November, 2016

The Sacraments – The Means of Grace

God created all things out of nothing. He was dependent upon no one and no thing when he created. God had no need to create. He was not compelled, coerced, or forced to create. It was all from freedom. All that God created came as an outflow of the all-satisfying and sufficient love among the persons of the Godhead. Everything that was created was simply for the celebration and glory of God. It is for these reasons, among others, that we can look at all of creation and say it was by grace. Creation was not merited or deserved, but it was simply because God in his gracious nature desired to create. All good things come to man on account of God’s gracious character.

The graciousness of God is also seen in God’s dealing with Adam in the aftermath of his sin. The punishment that Adam had merited for all mankind in the Garden was not fully and immediately meted out. If it had been, then mankind would have been immediately and completely eradicated. Instead, the graciousness of God was demonstrated in that God shows both his wrath at sin and all that opposes his righteous rule while also revealing his patience and sovereign plan of redemption for mankind. Though they deserve death, God’s blessing makes the woman fruitful and causes her to eventually give birth to the one who would crush the head of the enemy and conquer the power of sin. The promise of redemption and salvation flows from the graciousness of God. God’s relationship with man has always been marked by grace.

The question that has arisen throughout the history of the church has been whether or not, in the communication of this grace, God uses means. That is, are there things that God uses to communicate his grace to us? When we talk about the “Means of Grace,” we are talking about the instruments by which God communicates his grace to us. There have been a variety of answers to this question. Mysticism has held that the grace of God, even salvation, is simply Christ in us, an inner guiding light, or some spark of the Divine that makes grace available to man. There are no means, God’s grace and blessedness is just in us and the task of the believer is simply to recognize, realize, or actualize that grace. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, sees God’s grace as bound to means. The visible Church as sustained by the invisible Spirit, is the actual means of grace. In their view, the Church is Christ on earth, and the grace Christ merited is administered through the sacrament by the priest. This means, as the Council of Trent articulates, that the grace of justification can only be obtained through the priestly administration of the sacraments, or at least a faithful desire for them.

The Reformation held a position in between these two poles. There are means but these means are not identical with the visible church. There is no Mediator between God and man. The church is the communion of the saints, but she does not mediate salvation. Instead, the Word and the sacraments alone can be viewed as means of grace. These means are external, humanly perceptible actions, and signs that Christ has given his church and with which he has linked the communication of his grace. Westminster agrees with this when it asks:

What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemptions?

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation (WSC #88).

The Word is primary as a means of grace because it is the clearest revelation of Jesus Christ. It is also through the Word that we are instructed in the nature and practice of the sacraments. The Word is primary, but the sacraments are a means whereby Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit is communicated to the elect by faith. Geerhardus Vos comments, “Accompanying the spoken word, the sacrament is a word contained in an image and intended for the eye” (Vos, Reformed Dogmatics). Calvin adds, “Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace. But they avail and profit nothing unless received in faith” (Calvin, Institutes).

The Word and sacraments are instruments or means of grace whereby the Holy Spirit presents Christ to his elect. They are inseparably attached to one another. The Word of God giving shape and direction to the sacrament. The sacraments are, therefore, impotent without the Word. And both would be fruitless without faith. But as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is by faith revealed and set before the believer.1

1For more information see Hermon Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4.


The Sacraments – An Unappreciated Gift

One of the things that attracted me to Covenant Presbyterian Church when I was looking for a church to serve was the practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis. Had it not already been the practice of the church, it is something I would have sought to begin. I did not grow up in a church that practiced weekly communion. And before I began serving at CPC, I had never regularly attended a church that practiced weekly communion. But as I studied the Scriptures, read the history of the church, digested theology, and looked at the way the church engages with the current culture, I became more and more convinced that the church today needs to observe the Lord’s Supper as a regular part of the weekly worship of God.

A brief and completely unscientific poll I conducted on Facebook estimates somewhere in the neighborhood of only 20% of PCA churches practice weekly communion. And a majority of these are churches that have been planted in the last 15 years. Most PCA churches only observe the Lord’s Supper on a monthly basis. Covenant Presbyterian Church has been way ahead of the PCA curve in our practice. We have observed weekly communion at least since we were particularized in 1985.

This is why it was so surprising to me when I saw the results of a recent survey we conducted among church members of CPC. We asked the question, “What makes CPC special?” The number one thing mentioned was the preaching of God’s Word. As the preacher, this makes me glad. As a Reformed pastor, who seeks to make God’s Word central to our worship, this makes me very glad. Other answers were things like our family atmosphere, orthodox teaching, and our use of hymns in worship. These answers weren’t surprising. What was surprising, though, was that not one respondent mentioned our weekly observation of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, the sacraments as a whole were not mentioned. Now, I firmly believe that for many of you, this is an important aspect of what makes CPC special. Sometimes, however, we can assume those things that are important. This leads me to believe that we need to be reminded of the importance of the sacraments and, specifically, why our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper is important.

Over the next several weeks, I hope to use this space to talk about the doctrine of the sacraments. We will look at what the Means of Graces are and why they’re important. We will look specifically at what the Bible says about the sacraments. We will look at what is a sacrament, how we administer them, and why. As we explore specifically about baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we’ll dig into some of the theology behind the sacrament and how it was shaped through the history of the church. We will look at how various branches of the church have understood the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. And finally we will look at how the sacraments are a necessary means for the church to engage the whole person in our modern cultural context. Through this series of articles, I hope that we come to see why we need to have a greater appreciation for the gift of the sacraments. Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s colleague and one of his greatest interpreters, helpfully begins to answer this question.

Since the simple word only strikes one of our senses, while the sacraments involve in addition sight and other bodily senses, and also are distributed with very significant and distinct ceremonies, it is easy to recognize how necessary to us is the help of the sacraments to maintain our faith, since, in a manner of speaking, they cause us to touch with the finger and the eye, and as it were to already taste and actually feel the outcome of that which we await, as if we had it and possessed it already. For this reason, far from despising the holy sacraments, we confess that we cannot sufficiently magnify their dignity and legitimate use.

After the Election

In the post-mortem of this election, there is much that will be said about the failure of pollsters, the national news media, and the political parties in understanding the sentiment of large segments of this nation. It is apparent, though, that this is a nation divided. Personally, I was elated that Sec. Clinton would not be President. At the same time, I was terrified that Mr. Trump would. And had the outcome been reversed, I would have felt exactly the same. The division in this country is not neat and simple.

Elated, terrified, or somewhere inbetween, we must reject the chorus of “Chicken Littles,” particularly on social media, who have cried that the sky will fall if the other candidate is elected. Our system of government is not designed that way. And we have Presbyterianism to thank for this. The Republican form of government in this nation is based on some of same principles of elder-rule in the Presbyterian church. John Witherspoon was a Scottish Presbyterian who immigrated to the American colonies, signed the Declaration of Independence, and taught James Madison, Aaron Burr, three justices of the Supreme Court, 12 members of the Continental Congress, 10 Cabinet officers, and 77 Congressmen at Princeton (Wikipedia). Witherspoon instilled the values of the Presbyterian system of government in his students, principally Madison who authored the US Constitution.

Why does this system of government work? In political science we call it checks and balances. In theology we call it the total depravity of man. The Scriptures tell us that man is sinful. This doesn’t mean that man is always as sinful as he possibly could be, but it does mean that given authority and left unrestrained by Common Grace or the Law, man will be a despot. So in this political system, the power of fallen man is always held in check. The brilliance of this system means that no single Presidential election is a zero-sum game. Your candidate may have lost. You may find the President-elect loathsome. But it is highly unlikely that one single election will destroy the nation. And the opposite is also true. You may believe that your candidate will rescue the nation. But the system is designed to make major changes slow and arduous to implement. Because man is sinful, this is a blessing.

So, now what? You may be thrilled or crushed by the election outcome. I want to offer four ways for Christians to proceed in light of this historic election. First, pray. This may seem obvious, but (if we’re honest with ourselves) even though we know we ought to, we don’t do this enough. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayer, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions,” (1 Tim 2:1, 2).

Second, comfort. There are vast numbers of Americans who woke up after the election with real fear. They listened to a candidate and that candidate’s supporters stoke the fires of racism, misogyny, and bigotry. This is not to say that all and even most of Trump’s supporters are racists, misogynists, or bigots. Indeed, it is likely a small fraction. But the fear of many minorities today is that that small fraction will feel validated and emboldened in their hate. As Christians, we are called to be empathetic. “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:5). If you know someone who is fearful because of the outcome of this election, the only Christian response is to comfort them. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction,” (2 Cor 1:3, 4).

Third, understand. There is a real angst among the white working class in America. I am no expert in sociology, but these are my observations. The white working class has seen jobs taken away by policies that enrich the elite. Their homes have been lost in reckless economic policies crafted on Wall Street and in DC. They have been ridiculed as uneducated, illiterate, inbred, and backwards. The redneck or hillbilly is the only demographic that is perfectly acceptable to openly mock. Trump, however, openly taunted the elite. When the elite in DC, NYC, and California recoiled at the idea of Donald Trump as President, it only made him more attractive to the disenfranchised. The more they pointed out his weaknesses as a candidate, the better he appeared to the white working class. They rallied around the one person who most disgusted the elite.

Meanwhile, Evangelicals have been told to “love the City.” So they flocked to the centers of power and sought to “engage the culture.” But we have to ask the difficult question, “Was that really just a desire for greater worldly power and influence?” Have we neglected the “least of these”? Those outside of the Center City, in the suburbs, and in rural communities? At best young evangelicals have ignored this demographic. At worst we have gone along with ridiculing them. And the result is that the dying vestiges of the old “Religious Right” threw public morality to the wind and seized the opportunity to regain some modicum of power by riding the Trump wave of discontent. We need to understand from where this angst came. The Gospel provides a better answer, but we need to understand and respect the white working class cultural context in order to effectively preach the Gospel to that context.

Fourth, engage. Avoid the temptation to look at those with whom you disagreed in this election as “the Other.” Engage with one another. Disagree but don’t be disagreeable. Get outside of your social media newsfeed. Listen with compassion to people outside of your bubble. Continue to stand for what is right. Pursue justice. Whether you supported Trump or not, the notion of justice has not changed. Right is still right. And we are called to pursue it. No President is going to be all-good or all-bad. Discern what is true and right from what is false and wrong. Where Trump’s policies support justice, support them. Where they don’t, reject them. Be engaged.


Of the Civil Magistrate

Tuesday night is going to come and go. There will be winners and there will be losers. Some will be buoyed with renewed hope that America will be great again or stronger together. And the other side will be convinced that the nation has made another step toward fascism or socialism. Whatever the outcome, what are to make of whomever God ordains to be President? Chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession of Faith gives us good perspective when thinking about our civil authorities.

The first phrase, if understood correctly, puts the rest of the chapter in good order. “God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates to be under him over the people, for his own glory and the public good” (WCF 23.1). When Westminster uses language like “the Civil Magistrate,” it is referring to all agents of government here on earth: local, state, national, and even international. God owns the whole earth and everything and everyone who is on it. He is THE Lord and King. Every civil authority that exists owes its being and its authority to God. The apostle Paul makes this abundantly, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1). The old Princeton theologian A.A. Hodge helpfully adds, “Some have supposed that the right or legitimate authority of human government has its foundation ultimately in ‘the consent of the governed,’ ‘the will of the majority,’ or in some imaginary ‘social compact’ entered into by the forefathers of the race at the origin of social life. It is self-evident, however, that the divine will is the source of all government.”[1] God has ordained it this way. Whatever the nature of the civil authority, it owes its existence to the sovereign will of God. And there is a reason God has ordained this civil authority. It is instituted by God for his own glory and for the public good.

So how is the Christian to respond to the government if God is the One who instituted it? What is the duty of the Christian toward government? The Confession of Faith gives us four practical duties of the Christian toward government. We are to pray for those in authority. We are to honor our leaders. We are to pay what is due. And we are to obey their lawful commands (WCF 23.4).

Paul urges his young disciple Timothy that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2:1, 2). God’s Word clearly instructs the Church to pray for all those in authority. This is easy when the guy we like is in office. But it is no less necessary when someone with whom we sharply disagree holds office. This command is irrespective of political beliefs.

We are also to honor those in authority. The apostle Peter gives four imperatives in 1 Peter 2:17. The Christian is to “honor everyone.” This is comprehensive. But those in the Church deserve more than just our honor. The second imperative is to “Love the brotherhood.” The third imperative is to “Fear God.” We are to reverence and esteem God as holy and mighty. Now, Peter could have stopped here and these three imperatives would have been very thorough. Honor, love, and fear. But he continues with a fourth imperative that seems to go back to the first, but adds a degree of emphasis. In case it wasn’t completely clear in the term “everyone,” Peter emphasizes that included in that term are those in authority; “Honor the emperor.” Government and those in authority are not to be viewed negatively. We are to honor those whom God has placed over us.

The third duty of the Christian toward the government is to pay what is due. The apostle Paul writes, “Pay to all what is owed to them” (Rom 13:7). And taxes are the first example Paul gives of what is owed. The government has the God-given right to levy taxes on its citizens and the citizens have the God-given responsibility to pay them. Next April when you grumble about your taxes, remember that God has both promised to provide for your daily bread and had commanded you to pay your taxes. To grumble and complain is to either believe God won’t provide sufficiently for your needs or that you shouldn’t have to obey God’s commands.

Finally, the Christian is to obey the government’s lawful commands. Paul says in Romans that we ought to obey our authorities not only to avoid wrath but also “for the sake of conscience” (Rom 13:5). When we begin to disobey earthly authority, our consciences become hard, making it easier to disobey heavenly authority. We must never grow accustomed to the concept of disobedience. And yet, we should note that Westminster limits this obedience to “lawful commands.” Those unlawful commands which would cause us to sin against God must be disobeyed because “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

So, whether your candidate wins or loses on Tuesday, or you’re convinced there is no winner this election cycle, Jesus is still King. The apostle Peter could instruct the Church to submit to the authority of the government even while he was in prison and suffering under the persecution of “Babylon” (1 Pet 5:13). By “Babylon” Peter is referring to the pagan Emperor Nero. When Peter said “honor the emperor” that was the one he had in mind. No matter how bad you believe the government is, we are to lawfully submit to it because, ultimately, we submit to God.



[1] Archibald Alexander Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (Edinburgh, Scotland; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002) p. 293.