October, 2018

The Formal Principle of the Reformation

Assistant Pastor Christopher Diebold

Through a series of events largely outside of Martin Luther’s control, he found himself scheduled to debate John Eck, a noted Roman Catholic theologian, in the summer of 1519. What has come to be called the Leipzig Debate marked a shift in Luther’s criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. The precipitating event was Luther’s defense of some positions of Jan Hus, the Bohemian proto-reformer who was burned at the stake more than 100 years earlier. Interestingly, Luther defended Hus’ theology only after Eck had debated Luther into a corner.

In the course of the debate, Luther eventually responded to the claim that he was supporting a condemned position by defending many of Hus’s positions as essentially orthodox. When Eck questioned his defense of a noted heretic, Luther countered that the Council of Constance, which sentenced Hus to death, could have been in error. This led him to state that councils could and had erred, as had popes and canon law. What remained infallible for Luther was Scripture and thus it was finally authoritative for the church.[1]

And so, when presented with the choice of supporting the Roman Catholic Church or the heretic Jan Hus, Luther chose the heretic. “For the first time, Luther had articulated clearly his position that popes, councils, and theologians were all subject to error, leaving Scripture as the supreme authority in all theological matters. This became a watershed moment, resulting in both increased support and increased opposition after he left Leipzig.”[2]

Thus, the formal principle of the Reformation was established. The arguments between Roman Catholics and reformers would be debated from there on the grounds of this question: how do you know that Scripture is the supreme authority? As the Reformation continued and expanded, other reformers would add clarity to what it means for Scripture both to claim and to be the ultimate authority. John Calvin remarks,

When that which professes to be the word of God is acknowledged to be so, no person, unless devoid of common sense and the feelings of a man, will have the desperate hardihood to refuse credit to the speaker. But since no daily responses are given from heaven, and the Scriptures are the only records in which God has been pleased to consign his truth to perpetual remembrance, the full authority which they ought to possess with the faithful is not recognized, unless they are believed to have come from heaven, as directly as if God had been heard giving utterance to them.[3]

Scripture’s authority is founded on God’s choice to leave a permanent record of his revelation in writing rather than to engage in continued direct divine revelation through the ages. How do you know God’s will for your life? He has preserved his revelation in Scripture and Scripture alone; Scripture declares itself to be the very word of God.

Fast forward a few hundred years. While the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck was writing his Reformed Dogmatics at the turn of the 19th century, this same issue persisted, yet the questions were more sophisticated. One such Roman Catholic response to the formal principle of the Reformation was this question: how do you know that you know Scripture is the supreme authority? After all, Scripture has always been interpreted by authority, e.g. Moses, the Levitical priests, Christ, and the Apostles. If Scripture needs authoritative interpretation, it can’t be clear. If it’s not clear, how do you know that it is the supreme authority? So the argument goes.

The Reformed defense of the formal principle of the Reformation is presented well by Bavinck:

The doctrine of the perspicuity [clarity] of Holy Scripture has frequently been misunderstood and misrepresented, both by Protestants and Catholics. It does not mean that the matters and subjects with which Scripture deals are not mysteries that far exceed the reach of the human intellect. Nor does it assert that Scripture is clear in all its parts, so that no scientific exegesis is needed, or that, also in its doctrine of salvation, Scripture is plain and clear to every person without distinction. It means only that the truth, the knowledge of which is necessary to everyone for salvation, though not spelled out with equal clarity on every page of Scripture, is nevertheless presented throughout all of Scripture in such a simple and intelligible form that a person concerned about the salvation of his or her soul can easily, by personal reading and study, learn to know that truth from Scripture without the assistance and guidance of the church and the priest. The way of salvation, not as it concerns the matter itself but as it concerns the mode of transmission, has been clearly set down there for the reader desirous of salvation.[4]

The Holy Spirit opens blind eyes to the clear truth of Scripture. This clear truth is infallible truth because Scripture is the very word of God. Though councils and popes have erred, Scripture cannot err. So, Scripture is the only solid ground upon which we can know God. This is why sola Scriptura was the formal principle of the Reformation.

As we remember the Reformation this Sunday, remember specifically the formal principle of the Reformation.

[1] https://reformation500.csl.edu/timeline/leipzig-debate/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Institutes, 1.7.1

[4] Reformed Dogmatics, 1:477


Pastor Donny Friederichsen

The spiritual world is unseen. Though it is felt in various ways, it is often ignored or disregarded because it is invisible. The visibility or lack thereof does not affect the reality of evil spiritual forces which oppose God. The chief of these forces is Satan. Satan is real. Often Satan is popularly depicted as red with horns, goat hooves, a tail, and a pitchfork. Very little of this would find its origin in how the Bible describes Satan. Likely, his popular image comes from an eclectic mix of folklore, mythology, and literature. But what does the Bible say about Satan? A comprehensive answer cannot be given here. But we will look at various names and titles given to Satan. We will also see his principal manner of attack against God and Christians. And we will lay out some strategies for Christians in resisting him.

Just as there is the kingdom of God, there is a kingdom of evil spirits (Matt 12:26; Mk 3:24; Luke 11:17-18). And at the head of this kingdom is Satan. He is the devil, the enemy, the accuser (Rev 12:10), Belial (Syriac for worthlessness), Beelzebul (Lord of the dwelling or Lord of the flies, Matt 10:25), prince of demons (Matt 9:34), the ruler of the kingdom of the air (Eph 2:2), the ruler of this world (John 12:31), the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4), the great dragon and the ancient serpent (Rev 12:9; 20:2).[1] He is a murderer and the father of lies (John 8:44). He goes about like a roaring lion seeking whomever he can destroy (1 Pet 5:8).

Satan is always and everywhere the adversary of God, the opponent of Christ, and the deceiver of humans. His primary goal is to make people sin. He will use every imaginable tactic or tool to lead people into sin, violence, and even death. His hatred of God is so intense that he longs to destroy every creature who bears the image and imprint of God. Satan will do everything he can to prevent someone from coming to faith in Jesus Christ. And failing that, from the moment you believe, he will do everything he can to torment, trouble, and keep you from living a joyful and holy life.

The Dutch theologian Wilhelmus À Brakel notes that Satan will appear in three different manners. He will appear as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). He will appear godly and lovely. He might bring to attention some passage of Scripture, but he does so with intention to deceive and distort. He will distract from the preached Word with some other benign topic. His strategy in this is to take our gaze off of Christ and place it on things of lesser value. He will tempt us to be satisfied with virtue for the sake of virtue, and rob us of the comfort that comes in Christ. Satan will appear as the Prince of darkness. He will assail our senses in a way that we cannot tell reality from imagination. In this he induces fear. He will create scenarios where our lives seem to be in jeopardy, and we are tempted to doubt God’s power or kindness. But Satan most likely chooses to conceal himself. He will convince us that he does not exist. And quietly and without notice he will tempt and corrupt our hearts. He will lead us into evil, prevent us from good, or simply bewilder and confuse the soul.[2]

In each of these presentations, Satan will attempt to make the Christian sin. He will obscure your faith. Frivolous questions of the trustworthiness of God will creep into your minds. Doubts will bubble up in your hearts. The path of the cross will seem unbearable. He will then assail your prayer life. You will miss the comfort, strength, and power of prayer. You will believe that you are too busy to pray. He will also seek to prevent you from the blessing of the means of grace. You will be tempted to occupy your minds with drivel until late on Saturday, and then struggle with being drowsy on Sunday. Your minds will be cluttered with random thoughts, so that you do not focus on the preached word. He will also attempt to rob you of the joy and benefits of your sanctification. You will doubt every good thing you do. You will question whether you don’t do enough or that you attempt to do too much to earn God’s favor. Satan will attack your faith, prayers, reception of the Word, and sanctification. If he cannot destroy you, he will seek to sideline you.

Jesus was clear in his assessment of the reality of Satan. Either he is as Jesus says he is, or Jesus is wrong on this key aspect of faith and religion. In response, we should learn to resist the devil, and he will flee from us (James 4:7). We must remember that Satan is a conquered enemy (Zech 3:2). He is powerful but his power is limited by an all-powerful God. We know his schemes, so we should recognize his influence and turn all the more to Christ. God provides faith. We must remember to pray. We need to remember God’s Word. And we must live in the encouragement of Christian fellowship.

[1] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.146.

[2] Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols., 4.236–41.


Dr. David Talcott

With Halloween right around the corner, we are about to be confronted with something we usually don’t like to think about: demons. Pirates and princesses might be the costumes we prefer, but all too often the holiday is marked with darker elements.

Unfortunately, Halloween often makes light of something that is a pretty serious matter. Demons are real. They are evil spirits, personal beings with a mind and will, but no body. They are like evil angels. In fact, scripture suggests they are angels who God originally created good but who, like Satan, rebelled against God and are now fallen and evil. Matthew 25:41 says, describing the final judgment, “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.’” Likewise, the apostle Peter tells us in 2 Peter 2:4 that angels “sinned” and are now being “reserved for judgment.” The flow of the passage suggests these angels sinned before the days of Noah. Revelation 12:7-9 describes the devil and his angels losing a fight with the archangel Michael and his angels. It seems that demons existed before man and will be judged in the last days along with man.

So, demons are real, and not something to make light of. They show up quite a bit in the gospel accounts where Jesus dramatically demonstrates His power over them, but only occasionally in other parts of Scripture. Demons don’t seem to play a role in Genesis (unless 6:2 is referring to them) or Exodus, for example, or the books of the prophets. In general it’s not common in Scripture to have a direct demonic encounter.

Many people today worry about “demon possession” like in the gospels, but the more common evil in scripture is “demon worship.” In Deuteronomy 32:17, Psalm 106:37, 1 Corinthians 10:20, and Revelation 9:20 we’re told that some people worship demons, sinning by worshipping and sacrificing to false spiritual powers rather than the one true God who made heaven and earth.

1 Corinthians 10 is a particularly strong warning for us as Christians. The Apostle Paul writes, “I do not want you to become sharers in demons” (1 Cor 10:20). That’s an astonishing warning to write to a church – that through their misuse of the gifts of God, and a turning away from true worship, they could come to worship idols like the Gentiles. Paul uses the Israelites as an example. The Israelites were given many blessings, all of which came from Christ: “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:2-4). Like us, today, the Israelites were brought through water and given spiritual food and drink to sustain them.

But, what did the Israelites do with these blessings? They were unfaithful, rebelling against God’s wise governance: Paul says that “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased” (1 Cor 10:5). Psalm 106:37 describes the Israelites practicing child sacrifice like the pagan nations around them. Just as many Israelites, who experienced all the blessings of the covenant, failed to truly worship God, we too can experience all the blessings of being in the visible church and yet fail to properly honor God. Just as “not all Israel is Israel” (Rom 9:6), not all who sit in church pews are Christians. For, as Paul writes, “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that of the flesh” (Rom 2:29).

These are challenging words for us today, but they are words filled with hope. For what comes next in Romans is this: true circumcision is “by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom 2:29). True followers of God love Him with their whole hearts, approach Him in humility and faith, trust in His provision for their salvation, and know that apart from Him they are lost. Their hope is not in external rituals but in the grace of God manifested in His Son Jesus and working in their hearts by the power of His Spirit. We can have great hope that God is our loving Father.

So, as costumed demons are about to be spread around our neighborhoods, we should remember the Israelites and how they turned away from the true God. We should spend more time resting in Christ’s finished work on the cross than we do worrying about encountering someone with “demon possession.” We should take more care to actively do our part in the worship of God and obedience to His perfect law rather than worry about what demons might do to us. True, evil spirits actively seek to deceive: Paul writes “in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim 4:1). But, it need not be so with us. God has given us His Holy Spirit and has bestowed on us ordinary means of grace that can sustain us through this life: His Word preached and read, the sacraments, prayer, and Christian fellowship. God has graciously given us all that we need, so let us hold fast to Him, a kind and loving Father.

Covenant Theology – A Primer

Assistant Pastor Chris Diebold

By my count, there are 164 churches in our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, with the word “Covenant” in their name. By the end of 2017, the PCA was comprised of 1,568 churches. Given all the options for naming a church, ten percent representation suggests to me that the idea of covenants is pretty important to us reformed and Presbyterian folk. But why are covenants so important to us? You’ll have to come to our Fall Theology Conference next week to find out. However, as a primer to the conference, I’ll spend a brief moment presenting a few general ideas about covenant theology. Hopefully this whets your appetite for next week.

Let’s cut to the chase. Why are covenants and covenant theology important to us? Dr. Ligon Duncan says, “Covenant Theology is the bible’s way of explaining: the atonement, the Christians’ assurance of salvation, sacraments, redemptive history, and the dynamic of God’s sovereignty and our human responsibility in living out the Christian life.” In short, covenant theology is important because it is the framework God has used to reveal his gracious plan of salvation.

If covenant theology is so important, then we should expect to see covenants at the center of the high points in Scripture. And that is, in fact, what we see. Think back to the flood in Genesis 6-9. The rainbow is the covenant sign that God will not destroy the earth again by flood (Gen 9:11). The relative stability of the seasons is an aspect of God’s covenant (Gen 8:22), and this stability points to God’s patience in judgment until all his chosen people have called upon his name (cf. 2 Pet 3:4-10). Covenant theology is thus central to our understanding of God’s patience in his plan of redemption.

But consider also that a covenant is at the center of the promises and sign given to Abraham in Genesis 15-17. The promise that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham and the sign of circumcision which gave assurance of the promise are tied together by a covenant ritual ceremony. Covenant theology is at the heart of the promise that would ultimately be fulfilled in Christ Jesus.

Finally, remember the words of our Lord as he instituted the Last Supper. “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Jesus uses covenantal language to explain the significance of his death. By these words, he ties language from Exodus 24 to language from Jeremiah 31. Covenant theology is thus a central way to understand the grand narrative of God’s plan of redemption that finds its climax in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Given the importance of covenant theology, two words on what covenant theology is not should be mentioned. Covenant theology is not a response to dispensationalism. While covenant theology speaks to the same issues as dispensationalism, it is not a reaction to that 19th century theology made popular in the Scofield reference Bible.

Covenant theology is also not a response to Baptists. Certainly it speaks to the reason why Presbyterians baptize infants, but it is not a reaction to believers-only baptism. In short, covenant theology is not a weapon employed against ideological adversaries. It is an honest look at the teaching Scripture to explain the framework of redemptive history.

By extension, the Fall Theology Conference is not a strategic assault on any reformed Baptists in the congregation. Rather, it is an opportunity for us to consider more carefully the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. It is an opportunity to grasp at the big picture of God’s work of salvation and how it can be that Adam and Jesus are connected. It is an opportunity to have all the more reason to give all glory, laud, and honor to our great God to the praise of his glorious grace.

So, I hope you will join us on October 13 and 14 for our Fall Theology Conference. We are blessed to have Dr. Nick Reid teaching on this subject for us. And since this is a primer for the conference, I’ll close out this reflection with a brief sketch of what Dr. Reid will be teaching.

In the morning session at 10:00 am on Saturday, October 13, Dr. Reid will present “The Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds to Covenants.” The events of Scripture do not happen in a vacuum, so it is helpful to have some background. However, it’s always important to be mindful of the direction of influence between the world and Scripture.

In the evening session at 5:00 pm on Saturday, Dr. Reid will speak to us on the topic of the Abrahamic covenant. In “Father Abraham Had Many Sons: Our Father in the Faith?” he’ll present to us the importance of that covenant to us.

In Sunday school, Dr. Reid will present “What’s Love Got to Do With It: The Mosaic Covenant” as he lays out crucial teaching on the relevance of the Mosaic Covenant today.

On Sunday, Dr. Reid will preach on Isaiah 54:1-17 which presents God’s eternal covenant of peace that he promises to establish with his people. I do hope that you can join us and profit from this valuable opportunity to learn more about covenant theology.