Lessons from the 'Great Cloud of Witnesses'

Dear Church Family,

In our current sermon series in the book of Hebrews, most recently we have been in the eleventh chapter, examining these examples of faith from the old covenant. The writer of Hebrews refers to these examples as a “great cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Hebrews 12:1). This coming Sunday, we will be concluding our study of this chapter in our sixth and final sermon from Hebrews 11. As such, and in preparation for the sermon this coming Sunday, I thought it a good idea to briefly review the lessons that we have learned concerning what it means to live by faith from Hebrews 11.

 

(1) By Faith: Approved by God (Hebrews 11:1-3, 39-40)

1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  2 For by it the men of old gained approval.  3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.
39 And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised,  40 because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:1-3, 39-40)

 

In our first sermon, we looked at the opening and closing verses of this chapter where we learned the truth that by faith – by faith alone, in Christ alone – we stand approved by God. Faith in Christ is the only way to gain God’s approval.

 

(2) By Faith: Pleasing to God (Hebrews 11:4-7)

4 By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.  5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; AND HE WAS NOT FOUND BECAUSE GOD TOOK HIM UP; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God.  6 And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.  7 By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. (Hebrews 11:4-7)

 

In the examples of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, we learned that by faith, we are found to be pleasing to God. Not only are believers approved by God, but we are also pleasing to Him. And, in fact, we are able to please Him in our lives.

 

(3) By Faith: Sanctified by God (Hebrews 11:8-19)

8 By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.  9 By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise;  10 for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  11 By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.  12 Therefore there was born even of one man, and him as good as dead at that, as many descendants AS THE STARS OF HEAVEN IN NUMBER, AND INNUMERABLE AS THE SAND WHICH IS BY THE SEASHORE.  13 All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  14 For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own.  15 And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return.  16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.  17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son18 it was he to whom it was said, "IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED."  19 He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type. (Hebrews 11:8-19)

 

Through the example of Abraham, we learned that God not only approves – or justifies us – by faith, but He also sanctifies us by faith. By faith in Him, He continues to conform us more and more to be like Jesus.

 

(4) By Faith: Passing on Covenant Blessings (Hebrews 11:20-22)

20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come.  21 By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff.  22 By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones. (Hebrews 11:20-22)

 

Then, in the examples of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, we learned the importance of passing on the covenant blessings of the Christian faith to our children – to the next generation. In their final words, these examples of faith declared God’s promises to their children: the Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations begins in the home (Matthew 28:18-20).

 

(5) By Faith: With the People of God (Hebrews 11:23-31)

23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king's edict.  24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter,  25 choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin,  26 considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward.  27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen.  28 By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that he who destroyed the firstborn would not touch them.  29 By faith they passed through the Red Sea as though they were passing through dry land; and the Egyptians, when they attempted it, were drowned.  30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.  31 By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace. (Hebrews 11:23-31)

 

Tracing through the history of Israel from the time of the exodus to the entrance into the promised land, the writer of Hebrews highlights the faith of God’s people and that of Moses and Rahab, specifically. Here, in these examples, we learn that the call to faith in Christ necessarily includes a call to identify and associate with God’s people, the church.

 

(6) By Faith: Content in All Circumstances (Hebrews 11:32-38)

32 And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets,  33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,  34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  35 Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection;  36 and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment.  37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated  38 (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:32-38)

 

In these verses, the writer of Hebrews moves rather quickly from the time of the judges up to the time of the dawning of the new covenant and the first coming of Christ. Here we find two groups of people who by faith, underwent very different experiences in this life. These are examples of faith conquered and also those who were persecuted. Both, however, knew the secret of contentment: that their sufficiency was came not from within, but from without – from the Lord who gives strength (Philippians 4:11-13).

In some ways, this last lesson is the most difficult faith lesson to learn, especially in times of poverty, sickness, affliction, and persecution. Yet, it is a promise that God gives to all His people: in all things, we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us for nothing is able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Romans 8:37-39)

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

2017 General Assembly Recap

Dear Church Family,

It is good to be home! Thank you all for praying for me and my family as we traveled to our denominational General Assembly and then our follow-on vacation. We had a wonderful time visiting my wife’s parents in North Carolina and my parents in New Jersey; our children got to spend some good quality time with their grandparents. And, we were able to visit some other parts of the northeast, as well as some colleges along the way (we have two rising high school seniors in our household).

A special thanks to the elders of the church (Greg Berkhouse, Paul Wheeler, and Reed Gilmore), along with RUF campus minister at Texas Tech, Rev. Dagan Mayfield, for preaching and filling the pulpit while I was gone. You may not know this, but it is a rare privilege to have all the elders of our church willing and able to do so. While we were gone, the Williams family made the decision and then moved to Wisconsin. As Martina Williams was our bookkeeper, Deacons Jim Gilmore and Clete Seyle have been hard at work in facilitating her transition, as well as providing needed ministries of mercy for several of our congregation who have had acute needs in the past several weeks.

As I mentioned on Sunday, our family enjoyed some wonderful times of worship at different churches during our travels. It was a good reminder of the unique bonds of fellowship that all believers in Christ have with one another. At the same time, it was a good reminder of the wonderful blessings of being part of a local church – the blessings and responsibilities that such fellowship affords. And, as I said, it is good to be home!

2017 General Assembly of the PCA

In the middle of June (June 12-16), I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the meeting of the highest court of our denomination. Before attending, I had written a little bit about what happens at the General Assembly, and specifically about the report of “The Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church.” You may read what I wrote about that online here.

I recognize that for many people in the local church, the goings-on of the higher courts of our church (presbytery and general assembly) may not be of great interest – especially when you have to sort through parliamentary procedural issues and Roberts Rules of Order. And, in fact, unless a change is dictated from one of these higher courts to our local church, many of the debates and decisions do not usually have an immediate effect on the worship and work of our local church.

Still, it is important to maintain that fellowship, connection, and mutual accountability with our presbytery and general assembly. For one thing, we want to be involved in the worship and work of the broader church as well, and not isolate ourselves from the greater body of believers and universal church. Additionally, it is important to be aware of the discussions, trends, ministry, work, and decisions of our presbytery and denomination – to be involved with these ministries and works of the larger church, and to add our voices to the discussions and decisions.

At this time, I won’t give a lot of my own personal take and commentary on what took place at this most recent meeting of our General Assembly; however, I do want to provide you with some resources where you may find summaries of what took place, as well as some pertinent issues to be aware of that are being discussed at the denominational level of the PCA.

(1) General Assembly Summary Reports: every year, the Stated Clerk of our denomination (Rev. L. Roy Taylor) provides a summary of actions of the General Assembly; you may find this year’s summary online here. Another (unofficial) summary by Pastor David Coffin – which might be a bit more readable, but have less statistical information – is available online here. Another unofficial summary (with much more critical commentary from a confessional perspective) by Pastor Andrew Webb is available online here.

(2) Presbytery Boundaries: one of the overtures that passed at the General Assembly (one which directly affects our local church and presbytery) was the formation of a new presbytery: The Hills and Plains Presbytery which is comprised of all of the PCA churches in Oklahoma, as well as some from Missouri and Arkansas. The formation of this presbytery was not the result of a split, but of multiplication and growth. There is a helpful map of the boundaries of the PCA presbyteries that you may find online here.

(3) Encouraging Trends: if you read the summary reports above, you will find that we have much to be grateful for as a denomination. For instance, in a day when many churches and denominations are getting smaller, the Presbyterian Church in America has continued (little by little) to grow in numbers of churches and membership. Also, there were two decisions that I, personally, found encouraging: (1) an overture that limits the power of committees and requires overtures to come before the General Assembly from the lower courts (churches and presbyteries) was approved; (2) one of our presbyteries was admonished for using an image of Christ in their worship service, as per the teaching of our confession of the use of such images (though it was hotly debated, the vote to admonish finally passed, but only by a small majority).

(4) Concerning Trends: For my part, there are four issues that are concerning trends in our denomination today, and they generally fall under the heading of “the danger of mission creep in the church.” These four issues are: (1) a prioritization of social justice issues and racial reconciliation that may potentially lead to a displacement of the centrality of the gospel; (2) a moving toward women’s ordination and leadership in worship (see my previous post here); (3) the increasing disregard for the regulative principle of worship and historic Presbyterian practice (see Terry Johnson’s initial and follow up articles); (4) a desire to maintain relevance to an ever-changing culture with respect to the sin of homosexuality (to be clear, I don’t know of anyone in our denomination who argues that homosexual behavior is not sin; however, there are those who advocate the notion that while homosexual behavior is sinful, homosexual desire is not – see this explanation); Dr. Rosario Butterfield has recently noted, “the PCA is smitten in a stupid way…to the gay Christian movement.”

Conclusion

I’ve provided a lot of information here; I don’t expect anyone to read through all of the referenced material in one sitting. And, my intent is not to be a “chicken little” with respect to some of the concerning trends in our denomination. On the whole, the PCA continues to be “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.” We should praise God for all that He has done and continues to do through our denomination.

At the same time, I believe that it is important – and part of my pastoral duty, really – to try and keep our congregation apprised of some of both the encouraging and concerning trends in the larger church context, particularly in our own denomination. And, I can assure you that the elders of our local congregation have, and will continue to discuss these matters. Please continue to pray for our church, our local session of elders, the North Texas Presbytery of which we are a part, and the PCA as a whole.

Let me conclude with how I began: it is good to be home!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

2017 General Assembly and Women in Ministry

Dear Church Family,

2017 General Assembly of the PCA

Next week, June 12-16, is the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the meeting of the highest court of our denomination. In organizing and conducting the business of the church at large, one of the many functions of the General Assembly is to deliberate and vote on certain items of business. These items of business can come before the General Assembly in many ways, but one of the main ways is through overtures from individuals, churches, and presbyteries within the denomination. This year, there are twenty-five overtures, which are available online here.

Several of the overtures have to do with dividing (and multiplying) presbyteries, including one from our own North Texas Presbytery. This overture calls for the formation of a new presbytery that will include all of the churches in Oklahoma, as well as some from Arkansas and Missouri. Several other overtures seek to amend our Book of Church Order or governing rules of our assembly, while still others seek to deal with pressing issues in the church (e.g., encouraging the financing of Bible translations, solidifying our denomination’s beliefs on marriage, etc.).

Women in Ministry

One of the most important issues (in my opinion) that will be debated at this year’s General Assembly will be the report of “The Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church.” In addition to this report, by my count there are at least five overtures coming from various presbyteries that speak against the very formation of this committee and its findings.

To help navigate this impending debate, I thought I would share a little background and overview. Last year, at the 2016 General Assembly, this study committee was approved; you can read how this came about and what they were instructed to do here. The mere formation of this committee was debated, and opposed by some – several of the reasons for that opposition are listed here.

Be that as it may, the committee was formed and have now submitted their report which will be taken up at the 2017 General Assembly. The full report of “The Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church” is 63 pages long and is available online here. The last six pages contain the “Pastoral Letter and Recommendations” of the committee. There is much in this report to commend: it emphasizes and reminds us that God has given gifts to men and women for service in the church – it is good to affirm the important role of women serving in various capacities in the life of the church.

For my part, however, I will be voting against this report for a couple of simple reasons:

(1) Origin: this committee didn’t come from a request by a church or a presbytery concerning a need in our churches, but came from the Cooperative Ministries Committee (CMC), which is made up of the chairmen of the ten standing Assembly committees as well as the six most recent moderators of the General Assembly. It’s a top-down driven agenda.

(2) Lack of necessity: the biblical teaching that church offices (elder and deacon) are restricted to qualified men is a well-studied, well-established, well-formulated doctrine of our denomination. Also, there are many places and roles in which women may serve in the church, and they do so joyfully. The formation of this study committee is a proposed solution to a nonexistent problem.

(3) Worship Issues: Recommendation #5 of the study report calls for sessions to “consider how to include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church” through leading congregational singing, stirring up one another to love and good deeds, giving individual testimonies and praises, leading in prayer, reading Scripture, and making doxological announcements. While several of these may not be problematic, as I’ve written before, understanding the dialogical aspect of worship helps us to see that the various elements of the corporate worship service ought to be ordinarily led by men who have been ordained for that task.

(4) Subversive (unofficial) Changes to Church Government: Recommendations #6 and #7 of the study report call for the creation of a non-ordained “category” of “unordained deaconesses” and “commissioned church workers” through training and commissioning, accompanied by public prayer. The report states that this “category would carry no authority, merely recognition. No BCO changes would be necessary. The category could apply to deaconesses, women staff members who have theological degrees, or others as determined by the General Assembly.” This, for me, is the most concerning aspect of this report: if this report is approved, the General Assembly will unofficially change the polity of our denomination by adding a “category” which will, in essence, be an additional office to that of elder and deacon.

Conclusion

I know of many men and women in our church who joyfully serve without an official categorical designation or office. My wife is one of the most wise and spiritually mature people that I know. She has a Master’s degree in theological studies from Reformed Theological Seminary; she has served (and continues to serve) the church in many official and unofficial ways (hospitality, teaching, discipling/mentoring, counseling, organization, leadership, encouraging, etc). In her own words, “I don’t need a participation award in order to serve my God and His people.”

I want to affirm all that every member of the church does in service to Christ (men and women, alike). God has gifted people in our church to teach Sunday school, lead Bible studies, pray for the needs of others, help in the diaconal work, show hospitality, encourage one another, evangelize and invite others to church, commiserate and give wise counsel, use their musical talents for the betterment of our corporate worship, be examples to the young people in our congregation, and the list goes on and on.

It has always been the practice of our churches to include the gifts of women in the ministry of the church, yet not through ordained office. In my opinion, the report of “The Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church” is simply an attempt to seem relevant to our ever-changing culture and is not a help for our churches. Along these lines, after last year’s General Assembly, in an article called, “A Troubling Turn: PCA General Assembly 2016,” Terry Johnson highlighted this, along with several other, worrisome issues that are arising in our denomination. I encourage you to read it.

As our General Assembly meets next week, please pray for all of the commissioners that will be attending, and that the Lord would work His will in and through all of the deliberations 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Endurance in the Midst of Intolerance

Dear Church Family,

In the sermon this past Sunday (Hebrews 10:32-39 – “The Need of Endurance”) we talked about the kind of persecution that the first recipients of the epistle to the Hebrews endured as being both religious and from the civil government. And, we noted that though our present circumstances are very different, we are seeing an increasing amount of intolerance toward Christians and Christian churches today.

As we talked about these things, I quoted from an article by L. John Van Til entitled, “Will Christians Survive in Today’s Secular World? A Review of The Benedict Option.” I encourage you to read this review as it might pique your interest in the book The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. This book has been the subject of much commentary and many discussions since its release in March of this year. I haven’t read it yet, myself, but I plan to in the very near future.

This coming Sunday, we will come to the first of five planned sermons in the 11th chapter of the book of Hebrews. Often described as “the hall of faith” or the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), Hebrews 11 gives us many examples of believers, who are of the same faith as ours, and how they lived “by faith” in times of both triumph and suffering. I pray that out study of these witnesses will be an encouragement to us all. See you on Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch