good works, if not the commands, threats, and promises of reward in Scripture? The Formula doesn’t say. What it suggests is that the Spirit simply brings about obedience from within us. I believe the Spirit does exactly that. But the Formula seems to assume that the Spirit works that way without any decision on our part to act according to the commands of God. That I think is wrong. “Quietism” is the view that Christians should be entirely passive, waiting for the Spirit of God to act in them. This view of the Christian life is unbiblical. The Christian life is a battle, a race. It requires decision and effort. I am not saying that the Formula is quietist (Lutheranism rejected quietism after some controversy in its ranks), but as we read the position of the Formula, it does seem that quietism lies around the corner from it.

7. The Objective and the Subjective

Part of the motivation for this view of the Christian life, I believe, is the thought that one’s life should be based on something objective, rather than something subjective. On this view, our life is built on what Christ has done for us, objectively in history, not on anything arising from our own subjectivity or inwardness. So in this view, gospel is a recitation of what God has done for us, not a command to provoke our subjective response. 

This understanding focuses on justification: God regards us as objectively righteous for Christ’s sake, apart from anything in us. But it tends to neglect regeneration and sanctification: that God does work real subjective changes in the justified.

I have no quarrel with this understanding of justification. But in Scripture, though justification is based on the work of Christ external to us, it is embraced by faith, which is subjective. And faith, in turn, is the result of the Spirit’s subjective work of regeneration (John 3:3). [8] So nobody is objectively justified who has not been subjectively changed by God’s grace.

So the Westminster Confession of Faith 18.2, even in speaking of assurance of salvation, refers not only to the truth of God’s promises (objective), but also to the “inward evidence of those graces” and “the testimony of the Spirit of adoption,” which are in some measure subjective.

In fact, we cannot separate the objective and the subjective. Objective truths are subjectively apprehended. We cannot have objective knowledge, confidence, or assurance, unless we are subjectively enabled to perceive what God has objectively given us.  

8. The Two Kingdoms

            We should also note the “two kingdoms” view of Christ and culture, that draws on the sharp distinction between law and gospel. [9] In general, that view states that there are two kingdoms of God, one, as Luther put it, the kingdom of God’s left hand, the other the kingdom of his right hand. The former is secular, the latter sacred. In the former, God rules by law, in the latter, by his word and Spirit.

The problem is that the two-kingdom doctrine claims a duality, not only between law and gospel as such, but also in God’s standards, his norms. There are secular values and religious values, secular norms and religious norms. Secular society is responsible only to natural laws, the morality found in nature. So, Gene Veith says, “morality is not a matter of religion.” [10] The church is subject primarily to the gospel, but in a secondary sense (as we have seen above) subject to both law and gospel, the whole content of the word of God. Therefore, although the Christian can participate in the general culture, he should not seek to Christianize it, to turn it into a Christian culture. There is no such thing as a Christian culture; there is only secular culture, and a Christian church. Nor, of course, should he try to bring secular standards into the church: secular music, for instance. [11]

It is true that we should not try to force unregenerate people to become Christians through civil power. The church does not have the power of the sword. Nevertheless, there are not two sets of divine norms for civil society, only one. And those norms are in the Bible. Morality is most emphatically a matter of religion. The unregenerate have some knowledge of God’s law through natural revelation (Rom. 1:32), but believers see that law more clearly through the spectacles of Scripture. The biblical view of civil government does not require us to force unbelievers to behave as Christians in every way, but it does call upon us to restrain their (and our!) sin in certain areas. We should be active in society to promote those godly standards. [12]

Concluding Observation

The sharp distinction between law and gospel is becoming popular in Reformed, as well as Lutheran circles. It is the view of Westminster Seminary California, Modern Reformation magazine, and the White Horse Inn radio broadcast. The leaders of these organizations are very insistent that theirs is the only biblical view of the matter. One has recently claimed that people who hold a different view repudiate the Reformation and even deny the gospel itself. On that view, we must use the term gospel only in what the Formula calls the “proper” sense, not in the biblical sense. I believe that we should stand with the Scriptures against this tradition.

 


[1] Lutheran theologians, however, frequently complain that Reformed theology “confuses” law and gospel, which is in the Lutheran view a grave error. The main difference is that for the Reformed law is not merely an accuser, but also a message of divine comfort, a delight of the redeemed heart (Psm. 1:2). Also, the Reformed generally do not give the law/gospel distinction as much prominence within their systematic theological formulations. And, historically, they have been more open to the broader biblical language which the Lutheran Formula of Concord calls “correct” but not “proper” (see below).

[2] The passage cited by the formula, Acts 20:21, does not use the euaggello root, the usual term for “gospel” and “gospel preaching,” but the term diamarturomai. But Acts 20:21 is nevertheless significant, since it gives a general description of what Paul did in his preaching to “both Jews and Greeks.” That preaching was certainly gospel preaching. Paul resolved in his preaching to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” Luke 24:47 is also significant, for it includes both repentance and forgiveness of sins as the content Jesus gives his disciples to preach (kerusso) to all nations.

[3] N. T. Wright believes that this use of gospel has a double root: “On the one hand, the gospel Paul preached was the fulfilment of the message of Isaiah 40 and 52, the message of comfort for Israel and of hope for the whole world, because YHWH, the god of Israel, was returning to Zion to judge and redeem. On the other hand, in the context into which Paul was speaking, “gospel” would mean the celebration of the accession, or birth, of a king or emperor. Though no doubt petty kingdoms might use the word for themselves, in Paul’s world the main ‘gospel’ was the news of, or the celebration of, Caesar,” “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire,” available at http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/wright.htm. Of course both of these uses focus on the rule of God as Lord, and both involve what is traditionally called law.

[4] This a triad of the sort expounded in my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publications, 1987), Doctrine of God (forthcoming from the same publisher in 2002) and elsewhere.

[5] Although I am critical of the general stance of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and their publication Modern Reformation on this issue, I would strongly recommend Kim Riddlebarger’s essay, “Reformed Confessionalism and the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul,” available at the Alliance web site, www.alliancenet.org, as an excellent introduction to this discussion. I fully endorse the conclusions of that article.

[6] The phrases “covenant of works” and “covenant of grace” found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.2-4 are not found anywhere in Scripture. Covenant in Scripture refers to particular historical relationships between God and his people, mediated by Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. “Covenant of grace” generalizes the common features of these historical covenants, seeing them as successive manifestations of God’s redemptive Lordship. “Covenant of works” finds in God’s relation to our first parents features identical to his later covenants with, of course, significant differences.

[7] Theological literature speaks of three “uses of the law” : (1) to restrain sin in society, (2) to terrorize people in order to drive them to Christ, and (3) as a guide to believers. In Lutheranism (not in Reformed circles) there has been controversy over the third use, though the Formula affirms it. But in Lutheranism, it is often said that “the law always accuses.” So the third use is essentially the second use directed at believers, driving us to Christ again and again and away from our residual unbelief. Reformed writers do not deny our continual need for Christ and the importance of hearing again and again that we are saved only by his grace. But in Reformed theology, the law also plays a more direct role, giving us specific guidance in God’s delightful paths.

[8] So, again, saving faith works through love (Gal. 5:6) and is dead without works (James 2:14-26).

[9] See, for example, Gene Veith, “Christianity and Culture: God’s Double Sovereignty,” from The Whirlpool (Jan.-Feb., 1997), available at http://www.alliancenet.org.

[10] Ibid.

[11] There are, of course, reasons to criticize the use of secular music in the church other than the two-kingdoms concept. But if that concept is rejected, then the distinction between sacred and secular is relativized somewhat, and one must evaluate “secular” music piece-by-piece, rather than as a general category.

[12] In terms of the categories of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (NY: Harper, 1951), we should be “transformationalists,” not “dualists.”

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Semper Reformanda

by Michael Horton

If you’ve been in Protestant circles for very long, whether conservative or liberal, you may have heard the phrase “reformed and always reforming” or sometimes just “always reforming.” I hear it a lot these days, especially from friends who want our Reformed churches to be more open to moving beyond the faith and practice that is confessed in our doctrinal standards. Even in Reformed circles of late, various movements have arisen that challenge these standards. How can confessions and catechisms written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries guide our doctrine, life, and worship in the twenty-first? Liberal Protestants frequently invoked this phrase to justify their captivity to the spirit of the age, but some conservative Protestants also use it to encourage a broader definition of what it means to be Reformed.

But where did this phrase come from? Its first appearance was in a 1674 devotional by Jodocus van Lodenstein, who was an important figure in Dutch Reformed pietism — a movement known as the Dutch Second Reformation. According to these writers, the Reformation reformed the doctrine of the church, but the lives and practices of God’s people always need further reformation.

Van Lodenstein and his colleagues were committed to the teaching of the Reformed confession and catechism; they simply wanted to see that teaching become more thoroughly applied as well as understood. However, here is his whole phrase: “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.” The verb is passive: the church is not “always reforming,” but is “always being reformed” by the Spirit of God through the Word. Although the Reformers themselves did not use this slogan, it certainly reflects what they were up to; that is, if one quotes the whole phrase!

Each clause is crucial. First, the church is Reformed, and this should be written with a capitalized “R.” If it is true that Jesus rose from the dead two millennia ago in Palestine, then it is just as true in our time and place. The ecumenical creeds confess the faith that we all share across a multitude of cultures and eras. Similarly, the Reformed standards (such as the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms) summarize what Reformed Christians believe to be the clear teaching of God’s Word. Churches will always be changing in significant ways depending on their time and place, but these communal ways of confessing Christ remain faithful summaries of “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Our forebears who invoked this phrase had in mind the consolidation of catholic and evangelical Christianity embodied in the Reformed confessions and catechisms. There is a reason that this wing of the Reformation called itself “Reformed.” Unlike the Anabaptists, Reformed churches understood themselves as a continuing branch of the catholic church. At the same time, the Reformed wanted to reform everything “according to the Word of God.” Not only our doctrine but our worship and life must be determined by Scripture and not by human whim or creativity.

Interestingly, it is a mainline Presbyterian theologian, Anna Case-Winters, who brings attention to what she calls “our misused motto.” Winters points out that “in the 16th-century context the impulse it reflected was neither liberal nor conservative, but radical, in the sense of returning to the ‘root.’” This was reflected in the rallying cry, sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone). The Reformation had no interest in “change” as an end in itself. As Calvin argued in his treatise “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” the Reformers were charged with innovation when in fact it was the medieval church’s innovative distortions of Christian faith and worship that required a recovery of apostolic Christianity. Rome pretended to be “always the same,” but it had accumulated a host of doctrines and practices that were unknown to the ancient church, much less to the New Testament.

Some people today leave out the “Reformed” part or at least interpret it as “reformed” (little “r”): the church is “always being reformed according to the Word of God.” This means that to be Reformed is simply to be reformed and to be reformed is simply to be biblical. All who base their beliefs on the Bible are therefore “reformed,” regardless of whether their interpretations are consistent with the common confessions of the Reformed churches. However, this runs counter to the original intention of the phrase. Doubtless there are many beliefs and practices that Reformed believers share in common with non-Reformed believers committed to God’s Word. We must always remain open to correction from our brothers and sisters in other churches who have interpreted the Bible differently. Nevertheless, Reformed churches belong to a particular Christian tradition with its own definitions of its faith and practice. We believe that our confessions and catechisms faithfully represent the system of doctrine found in Holy Scripture. We believe that to be Reformed is not only to be biblical; to be biblical is to be Reformed. As important as it is to keep “Reformed” in the phrase, an even more dangerous omission is often found among more liberal Protestants who also leave out the “according to the Word of God” clause. And usually it is “always reforming,” instead of “always being reformed.” In this view, the church is the active party, determining its own doctrine, worship, and discipline in the light of ever-changing cultural contexts. Progressivism becomes an end in itself and the church becomes a mirror of the world.

Yet those of us in confessional Reformed churches must also beware of forgetting that our doctrinal standards are subordinate to the Word of God. Christ’s church was reformed by God’s Word in the Reformation and post-Reformation era. It was brought back to God’s Word and the fruit of that great work of the Spirit continues to guide us through our confessions and catechisms. And yet the church is not only Reformed; it is always in need of being reformed. Like our personal sanctification, our corporate faithfulness is always flawed. We don’t need to move beyond the gains of the Reformation, but we do need further reformation. But here is where the last clause kicks in: “always being reformed according to the Word of God.”

It is not because the culture is always changing and we need to be up with the times, but because we are always in need of being re-oriented to the Word that stands over us, individually and collectively, that the church can never stand still. It must always be a listening church. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Personally and corporately, the church comes into being and is kept alive by hearing the gospel. The church is always on the receiving end of God’s good gifts as well as His correction. The Spirit does not lead us apart from the Word but directs us back to Christ as He is revealed in Scripture. We always need to return to the voice of our Shepherd. The same gospel that creates the church sustains and renews it. Our personal conformity to the Word that Paul commands in Romans 12 is never completed in this life, and the same is true of the church in this present age.

This perspective keeps us from making tradition infallible but equally from imbibing the radical Protestant obsession with starting from scratch in every generation. When God’s Word is the source of our life, our ultimate loyalty is not to the past as such or to the present and the future, but to “that Word above all earthly pow’rs,” to borrow from Luther’s famous hymn. Neither behind us nor ahead of us, but above us, reigns our sovereign Lord over His body in all times and places. When we invoke the whole phrase — “the church Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God” — we confess that we belong to the church and not simply to ourselves and that this church is always created and renewed by the Word of God rather than by the spirit of the age.

 

From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: http://www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: tabletalk@ligonier.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.

 Original article can be linked from Ligonier Ministries.

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Originally titled EXCUSE ME, WAITER – DID YOU MESS WITH THE FOOD?  by Rev. John Samson, this article is of very good reminder to the elder/pastor of a congregation on feeding the flock of the Lord Jesus Christ. Please click here to link to Pastor John Samson’s website.

 

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.  – 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5 ESV

To serve as the pastor in the newly formed King’s Church in Phoenix is a high calling and an amazing privilege. To serve the King of Kings and the people Christ died for – what could be greater than this? Yet with every great privilege comes great responsibility.

Have you noticed in the above text how it is the presentation of Scripture as God breathed (at the end of 2 Timothy 3) that is the basis for the solemn and holy charge given to preach the Word, in chapter 4? The one thing naturally leads to the other. It is because of the nature of Scripture as divinely inspired that Paul tells Timothy to preach it with boldness, in season and out of season. Literally this phrase means “in good times and bad times,” or by way of application, “preach the word when the people like it and when they do not.”

Being a pastor and talking with other pastors, I think I understand how pastors think. God has placed a servant’s heart in every true shepherd’s heart. The genuine pastor did not get into this for money or fame, for the gold or the glory, but because there is a driving passion in the heart, placed there by God, to obey the One who called him for His own eternal purposes. Sadly, what is crystal clear at the beginning phaze of ministry can become fuzzy over time as Church pressures, politics and personalities all have their influence. But the above passage gives us a solemn charge to stay at our post knowing our chief responsibility under the gaze of God is to serve the people of God the Word of God.

I have met some people in ministry who have openly told me that they teach through the Scripture but seek to avoid controversial subjects. I know why they do this. They do not wish to divide their congregation. The Evangelist may count how many people were in a service, but a pastor is far more likely to count how many were not there – he aches inside to see the people he loves come and be built up in their most holy faith and knows what the Word of God can do for them. He organizes his whole week to make room for the serious study of God’s word. It is labor indeed – real work. Often it is in the early hours of the morning that he is awakened from sleep with inspiration to dig out or mine the Scripture – and the inspiration lasts until the clock tells him he must take a quick shower and get on with the business of the day (and restful sleep is only a hope for the next night).

But here’s the problem. Love for the people is very commendable, but it should not be the chief motivation in ministry. There should be a greater love for the God who called us to obey Him. The truth is, if we preach the Word accurately and with the fire and passion He instills in us, this shows great love for people too, because we are giving them the very best thing imaginable – the word of Almighty God. People need a lot more than a pep talk once a week, as in a coach’s half time team talk. No, they need far more substance than this. What they need is a genuine word from God.

If we love Him, we will teach and preach in order to please Him first, for the message of the text is that we preach to the audience of One. God is watching us closely as we preach His Word. 2 Timothy 4:1 could accurately be translated, “I solemnly charge you as one under the gaze of God…”

I think if we were to see this from God’s perspective, when a pastor or preacher says he teaches the Bible but avoids controversial issues, he is acting as a disobedient slave of the Master as well as short changing the people. The fact is that controversy cannot be avoided. There’s no main truth of Scripture that is free from controversy. That’s true whether we are talking about the existence of God, His purpose in suffering, the Trinity, the full Deity and full humanity of Christ, the atoning work of Christ, the Person of the Holy Spirit, the doctrines of grace and how God saves by His grace alone through faith in Christ alone. You can try to find something in there that is not controversial, but I cannot. Truth is controversial – so get used to it.

Having a doctrinal position is unavoidable if we are to say anything about what Scripture means. The question is not can we avoid theology, but which theology is biblical. To try to avoid it is like saying to a waiter, “may I have some water, but can you hold the wet!” The wet comes with the water, because quite simply, water is wet.

If for illustration purposes the waiter is the preacher, then the cook (and owner of the restaurant and the franchize) is God Himself. Waiters are not permitted to look at the plate handed to them by the cook and then cut off the edges of the meat before serving the people. The cook determines what is served to the people not the waiter.

If the text speaks of controversial things such as true discipleship or Divine Sovereignty, who do we think we are if we then say, “this is not what the people want to hear, so I will leave that part out of the sermon”? This would be an act of defiance not of servant-hood, both of God and of the people. We need to ask, “who is it we are really serving?”

It is because of the fact that we are called to serve God first before we serve people that the text goes on to say “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions…” This is the truth so let us face it. Not everyone who listens to us will like us or the message we proclaim. As preachers, we must face this and get over it! If everyone likes the message, and I mean everyone, then perhaps the One we should always seek to please first may well be displeased. And this should scare us a lot more than it does, because one day we will stand before Him and give an account to Him, when no crowd is applauding us, its just you or me standing before the King.

There is an offense to the message of the cross – Jews want signs and Greeks seek wisdom – but preach the cross anyway, for this indeed is the true sign and the true wisdom of God. Not everyone who hears us can handle the truth of God’s Sovereignty, and they may leave. Lets remember that the crowd left Jesus, the Master communicator, when He preached it too:

John 6:65-68 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…

People will come and go. As much as it may sadden us, not everyone will stay with us for the longhaul. So lets face this fact and decide beforehand who we will be serving, and who it is we will be prepared to lose! We will lose people, but let us not lose true disciples who really want to know what the Word of God says. If we are going to lose people, lets be prepared to lose those who put their opinions and traditions above His word. Making this choice does not mean that in doing so our ministry will always be small. The God who called us is in charge of such things. Paul may plant, an Apollos may water but it is God who causes the growth. The size of the ministry is not in our hands, that is God’s decision, but because of His amazing providence, God’s book certainly is. Lets preach this Divine Word with boldness as heralds of the King, knowing the truth that “Christ’s sheep will never be offended by Christ’s voice.“ (C. H. Spurgeon)

Preachers are to use wisdom in how they go about this task, of course, but that’s another subject for another day. But when it comes to a preacher’s job responsibilities, we have no real choice when it comes down to subject matter concerning what we leave out or what we put in. It is the height of presumption to think any other way. God has never asked us for our opinion on the matter. He is the Owner and cook – we are simply humble servant-waiters with an amazingly high calling to be His Royal Ambassadors.

2 Timothy 4 reminds me that my primary task at King’s Church is to serve the King’s food to the King’s people. Let us also realize that Christ’s sheep are amazingly precious to the Shepherd. He is concerned for the welfare of His flock and has established the menu for the diet of the sheep.

“Excuse me waiter, did you mess with the food?” Selah.

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Mark Galli | posted at Christianity Today

It’s really hard to listen to God when there are really interesting things to think about.

When I preach, I often quote the Bible to drive home my point. I think it more persuasive to show that what I’m saying is not merely my opinion but a consistent theme of Scripture. And to avoid the impression that I’m proof-texting or lifting verses out of context, I quote longer passages—anywhere from 2 to 6 verses.

When I did this at one church, a staff member whom I’d asked for feedback between services told me to cut down on the Scripture quotations. “You’ll lose people,” he said.

I understood the reality he was addressing, and so I scratched out the biblical references for the next sermon. But lately I’m beginning to question that move, and wondering, Why have we become so impatient and bored with the Word of God? I ask this not in a scolding tone, but in wonderment, not to point fingers, for I wonder at myself as well.

Another example of this phenomenon: Recently in an adult Sunday school class, I heard a detailed and persuasive lecture on a biblical theology of creation. Rather than reading Genesis 1 and just waxing eloquent from that point on, the teacher patiently read passage after passage to demonstrate how central creation is in the Bible even after Genesis, especially in the covenant God made with his people. After class, the moderator for the class suggested that, for the following week, the teacher make room for questions; he suggested the teacher cut down on the reading of so many Bible verses as this would save time and, it was strongly implied, would better hold people’s interest.

Anyone who’s been in the preaching and teaching business knows these are not isolated examples but represent the larger reality. We teachers and preachers are well aware of how easily listeners get bored. And we recognize that, when it comes to good teaching technique, extensive quoting of anything can become tedious, and that, yes, it is important to make time in one’s presentation for questions. Still, these examples reveal such a feature of current church culture that we might want to question ourselves.

*  *  *

It has been said to the point of boredom that we live in a narcissistic age, where we are wont to fixate on our needs, our wants, our wishes, and our hopes—at the expense of others and certainly at the expense of God. We do not like it when a teacher uses up the whole class time presenting her material, even if it is material from the Word of God. We want to be able to ask our questions about our concerns, otherwise we feel talked down to, or we feel the class is not relevant to our lives.

It is well and good for the preacher to base his sermon on the Bible, but he better get to something relevant pretty quickly, or we start mentally to check out. Don’t spend a lot of time in the Bible, we tell our preachers, but be sure to get to personal illustrations, examples from daily life, and most importantly, an application that we can use.

It’s easy to see how this culture has profoundly reshaped the dynamics of preaching and teaching. All the demands have been placed on the shoulders of the preacher, so anxious are we to meet needs and stay relevant. No longer are listeners asked to listen humbly to the proclamation of God’s Word, in all its mystery and glory. To be sure, we want the preacher to begin with the Word—we’re Christians after all—but only as a starting point, and only as long as he moves on to things that really interest us.

*  *  *

We often hear people say how difficult it is to hear God anymore, and I wonder if one reason is that we’ve forgotten how to listen to the Word of God when it comes to us in the sanctuary or the classroom. We listen like a husband and wife listen when they are in the middle of an argument: they listen only so they can have ammunition to mount a counterattack. That’s not listening. And when we listen to the sermon only to hear what seems immediately and directly relevant, neither is that listening. And yet we’ve raised a whole generation of Christians to listen like this.

Again: I do not claim that I have transcended this cultural impatience with the Bible. I’m as irritated as the next person when it comes to the public reading of Scripture. Doesn’t this person have anything original to say? I think. Isn’t he going to address this issue, or that concern? Get on with it! At least I hope he says something funny soon … .

I try to laugh at myself when I catch myself in such moods: bored with the very revelation of God! We have this extraordinary gift, this miracle book, from the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Mystery of the Universe, the Infinite One whom we (the finite) cannot begin to fathom, the Holy One whom we (blinded by our unholiness) cannot begin to comprehend. The One who can answer our deepest questions but could remain The Question, the One who can restore our broken humanity, but could remain a vague Hypothesis—this One has revealed himself in Law, Prophets, and Gospel—in the words of a collection we now call Holy Scripture.

Whenever the Bible is read, a hush should come over us. We should be inching toward the edge of our seats, leaning forward, turning our best ear toward the speaker, fearful we’ll miss a single word—the deeds and words and character of Almighty and Merciful God are being revealed! In a world of suffering and pain, of doubt and despair, of questions about the meaning and purpose of existence, we are about to hear of God’s glory, forgiveness, mercy and love, of his intention for the world, of his promise to make it all good in the end, of the way to join his people, of the means to abide with him forever! And there we sit, tapping our feet, mentally telling the preacher to get on with it.

But if we take the trouble to listen, really listen, to that Word, we’ll discover something else marvelous: that the One being revealed is as patient with us as we are impatient with his Word, and as enamored with us as we are bored with him. Ah yes, even more enamored.

*  *  *

 

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God  (Baker).

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Let’s take a moment to read Matthew 4:1-11 and within the narrative the phrase “it is written” was mentioned three times by the Lord and once by the tempter. And each time it was used by the Lord, it was to refer to the primacy of God’s Word for the following:

  • relying solely on God – it is written, “man does not live alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”  (verse 4, in rebuke to the tempter’s enticement to doubt the goodness of God in life’s every situation);
  • refuting even the gravest error – it is written, “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (verse 7, in response to satan’s blatantly erroneous use of God’s Word);
  • repudiating every idolatry – it is written, “you shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve” (verse 10, in response to serpent’s blasphemous desire from the very beginning to usurp God’s rightful place in exchange for every form of idolatry),

Even the very order of how these truths are laid out is necessary: reliance on God alone and as soon as man abandons that position, his next moral degradation will be exchanging the truth for a lie and eventually into idolatry which is essentially anything that replaces the sole rulership of God upon our lives. As D. A. Carson would say, “idolatry is essentially the de-godding of God”. You see, this is the same order the apostle Paul presented regarding fallen man’s steep descent in depravity in Romans 1:19-23.

The written Word that God gave us – both Old and New Testaments, all 66 books – is the display of God’s immense grace that we may know the truth that is centered upon His Son, Jesus Christ.  It is to no surprise then that the three verses that Jesus quoted from the Old Testament were all fulfilled perfectly in Him right then and there. To know the Scripture is to know Him.

So the next time we quote or use Scriptures, let us be reverently careful for even God has placed his Name and His Word above all things (Psalm 138:2).

I bow down towards Your holy temple and give thanks to Your Name for Your steadfast love and Your faithfulness, for You have exalted above all things Your Name and Your word.

The careful student of the Word handles truth well (2 Timothy 2:15).

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

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And behold, I am always with you, to the end of the age – Matthew 28:20

After the Lord declared His authority and commissioned the disciples to spread the good news, teaching those who will believe the Gospel everything that Jesus said and did, it was about the time that He will ascend to His rightful place and be seated at the right hand of God. The disciples would undoubtedly need comfort and these last words of the Lord was the coup de grace of all comforts: “I am always with you…”

Not only were these words of comfort to those who are being left behind for a while but also a source of strength as these disciples will face the world to preach the Gospel. Their account in the book of Acts testify to this fact. But allow me to take this verse to its personal level, not only for myself but for every Christian as well. I will remain in the purpose of the Scriptures: that we may know Him.

Like the early disciples, we face a world that is too pre-occupied with its own business – for various reasons; work, family, friends, leisure.  Every person is at the same time interacting somehow with each other, some for a while, some for long periods of time.  But if there is one thing about this fallen world to realize is that no one is, nor will be a constant companion. People leave, some relocate, some fall away from friendship, some become indifferent, everyone will die sooner or later. And that leaves us alone…but not so for a Christian. By “Christian” I do not mean the nominal kind who attends a local church congregation but rather one who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and who has a living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, in love with Scriptures and whatever is righteous according to it, hates sin, loves the believers, preaches the Gospel to whoever may cross his path as God enables him, and by grace is separated from the way of the fallen world – this person may fall into sin, but he runs in repentance towards the Lord for forgiveness and trusts in the security of salvation that Jesus paid for with His life.

Yes, the Christian disciple is also busy, but like everybody else, there comes an occassion that he is left alone with none to interact with…yes, I have known times like this. Times when I had so much to say about the Lord to someone, both believers and unbelievers, but there’s none who simply has the moment to listen because they have other things to do.  At the ebb of this longing, I find my greatest comfort…Jesus Christ.  He is always with me according to His promise. And His last words recorded by Matthew was brought to my remembrance, to which I found my comfort – a joyful comfort.

So to the Christian I share this encouragement and may the Lord bless you with the same desire to get back to His word with which God communicates with us and through prayer, by which we communicate with Him.

To the one who has not repented and believed in Jesus the Son of God, what awaits him is an eternity of being alone in an inexpressible torment in the fiery furnace away forever from the love of God through His Son.  The wrath of God is upon all men and only Jesus has propitiated for this by dying and shedding His blood on the cross at Calvary.  Only in Him can men be forgiven and reconciled to God. And when you have repented of your sin and believed in the grace and forgiveness of God through Jesus, that is just the beginning of the eternal comforts and companionship of Him who is forever praised both now and forever more. Amen.

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