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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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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Two Churches, pt. 3

In a day when it is a scandal to say anything is “false,” I got a breath of fresh air from a Reformed confession of faith. The typical sentiment you hear is, “Oh, we shouldn’t judge.” Well, Scripture tells us otherwise. And the Church has recognized this fact since the beginning. Here is just one more example of that.

Because of length, my thoughts on this will be divided into separate posts. See part 1 and part 2. Now, part 3.

The False Church

Church #2, all sects that call themselves “the church.” Notice the label in the first phrase of this part of article 29, of the Belgic Confession of Faith:

As for the false church,
it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances

than to the Word of God;

it does not want to subject itself

to the yoke of Christ;

it does not administer the sacraments

as Christ commanded in his Word;

it rather adds to them or subtracts from them

as it pleases;

it bases itself on humans,

more than on Jesus Christ;

it persecutes those

who live holy lives according to the Word of God
and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

Here we have the marks of a false church. Usurping authority over the Word, not subjected to Christ, altering the sacraments, based on humans, and persecuting those who obey the Word and rebuke the false church. That’s a lot.

Now, a quick question: which big “church” in the world does this description fit? One that places more authority in itself and its sacraments than the Word of God? Hhmmm, perhaps that “church” that alone has the authority to decide what the “Word of God” is, in the first place? It is that church that operates by sola ecclesia: the church is the only authority of faith and life. Yes, it’s obvious that the Belgic Confession is speaking of the Church of Rome. What does this mean? Can we really say that such a large, old, and revered institution, that claims to be the (only!) church, is not? Yes. The Belgic Confession unambiguously says that a “church” that has these marks is a false church. I wonder how many Christians today would be willing to say (or even think) those words. Despite having the clear teaching of Scripture, believers are too timid to discern what is false and then to call it false.

Not only does the Church of Rome bear the marks of a false church, but other groups that claim to be “the church.” That’s part of the beauty of this chapter in the Belgic Confession: instead of labeling one sect as false, it instead provides the marks that can be applied to any sect. So any that fit this description can be labeled. Run some of the cults through this grid, and see the result. One thing they all have in common is giving “more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.” Such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Iglesia ni Cristo, Moonies, all clearly state an authority higher than the Word of God. They have no problem with adding to Scripture (continuing revelation in some form is characteristic). Ironically, Rome does the exact same thing. The “church” will always overrule the Word of God.

A further mark of a false church is: “it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases.” Once again, the Church of Rome is the perfect example, with the “popish mass.” Indeed, Calvin stated that Rome in fact does not administer the Lord’s Supper at all! Because of all the extra ceremony added to it, but also subtracting that the sacrament is a sign. Rome asserts that the bread and wine become the thing they were supposed to represent. On top of that, only the wafer is given to the people; they are denied the cup. The priest drinks the wine, but doesn’t receive the wafer. Even more, the Church of Rome adds five more sacraments, which are not commanded by Christ in his Word. To the opposite extreme, the Quakers refuse to observe the sacraments at all. And I think that any “church” that administers baptism, believing you cannot be saved without it, also fails to administer the sacraments as Christ commanded. Many cults add to baptism, in that way.

The Belgic Confession also said of the false church: “it bases itself on humans, more than on Jesus Christ.” That’s a brilliant statement. Christ the head and founder has been replaced. Naturally, instead of being ruled by the pure Word of God, the false church will be according to mere human authority. And as Jesus said, you can’t have two masters, it’s one or the other. Here’s where we look at liberal Protestantism. Just because a church is not Roman Catholic, or a cult, and calls itself “Protestant”, does not mean it’s a true church. Check the marks, always. What is the mark of liberalism? It’s exactly what the Belgic Confession says: “it bases itself on humans, more than on Jesus Christ.” The whole liberal enterprise was to make Christianity agreeable to autonomous man. Human reason is the highest authority, so that the Bible in it’s entirety cannot be accepted. Anything in Scripture that does not meet man’s standard is tossed. They have reduced themselves to a mere human organization. The cultural and historical situation, human traditions, human values, human reason, “scientific” consensus, are the basis for liberal faith and practice. If you would like an example of this, go to the website of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and read their commentaries on their statement of faith (they’re free to download). Liberal Protestantism may call itself Christian, or “the church”, but they are in fact a totally different religion, and undoubtedly a false church.

Finally, a false church will persecute those who rebuke it. We’ve seen a bit of this recently, following the formal debate between Dr. James White and Joe Ventilacion of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC).

The Belgic Confession expounds: “it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.” Look at the Reformation in Scotland and England for plenty of evidence for this statement. Those who resisted and refused to submit to the usurpation of authority by the Church of Rome, or the king or queen, over Christ and his Word were burned at the stake. I think this statement on persecution carries even greater significance considering its chief author, Guido de Bräs, was martyred.

Notice what the Belgic Confession has joined together: “those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it [the false church] for its faults, greed, and idolatry.” What is implicit, is those who live holy lives, according to the Word of God, will be rebuking the false church! Interesting, no? How could they do that, by what authority? What the Belgic Confession said previously: it is based on the Word of God. Possessing and living by the truth, they recognize error. Furthermore, they say something. I think what is implied is that those who live holy lives according to the Word of God are obligated to rebuke the false church. Indeed, how would the true church be persecuted unless it spoke the truth in opposition to the false church.

Who is willing to call out “faults, greed, and idolatry” in our day? Even in comfortable contexts, where you definitely won’t be burned at the stake! The only negative consequence is that people won’t like you, and might slander you on Twitter or Facebook. Yet, that’s enough for the timid person to keep his mouth shut.

Oh, and there’s this unwritten law that you’re not allowed to disagree or say someone is wrong. That’s considered hate. Common sentiments that come from this culture of niceness include: “Oh, let’s not focus on the negative. Let’s just focus on the positive.” Sadly, many Christians have unwittingly absorbed this way of thinking. But, it is not doing justice to Scripture. If there is such a thing as truth, then by necessity (logical consequence) there is falsehood. And the Bible labels sin! We are to identify what is wrong. How can there be repentance? Or how can we keep ourselves from these things, if we turn a blind eye? How can we exhort others to separate themselves from a sinful, greedy, and idolatrous “church”, if we stay silent? How can the elect within false churches be called out to repentance and faith, unless the Gospel is preached and error condemned? Is sin not to be repented of? Doesn’t that include the sins of usurping authority over the Word, not submitting to Christ, altering the sacraments, being based on humans, and persecuting Christians? Did Jesus not atone for those sins?

“Oh, but they are sincere. They are worshiping in their way. That’s their practice.” I’ll apply the words of Dr. Greg Bahnsen: “Oh barf.” What a petty, unbiblical justification, and downplaying of sin. Christians, even pastors, have spoken this way! Excuse me, but who is the authority? Christ, speaking in his Word. Christ, the head of the church, gets to decide what way we worship, and what our practice should be. It’s non-negotiable. This is a no “agree-to-disagree” zone. But in this relativistic time, sincerity covers a multitude of sins. Perhaps sincerity is justification in the court of public opinion, but not in the real court before the Supreme Judge.

Another familiar sentiment is “let’s just focus on what we have in common.” Oh, how ecumenical. The implication is, we should never focus on our differences. Well, I beg to differ. Let us indeed give credit where it is due, it would be unjust to ignore what is right and true, no  matter who does it. But to only do that is half the job. We ought to distinguish.

An illustration may be helpful. Jollibee and McDonald’s are not the same. Am I “judgmental” for saying so? We openly talk about the differences. McDo’s fries are different (as in better) than Jollibee fries. But nobody beats Jollibee’s spicy fried chicken. We openly distinguish. There’s McDo and then there’s not-McDo. McDo has a clear menu, so you can automatically tell when your eating not-McDo. If someone gives you a burger from Jollibee, but tells you it’s from McDo, you would be right to label it “false McDo.” What’s the point? In a matters of so much more gravity, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, within which we can offer acceptable worship to our King, and receive Christ and his benefits, should we not practice the same level of discernment that we do in every other area of life? We discriminate every day. Should we not do the same about the most important matters?

I especially love the closing sentence of this article of the Belgic Confession: “These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.” Yes indeed, it’s not difficult to tell. There’s no use claiming ignorance. None can pretend to not recognize the true church and the false church, according to the Word of God. It requires knowing the standard: God’s Word. It requires us to be diligent and careful. But it can be done, and should be done. Every believer in Jesus Christ must discern what is the true church, in contrast with the false church.

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Two Churches, pt. 2

In a day when it is a scandal to say anything is “false,” I got a breath of fresh air from a Reformed confession of faith. The typical sentiment you hear is, “Oh, we shouldn’t judge.” Well, Scripture tells us otherwise. And the Church has recognized this fact since the beginning. Here is just one more example of that.

Because of length, my thoughts on this have been divided into separate posts. See part 1. Now, part 2.

The True Church

Church #1, the body and fellowship of the true church. The Belgic Confession of Faith, article 29, continues:

The church engages in the pure preaching

of the gospel;

it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments

as Christ instituted them;

it practices church discipline

for correcting faults.

In short, it governs itself
according to the pure Word of God,

rejecting all things contrary to it
and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.

By these marks one can be assured
of recognizing the true church—

and no one ought to be separated from it.

Recall that this article of the Belgic Confession is titled, “The Marks of the True Church.” The three marks of the true church, handed down since the Protestant Reformation, are: 1. The pure preaching of the Gospel; 2. The pure administration of the sacraments; 3. The practice of church discipline. Easy to remember: Word, Sacraments, Discipline.

And it would take a book, or even three volumes, to expound on these marks of the true church.

To be a true church, all three of these must be present. This is the “minimal complexity” of the church. As we’ll see, they are interdependent. If one is lacking, the other two will suffer and soon disappear. That is why all three marks are essential to the church.

The controlling mark is the pure preaching of the gospel. The gospel is made visible in the sacraments. The gospel is the basis for growth in grace and holiness, and rejection of sin. The Word defines the sacraments, which is why you cannot administer the sacraments without the preaching of the Word. The Word is not properly preached if there is no church discipline to correct rejection of it, and to encourage obedience to it. Without discipline, the door is open to profane the sacraments, because heresy or scandalous living has been tolerated.

The Belgic Confession summarize it well: “In short, it [the church] governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.” The Word determines, defines, and regulates the church. Not only the positive element, but the negative is stated. The true church rejects all things contrary to the pure Word of God.

The Belgic Confession brilliantly includes the headship over the church. This is a must. Jesus Christ is the only Head of the church. Christ the King reigns in his Church. There is no other head, whether ecclesiastical (a pope) or civil (the state). Why is the head of the church necessary, at this point? Because, we need to know who has authority to define the church. Who has the authority to define the church by these marks? Only the founder, instituter, and ruler of the church: Jesus Christ.

I must makes explicit what is implied, here. When the exclusive headship of Jesus Christ is forgotten, the three marks of the church will vanish. When the authority of Christ is replaced, the marks will suffer. For example, when the pastor would rather please man than the Lord Jesus, his preaching of the pure Gospel will necessarily be compromised; for it will offend the natural man. The sacraments will be profaned, because you can’t tell people “no.” Discipline will be non-existent, obviously; you’ll never correct faults.

When authority is usurped by church officers or councils, the result will be the same. If they contradict the pure preaching of the Word, how can that be maintained in the local congregations? When the denomination becomes “inclusive” (in the bad way), what of church discipline? Indeed, this relationship between the exclusive headship of Christ over his church will take a post (or a book) of itself.

When the Head of the church is replaced, so will the marks of his church. The preaching of the pure gospel and church discipline (the keys of the kingdom) will be replaced with some other device to bring people in. The preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments (the means of grace) will be overshadowed by some other method for “growth.” If the church is no longer governed by the pure Word of God, rejecting anything contrary to it, then Christ’s headship has been replaced. Christ is King, and his Word is the law! Reject the law, and you’ve rejected the law-giver. Programs and fads will replace the divinely instituted means for growing the church in numbers, and growing the church in maturity.

The Belgic Confession then said, “By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church.” The Lord Jesus, founder and head of his Church, is not ambiguous in his Word about that Church. How do you identify a true church? Look for the marks, and Christ will be there. Where a church is governed by the pure Word of God, then Jesus Christ is the head, and these three marks will be there.

An obligation comes from all that has been said: “and no one ought to be separated from it.” Here again is the mandate to discern, or (*deep breath*) judge a church. Why must we diligently and carefully discern whether a church is a true church? Because Christians must be part of the true church! Not just the invisible church (by virtue of union with Christ), but the visible church (by baptism). There is no such thing as an isolated Christian. Check the Bible. We have a corporate identity. The visible church is the consequence of the Gospel. But, autonomy is greatly valued in our time (every time?), so that will be hard to swallow. Regardless, the command is there to not neglect the meeting together.

How can you possibly obey God in this way if you have not discerned where the true church is?

Now, on the flip-side, how would you know when to separate from a church? Based on the marks! Are the three marks of the true church no longer present? Once again, we are obligated to use discernment. Look for the marks of the true church. Churches can degenerate. Just look at church history. Some fall so far as to become no church at all. They can have their lamp stands removed. Remember, Christ in his Word requires you to be joined to his true church, not just any “church.” That was the point of article 29, because all sects call themselves “the church.” So don’t feel guilty for leaving a “church” that doesn’t have the marks. You are obligated to be a part of Christ’s visible church, where he is head. That means you cannot be joined to a “church” that is not. Neither tradition, nor your family, nor the church’s history, obligates your membership to them. Christ, in his Word, obligates membership in a true church. And what it says is the pure preaching of the Word, pure administration of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline is how you decide.

Examine your church. Are all three marks present? Is the pure preaching of the Gospel there? Now, as a mark of the church, do you think this means once or twice? As in, “a couple times a year, I hear the Gospel.” No, that would be ridiculous. You could hardly say Gospel-preaching marks that church. That mark would be unidentifiable if it was infrequent. Rather, is it a characteristic of the church? Is it a distinguishing mark of your church, that the Gospel is purely preached? If it’s not, then that’s a serious problem. If this mark is missing, the other two are already in jeopardy.

What about the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them? I guess the first question would be: does your church administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper at all? Does your church baptize only those adults who have made a credible profession of faith? Secondly, does it add or take away from them, as instituted by Christ? Are the elements changed? Like, for example, replacing wine (which Christ did institute) with some other beverage (which Christ did not institute). That is no different, in principle, than the church adding oil or some other substance to the baptismal water (which has been done). Further, does your church admit believers to the Lord’s Table, but prohibit unbelievers? And yes, I think frequency of the Lord’s Supper is an issue, here. In the same way that preaching the Gospel twice or four times per year is not satisfactory, neither should administering the means of nourishment for the believer. Simply put, annual or even quarterly observation of the Lord’s Supper is inconsistent with the nature of the sacrament. Notice, you would have to understand the sacraments first, before you could discern whether the administration of them is according to Christ’s institution.

Finally, does your church practice church discipline for correcting faults? If no one is rebuked, about any sin, ever, then there’s a problem. Church discipline includes all three levels. Correction among believers, then the including of witnesses, and lastly bringing it before the elders. So, don’t conclude that your church is missing the third mark because you’ve never witnessed excommunication! Ideally, that shouldn’t have to happen! But, is sin being dealt with in the church? Is false teaching being corrected? Church discipline is not only corrective, but also formative. It’s probably better known as discipleship. Who is supposed to be shepherding the families in the church? The elders. Discipline isn’t just negative, but positive: teaching, training, catechizing, meeting together, etc. Is there accountability between the members and elders? Are the people at that church in a relationship with the elders? Not an assumed relationship, but a formal, stated relationship. Has a verbal commitment been made? Have membership vows been taken? Where would the responsibility and authority to correct somebody come from, if nobody has agreed to that kind of relationship. You see, church discipline and formal church membership are two sides of the same coin. So I would argue (and I’m not alone) that if your church does not have formal membership, then it consequently does not have church discipline; and to be lacking the third mark of the church means it is not a church.

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Two Churches, pt. 1

In a day when it is a scandal to say anything is “false,” I got a breath of fresh air from a Reformed confession of faith. The typical sentiment you hear is, “Oh, we shouldn’t judge.” Well, Scripture tells us otherwise. And the Church has recognized this fact since the beginning. Here is just one more example of that.

I don’t presume to do justice to this article of faith. I think a book should be written about it, because it could take that much to expound and give examples and application. A Tale of Two Churches should be the title (dibs, it’s mine!).

Because of length, my thoughts on this will be divided into separate posts. This is part 1.

We Ought to Discern

The Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) Article 29, “The Marks of the True Church” says:

We believe that we ought to discern

diligently and very carefully,
by the Word of God,

what is the true church—

for all sects in the world today
claim for themselves the name of “the church.”

How refreshing is that? We ought to discern . . . what is the true church. We ought to distinguish, tell the difference. In short, we should make a judgment.

How can we do that? Is it arbitrary? Is it based on personal opinion? No, that would be wrong. And here we get to the the problems with the “don’t judge” crowd. They simply don’t recognize what is going on.

The standard by which we judge is not ourselves, not our personal preference, not some man-made criteria, but “the Word of God.” It’s the rule that is above us all, external, and authoritative. Ironically, those who say “don’t judge” can only ever judge by an arbitrary standard. They have zero authority to judge anything, at all. Including the moral judgment that judging is wrong, and the ethical mandate that we should not judge!

Secondly, this is not a hasty snap-judgment. We are to discern “diligently and very carefully.” Those are excellent words. Due diligence is called for. It’s not to be careless. What we are making a judgment about is a weighty matter, after all.

Thirdly, Scripture tells us things so that we can in fact discern, tell the differences. It is possible to recognize the true from the false. Scripture is clear, which is another thing that contradicts our relativistic culture. Those who disagree with our judging according to Scripture often argue that the Bible is ambiguous on a matter. No, it’s not. The data is there. Not everything is equally clear in the Bible, but it is understandable. One of the things it is very clear about is what a true church looks like, and thus we can recognize what a false church is, as well. Thus, God has provided what we need in his Word so we can diligently and very carefully discern what is the true church.

Why must we discern what is the true church? Not only because Scripture commands us to develop discernment, distinguishing between true and false, and because we are commanded to be a part of the Church and to worship God corporately, but also out of necessity of our situation in the fallen world. Why must we discern what is the true church? As article 29 said, because many groups call themselves “the church.” Are we to simply take their word for it? That would be irresponsible, in light of Scripture’s defining of the church. These other “churches” disagree amongst themselves. That means they can’t all actually be “the church.” Someone is wrong, some of them are false. So, because there are a multitude of sects that claim to be “the church”, we of necessity must diligently and carefully discern what is the true church, according to the Word of God.

But we are speaking of distinguishing
the body and fellowship of the true church
from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

Based on the Word of God, diligently and very carefully, what are we to distinguish? Two churches: the true church and the false “church.”

I must point out, that this article shows that the Reformed creeds are not cold, abstract statements of doctrine. They are eminently practical and pastoral. This article of the Belgic Confession tells you what to look for, and what to look-out for. It not only tells you how to identify a true church, but how to identify a false church. That is useful to everyone.

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