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

WCF 33: Of the Last Judgment

Dear Church Family,

For many people who come from a background in some of the broader evangelical churches in the United States, their understanding of the end-times or the last days has been greatly influenced by pre-millennial dispensationalism. Part of that system of doctrine, is a particular teaching concerning the future judgment of God – namely, that there are many. According to classic dispensationalism, there are at least three future judgments of God: (1) “The Judgment Seat of Christ” (only for believers), 2 Corinthians 5:10; (2) “The Throne of Glory” (for the nations), Matthew 25:31-32; (3) “The Great White Throne” (for the wicked), Revelation 20:11-12.

However, as the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 33 (“Of the Last Judgment”) teaches, these are all references to the same singular, final judgment of God. We explored what the Bible teaches concerning this “last day of judgment” in our last adult Sunday school class in our series on the Westminster Confession.

WCF 33.1 – The Definition of the Last Judgment

The Apostle Paul preached that God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). The simple teaching of Scripture, then, is that there is only one appointed day of final judgment. On that day, God will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ (John 5:22-23, 26-27). And, on that last day, all angels and persons will appear before the tribunal of Christ to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds. They will receive – be recompensed or paid back (2 Corinthians 5:10) according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.

The Bible teaches that people will be judged according to works (Ecclesiastes 12:14; Romans 2:16; 14:10-12; Matthew 12:36-37). For those who die apart from Christ, this is bad new; for those who are in Christ, it ought to be an encouragement:

The thoroughness of this judgment inevitably reflects biblical teaching on sin and righteousness. For those who are apart from Christ, this is a damning verdict, for God hates any and all sin. Indeed, the thought of our every dark reflection, careless word, and loveless action being replayed before God’s throne should make any sane person tremble with a heightened awareness of the solemnity of judgment. And yet Christian believers must take courage in their special standing with Jesus Christ. God, as believers’ good Father, is delighted with the righteous thoughts, words and deeds of his children. Admittedly, they are far too few, and even our best efforts are tarnished in so many ways. What is worse, God will not tolerate our sins. But thankfully, for those found in Christ, our unworthy efforts will be accepted in Christ along with our unworthy persons, and our evil deeds will be covered over by Christ’s spotless righteousness. It is in this righteousness of Christ that we will stand. We will find no real reason to be proud of ourselves before the judgment seat of God. Nor will we find reason to fear. (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 437-438).

 

WCF 33.2 – The Purpose of the Last Judgment

The end, or purpose, of the day of judgment is twofold: (1) to manifest the glory of God’s mercy in eternal salvation of the elect; and (2) to manifest God’s justice in the damnation of the reprobate. As is evidences in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), for believers the last judgment will be a display of God’s grace and mercy but for unbelieves the last judgment will be a display of God’s justice (Romans 9:22-23).

In the end, at the last judgment, the righteous will go into everlasting life, and receive the fullness of joy and refreshing from the presence of Christ (Matthew 25:21; Acts 3:19). The wicked, however, will be cast into eternal torment, punished with everlasting destruction away from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power (Romans 2:5-6; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

WCF 33.3 – The Certainty and Timing of the Last Judgment

That fact that there will be a day of final judgment serves a two-fold purpose for human beings, made in God’s image: (1) to deter all men from sin; (2) to give greater consolation to the godly in their adversity (2 Peter 3:11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:9-10). Likewise, the fact that the timing of the day of judgment is unknown also serves a two-fold purpose for all human beings, made in God’s image: (1) to shake men off of carnal security; (2) to prepare men to pray for Christ’s quick return (Matthew 24:36-44; Mark 13:35-37; Revelation 22:20).

Conclusion

This last chapter of confession doesn’t answer all of our questions about the final judgment. Van Dixhoorn explains:

The focus of this chapter, to the end, is personal, rather than cosmological. What will happen to this planet when the curtain rises on eternity? Will it become a suburb of heaven? A slum of hell? Will it experience a glorious transformation? Will it exist at all? These are among the questions that the confession does not seek to answer – to which could be added theories of millennial rule and the destiny of Jews. Instead of speculation, the final note in this confession of faith is one of persuasion. (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 442)

 

And so, let me also conclude our study of the Westminster Confession of Faith with that apostolic blessing from the last two verses of the Bible: “He who testifies to these things says, "Yes, I am coming quickly." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.” (Revelation 22:20-21)

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

WCF 32: Of the State of Men after Death and the Resurrection of the Dead

Dear Church Family,

In the history of the church, there have been many false teachings regarding what happens when someone dies. Even from the days of the early church, the Apostles who wrote holy Scripture had to address points of confusion concerning this issue. Since that time, various views concerning “soul sleep” and purgatory have plagued the people of God.

In the penultimate chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 32 (“Of the State of Men After Death and of the Resurrection of the Dead”) we receive great clarification and succinct teaching on the state of men after death. And, this was the subject of our most recent adult Sunday school class.

WCF 32.1 – The Intermediate State

Simply stated, the “intermediate state” refers to the disembodied existence of all people after they die, but before Christ’s return – or, what the Paul calls “absent from the body” and for the believer, “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). So, what happens to one’s body and to one’s soul upon death, upon one’s entrance into this intermediate state?

With regard to our bodies, the Word of God tells us that the bodies of all men, upon death, return to dust (Genesis 3:19; Acts 13:36). This is also self-evident to our experience.

With regard to our souls, Scripture acknowledges only two places for souls separated from their bodies. For believers, the souls of the righteous are made perfect in holiness and received into heaven to await the redemption of their bodies (Ecclesiastes 12:5-7; Luke 23:42-43). Those who die in the Lord are called “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-24).

For unbelievers, the souls of the wicked are cast into hell where they are tormented and reserved until the judgment of the last day (Luke 16:22-24; Jude 1:5-7). Those who die apart from the Lord are called “the spirits now in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-20).

Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, there have arisen various unbiblical theories about the intermediate state:

The unbiblical theory of purgatory

According to the Roman Catholic Church, purgatory is not a place of punishment, but a place for final sanctification – a place where the faithful bear the temporal punishments for their sins: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 1, Section 2, Chapter 3, Article 12.III, 1030). Drawing on the inter-Testamental writings of the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 12:42-45), the idea of purgatory is what gave rise to the selling of ‘indulgences’ which Martin Luther famously inveighed against: by giving money to the church, a person could reduce or eliminate the time that their loved ones would spend in purgatory.

The unbiblical theories of Limbus Patrum and Limbus Infantum

Again, according to the Roman Catholic Church, the Limbus Patrum, is the supposed place where “the souls of the Old Testament saints were detained in a state or expectation until the Lord’s resurrection from the dead. After His death on the cross Christ is supposed to have descended into the abode of the fathers, to release them from their temporary confinement and to carry them in triumph to heaven. This is the Roman Catholic interpretation of Christ’s descent into hades.” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 687).

The Limbus Infantum is the supposed place where all unbaptized children go after death to spend eternity. The idea is that unbaptized children cannot be admitted to heaven, so they are consigned to a place on the outskirts of hell. This is what limbus refers to. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, the Limbus Patrum and Limbus Infantum are two places that are on the fringe or outskirts of hell; it is neither heaven nor hell.

The unbiblical theory of soul-sleep

In addition to purgatory, another distortion concerning the doctrine of the “intermediate state” is the idea of soul-sleep. Soul-sleep is the notion that when a person dies, they go to a place of unconscious existence until Jesu’ second coming. This is an erroneous and unbiblical teaching which is usually based upon a misunderstanding of the euphemisms which the Scriptures use to speak about death. Sometimes, the Scriptures speak of death in terms of sleeping; however, the Scriptures clearly teach (see above) that believers are fully conscious and at home with the Lord (though not reunited with our resurrected bodies yet), and that unbelievers are fully conscious while undergoing the torments of hell.

WCF 32.2 – The Last Day

On the last day, the day of Christ’s return and the final judgment, those who are still alive will be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:17). For those who have already died, their bodies will be raised, changed, and reunited with their souls (Job 19:26-27; 1 Corinthians 42-44). This applies to both believers and unbelievers.

WCF 32.3 – The Final State

In the final state (that is, at Christ’s return), the bodies of the unjust will be raised to dishonor (Acts 24:14-15). As Chad Van Dixhoorn notes, “The Scriptures say nothing about the resurrected bodies of the wicked. Suffice it to say that they will ‘be raised to dishonour.’” (Confessing the Faith, 432)

Much more is said in Scripture, however, about the bodies of believers; the bodies of the just will be raised to honor, and conformed to Christ’s glorious body (John 5:28; 1 Corinthians 15:42-44; Philippians 3:20-21).

Conclusion

In our Sunday school class, I sought to simplify the teaching of this chapter of the confession by way of thinking in three phases of the Christians present and future existence:

(1) Good: presently, God has given us the Spirit as a pledge and our citizenship is in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:5; Philippians 3:20).

(2) Better: in the disembodied, intermediate state, we will be absent from the body but at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

(3) Best: in the final state after Christ’s return, we will be reunited with our resurrected spiritual bodies, perfected in holiness in both body and soul (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

Indeed, for those who are in Christ, we have this apostolic blessing: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

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

WCF 31: Of Synods and Councils

Dear Church Family,

When God delivered the people of Israel from bondage and slavery in Egypt, one of the first things that Moses did was appoint judges over the people (Exodus 18:13-27). This, Moses did, based upon the advice given to him by his father-in-law, Jethro. Jethro advised Moses to “select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain” (Exodus 18:21) and to place them as leaders over the people.

In the New Testament, the apostles likewise did something similar by advising the various churches to appoint elders or overseers in the church (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1ff). And, in the book of Acts, we have a record of the first “Jerusalem Council” which was comprised of apostles and elders of the various churches who came together to consider a particular controversy.

Thus, we find the biblical foundation for the calling together of church synods or councils. This was the topic of our most recent adult Sunday school class on the Westminster Confession of Faith wherein we studied chapter 31 (“Of Church Synods and Councils”).

WCF 31.1 – The Purposes of Church Councils and Who May Call Them

In examining the first church council of Acts 15:1-35, the first paragraph of this chapter in the confession provides two main points with regard to church councils: (1) Synods and councils (assemblies of the officers of various churches) serve the better government and edification of the church; (2) Those “overseers and other rulers of the particular churches” have the responsibility and authority to convene together as often as seems necessary to them for the good of the church.

WCF 31.2 – The Ministerial Duties & Authority of Church Councils

These church councils fulfill their ministerial duties in three ways. First, they are to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience – to help settle troubled minds and sort out disagreements in the church (this was the principle issue in Acts 15). Second, they are to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of worship and government of the church; church councils play a part in ordering these secondary issues (WCF 1.6). Third, they are to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, acting as a means of checks and balances for the protection of God’s people.

The authority of church councils is based on two things. First, if their decisions are in agreement with the Word of God, believers are bound to obey them because their conscience is ultimately bound by Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But, second, believers are bound to obey the decisions of church councils because church councils are an ordinance of God (appointed in His word to rule according to His delegated authority). For example, the first Jerusalem council made a clear distinction between the private opinions of individuals and the decrees of the apostles and elders (Acts 15:6, 28; 16:4).

To this point, Chad Van Dixhoorn writes:

Although Presbyterian churches, and some other Reformed churches, still maintain this practice in the use of presbyteries and general assemblies, the current of modern Christianity has drifted away from a respect for councils, their creeds, and their rulings on controversies. It seems that not only this confession, but the Word of God itself is calling us to heed councils not less, but more. The Westminster assembly did not overstep its bounds in calling Christians to receive the decisions of councils, at least those consonant with the Word of God, with ‘reverence and submission’. (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 417).

 

WCF 31.3 – The Helpfulness of Church Councils

While emphasizing the authority of church councils, the confession all seeks to bring balance to this teaching with a reminder that all church councils may err, and many have erred. Because they are comprised of fallible men, synods and councils are not infallible. Scripture alone is “given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” (WCF 1.2; Acts 17:11).

Thus, church councils are not to be made the rule of faith or practice (1 Corinthians 2:3-5; 2 Corinthians 1:24). Rather, church councils are to be used as a help in faith and practice (Acts 6:1-7; Acts 15).

WCF 31.4 – The Limits of Church Councils

Based on two statements made by Jesus in the Gospels (Luke 12:13-14; John 18:36), this last paragraph sets forth the limits of church councils – what they should and should not handle. First, synods and councils are to handle and conclude only ecclesiastical issues (those pertaining to the faith and practice of the church). Second, synods and councils are not to intermeddle with civil affairs except in extraordinary cases by humble petition and when required by the civil magistrate they may give advice. The responsibilities and authority of church councils are not to be confused or inter-mixed with those of the civil government.

This last point concerning the unique ecclesiastical responsibility of church councils has sometimes been described as the doctrine of “the spirituality of the church.” For a more in-depth explanation of this doctrine, I recommend this article by D.G. Hart and John R. Muether: “The Spirituality of the Church.” Unfortunately, many Christians today wish to promote the Christian faith through the power and authority of the state; however, as T. David Gordon reminds us, “Christianity does not rise or fall on the basis of governmental activity; it rises or falls on the basis of true ecclesiastical activity. What Christianity needs is competent ministers, not Christian judges, legislators, or executive officers” (“The Decline of Christianity in the West? A Contrarian View”).

Conclusion

To be sure, church councils or presbyteries and assemblies of church officers have, and will, make mistakes. And, some have abused their God-given power and authority. Yet, God in His wisdom has not left individual Christians to their own devices. The Bible never encourages Christians to have no authority but their own. He has graciously given officers and leaders to the church for the equipping of the saints, and for the work of service, for the building up of the body Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Let us all pray for the work of our church councils – for the session of our local church, our presbytery, and our denominational General Assembly. Let us pray that God would give wisdom and discernment for the better ordering of the government and worship of our church.

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