Preaching: Depravity, a virtue to be embraced? Par 1

Dear Church Family,

In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:

Preaching: What is the Gospel?
Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3
Preaching: The Same Message No Matter the Text?
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 3

 

Introduction

Oftentimes, what informs (or misinform) our understanding of the purposes of preaching is our understanding of other doctrines of the Christian faith (e.g., how people come to faith, how believers are sanctified, and the nature of the human condition). One of those doctrines that is often misunderstood and thus leads to a misunderstanding of preaching, and Christian ministry in general, is the doctrine of depravity.

So, in this essay, we take up the question: Is depravity a virtue to be embraced? At first glance, you might consider that to be a silly question. Maybe we ought to embrace the doctrine of depravity, but depravity itself as a virtue? And one that we ought to embrace, no less? That’s just strange! Well, yes, it is strange, but the notion that depravity is a virtue to be embraced is becoming more common.

Defining Depravity

Let’s first define our terms. The doctrine of depravity is the teaching that men and women are born with original sin, the sin of Adam. This original sin, along with the actual sins that we commit, is what comprises our depravity. Depravity is simply the sinful condition of every human being who is descended from Adam by ordinary generation (that means Jesus is exempt). The fact that we are depraved means that this sin permeates and touches all parts of our being and all parts of our actions. Nothing that we are, and nothing that we do, is free from the effects of our sin and depravity. Of course, God created man and woman in His image, in knowledge and righteousness – that was the original plan (Genesis 1:26-28, 31). But, all of us – in Adam and then personally – sinned and rebelled and turned against our Creator (Isaiah 53:6).

It is this depravity (or pervasive sin) that cuts us off from God our Creator who is holy and just. We are natural-born children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). It is the doctrine of depravity (the “T” in TULIP – Total Depravity) which makes the love and grace of God all the more glorious and amazing: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And, so it follows that understanding our own sin and depravity – our utter hopelessness and helplessness – is essential to understanding the abounding grace of God in rescuing sinners by sending His Son, Jesus Christ.

Most non-Christians, and unfortunately even many professing Christians, no longer understand or believe in depravity. Human beings are generally thought of as good, sweet, and innocent; sin and evil are typically blamed on external forces or uncontrollable circumstances and experiences, rather than flowing from the human heart (Genesis 6:5; Matthew 15:19). In the realm of apologetics and evangelism, one must first establish an understanding of a Holy God who demands perfection from His sinful, depraved creatures. Otherwise, when we say, “Jesus saves!” most people will not understand or care, but simply ask, “Jesus saves from what?” And so, we must make a Biblical case for the doctrine of depravity in our efforts to communicate the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Problematic Errors

And now, here’s where things get interesting, and problems ensue. Those who have formerly not believed in the depravity of man but now do (or those who have come to see that it is a much-denied doctrine in our culture), will often argue and continue arguing for the depravity of man such that it carries over into one’s Christian life and becomes an essential ingredient for pursuing sanctification. In the words of Benjamin Brook, writing in The Lives of the Puritans, “Persons who have embraced sentiments which afterwards appear to them erroneous, often think that they can never remove too far from them and the more remote they go from their former opinions the nearer they come to the truth.”

And so, little by little, in ever so subtle ways, Christians actually come to believe (implicitly, if not explicitly) that depravity is not only a doctrine that must be understood, but that it is actually a virtue that must be embraced! Perhaps you’ve never heard this, or perhaps you’ve heard it so much that you don’t even notice how this strange way of thinking is so pervasive.

Some of this inappropriate emphasis on depravity in the post-conversion life of believers comes from a misunderstanding of certain Scriptures, and the avoidance of others. For instance, I have had people assume that even believers cannot do any good works that are acceptable to God based on Isaiah 64:6 – “all of our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” Yet, Jesus assumes that God’s people will do good works in order to glorify their heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16). When we are reborn, we are recreated in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).

Are these good works acceptable to God? Well, we know that without faith it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6), but what about believers? Are our good works and sacrifices ever made acceptable and pleasing to God? Of course they are! It is precisely because we are part of the spiritual household of faith and holy priesthood of God, that our spiritual sacrifices are acceptable to Him through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5). Depending upon the power of the Holy Spirit in us, we seek to imitate God by walking in love, always trying to mimic the love of our Savior; when we do this our offerings and sacrifices to God are a fragrant aroma to Him – well-pleasing to our God (Ephesians 5:1-2; Philippians 4:18).

The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way (WCF 16.6):

…the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

 

Notice how the Confession emphasizes that it is because believers are accepted through Christ, that their good works are also accepted in Him. For example, commenting on Genesis 4:4 – where God accepts Abel and his sacrifice, but does not accept Cain or his sacrifice – John Calvin writes:

God is said to have respect unto the man to whom he vouchsafes his favor. We must, however, notice the order here observed by Moses; for he does not simply state that the worship which Abel had paid was pleasing to God, but he begins with the person of the offerer; by which he signifies, that God will regard no works with favor except those the doer of which is already previously accepted and approved by him.

 

Conclusion

You see, believers are not only different from unbelievers in their justification; those who have been born again are new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). By faith, not only has our legal status before God been changed, but we have been changed. In our justification, we have been made fit for heaven; in our regeneration, we have been made fit to serve heaven.

Therefore, if you are a Christian – united to Christ, justified, and born again – then you are no longer depraved. Still fighting against the indwelling sin? Yes. Still seeking to live for Christ with many weaknesses and imperfections? Yes. However, you are no longer depraved. You are being sanctified; you are being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

For further reading, and a helpful explanation of this particular misunderstanding of the doctrine of depravity, see this excellent article by Rick Phillips entitled, “Thank God that Christians Are Not Totally Depraved.”

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

Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 3

Dear Church Family,

In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:

Preaching: What is the Gospel?
Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3
Preaching: The Same Message No Matter the Text?
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2

Introduction

Two weeks ago, we introduced and examined the concept from the Westminster Confession of Faith (14.2) of how, by faith, a Christian responds differently to the Word of God depending on the particular passage and its contents: (1) obeying the commands; (2) trembling at the threatenings; and (3) embracing the promises. Then, last week, we considered where we find this teaching in the Scriptures.

Now, that we have a good confessional and biblical basis for this concept, this brings us to the practical implications of what this all means for preaching.

Practical Implications for Preaching

Understanding the theoretical aspect of preaching – that is, preaching the whole Word of God (commands, threatenings, and promises) as defined by the text before us – leads us to consider the practical implications. That is, is it true that believers grow in their faith solely by hearing and meditating upon their justification? Again, this is based on a misunderstanding and a too-narrow a view of the definition of the Gospel.

Here it is helpful to gain some insight from a particular teaching in the Canons of Dort. In response to the teachings of Arminianism, the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) set forth five main points in refutation of the claims of the Remonstrants (the followers of Arminius). These five points have come to be referred to as the TULIP, or the five points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the saints. In the fifth point, article 14 reads as follows:

And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.

 

What’s interesting here is that the Synod of Dort states that perseverance in the faith is furthered by hearing and reading the gospel, and also by the use of the sacraments (what we often refer to as the ordinary means of grace). But what’s even more interesting is how the Synod of Dort refers to the hearing and reading of the gospel as being comprised of “its exhortations, threats, and promises” (notice the parallel in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 14.2).

The point is this: not only is the preaching of the emphasis of a particular passage of Scripture (it’s commands, threats, and promises) proper because believers respond by faith to each one differently (obedience, trembling, and embracing), but these aspects of the gospel (!) are that which God uses for the preserving, continuing, and completing of His work in His people.

Early on in my preaching ministry, when I was just starting out, I greeted a family at the door of the church after the service. The young husband and father stopped in front of me, shook my hand, and said, “I just want you to know that you stepped on my toes in the sermon this morning!” A bit unsure as to how to respond, I said, “Oh, sorry about that.” He said, “Please. Don’t be sorry. I needed my toes to be stepped on!”

That episode – and others over the years – has reminded me that God uses the preaching of His word in ways that I, as the preacher, don’t always expect. In fact, I am surprised by those things that God uses to convict or encourage people from a sermon. But I am also encouraged. I am encouraged because it means that despite my own weaknesses and failings as a preacher, I can have confidence to know that God will speak to His people. And, I can have confidence that, because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God’s people will, by faith, hear Him.

Conclusion

There is seemingly no end to the debates over what are the proper ways to preach the gospel – how pastors ought to be faithful to the Scriptures in proclaiming His word. The debates can be frustrating, but they are also helpful in that they make ministers and laity alike consider afresh the importance of the preached word. The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us of its importance:

How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation. (WSC 89).

 

In the end, hopefully, the debates and discussion, books and articles, will be used of God to make all of Christ’s under-shepherds better and more faithful in their important work.

One such book, that explains and emphasizes the teachings of the Westminster divines on the subject of preaching is The Westminster Directory of Public Worship: Discussed by Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson. I’ll conclude with a with a quote from that book, and the insightful words of pastor, preacher, and author, Mark Dever:

Today, preachers face the twin dangers of Hypocritical Christianity and Hypothetical Theology, which both result in lives unaffected by truths unapplied. Preachers sometimes think it more spiritual only to declare objective realities of the historical work of God through Christ, and not to address the Spirit’s work of application in the hearts of hearers. Some decry such applicatory work as subjectivism, pietism, or the seed bed of legalism and works-righteousness. While such perversion may, in fact, arise, they are nevertheless perversions, and not the simple application itself, the application we see in Scripture. When we oppose application as such, we are certainly separating ourselves from the understanding of the Bible and its truths that the Westminster divines had.

 

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

Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2

Dear Church Family,

In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:

Preaching: What is the Gospel?

Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3

Preaching: The Same Message No Matter the Text?

Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1

 

Introduction

Last week, we introduced the concept of how believers act differently based upon what each particular passage of Scripture contains. Today, we will look at some of the things that God’s Word has to say about this concept.

Insights from the Scriptures

When the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that “by faith, a Christian…acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come” it does not do so arbitrarily and without biblical warrant.

Obedience to the Commands

In understanding how a Christian, by faith, responds to God’s commands in His Word with obedience, the Confession draws upon the closing benediction in the book of Romans. There the Apostle Paul declares that his “gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith” (Romans 16:25-26).

Even as God called Abraham and introduced the covenant with him and the sign of circumcision, obedience was implicit in the gospel call: “Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless’” (Genesis 17:1). Noah was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Moses recounted the law of God to the people of Israel and they all responded with one voice, “All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 24:3). Daniel mourned over the exile of his people because of their lack of obedience to the message of the prophets: “we have rebelled against Him; nor have we obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in His teachings which He set before us through His servants the prophets.” John the Baptist called upon his hearers to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). It was the practice of Jesus to call for his hearers to obey His commands – for example, the command to cut off that which causes sin (Matthew 5:29-30). And, in his defense before King Agrippa, Paul summarized a portion of his gospel ministry as a call to “repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:19-20).

Trembling at the Threatenings

In understanding how a Christian, by faith, responds to God’s threatenings in His Word with tremblings, the Confession draws upon the words of Isaiah: “Thus says the LORD, ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,’ declares the LORD. ‘But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word’” (Isaiah 66:1-2).

God looks with favor on the one who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at His word. One of the clearest places in the Old Testament where we see God use threatenings to bring about repentance is in the book of Jonah. Jonah’s message to the people of Ninevah (the enemies of God’s people) is recorded in the Bible as being a very simple message of threat: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). This was the gospel according to Jonah: Ninevah will be destroyed! What was their response? “Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, ‘In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.’“ (Jonah 3:5-9). And, what was God’s response? “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).

It is also illuminating to consider how Paul, near the end of his ministry, talked about faith in Christ Jesus with Felix (the Gentile) and his wife Drusilla (the Jew). Having sent for Paul, Felix and Drusilla “heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, ‘Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you’” (Acts 24:24-25). Paul’s explanation concerning faith in Christ Jesus included righteousness, self-control, and the future judgment (commands and threats, along with promises). Apparently, this went on for two years while Paul was imprisoned (Acts 24:26-27). In the words of Paul, “according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16).

Embracing the Promises

In understanding how a Christian, by faith, responds to God’s promises in His Word by embracing His promises, the Confession draws upon the two passages. The first is Hebrews 11:13. Having recounted the faith of several people (from Abel to Abraham and Sarah), the writer of Hebrews says, “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). These early saints who died in faith saw the promises of God from a distance. Though they did not see the fulfillment of those promises which only comes when Christ Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God on earth, they welcomed them; by faith, they embraced the promises of God. “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40). God makes promises to those who may not have been able to experience the fulfillment of them, yet they embraced those promises by faith and desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16).

The second passage that the WCF draws upon to teach how a Christian, by faith, embraces God’s promises in His word is 1 Timothy 4:8: “for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” God makes promises to those who pursue godliness. The promise of reward is for both this life and the life to come. At the end of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, the people were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” To which, Peter responded with a wonderful promise of the indwelling, regenerative power of the Holy Spirit: “‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.’ And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’” (Acts 2:38-40).

This is probably why the WCF concludes paragraph 2 of chapter 14 with these words: “But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.” By faith, Christians obey God’s commands, tremble at His threatenings, and embrace His promises. All of these work together as God’s means for the bringing about and building up faith and faithfulness. Yet, saving faith has – as its principle act – accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life in the covenant of grace.

Conclusion

This last point is very important because some may read these essays and arrive at the erroneous conclusion that I am making an argument for legalism or works-righteousness. By no means! There is a difference between ends and means that we must keep in mind here. The end is accepting, receiving and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life in the covenant of grace. The means which God uses (within the proclamation of His word) are commands, threats, and promises which God’s people, by faith, obey, tremble at, and embrace.

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

Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1

Dear Church Family,

In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:

Preaching: What is the Gospel?

Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3

Preaching: The Same Message No Matter the Text?

 

Introduction

Last week, we examined the inappropriate view of preaching in which some argue that every sermon ought to have the same message: justification by faith alone in Christ alone. In that essay, I tried to show the implications of such a view of preaching with regard to the calling of a pastor to feed the sheep, some basic rhetorical issues, and how it inappropriate alters (and flattens) how believers read the Scriptures. I also tried to explain why I think this methodology of preaching the same message no matter the text is attractive.

One of the main points that I sought explicate was that while God’s people need to continually hear and be reminded of how they have been saved by faith alone in Christ alone, that the Bible has more to say to God’s people than this one message. With that in mind, today we will look at a particular portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith which helps us to see the multifaceted message of God’s Word.

Insights from the Westminster Confession of Faith

Chapters 14 & 15 of the Westminster Confession of Faith deal with faith and repentance, respectively. WCF 15.1 reads: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.” Plain enough – repentance and faith in Christ are to be preached by every minister of the Gospel. Chapter 15 then goes on to define and describe the different aspects of repentance.

Chapter 14, though, provides us with some insights that helps guide and direct preachers and readers of the Word, alike. Chapter 14 (Of Saving Faith) gives the definition, source, and means of faith (14.1), the effects of saving faith (14.2), and the victory of saving faith (14.3). [1 Peter 1:1-2:12 teaches all of these.] Consider, in more detail, the second paragraph:

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. (WCF 14.2)

 

Notice the use of the two verbs (believes and acts). By faith, a Christian believes what is revealed in the Word of God because of the authority of God speaking in the Scriptures; one of the discernable marks of saving faith is that a person believes that the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God. Then – and here’s where it gets really interesting and applicable to how a preacher preaches, and how a hearer responds – by faith a Christian acts differently depending on the particular passage and its contents: (1) obeying the commands; (2) trembling at the threatenings; (3) embracing the promises. Finally, the paragraph concludes with the principal act of saving faith: receiving and resting upon Christ alone.

This portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith helps to chart the waters in the debates over what it means “to preach the gospel.” Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps, we ought to be asking, “What does it mean to preach the Word of God?” (WLC 159). Whichever question we ask, however, we need to understand WCF 14.2 and the importance of preaching the particularities of a passage (commands, threatenings, promises, or perhaps even several of these). Then, let God work faith in the hearers, a faith that manifests itself in different ways depending on the passage of Scripture that was preached. In the end, I suppose it comes down to the preacher having faith, himself – as defined in the first sentence of this paragraph – faith in the authority of God speaking in the Scriptures.

Conclusion

Here, we’ve just introduced the concept of how believers act differently based upon what each particular passage of Scripture contains. Next week, we will examine the Scriptural basis for this idea.

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