Pastoral Reflection

Dear Church Family,

In the sermon this coming Sunday, we will be looking at Galatians 4:12-20 where the Apostle Paul examines and questions the relationship between himself and the believers in Galatia. In this section, we see Paul’s pastoral heart, and his desire for a peaceful and fruitful relationship to continue between himself and those in the churches that he has planted. The ultimate goal of his labors is that Christ would be formed in them – that they would be conformed not to his image, but to the image of Christ, Himself (v 19).

As I’ve been reflecting on this passage, I’ve naturally been driven to reflect on my relationship, as the pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PPC), with you all. Beginning to minister as the pastor at the beginning of October 2012, I have been in this role at PPC for almost seven months now. As part of this reflection, I have also gone back and reread the letter that I sent to you all back in August 2012, which I wrote in response to receiving the call to come and be your pastor.

Upon rereading that letter, I discovered that the good things that I initially learned and experienced in coming to visit PPC last summer are still true. In fact, the reality of the grace of God at work among the members and families of PPC has only become more apparent over the course of the last several months. Sometimes friends and family, or other ministers in our presbytery will ask, “So, how’s it going in Midland?” To which I respond by telling them of how gracious, generous, kind, and welcoming are the people in the church. How the church was growing even as I arrived, with people waiting to join. I boast in the elders of PPC, and how all the people of the congregation delight in hearing God’s Word read, preached, and taught.

Rereading that letter from last summer was also good reminder to me of the promises which I made to you all at that time, which I reiterate to you today. And, where I have come up short, I thank you for your grace, patience, and understanding. Thank you for making my first six months here an easy transition and a continuing growth in joy in the ministry for myself and my family. What I said last August, is still true today: it was a ‘no-brainer’ for us to make the decision to come to PPC here in Midland, and I thank God for His “Providence” (this church called Providence, and His providence in bringing us here). Now, without further ado, for this week’s ‘Pastoral Reflection,’ below is that letter in its entirety.

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

[----------Beginning of Quote----------]

August 13, 2012

To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Providence Presbyterian Church in Midland, Texas. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thank you for your trust and confidence in calling me to be the pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PPC). In the process of seeking a call to the pastorate, I have had a hope and idea – perhaps even an ideal – of the kind of church that would be a perfect fit. That hope began to be realized when I first read the informational document prepared by the pulpit committee. PPC was described in these four ways: Confessionally Reformed, Deep Personal Congregational Devotion, Culturally Diverse, and Warmly Hospitable. As I interacted with the pulpit committee, I began to learn more about the congregation, and the priorities of the church. And, upon visiting and interacting with you all (if only for a short time), that hope of the ideal fit began to take on flesh.

In that informational document prepared by the pulpit committee, one of the phrases used to describe Midland was that the city “enjoys a delightful climate.” Whether or not that is true remains to be seen, I suppose; however, Stacie and I have found this to be spiritually true of the church: the people of Providence Presbyterian Church enjoy a delightful climate, basking in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. I look forward to getting to know everyone better in the congregation and the privilege of leading the church in worship and the ministry of the Word.

For my part, I promise to guard both myself and my teaching, to persevere in the public reading of Scripture, exhortation, and teaching, and in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, to show myself to be an example of those who believe (1 Timothy 4:11-16). I will endeavor to labor among you in gentleness, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children; I will endeavor to labor among you devoutly, uprightly, and blamelessly, exhorting, encouraging, and imploring just as a father would his own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12). As I seek to be an under-shepherd of the Good Shepherd, I commit to praying for each one of you and your families. Please pray for me and my family.

In general, I believe the biblical mission of each and every particular church may be summarized in this way: “To proclaim and extol the name of Jesus Christ, our King and Savior, as we nurture and grow faithful disciples and ambassadors of the kingdom of God, in order to expand His rule and reign through the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” This mission is accomplished in the three priorities of the corporate life of the church: worship, discipleship, and evangelism. I am grateful and praise God for the faithfulness of PPC in this regard, and look forward to joining with you.

Now to some specifics. We are in the process of purchasing a home in Midland, and anticipate moving sometime near the end of September. The details of our move are still being worked out, but we are trying to make the move as soon as possible. In coordination with the elders of the session and the North Texas Presbytery (NTP), I also anticipate that a commission of the NTP will hold an installation service at PPC sometime in October.

Before closing this letter, I want to express my gratitude to the entire congregation for making this process so simple and easy. I don’t mean that only with respect to the many practical aspects of the search and call process, but also with respect to the decision-making process. You all have made accepting the call to come as the pastor of PPC an easy decision to make. It has been, as they say, a ‘no-brainer’ for me and my family! We are particularly grateful for the hospitality of the two families (Greg & Rachel Berkhouse and Jerry & Cindy Walton) who hosted Stacie and me on our two visits to Midland for our candidating and house-hunting visits.

Finally, I am grateful for the elders of the church: Greg Eddings, Reed Gilmore, and Greg Berhouse. Providence Presbyterian Church is blessed to have men of such caliber to shepherd and guard the flock. I have been impressed by their love for the church, theological acumen, moderation, and wisdom. Stacie and I were able to worship and partake of the Lord’s Supper with these three men on Friday night at the NTP worship service, and then spend some time with them at the presbytery meeting on Saturday. It was a thrill for me to share these experiences with these brothers, and I look forward to co-laboring with them in the ministry of the gospel at PPC.

In Christ,
- Peter M. Dietsch

[----------End of Quote----------]

The Deceiving Heart

Dear Church Family,

This month we are praying for PCA missionaries Kris and Paula Lundgaard who are serving in Slovakia. I’ve mentioned before that I believe that Kris Lundgaard’s book The Enemy Within is one of the best studies and helps in battling sin in our lives toward sanctification. In that book, Kris describes how according to the Bible, the ‘heart’ is described as including much more than feelings. The heart comprises the mind (thoughts, plans, judgments), the will (choices and actions), affections (desires, feelings, revulsions), and the conscience (sense of right and wrong).

He also gives a helpful insight into our understanding (or rather, lack of understanding) of the heart: “We modestly admit we don’t know someone else’s heart, but the truth is we can’t even know our own. Do you always know why you choose chocolate over vanilla? Why one day your passions sizzle and another you’re a dead leaf in the wind? Can you number all the events and images that impress your heart and make it lean this way or that? Haven’t you been surprised by the insincerity and even intrigue you’ve found in your heart?” (pp 36-37)

The Pluck of Pluckers

This insight into the mystery of the inner-workings of the heart is evident in Scripture: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). I am reminded of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet where, in Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet’s two friends are trying to ‘help’ him. They really don’t know what’s going on and why Hamlet is so upset (Hamlet has learned that his uncle has murdered his father and married his mother!), but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think that they can provide good counsel nonetheless. In this way, these two men are not much unlike Job’s friends.

As Hamlet is trying to fend off their unwanted advice and counsel, finally Hamlet is exasperated. He picks up a recorder (a flute) and asks Guildenstern, “Will you play upon this pipe?” Guildenstern responds, “I have not the skill.” So, Hamlet lays into him,

“Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me. You would seem to know my stops. You would pluck out the heart of my mystery. You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.”

Hamlet derides Guildenstern for thinking that he can understand another person’s heart. In other words, “You don’t have the skill to play this simple flute, but you actually think that you can understand and play my heart?!” And the truth of the matter is that Hamlet doesn’t even understand the courses and tributaries of his own heart!

This is a truth which all people – especially Christians – need to understand. Jeremiah says that the heart of man is not only desperately sick, but is more deceitful than all else. Our hearts deceive even us. Christians, even after they have been redeemed and given a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), continue to be deceived by their own hearts.

Semi-transcendence

To better deal with our hearts that often deceive us, it is helpful for believers to learn the discipline of some refer to as semi-transcendence. Semi-transcendence is the ability to be both inside or ourselves and to step outside of ourselves at the same time. If that sounds confusing, consider the words of the Apostle Paul as he speaks to this idea: “But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).

Paul says that it is a small thing to be examined or judged by other human beings. What’s more, Paul confesses that he can’t even examine or judge myself. Just because Paul finds himself innocent that doesn’t mean that he is. No, the one who examines or judges Paul is the Lord. That’s semi-transcendence. The discipline of learning to be self-aware enough to know that you cannot always trust your own heart; at the same time, learning to step outside of yourself to be able to view yourself (and your heart) with the objectivity of God’s examinations and judgments.

Conclusion

So, where do you learn about what God says about you? Where do you learn God’s examination and judgment of your heart? You learn God’s judgment and examinations in the Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12).

There is much more that could be said, but let this be an encouragement to you in your Bible reading and study. The Word of God tells us that it is able to judge the thought and intentions of the heart. The Word of God also self-attests to its usefulness in training the heart: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Even more foundational, however, the Word of God is that place where we find the declaration of God’s promises to those who trust in Christ. Our own hearts may alternately acquit and condemn us, but when we read the truths of God’s Word in what He says about us we will find true assurance. If you belong to Christ, God has called you (Romans 8:30), regenerated you (Ephesians 2:4-5), given you the gift of faith and justified you (Ephesians 2:8-9), adopted you as a son (Galatians 4:4-5), sealed and sanctified you through the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20), and will perfect His work of redemption in you on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

Though your hearts may deceive you and even condemn you, God promises to give you assurance by His Word and His Spirit. And, God is able to do this because He is “greater than our heart and knows all things” (1 John 3:19-20).

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

The Three Uses of the Law

Dear Church Family,

In your Christian life, do you ever feel divided in yourself – particularly in your relationship to the Law of God? That is, do you sometimes feel the overwhelming condemnation of the Law as you examine your life, recognizing the sinfulness of your heart, and need of a Savior? Then, at other times, do you delight and rejoice in God’s Law, seeking to live for Christ in new obedience? Or, quite often, these two impulses – a recognition of your sin and a desire to pursue holiness – are intermingled, occurring simultaneously.

If that is the case, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re like every other believer that has ever lived. This is one of the reasons that the Psalms are so varied. Sometimes in the Psalms, we are driven by the Law to confess our sin and sinfulness (e.g. Psalm 51:3 – “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me”). And, sometimes in the Psalms, we are exhorted to pursue holiness in keeping with God’s Law (e.g. Psalm 119:55 – “O LORD, I remember Your name in the night, and keep Your Law”). The Apostle Paul gives expression to this dual condition, this wrestling with the Law, which is common to all Christians in Romans 7:14-25.

Theologians have historically spoken of the varied ‘uses’ of the Law of God as falling into three categories. The three uses of the Law describe God’s intended purposes for His Law. In systemizing the teaching of Scripture in this way, we find help in understanding why we respond in different ways to God’s Law. We also discover that the Law of God is a means of grace to us. Thus, we learn of our continuing need for God’s Law as those who have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Let us consider these three uses in order (some traditions give a different order, but we will follow the order typically found in Reformed theology). And, just to be clear, by “the Law of God” we primarily have in mind here the Ten Commandments, or the moral law.

1. The Civil Use (usus politicus or civilus). The Law functions as a goad to civil righteousness. The first use of the Law – the civil use – applies to all men everywhere, regardless of whether they are believers or not. This is the operation of God’s law in the realm of common grace. In the first use, the Law restrains sinful behavior and promotes righteous behavior. It simply keeps people from murdering each other and stealing each other’s property.

In the civil use, the law functions much like a strait-jacket. It restrains people’s behavior, but does not penetrate the heart. It is mere behaviorism. It is called the civil use of the law because it is the means by which God, through the authority which he grants to common societies and governing authorities, restrains evil in the world. Paul speaks of this in his epistle to the Romans (13:1-7). Do what is good and you will have praise from rulers and governing authorities; do what is evil, and you rightly fear (vv3-4). Of course, Christians honor and obey earthly authorities for many other reasons, as well, but this is one which we have in common with unbelievers.

2. The Pedagogical Use (usus elenchticus or pedagogicus). This second use of the Law is for the unbeliever and the believer alike. Here, the Law functions as a means of grace in driving people to see their need of Christ and His righteousness. For the unbeliever, the perfect moral Law reveals one’s sinfulness and inability to keep God’s Law. For the believer, the perfect moral Law continues to reveal our sinfulness and inability to perfectly keep God’s Law. In this second use – the pedagogical use – the Law shows our need for Christ and His righteousness – an alien righteousness that is not our own, but can be ours through faith. The Law shows our need to be justified by faith in Christ.

In the pedagogical use, the law functions much like a prison or a harsh task-master. The law exposes our sin, condemns us, and leaves us without hope. Thus, the law prepares us to see the glories of the gospel wherein we learn of Jesus Christ, the Savior of men, who has met the standard of God’s holy Law for us. Paul summarizes this use of the Law well in Romans 8:3-4: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

3. The Normative (or Didactic) Use (usus didacticus or normativus). Like the second use, the third use of the Law is a means of God’s grace. However, unlike the second use which applies to both unbelievers and believers in seeing their need for Christ, the third use is applicable only to believers. The third use of the Law is called the normative use because it acts as the norm for our conduct. It is called the didactic use because it teaches us how to live. In addition to continuing to show us our need for Christ (second use), the Law also functions for the believer in showing us how we are to live for Christ (third use).

In the normative or didactic use, the law functions much like railroad tracks. The law shows us the way to live – the way of righteousness and holiness. The law is the revealed will of God for His people, and only the regenerate who have God’s Spirit are able to keep it properly. The Psalms begin with this (third use) understanding of God’s Law: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). Through faith in Jesus Christ, we see God’s law in a new light: purposing to love God, we keep His commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:2-3).

Conclusion

The Law of God is neglected by many believers who cast aspersions on God’s Law and dismiss His holy standard, believing that God’s Law no longer applies to those who have been born again. Sometimes, God’s Law is dismissed with the false assertion that the work of God’s Spirit is in opposition to the God’s Law. Or, at best, some see God’s Spirit as working apart from God’s Law. Yet, as John Calvin has written, “The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns” (Calvin’s Institutes, 2.7.12).

After describing these varied uses of the law of God, the Westminster Confession of Faith says this: “Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully, which the will of God revealed in the law requires to be done” (WCF 19:7).

The uses of the law are not contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do “sweetly comply” with it! Praise God that He has been gracious to us in revealing to us both His Law and His Gospel!

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

Punishment and Discipline

Dear Church Family,

A couple of people have asked about the poem that I read this past Sunday during the Lord’s Supper. The poem is called, “A Dialogue-Anthem” by George Herbert and was written in 1633. The poem is a dialogue between the Christian and Death and speaks of Christ’s victory of the grave. You may read the text of the poem online here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/herbert/temple/Dialogue.html.

In the sermon this coming Sunday morning, we will be picking up our series in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians in chapter 3, verses 15-22. In this passage, Paul discusses the relationship between the promise made to Abraham and the Law given through Moses. These verses are part of an extended discussion on the purpose of the Law.

Historically, theologians have spoken of the Law as having three uses: (1) civil, (2) pedagogical; (3) normative. Next week, I’ll write more on these three uses. At present, suffice it to say that in chapters 3-4 of Galatians, Paul’s emphasis is on the pedagogical use – the Law is a tutor which leads us to recognize our need of Christ and His righteousness (Galatians 3:24). In Chapters 5-6, Paul’s emphasis is on the normative use – the Law teaches the believer how to walk, how to live (Galatians 5:14; 6:2). Again, I’ll write more about these three uses and why it’s important to understand them, next week.

In these discussions – and how believers relate to God through the Law – I have found it helpful to highlight the difference between punishment and discipline. As an aside, we must be careful here because these words are often used interchangeably in the Bible. So, we don’t want to take what is said here about these concepts and import it into every use of these words in Scripture. I call this importation of all the various nuances of a concept into a particular word, ‘theological word-loading.’ It’s tempting to do, but it’s also dangerous. So, we need to be on guard against theological word-loading.

Differentiating between Punishment and Discipline

At the same time, it is helpful to differentiate between the concepts of punishment and discipline. A good way to see the difference is to consider the ends or the intended result of each. Punishment is intended to balance the scales of justice, to exact payment for a wrong committed. Discipline, on the other hand, is intended to correct the one who committed that wrong, to benefit the one who is disciplined. The former serves justice, the latter serves the offender.

We see the differentiation of these concepts in debates surrounding the penal system of our country. I’m not an attorney or a law-expert, and I’m surely over-simplifying the debate, but it seems to me that the debates surround this question: are those who commit crimes put in prison in order to punish them for their crimes (to balance the scales of justice) or to rehabilitate them (to teach them to obey the law).

Does God Punish or Discipline?

So, in differentiating between the concepts of punishment and discipline, here is the question: Does God punish people for their sins or does he discipline them for their sins? The answer is yes – both/and.

In our natural state, because of our sin, all men are deserving of God’s wrath – His punishment (John 3:26; Ephesians 2:1-3). Each individual person who sins will die and be punished for their own sin; the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself (Ezekiel 18:20).

However, the good news of the gospel is this: “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Thus, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Notice the words that are used in that last verse to describe how God acts in forgiving us. It does not say that God is forgetful and merciful to forgive our sins. No, God is faithful (to His covenant promises) and righteous (just) to forgive us our sins. How is He just? Because God has already punished our sins by pouring out His wrath on the Lord Jesus Christ. To punish those who are ‘in Christ’ (who belong to Him) would by unjust. There is no more punishment for those who trust in Christ.

Instead, for believers – those who have been justified by faith in Christ – we will never be punished for our sins! Praise God! There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)! Because justice has been served on the cross of Calvary wherein God punished our sins in His only begotten Son, God does not punish us. He disciplines us. For He disciplines those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:5).

Justice having been served, God disciplines us for our good – in order that we might share in His holiness. Human fathers discipline their children as seems best to them, but “God disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:10-11).

Conclusion

Understanding the difference between the concepts of punishment and discipline is foundational to understanding how we relate to God through His Law. Apart from Christ, God’s Law condemns and punishes us. In Christ, God’s Law disciplines and trains us in holiness.

For those who have come to know Jesus Christ and the love of God for us in Him, we can have confidence in the day of judgment because we share in God’s holiness (1 John 4:16-17). Christ’s righteousness has been credited to our account. Thus, though fear involves punishment, we have nothing to fear because there is no punishment for those whom God has accepted in Christ, only love (1 John 4:18). And, in that love, there is no punishment, only discipline.

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