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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Worship is Participatory

I’ve noticed something interesting: people don’t seem to know how to “do church.” What I mean is, in Sunday morning worship service, they don’t know how to act, behave, what attitude they are to come to church with. They aren’t engaged, they are not active. Rather, I should say, they are active in all the wrong ways.

All the kids literally run around the church and talk loudly. And this continues without correction. No, they are not just “being kids.” You know how I know? Because their parents are just as distracted and just as loud in their personal conversations during all parts of the service. And the older children are playing games on their cellphones, with the volume up!

In short, hardly anyone actively participates in the public worship of God. It’s been going on for years.

How do you go that long without correction, without teaching, without training? This is, in fact, a violation of the 4th Commandment, which implicitly forbids “all careless, negligent, and unprofitable performing” of the duty of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day (WLC Q/A 119).

I wonder if Roman Catholicism is the reason. In Roman Catholic worship, participation isn’t necessary, or even considered. It’s the performance of the priest that matters, regardless of the people’s lack of involvement. The priest worships, the choir sings. The people just have to physically be in the vicinity. A common sight are people gathered in the parking lot, not even mentally present in what’s going on. But they’re there! So check that off. “Check out (mentally), check off (the duty).”

Perhaps no one knows how to behave in church because they brought their Roman Catholic theology with them? Regardless if that’s the direct cause or not, we certainly need Reformation theology to be taught. Then we can lead people into Reformed worship, which is congregational and entirely participatory.

The Reformation and Participatory Worship

Contrary to Rome, the congregation must be active in the public worship of God. Attending worship is far from a passive attendance. Here’s a very brief view of the transition in worship participation because of the theology of the Protestant Reformers. The following quotes are from Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship.

In Roman Catholic worship,

Singers were those involved in church vocation (including cantors) who sang from the “choir,” a space between the congregation and the altar that was often separated from the laypeople by a screen. The congregation did not sing the Introit or any other portion of the service. (loc. 321)

This “choir”, where singing is done without participation of the whole congregation, has it’s place in the Roman Catholic context. It might sound strange that the people would not sing, but it actually fits if the worship is being done by someone else on the people’s behalf. So if that theology changes, the participation must change with it. Martin Luther made some important changes:

Luther did not want his worship to be interpreted as a propitiatory sacrifice offered to God by a priest on behalf of the people. . .

Luther understood worship as God’s gift to the people. Through the liturgy, God’s people could praise him for grace already completed in Christ’s finished work of salvation. This concept of the liturgy being God’s provision for the people to respond to grace, rather than for the priest to obtain their forgiveness, radically changed the way key worship elements were practiced. . .

Luther wanted the worship service to be a participatory experience, in keeping with his understanding of church being a community of faithful people praising God for his salvation. Two key changes resulted that are not obvious from only observing the order of the worship elements. First, the music was no longer the exclusive domain of those in sacred orders. (loc. 448-457)

So, because of Christ’s sufficient work, and consequently the complete removal of a human priesthood, worship becomes congregational. No longer is worship done on behalf of the people. It’s not a work done in their place, vicariously. All believer’s are priests, having access to the throne of grace. And that is why, for Luther, the congregation now participates in the singing! See, there is a theological reason for congregational song in corporate worship. Likewise, John Calvin made changes:

. . . commitment to the priesthood of believers is evident not only in the language Calvin used to involve the laity, but also in his encouragement of their participation in the worship service. The people sing in Calvin’s liturgy. And, as we will see, Calvin fought for their right to do so. Additionally, the people have special access to the privileges of their faith. Before he faced undesired strictures at Geneva, Calvin stood in front of the pulpit—among the people of Strasbourg—for all of the service prior to the reading and proclamation of the Word. During his ministry in Geneva, Calvin’s famous chair—common in size and style—was not used simply to carry him to the pulpit when he was feeble and old. The chair sat beneath the pulpit—among the people and on their level, as a statement of the preacher’s identification with the congregation prior to his acting as God’s representative in leading worship. (loc. 579)

That note about the chair is significant. The pastor was not a “priest” who was elevated from the people. Since all have equal access to God through the true High Priest, Jesus Christ, all are on equal footing. So, all the people join together in singing every part of the service. And John Calvin sat and stood with the people. Perhaps that is something to consider in our context, where certain special chairs are placed up and behind the pulpit, removed from the congregation. Might that contradict our theology?

The point is, with the change in theology came the necessary change in worship practice. Worship was recognized to be participatory. And this Reformation theology and participatory worship is reflected most clearly in the works of the Westminster Assembly.

The Westminster Assembly and Participatory Worship

The Directory for the Public Worship of God, under the heading “Of the Assembling of the Congregation, and their Behaviour in the Publick Worship of God,” says:

The publick worship being begun, the people are wholly to attend upon it, forbearing to read any thing, except what the minister is then reading or citing; and abstaining much more from all private whisperings, conferences, salutations, or doing reverence to any person present, or coming in; as also from all gazing, sleeping, and other indecent behaviour, which may disturb the minister or people, or hinder themselves or others in the service of God.

If any, through necessity, be hindered from being present at the beginning, they ought not, when they come into the congregation, to betake themselves to their private devotions, but reverently to compose themselves to join with the assembly in that ordinance of God which is then in hand.

During corporate worship, what should the be the focus of the people? The worship. And any who arrive late (another chronic problem) are to enter into the worship currently underway, whatever part it may be. What’s ironic is pastors and other “leaders” are just as guilty of not participating in the ordinances along with the people, until it’s “their turn.” Around here, usually it’s because they are in fact “doing reverence to any person present, or coming in.” They are entertaining some special person who happens to be visiting (and therefore keeping them from participating in worship, also), or waiting for them to arrive.

Clearly, the sole focus during corporate worship is to be the worship of God. No reading anything on your own (if only cell phones and Facebook were a thing back then . . .). It’s astonishing what people will do privately during all parts of the worship service. Forget “whisperings.” Most of the children have conversations at full volume, and are rarely corrected, even by their own parents.

All the people, the minister and the congregation, are to be worshiping God, together. And anything that disturbs or hinders the service of God needs to be corrected and avoided.

Indeed, even the parts of worship that appear passive are actually active. Like listening. Of course, that’s a common misunderstanding: talking is active, listening is passive. That’s simply untrue. Our Westminster Larger Catechism says:

Q. 160. What is required of those that hear the word preached?
A. It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.

Our Confession of Faith concisely expresses it as “conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence” (21.5).

Even for the most seemly inactive part of corporate worship, listening to preaching, we can see that’s it’s actually not. The congregation must be actively participating. It takes effort to be engaged.

The Larger Catechism also addresses the time of receiving the Lord’s Supper:

Q. 174. What is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper in the time of the administration of it?
A. It is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, that, during the time of the administration of it, with all holy reverence and attention they wait upon God in that ordinance, diligently observe the sacramental elements and actions, heedfully discern the Lord’s body, and affectionately meditate on his death and sufferings, and thereby stir up themselves to a vigorous exercise of their graces; in judging themselves, and sorrowing for sin; in earnest hungering and thirsting after Christ, feeding on him by faith, receiving of his fullness, trusting in his merits, rejoicing in his love, giving thanks for his grace; in renewing of their covenant with God, and love to all the saints.

The Directory for Worship, under the heading “Of the Singing of Psalms” says:

It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family.

In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.

That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book. . .

Again, participation. The congregation is to sing together, and everyone is to actually understand what they are singing, not merely a mindless recital of words. That requires thinking, and interpreting.

To summarize: worship is participatory. The singing is congregational singing. Even while listening or receiving the sacrament, the whole congregation is to be actively engaged in it. There is no place for performance or vicarious worship. That belongs back in Rome, where it came from. Reformed worship, worship based on the theology of the Protestant Reformation, is participatory.

So if we claim to be Reformed or Presbyterian, and if we subscribe to creeds such as those quoted above, then why is our corporate worship not consistently congregational? Why are so many in attendance actively disengaged, why are distractions abundant, and why do the majority of those in attendance seem to have no problem with it?

A Simple Solution

I know for a fact that we are not doomed to a situation of worship ignorance in the “Presbyterian” church. I know of another local church with a very disciplined congregation. Ironically, it’s about 50 times as large, and so has that much more potential to be unruly and chaotic! But it is not. Distraction is extremely limited. People sing together, people listen together. They are actively engaged in the worship service. They know why they are there. Do you know why they know? It’s quite simple: they were taught. The painful irony is that they aren’t Reformed or Presbyterian. Yet their participatory worship better reflects our theology better than our worship does! How embarrassing. They were simply taught what the purpose for gathering is. They were told how to behave, they were told to be engaged, and to actively listen. They were trained and measures were taken to minimize distraction. It was made explicit what the priority is. Ultimately, whose fault is it if the people don’t know what do to in corporate worship? Yes, you know the answer.

If our theology is not Roman, then neither should our worship practice be. And when we are right smack in the middle of a Roman Catholic country, we might want to point that out. Our worship practice must follow from our theology. Yet, if our worship practice is not that inherited from the Reformation, then perhaps our churches don’t believe what they claim to. Either way, Reformation is needed: a recovery of Reformation theology, and a recovery of acceptable worship.

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Q/A: Worship, Individual and Corporate

Question:

 What is “worship”? And is it different for corporate setting—church and individual, daily living?

Answer:

Excellent question, and so important. In fact, this really makes Reformed/Presbyterianism stand out.

First, let’s define worship. We “worship and glorify [God] accordingly, by thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honoring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him” (WLC Q/A 104). And what is the way in which we worship God? Our Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 21, “Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day” says:

1. . . . the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

First things first: the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is what he says is acceptable. So whatever worship is, it’s not our idea. It’s not what pleases us, but what pleases him. No inventions or innovations. Whatever is not prescribed is forbidden. This rule is called the “Regulative Principle of Worship.”

So, since we know that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the rule for worship, how do we worship? The Confession lists the elements of worship:

3. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.

4. Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.

5. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God . . .

What constitutes worship? What are the essential parts of worship? Prayer, the reading, preaching, hearing of the Word, singing of psalms, and the (2) sacraments instituted by Christ. That’s worship. This is what Scripture says is worship, for the church. There’s overlap. Singing to God certainly is a form of prayer. The rest of the elements could even be categorized as the Word: read, preached, heard, sung, and made visible in the sacraments. Either way, these are what make up the ordinary worship of God.

Notice, worship is not reduced to music! In fact, music is at best an implication. Singing is clearly there. Yet, it is commonly assumed that the “music time” before the sermon is “worship.” Not so. What’s even worse is that label “praise and worship.” I was asked recently if a church had “praise and worship.” You’re probably thinking, “what a question!” However, that phrase was used to mean “contemporary” style music and songs. What a reduction! Music is not worship. The above elements are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God. Hence, the appropriate label of “worship service” to the whole of the church’s gathering on the Lord’s Day, with every stage included.

Now, if you would like an exposition of worship, read the Westminster Larger Catechism: for the Regulative Principle of Worship, read Q/A 107-110; Prayer, Q/A 178-196; the Word, Q/A 154-160 Sacraments, Q/A 161-177.

Second, where does worship take place?

6. Neither prayer, nor any other part of religious worship, is now, under the gospel, either tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed: but God is to be worshiped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by his Word or providence, calleth thereunto.

God is to be worshiped everywhere! Does that mean everything we do is worship? No. It says everywhere, not everything. Remember, God defines what is worship, and we already covered that. But, isn’t all of life worship? I’ve talked like that. The answer is no, if this is the sense you’re taking the term “worship.” I’ll quickly point out that this was a development in the Protestant Reformation: every vocation glorifies God. The Reformers recognized that Scripture doesn’t distinguish between “sacred” and “secular” as the Church of Rome did. The farmer can glorify God in his vocation just as much as the monk living the “separated life.” All service, in whatever sphere, is service to the Lord. All of life, all we do, we do unto the glory of God. However, a common misunderstanding is that there’s therefore no difference between corporate worship and our common affairs. That simply does not follow. Both glorify God, but they are not the same things. And Reformation theology did not say they were, either.

So, “God is to be worshiped everywhere.” What does “everywhere” mean? Privately, family, and corporately. Now, finally we come to the second part of the original question: is there a difference between individual and corporate worship? The answer is a definite yes. “More solemnly” in public assemblies (with the local church). An important note: individual, or even family worship, cannot substitute for corporate worship. The assembly of the church for worship is “not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken.” When is the time of the public assembly? That’s section 7 and 8 of this chapter in the Confession: Sunday, the Lord’s Day.

Continuing on with the difference between corporate and private worship, there are differences pertaining to the acts of worship themselves. God blesses the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word of God (WLC Q/A 155). That happens in corporate worship, not private (whereas reading occurs in both [hopefully]). Not everyone is allowed to preach the Word, either. The sacraments, baptism and Lord’s Supper, are not private acts but church ordinances, only to be administered by one called to the ministry of Word and sacrament. The church, the corporate body, must be present for the administration of the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper is not to be given “to none who are not then present in the congregation;” likewise, “Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone” (WCF 29.3-4).

So those are some things unique to corporate worship, whereas prayer, the reading and hearing of the Word, and singing of psalms can take place in family or private worship.

All things are done to the glory of God, but that’s not the same as “worship,” as defined by our standards. God has ordained specifically what “worship” is, and it’s clearly not every activity under the sun. God has ordained the acts of worship. Likewise, some of the elements of worship are exclusive to the public assembly (corporate worship).

Understand that, from the Reformed perspective, the center of gravity in the Christian life is with corporate worship. Corporate worship, the public assembly, is the most important thing you do, every week. That’s completely contrary to the typical way of thinking, today. The Western church has whole-sale acclimated to the individualistic atmosphere, so that your life as a Christian centers on your individual acts of piety: personal Bible reading, personal Bible study, personal prayer, “quiet time.” But think historically, for a minute: when was private Bible reading made possible? For the first 1,400 years of the Church, there wasn’t even a printing press. Was God not providing for the spiritual nourishment of his people? Could Christians not worship God in the most significant way? Au contraire. He was, and they could, by the outward and ordinary means: the Word, prayer, and sacraments, in corporate worship.

There is a three-layered answer to the question. First, daily living doesn’t qualify as worship, because God has specifically ordained certain acts to be acceptable worship; they are “holy” or set apart for that purpose (along with the “holy” day set apart for that purpose: Sunday). Secondly, worship can (and must!) take place everywhere: privately, family, and corporately. But, thirdly, there is a distinction between corporate worship and private or family worship. As I used to say: public worship is not the same as your private devotions. Worship is to happen corporately, in family, and personally, but they are not equal.

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Q/A: The Need for Reformation?

Question:

When you say “the need for reformation”, or any other Reformed/Presbyterian person says that, what exactly does that mean?

Answer:

Aahhh “reformation.” What I mean is renovating the church according to the Bible alone. Every dimension of the church would fall under that, obviously, including church government and especially worship. The Protestant Reformation was a reformation of worship, purging it of all the innovations of Rome and returning it to biblical simplicity. And “reformation” means not creating something brand new, but returning the church to what it was from the time of the apostles. The other four solas would be included too: faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, God’s glory alone.

In other words, returning the church to what made Protestantism “Protestant.” The irony is, the majority of “Protestantism” has moved back to Rome in many ways, especially in the doctrine of salvation and practices of worship. So, they’re not actually Protestant by conviction, but by convenience (just like Roman Catholics who are just because their parents are). Having left the doctrine that fueled the Protestant Reformation, they are not really Protestant, just non-Roman Catholic.

So in our context, Scripture quite obviously doesn’t have the final say about anything. That’s a problem at large for all Christians and churches, and they should all reform. But it is especially a problem for people/churches who claim to be Reformed/Presbyterian, because they’re saying one thing but doing another. They have Reformation theology written down and claim to uphold it, but it doesn’t make a difference on the ground. So, it’s a matter of integrity. I can respect a liberal Protestant or Roman Catholic who is honest about what they are. I have trouble respecting someone who says they’re “Reformed/Presbyterian” but acts and talks like a liberal or Roman Catholic.

Take, for example, a certain seminary of a so-called “Presbyterian” denomination, up north. I have been told that when you walk into the seminary, you see engravings of Calvin and the reformers, and you see parts of the Westminster Standards on the wall. But the teaching at the seminary is indistinguishable from the non-Reformed seminary across the street. And that is symbolic of everything we have witnessed about the “Presbyterian” churches down here.

So, “reformation” would mean churches reforming according to the Word of God. What’s added to that for these name-only Presbyterian churches is pointing out that we already have the meaning of “reformation” written down in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and need to align with it, check what we’re doing, and get rid of all the garbage that clearly contradicts what we claim to believe.
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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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The Standards on Liberty of Conscience

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.

Westminster Confession of Faith 20.2

Because God alone is the Lord of the conscience (in accordance with his Word), the Christian’s conscience is free from the doctrines and commandments of men, if they are at all contrary to the Word, or beside it, in matters of faith and worship. The conscience is not trustworthy by itself. It is not infallible, but must be guided. Therefore, Scripture as the only infallible rule for faith and life, must bind the conscience. No conscience has “liberty” from Scripture. Rather, liberty is within the parameters of God’s Word.

No person on earth can have authority to dictate to conscience; for this would be to assume a prerogative which belongs to none but the supreme Lord and Legislator. “There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy.”–James 4:12. Such a power was prohibited by Jesus Christ among his followers: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, but ye shall not be so.”–Luke 22:25. It was disclaimed by the inspired apostles: “Not that we have dominion over your faith,” said the Apostle of the Gentiles, “but are helpers of your joy.”–2 Cor. 1:24.

—Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith pg. 170

Perhaps the defining idea in the Westminster Standards is liberty of conscience, according to Derek Thomas, who also says that chapter 20 is the most important chapter of the Confession. Listen to his address: Overly Regulated? Westminster’s View of Worship, or read here: The Regulative Principle of Worship, where he says:

What is sometimes forgotten in these discussions is the important role of conscience. Without the regulative principle, we are at the mercy of “worship leaders” and bullying pastors who charge noncompliant worshipers with displeasing God unless they participate according to a certain pattern and manner. To the victims of such bullies, the sweetest sentences ever penned by men are, [WCF 20:2]. To obey when it is a matter of God’s express prescription is true liberty; anything else is bondage and legalism.

I remember hearing something to the effect of, “if you don’t attend the midweek service at church, you’re not a dedicated Christian.” “Bondage and legalism” are exactly the proper charge against those who invent their own religious ceremonies, superstitious practices, and require that you participate. Or, create initiatives in the church that are good, if done voluntarily, but then make them mandatory. Notice the scope of what the Confession says. Any and all extra-biblical (or anti-biblical) religious ceremony, practice, service, ritual is what’s being talked about. Likewise, any and all teaching that contradicts Scripture or is added to Scripture. That’s huge, and will require much reflection.

Despite WCF 20.2 being true, this principle is frequently violated. It’s not only possible to betray conscience by those overlording, but by those who submit to such. Notice what the Confession said: “to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience.” It is clear that responsibility is on both sides. Not only are people not to bind the believer’s conscience with human doctrines and commandments, but they are also not to submit to them. If you believe the doctrines or obey commands that are contrary to or beside Scripture (regarding faith and worship), then you have betrayed true freedom of conscience. Rather, Scripture alone binds the conscience.

The only Lord of the conscience is God, and he guides by his Word. Our conscience cannot be bound by anything not in the Scriptures. This is directly against the binding of the conscience in Roman Catholicism.

Well then, do not the Papists err, who contradict this, both in doctrine (because they teach, that the Pope of Rome, and Bishops in their own Diocesses, may by their own authority, praeter Scripturam, beside the Word, make Laws, which oblige and bind the Conscience, under the pain of everlasting death) and in practise (because, they have obtruded, and do obtrude, many Ecclesiastical Rites and Ceremonies, as necessary in worship, without any foundation in Scripture.) Yes. . . Because ceremonies are superstitious, being a vice opposite to religion in the excess, commanding more in the worship of God than he requires in his worship.

Well then, do not the Papists err, who require, an Implicit Faith, to all the Decrees and Ordinances of their Church and Pope: and a blind obedience to their commands without a previous judgement of discretion? Yes.

—David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error pg. 128-129, 130

“Implicit faith” even includes anything Rome will teach in the future. And so you are doubly unable to think and consider what you are commanded to believe, and unable entirely to judge it according to Scripture.

Not only does the Church of Rome do this, but all the rest of the cults bind the conscience as well with their doctrines and commands. Far be it from a true church to do such a thing!

Contrary to the Word

But, lest we think we are better, or immune from this, Protestants also are guilty of betraying liberty of conscience. Evangelical churches have been guilty of making up commands that are contrary to Scripture, and disciplining those who will not obey. Believe it or not, even churches who claim to subscribe to this very Westminster Confession of Faith violate it at this very point! Here’s a real-life example: a favorite commandment of men is forbidding alcohol consumption, while the Bible allows (and even encourages!) the use of it. This is often (but not necessarily) based on the doctrine of men that even a drop of alcohol will defile you. Unbiblical! Indeed, churches telling people what not to eat, drink, wear, etc. should sound familiar. Paul talked about that in the Bible: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch” (Colossians 2:20-23). And he says those commands and doctrines of men are of no value.

Examples of rules which are contrary to the Word of God are prohibitions requiring total abstinence from the use of certain material things. The Mormon religion forbids the use of coffee. Other sects forbid the use of meat. And truly, time would fail to mention all such forbidden things for the number is legion. However, in not one case is it possible to show that such abstinence is required by God. This is impossible because “there is nothing unclean of itself” (Rom. 14: 14). “All things indeed are pure” (14: 20). If nothing is unclean, then no such rule forbidding the use of something can be legitimate. If all things indeed are pure, then all things may indeed be used by men without fear of conscience.

—G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith: For Study Classes pg. 195-196

Another commandment of men, contrary to the Word of God, is regarding marriage. Some pastors have presumed to tell people whom they may and may not marry. The effectively forbid marriage that is in fact lawful, according to the Word of God. The Bible says to marry in the Lord. It is in fact a duty to marry, if you cannot remain single (hence, WCF 22.7 denounces vows of celibacy). The Confession 24.3 says “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent.” And yet, the leadership of some churches presume to forbid marriage, when God does not. Are both the man and woman Christians? Yes, but not enough. If one of them doesn’t meet the church’s preferences, they will attempt to forbid the marriage. That is also sinful, forbidding what God in his Word says is lawful. Interestingly enough, Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 139 says “prohibiting of lawful marriages” and “undue delay of marriage” are violations of the seventh commandment.

They raise their particular preferences to the level of Scripture, and if you don’t get in line, your whole salvation will be questioned. And if you ever decide to leave, because of conscience, they won’t let you go quietly. Cult-like, indeed. Protestants love to have their “popes”, too.

So what should you do, when the church, denomination, or the pastor, put their doctrines and practices on the same level of Scripture? Well, to believe or obey them would be sin, denying God as the only Lord of your conscience. So, clearly, you must refuse their doctrines and commands. Obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29). No church can forbid what Scripture allows, nor command what Scripture does not. You must not submit to that violation of conscience, and consequent violation of God’s lordship.

But even if a person faithfully obeys his conscience and scrupulously observes a rule forbidding the use of a material thing, he is still guilty of sin. He is guilty of the sin of allowing someone other than God to impose a rule upon his conscience.

—Williamson, Westminster Confession pg. 196

Now, I realize that’s easier said than done. Emotionally, it’s difficult. But that doesn’t change anything. Perhaps it’s the church that you’ve invested years in. Or the minister that has invested so much in you. Or the denomination that gave you your position (and could take it away!). Even though that may be the situation, if any of them place their teaching or practices, which contradict or add to Scripture regarding faith and worship, you must reject them. The question it comes down to is this: who is your Lord?

“I will not be obedient to you, the denomination, to Caesar, but only to my Lord Jesus.”

John Gerstner

“But it will be utter chaos and debauchery!” cries the legalist. “If we don’t make rules, then people will do whatever they want!” It’s typical, if conscience-binding is already going on, that those leaders believe that unless they control their people, all hell will break loose in that church. Sin will abound. Everyone will descend into licentiousness. Therefore, they must create and enforce all kinds of regulations to keep everyone behaving. That’s the justification.

We shall say here only that it is extremely dishonoring to the Holy Spirit of God to maintain such an objection. For this objection is tantamount to saying that a man-made rule will keep a Christian from sin better than will the Holy Spirit who dwells in him. To say that the Holy Spirit cannot guide the Christian in the free use of material things which he has not forbidden is to charge God foolishly.

—Williamson, Confession of Faith pg. 196-197

Beside the Word

Williamson observes the second class of rules mentioned by the Confession: “commandments of men, which are . . . beside it.” Meaning, rules that are additional to the Bible. A quick example from the Church of Rome is their commanding everyone to receive Holy Communion on “Easter” Sunday. Now, is it right to receive the Lord’s Supper on Sunday, the Lord’s Day? Yes, provided it is rightly administered, of course. That the Church of Rome has decided to call a particular Sunday “Easter” doesn’t change that. However, what is wrong is letting your conscience be bound by Rome’s authority and receiving communion when and how Rome says.

Let us cite another example: the Baptist churches insist upon immersion as the form of baptism. It is not contrary to the Word of God to baptize by immersion [WCF 28.3]. But it is an addition to the Word of God to require that baptism be by immersion only. And to permit the conscience to be bound by such a rule is wrong even though immersion itself is not.

—Williamson, Westminster Confession pg. 197

Notice the distinction: it may be right and proper to do voluntarily. But what is wrong is allowing your conscience to be bound by a manmade rule. Examples abound. Churches attempting to legislate “spiritual disciplines” would certainly fall under this category. “Pray every day,” the pastor says. Certainly that’s biblical. “Pray on your knees!” Really? “Pray on your knees, every morning, at 4 AM!” We must pray [WCF 21.3] because God in the Scriptures has commanded it. But we will not pray how and when any man (or church) attempts to command. It’s not wrong for any believer to voluntarily pray on their knees at 4 AM. But it is absolutely sin to do it because a man/church has commanded it. You have allowed your conscience to bow to a command of men beside the Word of God.

That evangelical ritual known as the “altar call” is also a commandment of men added to the Word of God. Think about it: Scripture says repent and believe. Believe in your heart, and confess with your mouth. That’s all! But what happens at an “altar call”? Some man, or church, tells people to get up from their seat and come to the front of the room to do the believing and confessing in that way. That’s as clear an addition to the condition of faith as there can be. How is it often announced? “If you want to accept Jesus, come down to the front.” Woah! Scripture nowhere says that is a condition to receiving and resting on Christ.

Truly Reformed

A true church simply declares the Word of God. It is not a legislative body. It does not make laws which bind the consciences of the subjects of Jesus Christ the king. It merely states the king’s laws so clearly that they who fail to heed will be without excuse. (But the Roman Church claims precisely this legislative power to make laws for the subjects of Christ.)

—Williamson, Confession of Faith pg. 26-27

The worst thing is when churches who subscribe to the Westminster Standards violate the conscience. It’s still sin, but understandable for churches without creeds (or very narrow ones) to do this. They haven’t written down exactly what they believe Scripture teaches (doctrines and commands) or exactly what they will require you to believe and do. Especially, they don’t have a chapter in their “statement of faith” regarding liberty of the conscience. So at least we can see the violation of conscience coming.

But for those who claim to be Reformed and Presbyterian? No excuse. It is written and public, right here in our Westminster Confession of Faith, and even substantiated by the Larger Catechism. And this idea didn’t come out nowhere, either. It was a defining principle of the Reformation and of Puritanism which followed.

 

When, as an alternative to God’s law, an elaborate man-made code is developed for believers to follow, covering every conceivable problem and tension in moral living, no freedom is left for believers to make personal decisions based on the principles of Scripture. In such a context, man-made law smothers the divine gospel, and legalistic sanctification swallows up gracious justification. The Christian is brought back into bondage akin to that of medieval Roman Catholic monasticism. . . when God’s law imposes no such limits, the Christian may enjoy freedom of conscience from the doctrines and commandments of men.

—Joel Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology loc. 21485-21507

It’s our heritage, because it’s biblical. God alone is Lord of the conscience. So, the conscience of the Christian is free from the doctrines and commandments of men that are either contrary or in addition to God’s Word, particularly in matters of faith and worship. A truly Reformed church will not even try to bind the conscience to anything other than the Word of God.

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Break that Bread

Something hadn’t occurred to me, before. I certainly don’t recall it, anyway. That’s a reason why I keep studying. I trip over things I never thought of. This time, it was about the Lord’s Supper. I was reading Robert Shaw’s exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (29.3, above) and was caught off guard by a comment he made about wafers.

Wafers
“Bread”

I know Roman Catholic churches use them, and that’s who Shaw refers to. But I think the first time I had one of these wafers was at a Presbyterian church.

I was a little surprised when I saw them. The only reason was that I knew they were a “Roman Catholic thing.” So they were an unexpected taste in a Reformed church. After I ate it, I had another reason: it’s a foam disc. But, neither of those “reasons” are reason enough to object to their use. So I dealt with it.

Needless to say, Robert Shaw actually has a sound reason to oppose the use of wafers in the Lord’s Supper. He notes that it takes away “an essential part,” a “significant action,” of the ordinance. Can you guess which one? Let’s read some Bible:

and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  —1 Corinthians 11:24

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  —Matthew 26:26

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  —Luke 22:19

Because of the actions of the Lord Jesus as he instituted the Lord’s Supper, saying “do this,” our Confession says:

The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed his ministers to declare his word of institution to the people; to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation.

Westminster Confession of Faith 29.3

Notice: “The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed his ministers to . . . take and break the bread” (emphasis mine).

I would never have related communion wafers to the action of breaking the bread, as the Lord Jesus did. Honestly, I hadn’t much noticed and to take and break the bread, at all. Maybe because it didn’t happen in the majority of churches I attended. And yet, it’s there in the Scriptures, and consequently spelled out in the Confession as part of the proper administration of the Lord’s Supper.

I now reflect on the breaking of bread in the churches I’ve been in.

The three large evangelical churches that I went to simply had sliced bread cut into little squares, in platters, to be served. The pastor merely spoke some words of institution and the bread was distributed. No wafers, but functionally the same. No breaking.

In the Presbyterian (PCA) church, our pastor would take pieces of the loaf of bread and break them as he spoke the words of institution. The pre-cut pieces of the bread were already in the platters, ready to be served. But he would break some bread anyway. I always thought, “I like that.” But I never had any deeper thoughts on the matter for the entire time I was there. Clearly, I failed to “diligently observe the sacramental elements and actions” (WLC Q/A 174). I’m playing catch up, once again.

Finally, a church that uses wafers. The first time, I immediately thought, “I don’t like that.” But, without good reason, I wasn’t going to let it bother me.

Now, however, thanks to Robert Shaw, I have learned that there is a problem. And no, I wasn’t looking for it (like that would matter, anyway). Without further delay, here it is:

The minister is also to take and break the bread. The breaking of the bread is an essential part of the ordinance, and, when it is wanting [lacking], the sacrament is not celebrated according to the original institution. It is, indeed, so essential, that the Lord’s supper is sometimes designated from it alone, the whole being denominated from a part. The “breaking of bread” is mentioned among the institutions of the gospel (Acts 2:42); and in Acts 20:7, we are told that, “upon the first day of the week, the disciples came together to break bread:” in both of which passages the celebration of the Lord’s supper is doubtless meant by the “breaking of bread.” The rite is significant, and we are left in no doubt about the meaning of the action. Our Saviour himself explained it when he said, “This is my body, which is broken for you;” [1 Cor. 11:24 KJV] intimating that the broken bread is a figure of his body as wounded, bruised, and crucified, to make atonement for our sins. As an unbroken Christ could not profit sinners, so unbroken bread cannot fully represent to faith the food of the soul. Wherefore, to divide the bread into small pieces called wafers, and put a wafer into the mouth of each of the communicants, as is done in the Church of Rome, is grossly to corrupt this ordinance, for it takes away the significant action of breaking the bread.

—Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith pg. 240

I guess we can’t call the Lord’s Supper “the breaking of bread” if there’s no actual breaking of the bread going on. Does your church break bread, together? “Well, kind of . . .”

What is so helpful about Shaw’s exposition is how he shows that the action of breaking the bread is not arbitrary. It has a meaning! The bread, which represents Christ’s body, is to be broken, because Christ’s body (that the bread represents) was broken. Furthermore, Christ’s body was broken for us, so the bread of the ordinance in which we remember the death of Christ for us must also be broken and given to us. If the bread isn’t broken, that whole parallel is lost. We need Christ’s body broken for there to be atonement! Wafers cannot show that. The visible sacrament must actually represent the invisible grace (WCF 27.7; WLC Q/A 163).

So, it’s actually no small thing. For the minister to not break the bread is to not follow the original institution of our Lord Jesus, and “is grossly to corrupt this ordinance.”

In the PCA church I mentioned earlier, the minister breaks pieces of the bread from the same loaf as the pre-cut squares. So the bread that is broken is the same bread that is given to the people. The bread we receive in fact was broken before us, before distribution. Thus, the sacrament is administered according to the original institution.

If there was an attempt to accommodate the use of wafers by breaking some bread also, that wouldn’t fly. The minister would be breaking bread that is clearly not the same as that given and eaten by the people. Thus, the broken body is not given to the people. That continues “grossly to corrupt this ordinance.”

Simply put, Jesus is Lord, and he instituted the sacraments (WLC Q/A 162). His original institution is what must be followed. We are not at liberty to makes changes, either by changing the elements or by eliminating an essential action. Christ is Lord, we are not. We do not have the authority to alter his ordinances. Therefore, ministers who desire to rightly administer the sacrament must break that bread.

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