Evangelism: the Message

Definition

Evangelism is the human means by which God brings men out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s Son (Col. 1:13). People in sin are lovers of darkness, and dig deeper and deeper. How is he to be lifted up and translated into the light? It’s by evangelism. That’s the divinely appointed device.

—John Gerstner

To evangelize is to present Christ Jesus to sinful men in order that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they may come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Saviour, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His Church.

J.I. Packer, Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God

Packer makes an important point: we cannot define evangelism based on effect. Are we not evangelizing unless someone converts? We can’t define evangelism based on the desired effect, solely because we cannot guarantee the effect. Packer says, “Evangelism is man’s work, but the giving of faith is God’s.”

Anyone who delivers God’s message of mercy to sinners, under any circumstance, is evangelizing.

Doctrine and Content of Evangelism:

The theology is at the same time the message of evangelism.

You must get the message right. That’s why we start with the message. I’m not going to assume you actually know the Gospel; that you actually know correct doctrine.

We think it doesn’t really matter if we don’t get all the details right, as long as we are zealous. It is easy to subordinate the message to the mission, the evangel to evangelism, as if being busy with outreach could trump the content of what we have been given to communicate.

—Horton, Michael. The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (p. 23). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Message of Evangelism is Not . . .

Michael Horton says ours is “an age of “mission creep”—that is, a tendency to expand the church’s calling beyond its original mandate.”

—Horton, Michael. The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (p. 16). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The message is not your story. (AKA “personal testimony”)

A lot of our talk about “getting saved” in evangelical circles focuses on the day that we did something: we invited Jesus into our heart, said a prayer, went forward, or otherwise evidenced a decisive conversion experience. However, this shifts the concentration from the gospel itself (Christ’s saving work) to our experience of the gospel. We are commanded to believe the gospel, but the gospel itself is an announcement concerning Christ’s all-sufficient achievement for us.

—Horton, Michael. The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (pp. 29-30). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The message is not “Jesus wants to be your friend.” No joke, I actually heard an “evangelistic message” where the person said “Jesus is sending you a friend request.” Appalling.

The message is not “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” First, God doesn’t love everybody. And you’ll only know if God loves you if he grants you repentance and faith. The Apostles in Scripture never said this to people, by the way (that should give us a hint). Secondly, his plan is wonderful, but your experience of it might not be wonderful. If you become a Christian, you may have to suffer or even die (case in point: the Apostles). Or, if you remain an unbeliever, God’s plan for you is that you suffer eternal punishment, to the praise of his glorious justice. It’s a “wonderful plan for your life”, just not wonderful to you.

The message is not “God will make you successful, rich, and healthy.” Jesus is not the answer to your financial problems. That’s called the “prosperity gospel”, and it is a false gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is not health, wealth, and prosperity. The message of the gospel is not that you’ll have a “better” life. It is better, but not by the world’s standards.

The message is not even “God wants you to be happy.” True happiness is certainly a by-product of salvation in Christ, but not what we pursue. As C.S. Lewis said, I didn’t need God to make me happy, I always knew a bottle of port would do that. . . If you seek happiness you won’t find it, but if you seek God, you’ll get God and happiness included.

The message is not love God and love your neighbor. That’s the Law, not the Gospel. It’s nothing less than a summary of the moral law, comprehended in the Ten Commandments. That Law, according to the Apostle Paul, shows us our need for a Savior. Christ did not come merely to repeat the law’s demand to us, but to fulfill it and obey it, in our place, and die for our transgression of it.

The message is not liberation from oppressive social systems. This means that “evangelism” is not community service, social work, political activism, or humanitarian activities (as practiced by Liberals and confused Presbyterians). Each time you are preaching social work or community service, you are not preaching the only news that saves. Those other things aren’t even news, anyway. Jesus didn’t need to die and resurrect to summarize the moral law, or to tell people to love each other. The “social gospel” is a false gospel. And Liberation theology is a false theology.

On one hand, liberals see evangelism as only social work. On the other, fundamentalists see it as only saving souls.

—Joe Morecraft

When you hear people speak well of Jesus, listen carefully to see what they say about him. Many speak well of Jesus as a good man and say we should follow his example. But that’s not enough, and that’s not the gospel. Many speak well of Jesus as a holy teacher and say we should pay attention to him. But that’s not enough, and that’s not the gospel. Jesus came to meet our need. If he had left us only a good example, we could never have followed it. If he had left us only his holy teaching, we could never have lived by it. We are sinners who need a Savior. Jesus came to be that Savior. He is the Son of God who became man to die for the sins of his people and rise again.

—Starr Meade, Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds loc. 766

What is the Message?

“The message of evangelism is the whole counsel of God as revealed in His Word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.” (Biblical Evangelism: A Symposium; OPC)

Quick Application: if this is true, then evangelism should happen every Lord’s Day, in every sermon. There is no need to organize a special “evangelistic” service or “evangelistic” message in order to evangelize.

“All that is Promised Us in the Gospel”

The Heidelberg Catechism says,

21. Q. What is true faith?

A. True faith is a sure knowledge

whereby I accept as true

all that God has revealed to us in his Word. 1

At the same time it is a firm confidence 2

that not only to others, but also to me, 3

God has granted forgiveness of sins,

everlasting righteousness, and salvation, 4

out of mere grace,

only for the sake of Christ’s merits. 5

This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart

by the gospel. 6

1.Jn 17:3, 17; Heb 11:1-3; Jas 2:19.

2.Rom 4:18-21; 5:1; 10:10; Heb 4:16.

3.Gal 2:20.

4.Rom 1:17; Heb 10:10.

5.Rom 3:20-26; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-10.

6.Acts 16:14; Rom 1:16; 10:17; 1 Cor 1:21.

(Notice our favorite word: all that God has revealed in his Word)

The first part of the “true faith” we must have is faith that the Bible is God’s Word and is true in every detail. We must know and believe that the Bible is not just any book, but the revelation of God’s truth.

—Starr Meade, Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds loc. 606

People want to believe that God loves and accepts everyone. This is not what the Bible teaches. The only people who are right with God are those who have faith in Jesus Christ, who is the only Savior God has given.

—Starr Meade, Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds loc. 566

 

22. Q. What, then, must a Christian believe?

A. All that is promised us in the gospel, 1

which the articles of our

catholic and undoubted Christian faith

teach us in a summary.

1.Mt 28:19; Jn 20:30, 31.

(What is the message of evangelism, that people are commanded to believe?)

23. Q. What are these articles?

A. I.

1. I believe in God the Father almighty,

Creator of heaven and earth.

II.

2. I believe in Jesus Christ,

his only-begotten Son, our Lord;

3. he was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the virgin Mary;

4. suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, dead, and buried;

he descended into hell.

5. On the third day he arose from the dead;

6. he ascended into heaven,

and sits at the right hand

of God the Father almighty;

7. from there he will come to judge

the living and the dead.

III.

8. I believe in the Holy Spirit;

9. I believe a holy catholic Christian church,

the communion of saints;

10. the forgiveness of sins;

11. the resurrection of the body;

12. and the life everlasting.

24. Q. How are these articles divided?

A. Into three parts:

the first is about God the Father and our creation;

the second about God the Son and our redemption;

the third about God the Holy Spirit

and our sanctification.

That’s what one must believe. That is the message of evangelism. This is the content that we are proclaiming. It’s the Gospel, but it contains what the whole Word of God teaches. The Heidelberg Catechism then continues to expound on each article in the Apostles’ Creed.

For example:

26. Q. What do you believe when you say:

I believe in God the Father almighty,

Creator of heaven and earth?

A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

who out of nothing created heaven and earth

and all that is in them, 1

and who still upholds and governs them

by his eternal counsel and providence, 2

is, for the sake of Christ his Son,

my God and my Father. 3

In him I trust so completely

as to have no doubt

that he will provide me

with all things necessary for body and soul, 4

and will also turn to my good

whatever adversity he sends me

in this life of sorrow. 5

He is able to do so as almighty God, 6

and willing also as a faithful Father. 7

1. Gen 1 and 2; Ex 20:11; Job 38 and 39; Ps 33:6; Is 44:24; Acts 4:24; 14:15.

2.Ps 104:27-30; Mt 6:30; 10:29; Eph 1:11.

3.Jn 1:12, 13; Rom 8:15, 16; Gal 4:4-7; Eph 1:5.

4.Ps 55:22; Mt 6:25, 26; Lk 12:22-31.

5.Rom 8:28.

6.Gen 18:14; Rom 8:31-39.

7.Mt 6:32, 33; 7:9-11.

That’s an evangelistic tool! In fact, teaching the Apostle’s Creed has always been the practice of the church in making disciples. It’s one of the things you were required to learn before you could profess faith in Christ and received baptism, in the early church.

We’ll get more into that later in the class.

We will now survey these Christian doctrines that are both the basis for evangelism and the content of evangelism.

Reading Assignment: Reformed Evangelism” by Morton Smith

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The Content of Evangelism & Discipleship

Content:

What is the content for disciple-making? What are we delivering, what are we sharing?

This is a very basic question to ask. By basic, I don’t mean easy, necessarily. I mean logically basic, or foundational. You’ve got to have this question answered first. Before you begin making disciples, you need to know what you are giving, what message, what content. What is the subject matter.

Another reason for this question being so important is all the different answers that are in the world today.

  1. Some say personal, life experience is what you are sharing with someone.
  2. Others say rules and behavior, to make someone conform to a certain lifestyle.
  3. Others say it is as broad as public education (anything you would learn in school is discipleship material).
  4. Some Christians imply that it is secret, or special knowledge that is transferred to disciples (in contrast to “normal” Christians).
  5. And some churches think of disciple-making more about practical than cognitive content: training, skills (like this obsession with “leadership” seminars that they seem to have).
  6. Fundamentalism has narrowed the content down to a list of “fundamentals” with a whole lot of rules about what activities you’re not allowed to do (drinking, dancing, movies, etc.).
  7. Liberalism has done away with doctrinal content and replaced it with community service, social work, and political activism.
  8. The program-driven churches see the “content” of disciple-making to be activity, or service. Kid’s programs, youth programs, fun and games, small group activities, small group Bible studies, prayer meetings, evangelistic outreaches. If you’re really growing, you’ll do things like set up the chairs The most spiritual activity of all: short-term missions trips. Sure proof that you are a mature disciple.
  9. And the individualists, who view disciple-making as purely personal and anti-institutional (apart from the local church), see the content as personal disciplines: personal prayer, personal Bible reading/study (aka “quiet time”), personal evangelism, and maybe some “fellowship” (whatever that means). Discipleship is all about teaching them these skills.

So, who is right? Well, some are more wrong than others. To find out what the content for disciple-making is, we need to look at Scripture. And many of those listed above cite Scripture (some less than others!). Of course, when it comes to justifying beliefs and practices, select parts of Scripture are not enough, but the whole breadth (tota Scriptura).

Word/Gospel

We will argue that the content for making disciples is the Word of God, in general, and the Gospel, in particular. Notice that I am not distinguishing between evangelism and discipleship; we are not separating them. The content for both is the same.

How do we think about the content of evangelism versus the content for discipleship, usually? We tend to separate the two practices, and say that the content is different for each. The Gospel is for evangelism, supposedly. And the rest of the Bible (but not the Gospel) is for discipleship. The Gospel is to get you into Christianity, then you move on from the Gospel to everything else the Bible says, for your discipleship.

Now, is this an accurate view? No.

Paul didn’t just talk about Jesus as he evangelized; he talked about creation, God’s decrees, the judgment (Acts 17:22-31). And in every letter he wrote to the churches (Christian disciples), he focused on the Gospel.

Evangelism and discipleship are not two different kinds of things. Rather, it’s the same subject matter, the same content, just in different situations or contexts; a different audience. If you’re talking to unbelievers, you are obviously evangelizing. If you are talking to believers, they are already disciples. But even there, with disciples, they still need the Gospel. We still need to be “evangelized” all through the Christian life.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is central to both evangelism and discipleship. And the whole Word of God is the subject matter for discipleship and evangelism (at least implicitly).

*Why am I starting this way? Because I detect that it is not understood here, very well. Usually, I only hear the Gospel preached when it’s specifically targeted at unbelievers. But, if there’s only “church members”, the Gospel usually is not mentioned at all. So clearly, what unbelievers need to hear and what Christians need to hear are two different things.

But they should not be separated as to different kinds of things. They are distinct, but because of context; not distinct in content.

The Gospel cannot be understood on its own. The message about Jesus Christ fits within the larger redemptive context of the whole Bible. And you see this in the sermons preached in Acts. The whole Bible is the framework, the “covenantal context” in which the Gospel is interpreted.

So, in “evangelizing” to unbelievers, they need more than just a narrow “Gospel presentation.” They need broader instruction from the rest of Scripture to make sense out of the good news.

The Gospel is the climax, the center, whole point of the Bible. The Bible leads up to it, then expounds it. Jesus said that the entire Old Testament spoke about him (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48). That means, you are not actually teaching or preaching the Bible correctly if you leave the Gospel of Jesus Christ out.

So, in “discipling” believers, in teaching or preaching to Christians, the Gospel must be central! Every sermon must include the Gospel. The Gospel is the center of Scripture, so disciples cannot be taught from Scripture properly without the Gospel. Disciples constantly need to be reminded of the grace of God provided in Jesus Christ. That’s the primary motivation for obedience, in fact. Indeed, every text is implicitly a Gospel text. If it’s telling us to do something, then it’s Law that shows us how we fall short of God’s requirements, and shows us our need for Christ’s righteousness and death. If it is a grace text, then there’s the Gospel. In short, if we are not “evangelizing” disciples, we are not discipling correctly.

It should be clear, then, that the body of content for making disciples is the Word of God, in general, and the Gospel, in particular. Your audience will change (believers or unbelievers), but the content will not. What do we use to evangelize unbelievers? The whole Word of God. What do we use to disciple Christians? The Gospel. Both are true.

This explains why we will spend so much time on doctrine in this class.

Once more, from the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 89. 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.1

(1) Neh 8:8-9; Acts 20:32; Rom 10:14-17; 2 Tim 3:15-17

Notice how the Catechism doesn’t distinguish one part of the Word (the Gospel) for “convincing and converting”, and another part for “building them up.” It’s the whole Word of God that is made an effectual means of salvation, for the conversion of sinners and the edification of believers.

Just like Jesus said: teach the Word. And just as the Apostles did. This should shape our methodology of evangelism and discipleship.

Go back to the Great Commission: what was the second thing that the Lord Jesus command the disciples to do, to make disciples? Teach. And what did he say to teach, in order to make disciples?

“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:20)

Notice that keyword: “ALL”. Not a few things. Not as little as possible. Not a bare minimum. Not a “mere Christianity.” Everything. Jesus’ commission is not a lowest-common-denominator approach. ALL!

Disciples are to be taught to obey all the words of Christ. That means the whole Word of God. All of it is the content for disciple-making. Nothing is to be left out. Clearly, the Apostle Paul understood this, declaring that:

. . . I did not shrink back from proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching it to you in public and from house to house. I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus.

. . . Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of everyone’s blood, for I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole plan of God.

—Acts 20:20-21, 26-27

Paul did not hold anything back. He proclaimed anything profitable, and in public or private settings. He did not hold back any of God’s Word, from them. That’s why he is innocent. Everyone there has been given all the information, left without excuse. No one can point fingers at Paul, accusing him of not telling them everything that they needed to hear.

The same needs to be true of anyone engaging in making disciples. Anyone that shares God’s truth with unbelievers must hold nothing back. Anyone who shares God’s truth with believers must hold nothing back (including the Gospel).

Warnings:

  1. A Misunderstanding. Don’t misunderstand: this is not saying anything about time, or how long it will take. Don’t think this means you have to dump all of Scripture on someone every time you talk. Or if you had 20 minutes talking to an unbeliever, you should said “the whole counsel of God.” That’s not the point, here. The point is that evangelism and discipleship hasn’t been done if the whole Word of God hasn’t declared. Naturally, that should take a period of time. It’s a process. If you’ve only got 10 minutes with someone, then say what you can in 10 minutes. And pick up where you left off the next time you see that person. If, by God’s providence, you never see them again, that’s not your fault.
  2. An Excuse. Now, having said that, do not use that as an excuse to not teach the whole counsel of God. Yes, making disciples is a process. You simply cannot say everything all at one time. Though that is true, do not use that as an excuse for never declaring the whole plan of God, and for not proclaiming everything that is profitable, in public and from house to house. I heard this excuse recently. The idea was that we slowly instruct and teach, so that these people [unbelievers] learn and eventually obey the Bible. Sound good and right? Yes. But, these people have been here for years, and those who have learned the basics of Christianity are still are not obeying the basic things, and the others haven’t even learned the basics (see Heb. 5:12-14). So, the idea was correct. But I don’t believe that’s actually the intention, because I don’t see any evidence of it. It was just words, without actions. The fact that making disciples is a process can be used to justify laziness, dumbing down, “shrinking back” (contrary to Paul), and not “teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” It must be our intention to obey Christ, like Paul did. And it will be obvious over the long term if we ever did intend to declare the whole counsel of God, or just pretended to.

All that has been said obviously means that whoever is making disciples needs to know the whole breadth of Scripture. Again, ALL. That is why we will survey a lot of doctrine in this class.

Thank God that we have tools to learn the whole counsel of God for ourselves, and in turn to help us in teaching all of Christ’s words to others.

Tools: Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms.

Apostles’ Creed is a summary of the Gospel. Know that, and you know what you need to tell an unbeliever. Of course, you don’t leave them at that level, but it is a good starting point.

Voddie Baucham, on Confessions:

Christians have always been creedal/ confessional people. And these creeds and confessions have always served at least three purposes. First, confessions of faith serve to unite believers with their historical roots. This has been important since the time of the New Testament, when Paul wrote, “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2: 2). Paul also admonished Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1: 13– 14). And again, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” (2 Tim. 3: 14).

The urgency of passing on this “pattern of sound teaching” did not end with the apostles or the New Testament church. This is the obligation of every Christian generation, and our confessions are an expression of our acceptance of that reality. I find it both ironic and disturbing that Christians want to (1) forsake confessionalism and (2) make disciples. The result of this is a kind of remaking Christianity over and over again. It’s a bit like having a commitment to training doctors without relying on what we’ve learned through years of practicing medicine. Certainly we must not be slaves to tradition. However, it is equally wrong to ignore tradition altogether. It’s one thing to try to improve on Gray’s Anatomy; but trying to write an anatomy textbook without relying on or referring to this influential work would be ridiculous.

Second, confessions served to clarify the distinct beliefs of various groups of Christians. For example, in the foreword to the Second London Baptist Confession, the authors wrote, “For the information, and satisfaction of those, that did not thoroughly understand what our principles were, or had entertained prejudices against our Profession.” Did you catch that? There were people who, for whatever reason, misunderstood what seventeenth-century Baptists believed, and the confession was designed, at least in part, to confront and correct those misconceptions. In other words, the confession was an apologetic!

Third, confessions serve as a standard and starting point for disciple making. As a father to nine children, I confess that the idea of bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6: 4) is overwhelming. The same is true for me as a pastor. I can’t imagine having to figure out where to start and what to teach.

Again, the foreword to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession is helpful:

And verily there is one spring and cause of the decay of Religion in our day, which we cannot but touch upon, and earnestly urge a redress of; and that is the neglect of the worship of God in Families, by those to whom the charge and conduct of them is committed. May not the gross ignorance, and instability of many; with the profaneness of others, be justly charged upon their Parents and Masters; who have not trained them up in the way wherein they ought to walk when they were young? but have neglected those frequent and solemn commands which the Lord hath laid upon them so to catechize, and instruct them, that their tender years might be seasoned with the knowledge of the truth of God as revealed in the Scriptures.

Note that this is the foreword to a thirty-two-chapter minisystematic theology! The idea here is clear: We ought to use our confessions in the discipleship of our children as well as recent converts. This is a hallmark of the Reformed tradition, and we would do well to revive it.

—Baucham Jr., Voddie. Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word (Kindle Locations 1437-1464). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

Appropriately, we will be using Confessions and Catechisms in this class! This will serve several purposes at once:

  1. You will be instructed by them. Surprise! You’re being discipled in “Evangelism & Discipleship” class. You will learn the doctrines that are foundational to evangelism and discipleship.
  2. You will learn the content of evangelism and discipleship, the subject matter that you need to communicate to unbelievers and believers.
  3. As an example. From experiencing this class, you will have learned how the Confessions and Catechisms can be used, and so you can use them yourself as tools for evangelism and discipleship. You have had it done to you, so now you know how to do it for others. Even if all you did was copy this class and use it, you would be doing well.

The Rest of the Class:

From now on, the class will be divided into two. We will finally be getting into Evangelism & Discipleship.

We’ll cover Evangelism, the doctrine and practice, then Discipleship, the doctrine and practice.

Now, I split the doctrine in two for pedagogical reasons. Even though, as I argued earlier, the content for both evangelism and discipleship is the whole Bible, for teaching purposes will divide it. We’ll survey the doctrine that’s more directly relevant to evangelism before talking about evangelistic methodology. Then we’ll cover the doctrine more directly relevant to discipleship, before covering discipleship in practice. Rather than cover all the doctrine, then forget half of it before getting to discipleship, will have it fresh in mind.

Some doctrine is more immediately relevant to evangelism: God’s decrees, sin, regeneration, justification and adoption, repentance and faith, Jesus and his offices as mediator.

Other doctrines are more immediately relevant to discipleship: sanctification, the church, sacraments and church discipline.

Unbelievers need to be instructed in all those biblical teachings. So do Christian disciples. But purely for teaching reasons, because I know how our memories are, we’ll divide them between evangelism and discipleship.

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Ordinary Disciple-Making

The Command: Make Disciples

If we are going to study evangelism and discipleship, then we need to be sure it’s actually an obligation. Why study it, if it’s not something required of us? Making disciples is in fact a command.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20

The entire “evangelism & discipleship” course is comprehended in this text.

Notice exactly what is contained in the Great Commission. Jesus doesn’t just tell us a goal. He doesn’t just say “make disciples” and nothing else; he doesn’t give us the goal, and then leave us to decide how to achieve that goal. No. He actually tells us how. So if you want disciple-making according to Jesus, here it is. He says “make disciples.” That’s the goal. And he tells the disciples how to achieve that goal.

  • Goal: make disciples
  • How to achieve it: 1. Baptize 2. Teach everything.

How do you make disciples? Baptizing and teaching everything. That’s it! It’s doesn’t get simpler than that. And we see exactly this in the book of Acts. We see the inspired, inerrant, authoritative record of how the Apostles understood the Great Commission and their obedience to it. And it’s what Jesus said: Word and Sacrament. We see disciple-making in more detail in Acts 2:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Acts 2:41-42

Peter preached the Word, and baptism followed faith and repentance. Then, they devoted themselves to more of the Word, and the other sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. This is obedience to the Great Commission.

Again, not complicated. The picture is simple. Making disciples may be hard work, but it’s not hard to understand. If disciplemaking is complicated, then it’s because we have made it that way. That’s not by Christ’s design.

What does disciple-making look like? What does obedience to the Great Commission look like? It looks like what the Apostle’s did in the book of Acts. It’s ordinary “means of grace” ministry.

To quickly apply this: if our method of making disciples doesn’t look like that [Acts 2:41-42], then we’re doing it wrong.

Hence, our Westminster Shorter Catechism asks:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?

A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.  (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 2:41-42)

Notice the proof texts! The texts we have studied. The Catechism has simply formulated what the Scripture says. This is what making disciples looks like in Scripture. It’s what Jesus commanded, it’s what the Apostles carried out.

You see, God in his Word has not just given us a mission: make disciples. He has also given us the means of making disciples; the instruments to carry out the mission. We don’t need, nor are we at liberty to, invent our own means for making disciples. As if God has left us unequipped to accomplish the mission. We are not at liberty to ignore his means in favor of “new measures.” As if we are wiser than God. “Thanks, Lord Jesus, but we have a better way.” The Lord Jesus has not just given us optional tools, but he has ordained, commanded that we use these outward and ordinary means.

*Side note: this should be really encouraging to you who are studying evangelism and discipleship. If Scripture actually prescribes something, then we are actually limited in what we need to study. The subject has been simplified, for us.

The Lord Jesus has ordained the means to make disciples. And these means are consistent with the theology of Scripture. That should make sense: God will not contradict who he is and what he has said. And so, as we look at and discuss methods of evangelism and discipleship, we must remember that they must never contradict the doctrine and practice of Scripture. That’s why our Standards formulate both doctrine and practice (such as the Shorter Catechism, above). Theology must drive methodology.

God has ordained the means of making disciples. There is a divinely established relationship between the salvation of sinners and the outward means. They are not identical (that’s Rome), but they are distinct. Meaning, God is not dependent on the means. Case in point: the thief on the cross was saved by faith, apart from baptism. They are the ordinary means, but not necessary (i.e. God is not bound by them, grace is not attached to them).

However, if you think the inward grace and the outward means are separate (like most evangelicals), obviously that will result in a different methodology. Evangelicalism has effectively replaced the ordinary means with other rituals.

[A] lack of belief in the divine nature of the Church, the ordinary means of grace, and the pastoral office, lead to the belief that these things could be safely abandoned or ignored when they don’t seem to be working. This led Finney to seek better methods in the form of specially designed meetings and methods that, in Finney’s estimation, were more effective in producing converts and advancing the Gospel. Special revival meetings and other novelties were continually needed to advance the Gospel. Because the Church has so little life and power, and no divine mandate for her traditional methods, new excitements must therefore be continually sought.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 109).  . Kindle Edition.

We’ll look briefly at one of these ordinary and outward means: the Word. This is the primary ordinance, which defines the others.

Again, from our Shorter Catechism:

Q. 89. 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.  (Neh 8:8-9; Acts 20:32; Rom 10:14-17; 2 Tim 3:15-17)

Just like Jesus said: teach the Word. And just as the Apostles did: the Word was preached and 3,000 were convinced and converted, then they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching.

What does the catechism mean by “effectual to salvation”? Effectual means it actually gives the effect, it actually achieves the result for which it’s designed: salvation. The instrument will actually work. How then, do the instruments work? How are the outward and ordinary means made effective? The Holy Spirit makes them work. See, they don’t work on their own (as Rome says). Neither does grace ordinarily come apart from them (evangelicalism). The effect comes from the work of the Spirit of God.

It’s God the Holy Spirit that makes the Word work. Without him, there will be no effect, no salvation. The Holy Spirit works by and with the Word, as our Confession says. Notice, that especially the preaching of the Word is made an effectual means of salvation. Preaching has priority over reading. Preaching happens in church, on the Lord’s Day. The vast majority of the emphasis is placed on preaching, in the New Testament. Also, it’s simply a historical fact that the public preaching of the Word has always been a part of the Christian life, while personal Bible reading has not. What percentage of believers throughout history have even possessed a personal copy of God’s Word? When was the printing press invented?

To quickly apply this: an method of discipleship that puts all the emphasis on personal Bible reading and study is not only out of touch with the Westminster Standards (following Scripture), but with church history as well.

The Holy Spirit makes the Word effective in convincing, persuading, changing the minds of the sinner. Of converting them, turning them away from sin and towards Christ. After they have been “evangelized,” the Word is continually made effective to build them up in holiness, sanctifying them. That’s the rest of the Christian life (discipleship). The Holy Spirit makes the Word of God effective as the primary means of making disciples.

That’s just a taste, as we will go more in depth later on.

Another Reformed Creed says the same thing:

In order that people may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends proclaimers of this very joyful message to the people he wishes and at the time he wishes. By this ministry people are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. For how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without someone preaching? And how shall they preach unless they have been sent? (Rom. 10:14-15).

Canons of Dort 1.3

If you want God-given results, you must use the God-given means. As G.I. Williamson says, “What we need, then, is not only to seek eternal life, but to seek it in the right way.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism: For Study Classes, Kindle Location 3184). As I told my high school students: seek God’s grace in God’s way.

And now to you: seek the salvation of sinners, but seek it in the right way. Offer God’s grace to sinners in God’s way. Make disciples of Jesus, and do it Jesus’ way.

As Francis Schaeffer famously said: “we must do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way.”

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Theology Drives Methodology

 

Theology —> Methodology

Doctrine —> Practice

(Bible) —> Method

In contemporary evangelicalism, it is often asserted that methodology does not matter as long as the message does not change. In theological terms, it is thought that evangelistic methods fall in the category of adiaphora, or things indifferent. . . this is not the case. . . methods mattered greatly because depending upon the methods employed, one would find themselves working in harmony with the revealed will of God and furthering the work of His Church, or placing oneself in opposition to the workings of His Spirit and harming the cause of Christ. 

This understanding of the intimate relationship between theology and methodology, however, has been largely lost in the contemporary Church.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 6).  . Kindle Edition.

We must not begin our study of evangelism and discipleship with methods, practices, or strategies first. That is not the order of things. Methods, practices, and strategies are not neutral. They have a basis. There are presuppositions, convictions that are foundational to them. Behind every practice is a theory. Behind every evangelistic method there is a theology that created it. Underneath every discipleship strategy is a theology that gave rise to it.

. . . by their very nature, different methodologies send different messages. If we are to assume the correctness of a certain theological system, then there are certain methods which naturally flow out of, and promote, that system. Particular methodologies have embedded within them particular theologies.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 112).  . Kindle Edition.

This is the relationship between theology and practice. This should be the order for all the “practical theology” courses. In the Reformed world, we let our theology control our practice. That’s what makes Reformed theology and Reformed churches different. To demonstrate this, and preview what we will study in the future, we’ll look at the Reformed doctrine of God and other doctrines, and briefly apply them to evangelism and discipleship:

R.C. Sproul began his lecture, “The Doctrine of God in the Confession” (The Westminster Confession for Today Conference, 2007, RTS) with a paradox. Speaking of the Reformed faith, our doctrine of God is not very distinctive. It’s pretty catholic. We recognize one God in three persons, with his attributes, just as many other streams of Christianity.
At the same time, but not in the same relationship, Dr. Sproul says, that the single most distinctive aspect of Reformed theology is the doctrine of God.

What does that mean? Our doctrine of God is not very distinctive, yet it is the most distinctive aspect of Reformed theology? R.C. Sproul explains:

What is so distinctive about Reformed theology and the doctrine of God is that in our theology the doctrine of God is the controlling concept that defines all of our theology and practice.
He further explains the difference between Reformed theology and non-Reformed theologies. For other Christian communions/denominations, they will cite what they believe about the doctrine of God in their confession or creed, but by the time they move on to the next subdivision of theology, they have forgotten the doctrine of God. This results in inconsistency between the doctrine of God and other points of their theology. For our purposes, this inconsistency especially affects their practice. They have their doctrine of God, theology inconsistent with it, and as a result inconsistent practice.
Reformed theology, on the other hand, is controlled by our understanding of God. The doctrine of God permeates and determines every subdivision of our theology. This includes our doctrine of the creation, man, the church, salvation, Christ, worship, etc. Reformed theology strives to maintain consistency between the doctrine of God and all other subdivisions of theology.

And, we should add, the doctrine of God, controlling all subdivisions of theology, must also control our practice. Consistent Reformed theology drives Reformed methodology.

Doctrine of God (theology proper) → Reformed Theology (subdivisions) → Reformed practice

Here are some points of doctrine to demonstrate this relationship between Reformed theology and making disciples.

Election
Our doctrine of God controls what we believe about salvation. As the Confession says, God is “most free” (WCF 2.1). This is why we accept the doctrine of unconditional election. God has the freedom to elect some people to everlasting life, from eternity. God’s free to choose, and the decision is completely in him. There is no condition in man that affects God’s decision to save. There is nothing desirable in us. The creature contributes nothing to the Creator’s decision. It is completely God’s choice. His actions are not determined, or influenced. Has not the potter freedom over the clay?

Related to our practice of evangelism and discipleship. God is most free, and elects who will be saved. This should give us confidence that evangelism and discipleship will be successful. We don’t panic when the biblical method doesn’t work, and scramble for a better method, because we know God has elected some to salvation, already. Ultimately, the conversion of sinners is not dependant on us.

Also, as we proclaim the Gospel to all people, we will not even imply that election is in any way conditioned on them. Not even their faith and repentance influences God’s decision. Likewise, in our offer of the Gospel we cannot contradict Jesus’ words, “you didn’t choose me, but I chose you.” Therefore, we may not call people to “choose Jesus,” as if that settles the matter. Rather, using the biblical language, we call people to repent and believe.

Repentance
God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice determines our view of repentance. There is no salvation without repentance of sin. There is no reconciliation of sinful man to a holy God without God’s righteous justice. That is why Jesus needed to die. And that is why believers are dead to sin. God will never compromise his holiness. The Holy Spirit breaks the power of sin over us initially, and then purifies us progressively. Repentance is not only in the beginning of the Christian life but throughout it. That is why there are no adulterous Christians, or murdering Christians, or “homosexual Christians.” God is holy.

This certainly impacts our practice of evangelism and discipleship. Repentance is half of conversion. It is because God is holy that we call, indeed, command that all people everywhere repent (Acts 17:30). So in evangelism, we call people to repent of sin, and particular sins, and their sinfulness. These could very well require us to call out specific cultural sins, sins that are popular to our hearers. Throughout discipleship, repentance is daily. As Martin Luther said, the whole Christian life is one of repentance. All this, based on our doctrine of God.

Church Discipline
God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice also determine our doctrine of the church, specifically the mark of church discipline. We don’t allow unrepentant sinners into church membership. We are a holy nation. And when someone in the church is unrepentant, we execute church discipline in the hope of repentance and restoration. This is why there can be no tolerance of the sin of homosexuality within the church of Jesus Christ. We are God’s people, set apart in Christ who died for our sins, taken out of sin by God, freed from sin’s power by the Holy Spirit, dying to sin daily, and to be glorified and completely clean from sin after death.

Church discipline is the negative side of discipleship. As the church engages in making disciples, she also obeys Christ’s command to keep pure, to rebuke and correct, the goal being restoration and greater holiness. If God was not righteous or just, this wouldn’t matter. But he is, so it does. A church that does not practice church discipline is simply not making disciples.

Particular Redemption
Understanding the Tri-unity of God is vital to understanding Christ’s atonement.

In general, the doctrine of the Trinity may be stated thus: In the Godhead, three distinct persons, who are the same in substance and equal in power and glory, subsist in a single indivisible essence. —Beattie, loc. 771

The persons of the Trinity are always in agreement in all divine acts. Christ says that the Father has given him a flock, and that he won’t lose any of them. Who does the Holy Spirit save? Clearly not everybody, since some will end up in hell. The Holy Spirit unites those to Christ who believe in Jesus Christ. No one can see the kingdom of God, unless he is born again. So we have the Father choosing a particular number of people, out of all sinners, to deliver from sin and misery into salvation, by a Redeemer: Jesus Christ. What about the 2nd Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ? Who did Christ make atonement for? Did Jesus Christ die for all people? If he did, suddenly the agreement between the divine persons is broken in the divine act of redemption. The Father gave a specific number to the Son, and the Holy Spirit only applies the benefits of Christ’s work to the elect. How can the Son then be doing his own thing, so to speak, in dying for the sins of people not chosen and not to be regenerated? No, Christ died for the elect, and the elect only. The redemption purchased by Christ was particular.

And so in making disciples we must have this understanding. A key practical effect of this doctrine of God is that we don’t communicate, even implicitly, that God loves everybody equally, or that Jesus Christ died for everyone. That would be to lie.

Worship
A word regarding worship: God is worshiped in spirit and truth, according to who he truly is. This is a clear connection between the doctrine of God and the rest of our theology. R.C. Sproul always says,

“Nothing reveals more clearly to the watching world what your doctrine of God is more than how you worship Him.”

How we worship announces who we think God is and what is pleasing to him. Unfortunately, even in Presbyterian churches, worship is more about what pleases us. The nature and character of God should regulate and control our worship. The songs that are being sung in your congregation, do their words contradict our doctrine of God in the Standards? Do the prayers accurately reflect who God is? Are the elements of worship consistent with the doctrine of God? The entirety of our worship must be consciously and intentionally determined by who God is.

As we will see, the worship of the church is essential to discipleship. The means of saving and building up the saints are the ordinances that the Lord Jesus gave to his church. So if we are to make disciples correctly, God’s way, then our worship needs to be correct. And that means our practice of worship, how we do it, must be consistent with our theology. The church’s worship cannot contradict who God is, and what he’s revealed in Scripture. If it does, then all the Christians are being taught false doctrine through the worship! They are not being instructed rightly, and they are not actually being discipled, at that point. And if any unbelievers are present, they are not being presented with the right message, either.

Theology drives methodology. This is true of worship, apologetics, missions, and evangelism and discipleship. We must begin this course with our theology. Because if we don’t, you will choose a method of evangelism and discipleship that will probably contradict Reformed theology. You’ll adopt a method that is based on a different theology (meaning, unbiblical beliefs). And this is what has happened in our context. People who are supposed to be Presbyterian are using evangelism and discipleship methods that are based on Arminian theology!

If man can repent at any time, and God is already doing as much as he can, then the onus of bringing about conversions necessarily falls upon man. It is up to man to come up with the best possible methods in order to save as many people as possible. A failure to use the best and most innovative methods is equivalent to a failure to truly desire men’s salvation.

Locating the source of man’s salvation in man and his methods also places upon the backs of Christians a crushing burden of responsibility that has the potential to lead to imbalance and burnout. If your lack of action in pursuing the salvation of men could result in their damnation, then it is imperative that you exhaust yourself at all times in seeking their salvation. Devoting time to discipleship, recreation, or family, are of secondary importance, by far. Lives are on the line. The time spent on a family picnic might have been the only opportunity that someone had to hear the Gospel from you. But because you went on a picnic, someone is now going to hell.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 108).  . Kindle Edition.

We begin with theology. Meaning, we begin with the teaching of the Bible. As Presbyterians, we have that teaching written down in an orderly form. We have a summary of biblical doctrine, and they are the doctrinal standards of Presbyterians everywhere: the Westminster Standards. The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. They are the system of doctrine contained in the Bible. They set out the system of doctrine, practice, and ethics of Scripture. So we will begin this course with a study of relevant doctrines from these Standards. We’ll also complement them with the other Reformed creeds: the Three Forms of Unity.

After nailing down our theology, we will look at application. The “how” of evangelism and discipleship, consistent with what we believe. It will be a Reformed or Presbyterian method of evangelism and discipleship. Because we are starting with Reformed theology, the method of evangelism and discipleship will probably be different than what you are familiar with.

If . . . we believe that God is sovereign in the calling, regeneration, and conversion of sinners, then a high pressure system that presses for conversion is unnecessary, unbiblical, and harmful. The Bench should be abandoned. If one were to share [the] conviction that God is the author of salvation, and that he will save sinners in the way that he has prescribed, then a consistent implementation of those views would lead one to arrive at a belief in the importance of the ordinary means of grace in the local ministry of the Church. Such beliefs also foster an attitude of humble dependence upon God, and a comfort and reassurance that He is a loving heavenly Father who is both powerful and willing to care for the souls of men.

—Dahlfred, Karl . Theology Drives Methodology: Conversion in the Theology of Charles Finney and John Nevin (p. 109).  . Kindle Edition.

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The Most Delectable Discourse

Holy and heavenly discourse is the most delectable. I mean in its own aptitude, and to a mind that is not diseased by corruption. That which is most great, and good, and necessary, is most delectable. What should best please us, but that which is best for us? and best for others? and best in itself? The excellency of the subject maketh it delightful! And so doth the exercise of our graces upon it: and serious conference doth help down the truth into our hearts, where it is most sweet. Besides that nature and charity make it pleasant to do good to others. It can be nothing better than a subversion of the appetite by carnality and wickedness, that maketh any one think idle jests, or tales, or plays, to be more pleasant than spiritual, heavenly conference; and the talking of riches, or sports, or lusts, to be sweeter than to talk of God, and Christ, and grace, and glory. A holy mind hath a continual feast in itself in meditating on these things, and the communicating of such thoughts to others, is a more common, and so a more pleasant feast.

—Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory, “Christian Politics” ch. 16, “Special Directions for Christian Conference, Exhortation, and Reproof” (loc. 46756)

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Christian Motivators for Obedience

I’ve started listening to Theocast, all the way from episode one. I listened to episode three, today: Rethinking Romans 6 & Sanctification.

The episode is gold. Listen to it. Lots of misunderstandings are confronted.

I have some reflections based on several highlights:

In Adam: dread, merit, and guilt are our motivators. In Christ: delight and love.

The thing is, I know Christians that believe that love for God is not a sufficient motivator for obedience. Meaning, it’s not good enough. It can’t do the job. If you’re not in dread of God, you won’t live right. So they major on dread. That’s their definition of the “fear of the Lord.” It’s as if there’s no category for filial fear. Only the fear of God as judge, only the dread of punishment. That’s the chief motivation for obedience: you’re scared of God.

There’s a huge problem with that: you don’t have to be a Christian for that. The unregenerate have the exact same motivation for their “good works.” What exactly makes the dread motive Christian? It’s as if the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, his active and passive obedience, didn’t change our relationship with the Father at all! We are still motivated like an unbeliever!

Quite to the contrary, God has told us in his Word that, because of Jesus Christ, the believer has peace with God. No more enmity, but communion. Because we are justified and adopted, we have peace with God. Christ perfectly obeyed the law, fulfilling all righteousness, earning everlasting life for us. So that strikes merit as a motivator. Christ also completely paid the penalty for sin, taking the complete punishment on himself. So that strikes dread as motivator. And Christ is freely offered to us, not to be repaid. That strikes guilt as a motivator.

Yes, God is the Judge. That’s why Christ lived and died. To obey the law and pay the penalty Adam incurred for breaking the covenant. And Christ was raised for our justification. As our Confession (8.5) says, Christ satisfied God’s justice. That’s why we are justified. So, if you repent and believe in Jesus Christ, you are at peace with God the Judge. We should think and live like it, instead of thinking that the Judge is still angry. Too many think that that’s the only motivation: don’t piss off the Judge. It’s reducing our relationship to the Father as only a legal relationship, while ignoring justification.

Excuse me? Does anyone remember that God is not merely our judge but also our Father? A Christian’s relationship to God is not merely a legal one, but also one of love. They don’t conflict with each other, either. Justification provides the basis for adoption; you can’t have one without the other. God is not merely our satisfied Judge, but also our loving Father. We are not only justified because of Christ’s work, but also adopted. Hence, the Westminster Confession of Faith has a chapter (12) on adoption. It’s the only Reformed creed to have a chapter on adoption, by the way. Due attention to adoption needs to be paid.

I think the doctrine of adoption is wholly missing in evangelical theology.

—Byron Yawn

I agree. Look at what comfort the doctrine of adoption provides. Never to be cast off! And what motivation? All the privileges are yours! Your Elder Brother, Jesus Christ, earned them for you! You are not obeying to merit anything. Good thing, too, because you have never perfectly obeyed for one minute of your life. How liberating. Obedience from adoption, without fear of condemnation for falling short of perfection (which is a guarantee). Doesn’t the reality of our justification and adoption bring delight? Does this love for your Father in heaven not motivate you to please him?

Go back to Christ’s obedience! Don’t un-crucify and un-resurrect Christ in order to create motivations for obedience. As if the only way a Christian will live like a Christian is if they think they are not a Christian (justified and adopted) and those realities that are true of Christians are not true of them. Completely compromise your justification, adoption, and peace with God. Replacing the delight and love of God with dread, merit, and guilt (going back to Adam!). So, since your in Christ, be motivated like you’re still in Adam, under the law, a slave to sin, with the wrath of God hanging over you? Really? 

Where’s Christ in that Christian life?

Why obey? Because your identity is in Christ. Union with Christ. Transfer from “have to obey” to “you can obey and you will.” It’s innate. “If there’s no dread, then everybody will just do what they want! So let’s compromise their future salvation, we’ll disrupt their security, rob them of their assurance. That’ll keep the people in line. Dread of God and meriting salvation are the motivators.” That’s exactly the position of the Church of Rome. Contrast with what Paul says. We are a new creation. We obey because we can. It’s who we are, now. We belong to Christ, so obeying is what we do. We are no longer slaves to sin, so we can say “no.” And in understanding the Gospel, what Christ has done to accomplish our redemption (see above), we should be thankful. Gratitude is a natural motivation to obedience, is it not? Delight in Christ. Now that we are capable of loving God, which is what man was created to do in the first place, we love and obey him. Because it’s who we are in Christ.

Let’s conclude with Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 86:

Q. Since we have been delivered from our misery by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why then should we do good works?

A. Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits, so that he may be praised through us, so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.

Plenty of principle and motivation for obedience, right there.

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Reflections on Teaching the Westminster Standards

I have now taught the Westminster Standards twice. I have expounded every section of every paragraph of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and every question and answer of both the Shorter, and even the Larger, Catechisms. Twice. The first time was over a 15-ish week semester. The second time was 5 days straight. Exhausting, yes. But I loved it.

I don’t want to waste the experience, and since evaluated experience is the best teacher, I want to reflect a bit. I want to think about teaching the Standards from various angles:

  • The Westminster Standards as subject matter for exposition.
  • The experience of teaching the Westminster Standards.
  • Teaching them over a semester, in an academic setting, to a certain class of students.
  • Teaching them in one week, in a non-academic setting, to a voluntary audience.
  • Finally, comparing those two rounds of teaching.

*Henceforth, I will refer to the Westminster Standards as simply “the Standards.”

Let us begin.

The Standards as the Subject Matter for Exposition

Not everything under the sun is included in the Standards. However, there is so much. It will nail, meaning confront, so many issues. And those will be the important issues.

The Standards cover a lot of ground. And they should. A ten point, one page “statement of faith” won’t thoroughly prepare you for that church you plan on visiting. It doesn’t even give the people already there a scope of what that church believes. But the Standards will tell you exactly what to expect from the teaching, worship, structure, and discipline of any church that subscribes to them.

You’ll know the summary of Scripture if you know the Standards. Yet, the Confession is brief, containing the essentials. The Shorter Catechism is short and to the point. It’s impressive what a small book the Standards do make, considering everything they contain and imply (even including the Larger Catechism).

Though the Standards are Reformed creeds, they obviously contain more than the so-called “5 points of Calvinism,” also known as “the doctrines of grace.” They are present, though they aren’t stated that way. And they aren’t necessarily front and center as you might expect. Rather, the Standards contain complete Calvinism. Indeed, this might be a newsflash, but “Calvinism” includes more than a mere five points concerning salvation. Those few points alone don’t make anyone “Reformed” or “Calvinist.” They are necessary doctrines, but by no means sufficient. Calvinism, or Reformed theology, is a complete system. And so the Standards contain not only doctrines beyond salvation, but also ethics, worship, and even church government. A full-orbed doctrine of the church is expounded in the Larger Catechism. Yes, Calvinism includes ecclesiology. Oh, and corporate worship!

Two of my absolute favorite parts of the Standards are: the Law and Prayer. What’s funny is that the Confession of Faith is greatly overshadowed by the Catechisms, on these points.

First, the Law of God. About 30% of the Larger Catechism, and 42% of the Shorter, is devoted to the Law (and they say Reformed people aren’t “practical”). Reading every word of the Larger Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments was excellent. You wouldn’t get that if you only learned the Confession (the Shorter Catechism having a more simple exposition of the decalogue).

Likewise, prayer is given a thorough examination. The Shorter Catechism devotes 10 questions and answers to prayer. The Larger has 18. So, reading every word of the Larger Catechism’s general view of prayer, but especially its exposition of the “Lord’s Prayer” as the special rule, was excellent. Again, you wouldn’t get that if you only studied the Confession (like most seminaries, I guess).

Not so focused on the “abstract” after all, are we?

At the same time, there is an admirable degree of broadness in the Standards. And the broadness is the kind that I think is appropriate. It’s a proper broadness. It’s the right way to be inclusive. For example, the Standards will not restrict you to a specific view of eschatology. The Standards are covenantal, so any dispensational viewpoint on Christ’s return is not an option. But within covenant theology, you aren’t limited. Premillennialism is inconsistent at worst. What this means is that a Reformed/Presbyterian denomination cannot restrict it’s people to one perspective on the “last things.” Allowance is there for difference of conviction. Another example is the mode of baptism. The Standards are not going to tell you that your baptism wasn’t real because you used less water! I appreciate this broadness, coming from a “fundamentalist” background that allowed only one eschatological view (guess which one?) and only one mode of baptism (guess which one?). They had elevated such things to a high level of importance, such that it determined who was in the fellowship. You could not be ordained unless you signed on that dotted line. In contrast, the Standards are broad, where it is appropriate.

All of this makes the Standards a joy to expound. Their wording is near-perfect. Many times they simply quote the Bible. They are systematic, making crucial distinctions. They faithfully reflect Scripture. They are beautifully written. The Standards have become my favorite thing to teach.

The Experience of Teaching the Standards

Committing to expound the 33 chapters of the Westminster Confession of Faith is a great undertaking. There’s a lot there. Many sections make up the chapters themselves. It’s a huge time commitment, as well. More popular, because it is more direct by design, is teaching the 107 questions and answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. That was my introduction to the Standards. We studied it in community group at our PCA church. The Shorter Catechism is also a favorite for Sunday school. Even though it’s shorter and to the point, it will still take a while. But exceptionally rare, and practically unheard of, is the dedication to study the 197 questions and (often paragraph-size) answers of the Westminster Larger Catechism. The Larger Catechism surpasses even the Confession in some of it’s formulations. Most churches never intend to take that baby on. No sir. It’s simply too massive, and would take far too long.

Yet, it is virtually unrealistic that anyone would commit to engaging in an exposition of all 3 of those documents, and at the same time. Not one after the other, but in harmony. Trudging through the Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism, simultaneously. If teaching the Confession and Catechisms require dedication on their own, then tackling all 3 of the documents that make up the Westminster Standards is truly a massive undertaking.

To make that task even more difficult is the lack of books to help. To my knowledge, there’s only one book currently available that expounds the Standards in harmony: The Presbyterian Standards: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms by Francis R. Beattie. It’s an excellent book, and one reason is because it is the only one. I have to say, it is my opinion that the fact this book has gone out of print and isn’t being published today is evidence that Presbyterians are unwilling (for myriad reasons, no doubt) to do the very thing Beattie does. That’s a shame.

One major disappointing discovery I made was with the seminary classes. I thank God for the abundance of recorded seminary classes available for free, so I went looking for some to help me prepare. I found a few. Guess what they only expound? The Confession of Faith. And that’s it. I was looking for one that expounded all 3 of the Standards. Nope. I even, out of curiosity, checked what syllabi I could find for classes that were not available. No, again. To their credit though, even if lecture time wasn’t given to all the Standards, a few courses required reading a commentary on the Catechisms.

Speaking of commentaries. There’s many available on the Confession, even for free online. There’s a saturation of studies on the Shorter Catechism, which always gets the most attention. Many are free online, also. Guess how many commentaries there are for the Larger Catechism? One. Honestly though, it’s one of the best works I’ve ever read, on anything (the quality of the kindle edition leaves much to be desired, however). So there’s plenty of help in studying the Confession, too much help on the Shorter Catechism, but only one help on the Larger. I think this disproportion also reflects on Presbyterianism. [I have since managed to find Thomas Ridgley’s 4 volume exposition of the Larger Catechism]

Since Beattie’s exposition follows (mostly) the order of topics in the Shorter Catechism, and in keeping with the seminary course being “catechism” originally, I decided to go with that order. Having followed Beattie’s outline of things twice, I now want to rearrange the order of study, for different reasons. There’s nothing wrong with his order, I just think I could achieve greater harmony on some of the subjects and be less redundant. The greatest example would be transferring the exposition of the Ten Commandments from the “Means of Grace: the Word” to right after the exposition of “the Law of God” in general. It’s simple preference. My goal is to reduce repetition and gain more coherence.

Teaching the Standards Round 1: Seminary

The seminary is purely for fulfilling denominational requirements. As far as the students, some of them are already pastoring, despite not having studied to be qualified. The rest have “ministries” within their churches. Consequently, this education is remedial in every case, but also to qualify them for ordination which will supposedly happen in the future. Yes, the students have a measure of choice in the matter. They want to be there, perhaps because they know they need to learn. Or, because if they drop out, that will mean losing whatever ministry they have. But, they have also been told to be there. Because they are in ministry, they are required to finish their studies. It’s essentially playing catch-up.

I was offered the opportunity, and great privilege, to teach a course called “catechism.” Supposedly, the course is based on the Shorter Catechism. I was invited to teach the course because I was already teaching the Westminster Shorter Catechism to high school students and for Sunday school. So, I was offered the seminary also. I thought, “excellent, but not enough.” Instead of merely teaching the Shorter Catechism (which was the intention for that course, apparently), I decided to teach the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger Catechism, as well. My reasons were multiple. First, and primarily, the Shorter Catechism is not our only creed (as Presbyterians). So it’s simply not good enough to teach that alone to those who will be officers in the church. Also, merely learning the content of the Shorter Catechism is insufficient. The Confession and Larger Catechism contain much that the Shorter does not (like ecclesiology). Third, children learn the Shorter Catechism. My high school students are learning the Shorter Catechism. But, this here is “seminary.” They can, and should, do more. The standard should be higher than high school. That’s another blog post.

These students are here to become trained and qualified as ministers in a Presbyterian denomination. Hence, they need to master all the doctrinal standards, and all they contain. They’ll take ordination vows to uphold that system of doctrine as given in the Standards. They can’t do that with integrity if they haven’t so much as read them. Until now, they hadn’t, despite having been given ministry responsibility in Presbyterian congregations already (including pulpit ministry). So, that was my audience for round one of teaching the Standards.

The course was composed of lecture, reading assignments, quizzes and exams, and a term paper. Again, it was about 15 weeks, and class was once a week for three hours. The textbooks I assigned were The Presbyterian Standards by Francis Beattie and Truth’s Victory Over Error by David Dickson (the first commentary ever written on the Confession of Faith). I mapped out ahead of time the sections of the Standards that we would cover each week, and the corresponding chapters of the textbooks, so they knew exactly what to read each week in preparation for class. I also provided a copy of the Westminster Standards which they were required to read within the first few weeks of class. So, they were to read each week, then those subjects would be covered in lecture during class. In addition, there was a quiz at the beginning of class, based on the previous lesson.

As far as lecturing, it was almost all syllabus. Occasionally I would read from the Standards themselves (but Beattie nearly quotes them, actually). It was never my intention to read the Standards in class. The students were to do that on their own time. A portion of class time was already devoted to quizzes and exams, so I wasn’t going to surrender even more lecture time to reading the Standards when they had plenty of time to do that and read their textbooks.

The pace was slower than I would have liked, but it wasn’t unexpected. There were various reasons for that. Honestly, language was an obstacle, and I know that. However, I’m persuaded that it was not the chief obstacle. Sure, a barrier was the newness of the content. Another definite barrier to their learning was the surprising level of un-Reformed theology they came to class with. That naturally affected their interpretation of the Standards and their acceptance of them. However, simple laziness to do the work required (i.e. read) was the chief obstacle. When students come to class unprepared, naturally their ability to follow a lecture is severely handicapped, even if they had the full notes in front of them. Answering cell phones, walking out of class frequently, and chronic lateness to class certainly didn’t help either. Yet, while irritating, I actually can understand all that. If you’ve already been given the job of pastoring without this study, then why do you need it? Why commit? It clearly wasn’t important enough, before. So, a lack of incentive makes perfect sense to me.

Because of all that, I remember at least one occasion where we practically had to skip a small section. We just didn’t have the time left (the combination of slow pace, too much time spent on quizzes, and lateness putting the class behind). So all those factors were negatives the first time of teaching the Standards. And of course, that means less comprehension than was desired.

I was regularly taking the opportunity to revise my syllabus throughout the semester. I would notice things that could be improved. I was also continuing to study the Standards myself. I was listening to William Still’s exposition of the Confession, reading The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith by Robert Shaw, and reading Thomas Watson’s sermons following the Shorter Catechism (A Body of Divinity and The Ten Commandments). So, occasionally I would run across something that would need to be added. I was already thinking about the future, too. I had a hope of teaching the Standards again during the summer to one or two who had already graduated, and therefore had never studied the Standards. So instead of letting revisions pile up, I did them as the semester moved along.

To summarize round 1, the course was to qualify students for ministry, they had to be there, and they were responsible to actually read the Standards and accompanying textbooks. The pace was slow and the comprehension poor. It was an academic setting, so work and effort was actually required of the participants.

Teaching the Standards Round 2: Conference

First, why I wanted to do this. I had been informed that those who had already finished their studies at the seminary had not learned the Standards. They had passed through the “catechism” class, but left without a solid grasp of even the Shorter Catechism. So I thought that a remedial course would be helpful for a few guys who hadn’t learned the Standards (yet are already pastoring Presbyterian churches). Naturally, this would be totally voluntary. I looked forward to teaching people who actually wanted to learn. They in turn invited others to join. Two of them took charge of logistics, while I buckled down and finalized my syllabus.

The course ended up taking place about one month after the semester ended.

The format was a conference, seminar, modular course, whatever you want to call it. It was 5 days, morning to late afternoon or evening. We would break for lunch and dinner together, plus 10 minute breaks after every hour of lecture. The whole week totaled roughly 37 hours of lecture time. Being concentrated, it would be more intense simply because it wasn’t spread out over a long period of time. Less time to process, sure. But, that also meant no gaps in between subjects, so the flow was better and the connection within the theology was very clear. A huge positive was there would be no time wasted on quizzes, exams, or any of that nonsense.

A negative was there was no advance reading. Maybe one or two read some of the Standards ahead of time. Everyone was pretty much cold-starting. However, that didn’t really seem to get in the way. Even though the content was new, they could still process it.

There was more content, this round. I had revised and made some helpful additions to the syllabus from the semester. Perhaps the largest, most time consuming revision was adding citations within the notes. After teaching the first round, I realized that throughout the notes, we needed to know exactly where in the Standards whatever topic is, step by step. Beattie would refer to the Confession or a Catechism, but not cite the chapter and section, or which Catechism Q/A. That won’t do. So I went through the entire syllabus and added those citations. It turned out to be really helpful, so they knew exactly where this thing is that I’m saying. I didn’t have that the first time. It took me forever to add those throughout the syllabus. But worth every minute, without a doubt.

Since there was no time before the lecture for them to read the Standards that would be expounded, we actually read the Standards in class. Not every word, but most. I knew we would need to do this, so for this round of teaching the Standards, I had my copy of Reformed Confessions Harmonized open. It was extremely helpful to have the Confession and Catechisms synced together on the same topic. Flipping back and forth from each document would have consumed too much time. However, the Reformed Confessions Harmonized doesn’t follow the order we were taking through the Standards, or even any of the Standards. It follows the Helvetic Confession. So every time we would progress to the next subject, I’d have to look back to the contents, find where we would be, and turn there. Several times, the harmony on a subject would not include all the parts of the Confession and Catechisms, for some reason. In which case, I dropped that book and had to find my place manually. Inconvenient. So, for next time, I would like a harmony of just the Standards that follows the order of one of them (probably the Confession). More likely, I’ll have to put together my own.

Another helpful component was a cellphone app containing the Standards so they could read along, in addition to hardcopies of the Standards.

The study moved at a much faster pace, thanks entirely to my audience. Class size was the same as before, ironically. We expected more, but the majority of my target audience didn’t attend. I am thankful for who did attend. They followed quickly and the study moved along faster than I had projected. For round two, we covered all the ground we planned on. No skipping, or even breezing over things, this time.

My audience was able to follow superbly. I was shocked. It might sound terrible, but I guess I had gotten so used to teaching a particular kind of audience that I was really impressed just by the fact that these people could keep up with my normal talking speed. I asked after the first day, because it was a huge concern of mine, if they could handle the pace. Too fast, could they keep up? Every single one said it was a great pace, and they in fact liked the speed we were going at. They wouldn’t like anything slower.

They also mentioned that having the complete syllabus enabled them to follow the quick pace we were taking. And I’m thinking to myself, “I did the same thing last time, and it didn’t work out!” Frequent walking out of class, sometimes for extended periods of time, was still an issue this round, however. More than once, a participant would miss an entire subject. That seriously doesn’t make sense to me at all.

Surprisingly, we had time for quite a bit of application to their specific context. I think half of that was brought up by them! It was encouraging to hear them make the connections. Something the Standards said conflicted with what they’ve been taught, or with current practices or traditions. And they recognized it. Furthermore, they were motivated to make changes, to do something about it.

Audience interaction was really good. I’m surprised we had so much, considering how much content we needed to cover in such a short time. They were able to interact with the material. They asked intelligent questions. They saw connections within the Standards. They saw conflicts with their personal beliefs or practices. The youngest one there, grade 10 high school, asked the best questions out of anyone. I was genuinely impressed this round. The age range was 16-24, and everyone could keep up, process, interact, and apply what we were studying. Credit to them. I was encouraged that this endeavor actually was possible, and was not asking too much of people.

Comparison

Who I was teaching were like night and day.

I recognize that I can’t say this with certainty, but I do have an idea. I think that the 2nd audience will actually do something with what they learned. Their discipleship was advanced. From the 1st round, perhaps 1 or 2 of them will be changed long term. We’ll see how that goes, considering they’re within a system that’s indifferent to the Standards in theology, worship, discipline, etc.

There was more reinforcement in round 1 than round 2. Round 1 was reading the Standards, reading commentary, then lecture on top of that, then review the following week. Round 2 was single exposure, only. I can’t imagine how well the round 2 audience would have learned and retained the content if they had the reinforcement of round 1.

By far, in so many ways, round 2 was a better teaching experience than the first. It was almost entirely the audience. Despite being the same age or younger than round 1, they were simply more capable (or more motivated). Probably both. And that simply isn’t a good sign of those who want to be teachers and preachers. If they can’t follow an exposition of their doctrinal standards, how can they presume to be teachers of others? I’ve spent a whole school year teaching these people already, so this isn’t a snap judgment. They are “training” for ministry, yet are behind those that are not in training for ministry nor will ever be in ministry.

There was more correction of unbiblical beliefs and practices in the second round. I’m certain that it’s not because there was more to be corrected the second time. Rather, I’m sure it’s because there was greater comprehension the second time. Or maybe it just didn’t come out in discussion the first time. In any case, the first time, I was surprised by what beliefs and practices, that were contrary to the Presbyterian Standards, were still being held by the time they got to my class. They’ve been in the Presbyterian church for years, now. And they had been studying for 1-2 years already. The second round was even more surprising. One participant had already completed his studies, and still had those same beliefs intact! Every day, almost every lecture, something was nailed. A discussion would follow, objections raised, back and forth. Anger or dissatisfaction with previous (incorrect) teaching and practice, and for not being corrected until now, usually followed these moments. And now, having experienced that, they don’t want that to happen to anyone else, and are thus motivated to teach sound doctrine. It was great. That’s how it should be.

I can only conclude that that’s the theological state of the rest of those who are in ministry. This only validates the plan to teach the Westminster Standards. It’s painfully obvious that it is desperately needed.

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