Cast Away

Dear Church Family,

In the movie Cast Away (2000), Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) becomes stranded on an island, and then must struggle to survive. At a certain point, he realizes that the only thing that he has control over is the way in which he might kill himself. So, he fashions his own rope out of tree bark, ties the rope to a branch, which is stretched out over a cliff and then tests his contraption of self-destruction with a dead weight. His contraption fails, and recounting the event to a friend, he comments, “I realized that I didn’t even have control of killing myself in the way that I wanted to, and that’s when a warm feeling came over me.” He was learning to trust and hope, not in himself, but in something outside of himself. God is not mentioned in the movie. The world calls this fate, but in literary terms, we might call this the ‘Divine Passive’ - where God is behind the scenes directing events for His purposes.

Finally, after four years on this island, in an act of ‘fate,’ a section of a port-a-potty washes up on shore of Chuck Noland’s island. This gives Chuck an idea for a sail, which he can use to take a raft out past the breakers and head into the open sea, and perhaps be rescued. The cast away makes it off the island. But then a storm ravishes his raft. He loses his sail and the only friend and companion that he has had for the last four years, a volleyball named Wilson. In a dramatic scene depicting the lengths to which we will go in order to cling to our self-made idols, the cast away almost drowns trying to save his volleyball. He is forced to choose between the raft and the volleyball, and reluctantly he swims back to the raft, climbs aboard, and lies down, broken and weeping for the loss of his last vestige of self. Chuck Noland has finally been broken, and he gives up all attempts of survival as he calmly throws his oars overboard, lies back, and lets the ocean tides take him where they may. Then, and only then, do we see ‘fate’, the Divine Passive, enter into the story in a miraculous way as Chuck is rescued by a passing cargo ship.

The point of the movie shouldn’t be lost on those who maintain a Christian worldview. In fact the ways in which ‘fate’ deals with Chuck Noland directly parallels the way in which the Bible says that God brings people to brokenness and repentance, the way in which He brings people into His kingdom. God disciplines us for our good, so that we may share in His holiness. It may seem like pain and sorrow at the time, but we should remember that if we are in Christ, God uses our painful experiences to yield peaceful fruit and righteousness (Hebrews 12:10-13).

Like Chuck Noland in Cast Away, God uses various means to bring us to a point of complete surrender and shows us how if we seek to save ourselves, we will fail. Then God takes the broken individual and rescues and restores him. Once He has brought us to a place where we have thrown out the oars and given up, God reaches into our lives and redeems us. The apostle Paul summarizes this nicely when he writes,

“But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11)

Are you going through a trying time where it seems like you can find no escape? Do you know someone who is hurting and feeling broken because nothing they do seems to be working toward a solution? Are you like the cast away who, though he tried with everything he had, lost control of everything in his life? Perhaps, God is wrestling with you. Perhaps, He is trying to humble or discipline you. Perhaps, He is trying to tell you that all your attempts to rescue yourself, all your tries to heal yourself and your relationships - apart from Christ, they are rubbish. Once you come to this understanding, turn to Christ and His righteousness. We must become like Christ in His death and share in His sufferings in order to know Him and the power of His resurrection. Only in Him can you attain to the resurrection from the dead and be rescued from your storm-tossed raft.

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

Walking Straight According to the Gospel

Dear Church Family,

In contemporary Reformed circles, there is some debate surrounding the language of “living the gospel,” or “being the gospel.” These are phrases that some use to describe how a Christian’s life ought to bear witness to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

On one side of the debate, there are those who say that these phrases are not found anywhere in the Scriptures, and that the gospel is “good news.” It is the good news that God, by His mercy and grace, forgives sinners. The good news of the gospel is not a life lived, but a message that is proclaimed. With much of this, I would agree.

On the other side of the debate, there are those who say that these phrases, and practices to which they point, are important reminders that a Christian ought to seek to live their lives as a testimony of God’s grace. The way one lives – seeking to live a life that becomes a follower of Christ – provides evidence for the reality of the good news. With much of this, also, I would agree.

Assessing the Debate

I believe that biblically speaking, both sides have merit. On the one hand, we need to be very careful in the language that we use to speak about our theology and practice. When we adopt extra-biblical words and phrases, they can become uprooted from the Scriptures and take on a life of their own. Thus, phrases like “living the gospel,” or “being the gospel” can lead to some erroneous ways of thinking if we’re not careful.

For instance, I’ve heard the following quote used from time to time (often, erroneously I think, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi), “Go into all the world and preach the gospel, using words if necessary.” That may sound helpful and nice, but it leads to more confusion and the blurring of categories. When I first heard this line, I thought that it was actually pretty cool and witty; however, cool and witty do not true theology make. The implication of this quote is that one “preaches the gospel” by the way one lives his life; words are secondary and only to be used, if necessary.

On the other hand, the Bible does exhort Christians to live differently, to live lives that are seeking to be commensurate with their professions of faith. Therefore, though we need to be careful with the words and phrases that we use to speak about how we do this, we do need to think about how our behavior and practices (our lives) give credence to our creed (the gospel).

Thinking and Speaking Biblically

Well, I’m not going to try to referee the debate by trying to find some middle ground. Instead, it’s helpful to look to the Scriptures themselves. The Bible provides us with words and categories that we may employ to better help us understand the relationship between the gospel (the good news that we believe and speak with words) and our lives (our behaviors and practices).

There are actually various ways in which the Bible speaks about the importance of our actions as Christians. In our present preaching series in Galatians, there’s a very important one. I’ll return to that in a moment (it’s actually the reason that I’m thinking about these things this week), but let me just mention some others first.

The Apostle Paul encourages Titus to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Then, he tells Titus the specific ways in which he ought to instruct various groups of people in the church concerning those things that are fitting for sound doctrine. In the church, older men, older women, young men, Titus (pastors), and bondslaves are all exhorted to live in ways that are fitting for sound doctrine (Titus 2:2-10). Here are the reasons: to encourage other believers (v 4), to not dishonor the word of God (v 5), to be an example (v 7), to put opponents of the faith to shame, having nothing bad to say about us (v 8), and to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect (v 10).

The Apostle Peter exhorts us to keep our behavior excellent among the Gentiles so that even as they attempt to slander Christians as evildoers, those unbelievers would – because of the Christian’s good deeds – see them and glorify God (1 Peter 2:12). Peter even goes on to say that Christian wives ought to be submissive to their husbands who may be disobedient to the word, so that their husbands may be won without a word, but by the behavior of their wives (1 Peter 3:1). This may sound like “preaching the gospel without words,” but in the context, the husbands have already heard the word (they’re actually disobedient to it), but their wives chaste and respectful behavior will be a testimony and source of conviction to them.

Thinking and Speaking Confessionally

There are certainly other Scriptures to which we could turn, but our Confession of Faith actually summarizes these things nicely:

These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto; that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end eternal life. (WCF 16:2)

Walking Straight

One final category and the reason for which I mention all of this. In the passage of Scripture for the sermon this coming Sunday (Galatians 2:11-14), the Apostle Paul confronts and admonishes the Apostle Peter because Peter succumbed to the pressure of those around him and withdrew from fellowship with Gentile Christians. Paul says that Peter was “not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). Literally, Peter was not “walking straight.”

Peter’s actions said something about the gospel. Indeed, our actions say something about the gospel. Our actions don’t preach the gospel; for that, words are necessary. However, though Peter actually did preach and believe the gospel, his behavior in the church in Antioch did not correspond with the truth of the gospel.

There are many lessons to be learned from Paul’s confrontation with Peter, but this is one of them: what we do, how we behave, and how we treat others will either be in keeping with the truth of the gospel or not in keeping with the truth of the gospel. We don’t “live the gospel” or “be the gospel,” but we can “walk straight” according to the truth of gospel.

Even with all of his privileges, it took the Apostle Peter time to learn this lesson. If the Apostle Peter could fail in this regard, no doubt we will fail, as well. Our growth in this area comes in fits and starts. May God grant us the wisdom to learn these lessons to walk straight according to the gospel. Praise God that the truth of the gospel is not dependent upon the way we walk; the way we walk is dependent upon the truth of the gospel.

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

Confessionalism in China

Dear Church Family,

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a luncheon at the headquarters of ChinaAid here in Midland. The luncheon was, in part, a celebration of the 11th anniversary of this organization that is “committed to promoting religious freedom and the rule of law in China.” Clay Finley, an attorney and the CEO of ChinaAid who attends our church, had extended to me the invitation. It was a great opportunity to learn more about what this organization does. It was also a wonderful time of testimonies as three Christians from China told of how they came to embrace Christ as Savior. They also told of how they are currently working for human rights amidst a government and a culture that suppresses religious freedoms and the basic human freedoms that we often take for granted in this country.

During the lunch, I sat with a man who is an attorney in China. His Americanized name is “John.” Out of a concern for reprisals, it is unwise to share specific details, but I did want to relate one thing from our conversation that was both encouraging and fascinating to me. I learned that in addition to being an attorney, John is the pastor of a house church of about thirty people. When he asked what I did, I replied, “I’m the pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church here in Midland.”

This sparked great interest in John. He became very keen on learning how to pronounce “Presbyterian” properly. Then he surprised me when he said, “Yes, I know of this Presbyterian. My church – we are seeking to be Presbyterian and, how do you say – Reformed.” We continued to talk. Then, after the meal, he stood up and spoke to the guests gathered there about his work as an attorney in defending human rights in China. And, he spoke of how he was converted through hearing the gospel on the radio and then reading the Bible.

After the program, I told Clay of my conversation with John. Clay immediately went back to a storage area somewhere in the building and emerged with a couple copies of the Westminster Confession of Faith in the Chinese language. Upon seeing them, John said, “Oh yes. I know this. We use this in my church, along with the – how do you say, Heidel…Heidel…” I said, “Heidelberg Catechism?” He said, “Yes, that one!”

At that point, John began to talk about how important it was to have a confession of faith, and how much he appreciated the Westminster Confession of Faith. He spoke of the danger of everyone having their own personal interpretation of the Bible based on their experiences or making things up in their own minds. I was flummoxed – in a good way. Would that more Christians in American could hear this man’s testimony!

These interactions with John resonated with me on many levels. As most of you probably already know, I am a strong advocate for creeds and confessions. They not only under-gird and unite our common faith, but they are very practical and helpful in understanding the Scriptures and living the Christian life (for example, see this post about the Westminster Confession of Faith’s usefulness in gaining an assurance of salvation).

Presently, I am reading a book by Carl Trueman called The Creedal Imperative. The premise of the book is that creeds and confessions are necessary, useful and helpful in the church, and indeed a biblical imperative. In the last chapter of the book, “On the Usefulness of Creeds and Confession,” he makes these points with regard to the importance of having, and adhering to, an agreed upon confession of faith:

(1) All Churches and All Christians have Creeds and Confessions

(2) Confessions Delimit the Power of the Church

(3) Creeds and Confessions Offer Succinct and Thorough Summaries of the Faith

(3) Creeds and Confessions Allow for Appropriate Discrimination between Members and Office-Bearers

(4) Creeds and Confessions Reflect the Ministerial Authority of the Church

(5) Creeds and Confessions Represent the Maximum Doctrinal Competence That Can Be Expected from a Congregation

(6) Creeds and Confessions Relativize the Present

(7) Creeds and Confessions Help to Define One Church in Relation to Another

(8) Creeds and Confessions are Necessary for Maintaining Corporate Unity

I don’t think that I can add much to these salient points. For explanations of these points, I recommend the book. In the meantime, Carl Trueman has recently written a couple of online articles about the importance of confessionalism under the title “I Confess.” You can read parts one and two at reformation21.org, here and here (the third part is forthcoming).

As we reflect on our common confessional faith, please pray for John and our many brothers and sisters in Christ in China. I recently read that more people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe and that today there are more evangelical Christians in China than in any other nation. That is astounding. God’s grace and kingdom is bigger than we can imagine. May the Lord protect and grow His church as He has promised (Matthew 16:18), here in Midland and around the world.

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

Sweater Theology

Dear Church Family,

“Truth is truth, no matter where you find it,” or so they say. I want to test that theory by examining the words of a song by the alternative rock band, Weezer. That’s right, I said Weezer. The song is called “Undone – the Sweater Song” and here’s the chorus:

If you want to destroy my sweater
Pull this thread as I walk away (as I walk away)
Watch me unravel I'll soon be naked
Lying on the floor, lying on the floor
I've come undone

I know, it may seem odd, but hear me out. Without trying to examine the original meaning, the various themes of the song, or what have you, I simply want to make this observation: theology and doctrine (what the Bible teaches) is like a sweater. Remove one doctrine (pull one thread) and your theology will come undone (you’ll soon be naked). OK, the illustration eventually breaks down. Altering one doctrine may not undo all others, but you certainly will change the sweater.

Here’s why I’ve been thinking about this. Last Sunday, in our adult Sunday school class, we learned about the various forms of church government. We discussed the three major forms: episcopal, congregational, and presbyterian. This coming Sunday in our adult Sunday school class, we will be examining (very briefly) the doctrine of election and predestination. Then, on the next Sunday, we will examine (once again, very briefly) the doctrine of baptism – particularly, infant baptism.

I’m not sure that we always recognize this, but these doctrines (along with many others) are all interconnected. They make up the beautiful tapestry (or sweater, if you will) of the system of doctrine which is taught in the Scriptures. Pull one thread of doctrine and it affects all of the others. Or, to look at it from a more positive angle: the various doctrines of the Christian faith which we learn from the Bible are intertwined and mutually support one another. This should come as no surprise to us when we realize that it the Holy Spirit, Himself, speaking in the Scriptures (WCF 1:10).

In his book The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel, Stuart Robinson makes this very clear. Robinson was a pastor and theologian who taught at the Presbyterian Seminary in Danville, KY from 1856-1858. In this book, he defends the claim of the title by showing how the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ is rooted in the eternal decrees of God and His plan to redeem for Himself a people: “…the Church is an indispensable means of accomplishing the great purpose of his love to his chosen people, as an institute for the calling, training, and edifying of the elect” (p 37). [John Muether has a helpful review of Robinson’s book here: http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=247.]

Just two quotes from the first chapter help us to see what is the major thrust of Robinson’s book. First, Robinson speaks to the idea that the doctrine of predestination provides the essential underpinnings of all theology: “…the doctrine of the Decree and Predestination of God is not so much a doctrine of Calvinism – one distinct truth in a system of truth – as a mode of conceiving and setting forth all the doctrines which make up revealed theology” (p 34). With this many Christians may disagree; however, it is his next claim with which even many self-described Calvinists may disagree.

Not only does Robinson stress the foundational nature of the doctrine of election for all of theology, he goes further. He posits that our understanding of the church (ecclesiology) is essential for maintaining orthodoxy in all of theology: “…a Calvinistic theology cannot long retain its integrity and purity save in connection with a Calvinistic ecclesiology…” (p 35).

If some of these theological terms are new to you, here’s the bottom line: what we believe about how and why God saves people, the nature of the church, the truth of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, the keeping of God’s Law – indeed all of theology – are all interrelated. Theology matters. And good theology is either helped or hindered by the way in which it is taught and embraced in the church.

Good theology is the sweater that we wear in our pilgrimage to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever (WSC 1)! I’ll see you in Sunday school as we examine more of the threads of the sweater.

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