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

Assurance of Faith

Dear Church Family,

Many believers struggle with assurance of their salvation. And, we struggle in our assurance of salvation for many reasons. While assurance of one’s salvation ought to be pursued by every Christian, it is not uncommon for those who have been saved to struggle with assurance. In fact, this is one of the key problems with the way in which many Christians think about assurance. Christians will sometimes tend to believe that assurance of one’s salvation is necessary for salvation; in fact, some churches and individuals even teach this erroneous way of thinking: if you doubt your salvation, then you are probably not a Christian (so they say).

The truth be told, however, I have never met a Christian who has never doubted or, at least at some point, struggled with assurance of salvation. If you have never doubted or struggled in gaining assurance of your salvation, then something might be amiss. You may not understand the depths of your sin, and you may not understand the depths of God’s love and grace. In the end, you may not understand the gospel.

I am not advocating for doubt. Doubt and struggling with assurance of salvation ought not to be our goal. In fact, as Christians mature in the faith, these doubts and struggles, by God’s grace, often begin to ebb. At the same time, we must recognize that it is not abnormal for Christians to doubt. When we doubt, however, we ought to do all that we can to pursue assurance of our faith.

Faith and Assurance

Here’s where the distinction between faith and assurance is helpful. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel” (WSC 86). That’s it. Faith is receiving and resting upon Jesus Christ for salvation. Assurance, on the other hand, is one of the benefits which flows from saving faith. Or, as the catechism puts it, “The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification, are, assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end” (WSC 36).

Though the Westminster Standards are sometimes derided as archaic or impractical, they are very helpful in very practical ways for every Christian. Here’s one way. Let’s just consider what chapter 18 of the Confession of Faith (“Of Assurance”) teaches us, as it summarizes the teaching of Scripture on this topic. [You may read or download a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith, with Scripture proofs online here: http://www.pcaac.org/resources/wcf/.]

Of Assurance (WCF 18)

Here’s how I would summarize the teaching of this chapter:

WCF 18:1 – What assurance isn’t and what it is

Assurance is not self-deception, false hopes, or carnal assumptions of the favor of God.

Assurance is certainty of being in a state of grace, rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God.

WCF 18:2 – The basis of assurance

The believer’s assurance is based upon God’s promises, inward evidences, and the testimony of the Holy Spirit with our spirits (more on these below)

WCF 18:3 – The relationship of faith and assurance

True believers have faith, and ought to strive for assurance by use of ordinary means: Word, Sacraments, and Prayer. These use of these means will then lead to a sincere love of God and the duty of obedience.

WCF 18:4 – Causes of a lack of assurance

Lack of assurance is caused by our own sin and neglect, as well as by God’s sovereign purpose. Yet, true believers will not fall into utter despair.

The three places to look for assurance

Too often, Christians look in the wrong place in order to find assurance. Christians often look at their emotions. Sometimes there is a strong love of God and others, sometimes there is not. And so, a person begins to think, “Real Christians don’t fluctuate like this in the way they feel; perhaps I’m not a Christian.”

Here are the three places that the Westminster Confession of Faith (18:2) tells us to look for assurance. Note that the first is objective, the second is both objective and subjective, and the third is subjective:

(1) God’s Word (“The divine truths of the promises of salvation”)

The first place to turn in times of doubt is to the Scriptures. Just as a pilot in the midst of a storm with zero visibility needs to trust his instruments and the instructions of the air traffic controller, in times of doubt Christians ought to seek the voice of their Savior in the reading and the preaching of his Word (WSC 89). This is the objective truth of the Word of God; He is unchangeable in His purpose, keeps His oath, and does not lie (Hebrews 6:17-19).

(2) Loving Obedience (“The inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made”)

Here, the WCF points to Scriptures that speak of particular evidences in our lives by which we may know that we are saved: if we keep His commandments (1 John 2:3), love the brethren (1 John 3:14), and conduct ourselves in holiness and godly sincerity (2 Corinthians 1:12). This ground of assurance is both objective (others may see our good works) and subjective (only we may know the sincerity of our hearts).

(3) The Witness of the Holy Spirit (“The Testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God: which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption”)

This is the most subjective ground of our assurance of salvation. The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are the children of God, and we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15-16). Sometimes I will ask believers who are struggling with assurance, “Where do you think your motivation to cry out to God came from? Where do you think the conviction of your sin came from?” The obvious answer is this: it could only have come from the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

It is important to differentiate between saving faith and assurance of saving faith. The difference becomes very clear when we examine the basis of each. The basis of saving faith is the substitutionary death of Christ for our sins and His being raised for our justification, which we embrace by faith. The basis of assurance of salvation is God’s promises, loving obedience, and the witness of the Holy Spirit.

Very simply, in speaking of faith, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). And, in speaking of assurance, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19).

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

The Danger of Mission Creep in the Church

Dear Church Family,

In the sermon this past Sunday morning, we examined the Apostle Paul’s “Continuing Gospel Ministry” in Galatia from Acts 14. There we saw what Paul didn’t do: he didn’t seek the miraculous or the spectacular, he didn’t seek to establish himself, and he didn’t seek to transform the government or the culture (vv 8-19). But, we also saw what he did do. In Paul’s continuing gospel ministry, he preached (v 21), he strengthened and encouraged their faith through teaching (v 22), and he commended the believers to the Lord by appointing elders and praying for them (v 23).

About a year and a half ago, I read a book entitled The New Evangelical Social Gospel by Roger and Diane Smalling. You may read this ebook online (or download to your Kindle) here: http://www.smallings.com/english/books/social.htm. I found the book very insightful and helpful and since I somewhat knew the authors (they are PCA missionaries whom my former church supported and whom I had met when they visited), I emailed Roger to just express my thanks for his and his wife’s work. That email eventually led to my being asked by the online magazine, The Aquila Report, to write a book review for them.

In light of the sermon this past Sunday and understanding the biblical nature of gospel ministry in the church, I encourage you to read the Smalling’s book. If that’s not enough incentive to read the book (or if you just don’t have time), you might be interested to read my review of the book, the text of which I’ve included below. This review is available online here: http://theaquilareport.com/the-danger-of-mission-creep-in-the-church/.

[By the way, just as an aside, The Aquila Report bills itself as “Your independent source of news and commentary from and about conservative, orthodox evangelicals in the Reformed and Presbyterian family of churches.” It’s an excellent source for keeping abreast of contemporary discussions and news items in Reformed churches.]

The Danger of Mission Creep in the Church

In the Preface of their book, The New Evangelical Social Gospel, Roger and Diane Smalling assert that “a version of the social gospel is being revived under the guise of a new emphasis on mercy ministry and social justice. This is a new form that far transcends a call to more involvement with the needs of society. It is a theological system of its own, a worldview that redefines the mission of the church, the kingdom of God, Christian living and even the content of the word ‘gospel’ itself.” Indeed, the title of this book seems a bit oxymoronic. How in the world can the social gospel be considered evangelical? That’s what this book is all about.

Whether or not you have noticed this theological trend among evangelicalism and the Reformed tradition, the Smallings have done a great service to the church. Pastors and lay people alike will benefit from this book, which is probably best described as a timely primer and critical analysis of a theological drift that is affecting the church today, particularly in America. Actually, ‘theological drift’ is probably too weak of a descriptor. The Smallings use stronger language: “A brush fire is sweeping through evangelical circles, scorching the fine edges of the words ‘gospel’ and ‘gospel ministry.’ Couched in appealing language and ambiguous slogans, it finds kindling in a new generation steeped in a popular liberal mindset, ungrounded in sound New Testament theology. It is gathering droves of Christians who see it as a balanced approach to ministry” (also from the Preface).

The New Evangelical Social Gospel is comprised of 18 chapters; however, each chapter is less than five pages making it very readable and to the point. I was able to read it in one evening; I couldn’t put it down – or turn it off, as the case may be with an ebook. Also, each chapter concludes with a helpful bullet-point summary, appropriately labeled, “From this chapter we learn…”

The main point of this book is summarized in the conclusion of the book: “Mercy ministry is plainly taught in the Bible as a gift of the Spirit and a necessary outworking of local church life. Zealous efforts to help the poor are wonderful. When such enthusiasm impinges on the meaning of the gospel or the mission of the church, we have an obligation to become alarmed. Imposing mandates Christ never decreed, grieves the Spirit, diverts the church from its calling and extinguishes the power of the gospel…It [the gospel] is sufficient in itself to advance the kingdom of God, for it alone is ‘the power of God for salvation.’”

Unique Contributions of The New Evangelical Social Gospel

There is no shortage of books and articles which one could read concerning the relationship between the church and mercy ministry or social justice. Without using technical jargon or inflammatory rhetoric, the Smallings succinctly and decisively make the case for the view known as ‘the spirituality of the church’ (though they never use the phrase). That is to say, through the clear teaching of God’s Word they show that the sole mission of the Church is to make disciples through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, baptizing and teaching to obey all that He commanded. Many authors have wrestled with these issues and the debates are arguably well known; however, The New Evangelical Social Gospel makes at least seven unique contributions to this discussion.

1. Credibility of the authors. The Smallings write as seasoned PCA missionaries who have served faithfully in Europe and Latin America for over thirty years. They write with a passion for both the promulgation of the gospel, as well as a compassion for the poor. They write as evangelists and church planters who understand the work of the church, as well as the needs of the poor.

2. Charitable, but clear, critique. The proponents of the ‘new social gospel’ are never demonized in this book. In fact, the authors are very clear: “None of the writers we quote in this book, apart from Rauschenbusch, are heretics” (chapter 2). Walter Rauschenbusch was a liberal theologian in the early part of the 20th century who taught and promoted the ‘old social gospel.’ Some of the notable, present day authors that are quoted as promulgators of the ‘new social gospel’ include: Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert of the Chalmers Institute, Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Manhattan, NY), Richard Stearns, and Harvey Conn. Even as the book deals charitably with the proponents of the ‘new social gospel,’ the Smallings pull no punches in saying that the premises of the new social gospel are “junk theology bordering on heresy and will launch the church on a trajectory that is ultimately fruitless” (chapter 3).

3. Historical connections. The book clearly differentiates between the liberalism of the old social gospel of a hundred years ago and the conservatism of the ‘new social gospel’ of today. At the same time, the dangerous similarities between the old and the new are clearly enumerated. Though dressed in conservative clothing, the ‘new social gospel’ is not really new at all. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

4. Biblical perspective on important issues. The New Evangelical Social Gospel approaches each subtopic from the Scriptures. Some of the subtopics that relate to the ‘new social gospel’ include: the definition of the gospel, important hermeneutical principles that come into play, common grace, the kingdom of God, the creation/culture mandate, environmentalism, social justice, mercy ministry, and postmillennialism. The authors approach each particular issue from a careful exegesis of God’s word. In fact, chapters 15 & 16 are dedicated exclusively to a critical analysis of the interpretations of particular texts often cited by the ‘new social gospel’ proponents.

5. Warnings about theological newspeak. Oftentimes when unbiblical perspectives are introduced in the church, certain verbiage and slogans attend. It is no different with respect to the ‘new social gospel.’ Much of the misleading jargon of the modern movement is exposed throughout the book; however, chapter 17 gives insight into, and definition of, some particular buzz words: ‘word and deed,’ ‘preach the gospel, using words if necessary,’ ‘holistic ministry,’ and ‘whole gospel.’ To these, one could add such buzz words as: ‘heart for the city,’ ‘cultural transformation,’ ‘redeeming the culture,’ and ‘our church exists to serve the city.’ What all of these catch phrases and buzz words have in common is that they erroneously add mercy ministry, social justice, or cultural transformation as an essential element of the gospel – something that is both unbiblical and dangerous.

6. Helpful distinctions. Uncritical thinking leads to unbiblical assumptions. The New Evangelical Social Gospel brings clarity by making helpful distinctions. When considering how believers ought to think about mercy ministry and social justice, there are some key distinctions that must be upheld. Important distinctions that are addressed in this book include: the individual Christian and the institutional church, obligatory and permissible activities, gospel and mercy ministry, benevolence for church members and benevolence for non-church members, Old Testament commands that apply to theocratic Israel and New Testament commands that apply to the Church. If you haven’t thought through these distinctions before, you will as you read this book.

7. Concise summary. The final chapter of the book, “Chapter 18: Comparing Old, New, and the Bible,” is a concise summary of the issues addressed in this book. The three distinct views of the old social gospel, the new social gospel, and the Bible are contrasted with respect to eight important issues: (1) Service to Poor; (2) Creation Mandate; (3) Cultural Mandate; (4) Balancing Gospel Ministry; (5) Kingdom of God; (6) Social Justice; (7) Economic Equality; (8) Mission of Jesus.

Conclusion

Anyone who has been attentive to the latest theological trends of adding mercy ministry and social justice to gospel ministry in the Church, will find in this book a great help toward discerning the ‘mission creep’ that is the ultimate danger of ‘the new evangelical social gospel.’ Mercy ministry and social justice issues are important. The question is, though: What is the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ according to the Scripture? What happens when other (seemingly legitimate) missions begin to encroach on the biblical mandate of the Church to preach the gospel and make disciples through the ordinary means of grace (word, sacrament, and prayer)? Even worse, what happens when the Church assumes these seemingly legitimate tasks to be an essential part of the gospel ministry of the Church?

The New Evangelical Social Gospel by Roger and Diane Smalling is a wake-up call and a warning against the mission creep of the ‘new social gospel’ that has become so appealing in evangelicalism of late. Thus, it is appropriate to conclude this review with a quotation the book which, in my opinion, addresses the bottom line: By what standard do we measure the faithfulness and success of the Church of Jesus Christ?

“In Christ’s communiqué in the book of Revelation to the seven churches of Asia Minor, it is interesting to see what he does not mention as criteria for his praises or rebukes. Church growth strategy is never an issue, nor is appearing useful to the world. His criteria seem to be two things: Enduring persecution and faithfulness to His name. Social justice seems to be glaringly absent. By these criteria, a church faithfully preaching the word of God, attempting to reach the community with the gospel and caring for its own is success” (chapter 12).

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

Hymnal Musings and the Sabbath

Dear Church Family,

I collect hymnals. Or, perhaps I should say, I used to collect hymnals. It used to be that I couldn’t go to a garage sale or used book sale without finding a hymnal that I didn’t have, purchasing it, and taking it home with me. My penchant for hymnals is based on a personal love of singing the rich hymns of the Christian faith, as well as a curiosity with regard to the hymnody of various traditions. Eventually, my hymnal collection got out of hand and I had to whittle it down to only those that were actually useful; out of necessity, I had to become a bit more utilitarian in that regard.

Hymnal Musings

Anyway, one of the things that is interesting to do when examining hymnals is to look at the index in the back. Often, there are several: a Scripture index, title and first line index, author/composer index, tune index, meter index, and a subject index. It’s this last one that is usually the most revealing as to the nature of the theology of a particular church or church tradition. [By the way, there’s a helpful website where you may access these indexes and sort them according to each one: http://trinityhymnalindex.wordpress.com/.]

The red Trinity Hymnal (Revised Edition), published in 1990 and which we use in our church, is my favorite (the original Trinity Hymnal, published in 1961 is typically referred to as “the blue Trinity Hymnal”). I’ve known a lot of hymnals, but the red Trinity Hymnal is my favorite for several reasons: familiarity, content (both in hymnody and confession), structure and organization, diversity, sing-ability, etc. One of the unique aspects of our hymnal is the subject index (it’s actually called “Topics”). Just about every hymnal has a topical index, but I don’t think that I have found one as thorough and detailed as that in the Trinity Hymnal.

Just a quick perusal of the topics listed in this index is revealing. It’s like taking a stroll down the systematic theology of the Christian faith. And, while many of the topics listed are common to many other hymnals, there are some significant differences. For instance, the red Trinity Hymnal topical index contains certain entries which you typically won’t find in others: Covenant of grace, Covenant people, Decrees of God, Election, Family worship, Foreordination, God’s work of providence, Imprecatory Psalms, Israel, Law of God, Lord’s Day, Means of Grace, Ordinations, Original sin, Reformation day, Sabbath, Sacraments, Suffering, Tribulations, Wrath of God, Zion. These, I have gleaned from just a quick perusal.

The Sabbath

You may think I’m strange, but I like to peruse the indexes of our hymnal, find and learn hymns with which I am unfamiliar. Just now, I did just that. I looked up “Sabbath” and under the topic it reads, “see Lord’s Day,” but there is one hymn listed there under the topic of Sabbath: “540 – A Few More Years Shall Roll.” Though I’m unfamiliar with this hymn, a quick check of the tune name (Leominster) in the tune index reveals that there are four hymns in the hymnal with the same tune. And, at least one of them is familiar to me, “461 – Not What My Hands Have Done.”

So, as a result of my perusing the topical index, I found a new (to me), easily sing-able hymn about the Sabbath. I looked up the topic of ‘Sabbath’ in our hymnal this week because this past Sunday we discussed Sabbath keeping in the adult Sunday school class; I was curious as to how many hymns are in our hymnal related to this topic. You can find more hymns under ‘Lord’s Day’ in the hymnal, but let me share with you the four verses of “540 – A Few More Years Shall Roll.” It’s a beautiful description of how Sunday – the Christian Sabbath, the Lord’s Day – entails both an embracing of the present rest which we have in Christ and teaches us to anticipate the future, eternal rest which we will be ours at Christ’s return.

540 – A Few More Years Shall Roll

A few more years shall roll, A few more seasons come,
And we shall be with those that rest Asleep within the tomb:
Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that great day;
O wash me in thy precious blood, And take my sins away.

A few more storms shall beat On this wild rocky shore,
And we shall be where tempests cease, And surges swell no more:
Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that calm day;
O wash me in thy precious blood, And take my sins away.

A few more sabbaths here Shall cheer us on our way,
And we shall reach the endless rest, Th'eternal sabbath day:
Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that sweet day;
O wash me in thy precious blood, And take my sins away.

'Tis but a little while, And he shall come again
Who died that we might live, who lives That we with him may reign:
Then, O my Lord, prepare My soul for that glad day;
O wash me in thy precious blood, And take my sins away.

I love this line from the third verse: “A few more Sabbaths here shall cheer us on our way.” It makes me think of Psalm 118:24 (“This is the day which the LORD has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it”). We often apply this verse to every day; however, in the context, “the day which the LORD has made” refers to the day which marked the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt – the day of the 10th and final plague when God struck down all the first born male children of the Egyptians, but passed over the Israelites who marked their doors with the blood of the lamb. The day which the LORD has made is the day of salvation.

We may also rightly apply Psalm 118:24 to the Sabbath Day, the Lord’s Day, the day in which we worship our Savior and celebrate His being raised because of our justification! It is the day which He has made! It is the day in which we ought to rejoice! It is the day that cheers us on our way!

Thanks for coming along with me on this hymnal exploration which has led us to a reflection on the beauty and blessing of the Sabbath. I look forward to worshipping with you again this coming Lord’s Day!

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