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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Why Did Jesus Resurrect?

I was floored. It was such a simple question. A question that nobody in the church asks. So basic, yet so taken for granted.

In the midst of a lesson on Christ’s exaltation (WSC Q/A. 28), one of our students asked: why did Jesus resurrect?

“Wow,” I thought. Excellent question.

Why did Jesus resurrect? Why did he need to? Usually, we only hear about his death for our sins, so we could be forgiven. It’s quite possible that our people have never been told why Jesus resurrected. We know it happened, but don’t know why.

I was so excited, because this one student was actually engaging the material. She was thinking about what the Bible was saying. So she asked a question so basic, it stunned us for a bit. Nobody asks that. If that’s because they already know the answer or not, I’ll leave for you to speculate.

Instinctively, I turned to the Westminster Larger Catechism. *Hint: if you’ve got a question, the first place you should look is the Larger Catechism. With 196 questions, chances are good yours (or very close to it) is already there, with an answer from Scripture.

The Shorter Catechism doesn’t directly address the question. It covers Christ’s exaltation in one question.

Q. 28. Wherein consisteth Christ’s exaltation?
A. Christ’s exaltation consisteth in his rising again from the dead on the third day, in ascending up into heaven, in sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and in coming to judge the world at the last day.

The Larger introduces it similarly, following the same steps:

Q. 51. What was the estate of Christ’s exaltation?
A. The estate of Christ’s exaltation comprehendeth his resurrection, ascension, sitting at the right hand of the Father, and his coming again to judge the world.

The Larger Catechism doesn’t stop there, however, but breaks it down. It truly gives an exposition of the doctrine, giving separate questions to each of the steps of Christ’s exaltation (Q/A. 52-56). That includes the resurrection.

So, to the question of why did Christ resurrect:

Q. 52. How was Christ exalted in his resurrection?
A. Christ was exalted in his resurrection, in that, not having seen corruption in death (of which it was not possible for him to be held), and having the very same body in which he suffered, with the essential properties thereof (but without mortality, and other common infirmities belonging to this life), really united to his soul, he rose again from the dead the third day by his own power; whereby he declared himself to be the Son of God, to have satisfied divine justice, to have vanquished death, and him that had power of it, and to be Lord of quick and dead: all which he did as a public person, the head of his church, for their justification, quickening in grace, support against enemies, and to assure them of their resurrection from the dead at the last day.

Let’s look at everything following “whereby.” That’s where the significance of the resurrection is, what the resurrection means. Why did Christ resurrect? We’ll split up the answers with the Scripture proofs

To declare himself the Son of God:

and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord —Romans 1:4

And that he satisfied God’s justice:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? —Romans 8:32

whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. —Romans 3:25-26

For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. —Hebrews 9:13-14

To show death defeated, along with the devil:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil —Hebrews 2:14

To show himself Lord of both the living and the dead:

For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. —Romans 14:9

That’s a lot of significance. Furthermore, Christ did all those things as the representative of his people, the elect:

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. —1 Corinthians 15:21-22

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities. —Isaiah 53:10-11

that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. —Ephesians 1:20-23

And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. —Colossians 1:18

He resurrected for their justification:

who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. —Romans 4:25

And so they would be made spiritually alive:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins . . . even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus —Ephesians 2:1, 5-6

having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. —Colossians 2:12

Also, that they would be supported against enemies:

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. —1 Corinthians 15:25-27

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” —Psalm 2:7-9

And finally, to guarantee to the elect that we also will be resurrected like him in the last day:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. —1 Corinthians 15:20

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. —1 Thessalonians 4:14

The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. We can’t be saved without it. A very basic Christian doctrine, part of the Gospel itself. How often do we say or hear, Christ lived, died, and rose again. Yet, can we say why? We should.

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Why did the Mediator need to be man?

What is celebrated on Christmas? The birth of Jesus Christ.

Why is that worth celebrating? Did the birth of the Son of God as a human need to happen? Or is this just an insignificant detail?

See, many people know this is the occasion for Christmas. Christ was born in Bethlehem. But why is that worth celebration?

We need to know why it was necessary that the Mediator, Jesus Christ, was born a human being. Let’s look at the Westminster Larger Catechism, which asks some important questions.

Q. 36. Who is the mediator of the covenant of grace?

A. The only mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fullness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever.

1 Tim. 2:5; John 1:1, 14; John 10:30; Phil. 2:6; Gal. 4:4; Luke 1:35; Rom. 9:5; Col. 2:9; Heb. 7:24-25.

Notice the phrasing of the catechism: who is the mediator of the covenant of grace? How many mediators are there between God and men? Only one!

1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Neither Mary, the saints, nor any other mere human being are mediators. It is quite impossible for a mere human being to be mediator. The mediator must be God and man, as we will see.

Note that the Lord Jesus Christ is the eternal (not created) Son of God, the 2nd Person of the Trinity. Same substance and equal with the Father, equal in power and glory. Not similar substance, but the same. He’s not like God, he is God. He’s not part of God, he is fully God; fully equal with God the Father (and God the Holy Spirit).

Colossians 2:9, For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.

At the time that God decided, God the Son became man. This is the incarnation: in flesh.

John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

God the Son took on human nature. The divine person added human nature, so that he was God in the flesh. What a most amazing miracle. Remember the doctrine of God? God is infinite. Yet here he becomes finite. God is Creator, yet here he enters his own creation and becomes a creature. God so infinitely transcends man, that he would have to infinitely condescend to take on finite human nature. And that is what he did.

God hath exceedingly glorified his power in this work. —It shows the great and inconceivable power of God to unite natures so infinitely different, as the divine and human nature, in one person. If God can make one who is truly God, and one that is truly man, the self-same person, what is it that he cannot do? This is a greater and more marvellous work than creation.

—Jonathan Edwards, “The Wisdom of God, Displayed in the Way of Salvation”

I too believe the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ to be the greatest miracle, and even greater work than the creation itself.

One person, Jesus Christ, in two natures (divine and human), forever.

Christ’s divine nature always remains his divine nature; his human nature always remains his human nature; these two cannot be mixed in any way. Christ is not a being halfway between God and man; he is a person who is both God and man at the same time; he is as truly God as if he were not man at all; and he is as truly man as if he were not God at all.

—J.G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary loc. 1274

This incarnation of the Son of God is what we remember at this time of year.

Q. 37. How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?

A. Christ the Son of God became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance, and born of her, yet without sin.

John 1:14; Matt. 26:38; Luke 1:27, 31, 35, 42; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 4:15; Heb. 7:26.

The incarnation was a matter of addition, not subtraction. Meaning, God did not stop being God; subtracting his divinity to become human. That wouldn’t work anyway, because God and man are not on the same “scale of being,” with man at the bottom and God at the top. God is infinitely different. The Creator is different from the creature. The point is, God did not become less than God to become man. Rather, he took to himself a human nature.

Neither did the divinity mix or combine with the humanity to form some new kind of being. Jesus Christ is not a demi-god, or divine human. He’s as human as you and I. He also remains fully God, as he eternally has been.

Westminster Confession of Faith 8.2,

So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. (d) Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man. (e)

• d. Luke 1:35; Rom 9:5; Col 2:9; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Pet 3:18. • e. Rom 1:3-4; 1 Tim 2:5.

The Son of God took on human nature. Taking to himself a true body and soul.

A human being is body and soul. To be a human being, the divine person was united with his human body and soul. “Reasonable soul” simply means rational.

Important: Jesus Christ is a human being, but not a human person. Jesus Christ has two natures (divine and human), but he’s not two persons. He’s one person, two natures. THe 2nd Person of the Trinity added human nature to his divine person. He took on human nature, not a human person.

How about right now, at this time? Is Jesus Christ still a human being? Is he still two natures, divine and human, united in one person? Yes! And Jesus Christ will continue to be man into eternity. Hebrews 7:24, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.

Being conceived not by a human father, but by the Holy Spirit. It was a virgin conception, a miracle. And Jesus was truly the son of Mary, hence the catechism says “of her substance.” He had her DNA. Jesus Christ is truly a human being. Nothing less than human. He became, and still is, as fully human as you or I.

Christ was born of Mary, yet without sin. Wait a minute! Isn’t Christ fully human? How can he be a human being and be without sin?

Sin is not part of being human, it does not belong to human nature. It’s not an essential property of humanity. Sin came by the Fall. Remember that God originally created man without sin. When Christ returns, all Christians will be without sin once again. Sin is abnormal. So Christ being truly human doesn’t mean he has to have sin. Sin is unnatural to humanity. Christ was born without original sin, and never committed sins. His mother Mary was a sinner, so how could her Son, Jesus, be born without a sinful nature? That’s a special miracle.

Now, we need a Mediator. But does our Mediator need to be God? This question is vital, seeing as there are many who like to dream of more than one mediator between God and men.

Q. 38. Why was it requisite that the mediator should be God?

A. It was requisite that the mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God’s justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation.

Acts 2:24-25; Rom. 1:4; Rom. 4:25; Heb. 9:14; Acts 20:28; Heb. 9:14; Heb. 7:25-28; Rom. 3:24-26; Eph. 1:6; Matt. 3:17; Titus 2:13-14; Gal. 4:6; Luke 1:68-69, 71, 74; Heb. 5:8-9; Heb. 9:11-15.

This is important in the face of errors concerning merely human mediators.

A person that is only human could not be mediator between God and men. A mere human would be obliterated under the infinite wrath of God. A mere human being could not overcome the power of death. A mere human being could not give worth to her suffering, obedience, and intercession. Only an infinite person could satisfy the infinite justice of God! A human being has not the ability nor authority to send God the Holy Spirit upon people. A human being cannot conquer all enemies.

To understand the Jesus Christ is 100% God is important. The mediator between God and men must be God himself!

The opposite error: forgetting the humanity of the Mediator. It’s not an incidental detail. “One Mediator, who must be God!” cries the Protestant.

But, is that all we need? Why, oh why is the birth of our fully human Mediator, the Lord Jesus, worth celebrating?

Since it is Christmas, and everybody is celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, we will turn our attention to the humanity of Christ. God incarnate, taking on human nature, born a true human being in Bethlehem. We may believe that or celebrate it on Christmas. But is it just a nice story? Or was it truly necessary?

This is one of the beauties of the Westminster Larger Catechism. The Shorter Catechism doesn’t address this, and the Confession of Faith only indirectly. This is why we are studying the Larger Catechism, as it asks this important question.

Q. 39. Why was it requisite that the mediator should be man?

A. It was requisite that the mediator should be man, that he might advance our nature, perform obedience to the law, suffer and make intercession for us in our nature, have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; that we might receive the adoption of sons, and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace.

Heb. 2:16; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 2:14; Heb. 7:24-25; Heb. 4:15; Gal. 4:5; Heb. 4:16.
Qualified to satisfy the law in the place of sinful men.

Galatians 4:4-7, But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Does God only require sinlessness? Do we only need our debt cancelled? No, we also need positive righteousness. God requires perfect obedience. The law must be fulfilled. Adam failed to fulfill God’s righteous requirement, and that requirement remains. If paying the death penalty for sin was all that the Mediator needed to do, then why didn’t Christ drop out of heaven a grown man, and die right away? Why did he live his life first? Because the law needed to be obeyed. We are all condemned by the law. That’s why we need a substitute to obey it perfectly for us. By Adam’s disobedience many were made sinners, so we needed one man to obey to make many righteous (see Romans 5:17-19).

The commentary of Vos is most helpful:

Why could the angel Gabriel or some other angel not have become a Mediator to save the human race from sin? The angels are not members of the human race: they do not possess human nature; therefore none of them could be qualified to become the second Adam to undo the wrong done by the first Adam.

—J.G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary loc. 1345

Why was it necessary that the Mediator “partake of flesh and blood,” that is, possess a human nature? Because to redeem the human race, the Mediator must act as the representative of human beings, and in order to be a representative of human beings, he must first of all be a member of the human race. Even in ordinary human organizations, a person cannot be an officer until he is first a member. Christ could not be a Redeemer of the human race unless he was first of all a member of the human race. Since sin and ruin came by man, redemption must come by man too (1 Cor. 15:21: “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead”).

—Ibid., 1360

Why must the Mediator perform obedience to the law? Adam and all his posterity had broken the law of God and lived in violation of that law. It was necessary that the second Adam keep the law of God perfectly. God himself is not under the law; he is the lawgiver. Jesus Christ had to be truly human so that he could be truly under the law of God, and thus succeed where Adam failed, in meeting the condition of the covenant of works, namely, a perfect obedience to the law of God.

—Ibid.

The Mediator must be divine, as we already saw. But God is the lawgiver. The law needs to be fulfilled, if God justice is to be satisfied. How then can God be under the law? Be born of woman, as man. Then he is under the law, and can keep the law as our substitute. And because he is also truly God, his obedience has worth and efficacy for his elect that he represents.

As a man, Jesus obeyed the law of God perfectly as if he was nothing but a man.

—John Gerstner

Another reason our Mediator needs to be man is so we can be adopted. The Confession (ch. 12) defines adoption thus:

All those that are justified, God vouchsafeth, in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption: by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God; have His name put upon them; receive the Spirit of adoption; have access to the throne of grace with boldness; are enabled to cry, Abba, Father; are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him as by a father; yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.

That his people might be made sons and heirs. Son of God, united to human nature, so that Son of God is also Son of man. Thus, all covenant people are lifted up into the relationship of sons of the Father. When you are united to the Son of God, you become a child of God. Christ not only took away your sin, but also earned an inheritance for you. And you can receive that only because of your Elder Brother, Jesus Christ.

Another work of the Mediator is intercession. The Lord Jesus can intercede for us because he was made in our nature.

Hebrews 2:16-17 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

Hebrews 7:24-25 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

Clearly, no one else can intercede for us.

What do we see from all this? The humanity of the Mediator is as essential as his divinity. If the Lord Jesus Christ is not as truly human as you and I, then we could not be saved. He could not mediate between God and man. All this is why the birth of Christ as a human being is worth celebrating. The Son of God being born of the virgin Mary is wonderful and amazing news for us, for only then could the office of Mediator be fulfilled!

Q. 40. Why was it requisite that the mediator should be God and man in one person?

A. It was requisite that the mediator, who was to reconcile God and man, should himself be both God and man, and this in one person, that the proper works of each nature might be accepted of God for us, and relied on by us, as the works of the whole person.

Matt. 1:21, 23; Matt. 3:17; Heb. 9:14; 1 Pet. 2:6.

So, we get why the work of the mediator requires divinity. And we get that it also requires humanity. Only God can do it, and only man can do it. So, why don’t we have two mediators? Why was it necessary for the mediator to be God and man in one person? That’s an excellent question that I think is easily overlooked.

Why could not God provide two Mediators, one divine and the other human, to accomplish the salvation of his people from sin? Because the relation between the works of each of the two natures required that these two natures be united in one person. A divine Mediator could not experience suffering except through a human nature; a human Mediator could not endure the required suffering, except as sustained by a divine nature. Therefore it was necessary, not only that the Mediator be God and that he be man, but that both natures be united in one person that his work might be a unity.

—J.G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary loc. 1369

Because of this unity, Scripture sometimes refers to one of Christ’s natures what is proper to the other. This is called “community of attributes.” For example, Acts 20:28, the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

Does God bleed? No, obviously not. Remember the doctrine of God: God is a spirit, an bodily part. God doesn’t even have blood. Divine nature cannot bleed. So what is the Scripture saying? Blood belongs to Christ’s human nature, yet Scripture refers blood to God, the divine nature.

The unity of Christ’s person permits this reference. For this reason, we should not be afraid of referring to Mary as the mother of God. It is proper to do so, because of the unity of Christ’s person. She is the mother of Jesus in his human nature, but the divine and human are one. It’s okay to say that, if Scripture itself says that God purchased the church with his blood.

The short version: a human being alone can’t do the job. The mediator must be divine, as well as human, and yet one person.

Divinity can bear the infinite wrath of God. But God cannot suffer. A human being can suffer, but not enough. Divinity can overcome death, but not die. A human being can die, but not overcome death. And his death isn’t worth enough. God has infinite worth. A human being can intercede, but not enough. A finite human cannot satisfy the infinite justice of God. The work of the Mediator must have unity. The Mediator, if he is to be the Mediator between God and men, must be fully God and fully man, in one person. Two natures, united in one person.

Q. 41. Why was our mediator called Jesus?

A. Our mediator was called Jesus, because he saveth his people from their sins.

Matt. 1:21.

Now let us appreciate the birth of Jesus Christ of the virgin Mary. It means that God miraculously gave a Mediator that could save us, because he was truly as human as you and I, yet without sin.

As John Gerstner emphasized, the Lord Jesus Christ was a human being, a man, in his birth, a man during his life, was a man that died, was a man that resurrected from the dead, ascended to the right hand of the Father as a man, is seated in session as a man right now, and he will come again to earth as a man to judge evil and bring the fullness of the kingdom of God.

Now, celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus with understanding. It truly is a wonderful truth! See the power and wisdom of God in the incarnation! All of these aspects, coming together in the God-man. Why celebrate Christmas? Because the Mediator must be man! God had to be man. The Son of God, the divine person, needed to unite with human nature to fulfill the office of Mediator. Hopefully we can appreciate the birth of our Savior more, and celebrate Christmas all the more passionately, knowing how vital it is for our redemption.

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