Join us for our Sunday Worship Service on April 29th at 10:00 in the Reynolds Room at the Holiday Inn Mentor.
Join us for our Sunday Worship Service on April 29th at 10:00 in the Reynolds Room at the Holiday Inn Mentor.
The doctrines of grace, also known as “the Five Points of Calvinism,” are a seamless garment. They logically – and biblically – go together and mutually support and imply one another. So, for example, the fact that mankind after Adam’s fall into sin is spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-3; Genesis 6:5; Romans 3:9-18), with wills in bondage to sin, and with a sin nature that impacts the whole of man’s being (i.e., total depravity), implies that fallen man is spiritually and ethically incapable of taking the first step toward God and of “choosing Christ” apart from God’s Divine initiative of grace. Therefore, if God’s people are going to be saved they must be unconditionally elected – chosen of God by pure grace, apart from them meeting any “conditions” which merit God’s choice – from before the foundation of the world and without any foresight of their faith or works (Ephesians 1:4; Romans 9:16, 18). If the salvation of God’s elect is to be secured, then Christ must die specifically for the purpose of actually redeeming them from sin and thus effectively guaranteeing their eternal salvation (limited atonement / particular redemption; John 6:37; 10:11; 17:6, 8; Ephesians 5:25). And if they are to be brought to the enjoyment of the salvation that Christ purchased for them, they must be spiritually resurrected and brought to saving faith in Christ (irresistible grace) and kept by the power of God in that grace until the end (perseverance of the saints).
In this brief article I want to focus specifically on the fourth of the five points of Calvinism – namely, irresistible grace.
The doctrine of God’s irresistible grace is a biblical truth made necessary by two biblical considerations: (1) The biblical teaching on man’s total depravity, which demonstrates that fallen, unregenerate man has a will in bondage to sin, and is thus morally and spiritually incapable of choosing Christ or accepting the offer of the gospel. The natural, unregenerate man has no interest in the gospel or in the Christ presented to him in the gospel. While he could, if he wanted to, choose Christ, yet he has no inner desire, no will, to receive and rest upon Christ as He is offered in the gospel. Thus the natural, unregenerate man who is left to his own choice will inevitably choose to reject the gospel. It takes a supernatural miracle, a spiritual resurrection, a new birth, to bring a sinner to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, for fallen man’s heart must be changed before he will desire and choose to come to Christ for salvation. (2) The efficacious power of God’s Word. God’s Word is powerful, and accomplishes all that which He intends for it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:10-11). If God’s Word of grace failed to save anyone for whom that grace was intended, then man’s fallen will is more powerful than God’s grace, God is not God, and believers have no security in their salvation. The efficacy of God’s Word requires irresistible grace.
Now, of course, fallen man resists God’s grace all the time, in the sense that fallen man resists the claims of gospel proclamation of Christ’s Lordship and the external call of the gospel that comes through the written Scriptures and through the preaching of the gospel. Gospel preaching and gospel witness can be, and often are, resisted by those whose hearts are devoid of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can be resisted in this external sense of resisting and rebelling against the ordinary means of grace, for the Spirit is the Source of those external means of grace. (It was in this sense that the martyr Stephen was speaking when he accused the unbelieving Jews of resisting the Holy Spirit in Acts 7:51, for they had resisted the preaching of the prophets, the witness of Jesus Himself during His earthly ministry, and the apostolic witness to Christ’s resurrection.)
But when God is intent upon effectively calling an elect sinner out of the bondage and misery of his sin into His kingdom of grace and salvation, the external call of the gospel to repentance and faith will be accompanied by a supernatural, internal work of grace that so changes the sinner’s heart and frees the sinner’s will so that Christ is made sweet to him, and so that he comes most freely and willingly to Christ for salvation as Christ is freely offered in the gospel. As the Lord Jesus said in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (ESV; emphasis added) This irresistible grace is God’s effectual, saving call, and is to be distinguished from the mere external call of the gospel (though the saving call comes to God’s elect through the external call of the gospel). The external call can, and often is, resisted by sinners. But the saving, effectual call is not and cannot be resisted, for in this saving call God supernaturally changes the heart of a sinner and gives him a will and desire to trust in Christ alone for salvation. This is why Paul in Romans 8:30 says that all those who are (effectually, irresistibly) called are justified and glorified — a statement which would not be true if he were talking merely about the external call of the gospel.
This precious doctrine of grace has many practical implications for the church. For example, if God’s grace toward His elect proves in the end to be irresistible, this can give the church confidence in her gospel witness and proclamation to a lost and dying world, for it assures the church that the resistance toward the gospel of even the most hardened sinner can be overcome in time by God’s irresistible grace. It is also a doctrine which, when correctly understood and heartily embraced, fosters a spirit of humility among God’s people, for it reminds us that our salvation is ultimately not due to anything we have willed or done, but it is solely of God’s grace and God’s grace alone. We have nothing to boast in, except in the Lord and in His grace! May this doctrine of grace be precious to your soul, dear reader.
It seems that an increasing phenomenon of pop American Christianity in our postmodern times is a significant rise in the number of what might be called “unchurched Christians” – that is to say, individuals who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ yet who see no need to be involved in responsible membership in a local Bible-believing church. Below are answers to some common objections one might hear from such unchurched Christians for excusing themselves from either regular church attendance in general, or responsible church membership in particular, or both.
(1) “I’m a very spiritual person, but I just don’t see the need for organized religion.”
The problem with this objection is that biblical Christianity is an inherently organized faith. Jesus Himself willed it to be so, and in God’s Word the Lord Jesus calls His professed followers to be involved in accountable, responsible membership in a visible, organized expression of His Body, the church. To willfully despise the church and to reject responsible church membership in a local congregation is to reject the Lordship of Jesus Christ and thus to place oneself outside of the Christian Faith.
Jesus appointed twelve apostles as the foundation upon which the church would be built, Christ Jesus Himself being the Cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). A careful reading of the Book of Acts shows the apostles, such as Saint Paul, taking the gospel into new areas, baptizing new converts and their families, organizing these newly baptized converts into local congregations, and training and ordaining local elders to shepherd and oversee these local congregations. The apostles didn’t just lead people to make a personal decision for Christ and then leave them to their own private spirituality. The Scriptures reveal that Christ has given the pastoral office to His church to shepherd God’s flock (Ephesians 4:11-12). Most of the Epistles in the New Testament were written to local, organized churches with a definite membership and leadership, and the Pastoral Epistles (First and Second Timothy, Titus) include instructions on “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (First Timothy 3:15, ESV), including instructions on qualifications for church officers (bishops/overseers and deacons; see First Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). Church members are exhorted to obey and submit to their leaders in the church (Hebrews 13:17) – a command that would be meaningless if there was no formal, organized church with a definite membership and clearly-identified leaders.
All of this testifies to the fact that Christianity from the days of the apostles onward has always been an organized religion! This makes sense, since Scripture reveals God to be a God of order, not a God of confusion and disorder.
Regarding the idea that being “spiritual” allows one to be a “Christian” without being committed in responsible membership to a faithful, organized local church, the fact is that all people are “spiritual” because God has created all human beings with a spirit/soul! God created us as body-souls, and in that sense we are all “spiritual”. But being “spiritual” in this sense does not of itself justify one’s claim to be a Christian, nor excuse one from the responsibility to be involved in a local church.
(2) “Christianity is a relationship with Jesus, not a religion.”
This popular statement involves a false dichotomy, an illegitimate “either/or” option. Yes, of course Christianity involves a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. But it is not only or merely a “personal” matter between the individual soul and the Savior. Such a narcissistic statement reflects more the extreme hyper-individualism of the American mindset than it does the teachings of the Bible. It is also a dishonest statement, because of course Christianity is a religion, in the sense that it has Divinely revealed Scriptures, religious doctrines, a code of ethics, and worship practices (including liturgical and sacramental rites). Of course, it is not a “religion” if by “religion” one means a man-made religion or a system of works-righteousness by which one can “earn” salvation. Salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9)! However, biblical Christianity is the one, true, God-revealed religion.
Biblical, historic Christianity is inherently corporate and covenantal, not merely private and personal. When Christ saves a sinner, by the Spirit He not only unites that sinner to Himself; He also baptizes that sinner into the Body of Christ, the church (see First Corinthians 12).
(3) “Going to church no more makes you a Christian than living in a garage makes you a car.”
This seemingly-clever statement is true on the surface, but irrelevant to the question of church attendance and church membership. No one who knows anything about biblical, historic Christianity will claim that just attending church, or even just being a church member, will in and of itself make you a Christian. But faithful, consistent Christians will attend and belong in responsible membership to a faithful local church, because that’s what Christians who love Jesus and want to obey His Word do!
Church attendance and church membership do not make one a Christian, but they do help to manifest to the world our profession of faith in Christ, and they also help to nurture and strengthen us in our discipleship.
(4) “Church is boring.”
It is not the church’s job to entertain us. A Sunday worship service is not a form of religious entertainment. Rather, it is the church’s job to feed our souls with God’s word and sacraments, and to give us an opportunity to gather together with fellow believers in order to offer God praise and prayer out of gratitude for His gift of salvation in Christ.
I’m all in favor of a well-ordered worship service which engages congregants in active participation and which seeks to encourage their deep interest. But if you happen to attend a faithful church where the gospel is clearly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered according to God’s Word, but you still find the service to be “boring” or “irrelevant”, then the problem is not with the church. In such a case the problem rests squarely with you. If you find the good news of God’s full and free forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Christ to be “boring”, then you need to repent of your blasphemous boredom with God’s good news and ask God to create within your soul a heart-felt interest in the things of the Lord.
(5) “I don’t need the organized church.”
Again, this is an extremely narcissistic, self-focused statement. You may not feel that you need the church, but the church needs you!
If you are truly a Christian, then Christ has made you part of His Body. You are a member of the Body of Christ (First Corinthians 12; Romans 12:3-8). By cutting yourself off from the local church you are depriving the local body of Christ of your spiritual gifts and the encouragement of your presence. You are acting selfishly. You are not loving your neighbor as yourself. A human body which is missing body parts might be able to function and survive, but it survives in a disabled, maimed, weakened condition. The same is true of the Body of Christ. When a member is missing or cut off, the whole body suffers.
But there is a sense in which we do need the local, organized church! If we willfully cut ourselves off from responsible membership in a local, organized expression of the Body of Christ, then there is a sense in which we cut ourselves off from the Head of that Body, namely, Christ Himself! The Bible indicates that Christ has entrusted the means of grace (word, sacraments, and, in a secondary sense, prayer) to the visible organized church. To cut oneself off from the church is to cut oneself off from the ordinary means of grace – those means by which God creates and nurtures saving faith within the souls of His elect. Professing Christians who, over time, cut themselves off from the church often end up altogether abandoning the Christian faith sooner or later. As our Westminster Confession of Faith rightly states, outside of the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation (Chapter 25.2). Dear reader, you need the ministry of a faithful, local organized church in order to stay vitally connected to Christ, the Head, and in order to avoid the spiritual danger of apostasy! So, yes, you do need the organized church.
(6) “I can worship God on the golf course.”
True. We can engage in private, personal worship within our spirit anywhere, and at any time. But we cannot obey God’s command not to forsake the assembling of ourselves with other believers in worship (Hebrews 10:25) by skipping church to engage in other activities (like hitting the golf course).
I am sure that there are many other objections that “churchless Christians” offer for rejecting church membership, but the ones above seem to be some of the more common ones. I hope this article has been challenging and encouraging to you, dear reader. May we all seek to be committed to Christ and to His church!
“Easy Believism.” It is a big problem in American Christianity today. What is “easy believism”? It is a very prevalent but false understanding of saving faith which is rooted in the decisional theology of certain forms of American revivalism.
Easy-believism misinterprets the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone by reducing saving faith to a one-time decision of the will to “accept Jesus as personal Savior.” Accepting Jesus as Lord is viewed as advisable but not necessary for salvation. (To demand from sinners repentance from sin and the acceptance of Jesus as Lord in order to be saved is viewed as “works righteousness” by proponents of easy-believism.) From the standpoint of easy-believism, if you’ve made that one-time “decision for Christ” (usually by praying a “sinner’s prayer” or going forward for the “altar call” in response to an evangelistic appeal), then you are eternally secure and bound for heaven, even if you live the rest of your life in wilfull, unrepentant sin.
Of course, from a biblical standpoint there are many things wrong with easy believism. For example, easy believism is rooted in a very superficial view of human sin and of the human will. Easy believism at root assumes an unbiblically low view of seriousness of human sin, and thus a much too high view of the power of the human will. In the theology of easy believism, man has enough inherent goodness left in him to at least make a one-time decision for Christ without the assistance of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. But the Bible teaches that man apart from Christ is dead in his trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), and that those who are “in the flesh” (i.e., unconverted, devoid of the Holy Spirit) cannot please God (see Romans 8:5-8). If the unconverted man (the man who is “in the flesh”) could make a genuine, saving “decision for Christ” by his own power, without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, then obviously such a saving decision would be pleasing to God.
But probably one of easy believism’s biggest errors is its misinterpretration of “faith”. Easy believism equates saving faith with a one-time “decision” of the will to “accept Jesus as Savior”, while Scripture teaches that the faith by which we sinners receive salvation is an abiding in Christ (see, for example, John 15:1-7). Saving faith is not a one-time “decision for Christ”; instead, it is an abiding, ongoing, confident trust in and reliance upon Christ alone for salvation from sin as He is offered in the gospel, a confident trust produced by the Spirit of God through the word of the gospel (John 1:12-13; Romans 10:17). Saving faith doesn’t just “decide” for Christ once and then have done with Him. No, saving faith clings to Christ daily, continually, as the only hope for salvation.
Any Bible-believing Christian who is familiar with the world of American Christianity knows that “easy believism” is a very common problem in this country. How many there are in America today who rarely (if ever) darken the door of a church, who never read their Bibles and hardly ever pray (except when they want something from God, whom they conceive of as a “cosmic bellhop” who exists to make them happy and give them stuff), and who basically live lives of narcissistic self-indulgence, but who nontheless imagine that they are “saved” because they prayed some magic “sinner’s prayer” or walked an aisle once at a revival service in response to an “altar call.” I say this is a problem because, from a biblical standpoint, such “Christians” have been sadly, dangerously deceived by a false, soul-damning gospel – the “gospel” of easy believism. When taken to its logical extreme, easy-believism is quite simply a false gospel under the anathema of God (Galatians 1:8-9).
So, what is to be done about the problem of easy believism? What is the solution to this problem?
Sadly, some Christian leaders (even some who would identify as Reformed) seem to think that the best way to combat “easy believism” is by what I would call “hard believism”. In other words, they think that the way to win over those who have been deceived by the heresy of easy believism is to re-double their emphasis on the Law of God and on Christ’s call to discipleship, and to step up their calls for professing Christians to examine themselves as to whether or not they “really” believe.
Now, certainly God’s Law is good, righteous and holy (Romans 7:12), and it must be preached by the faithful pastor. God’s Law not only provides us believers with an objective guide to our sanctification in showing us a life that is pleasing to God, but more important to the issue at hand it exposes our sin and our need for Christ. And certainly the call to faith is closely connected to the call to follow Jesus as a learner (the meaning of “disciple”) of the kingdom way. Likewise, there are certainly times and occasions when it is wise for professing Christians to examine themselves before the Lord (for example, Second Corinthians 13:5; First Corinthians 11:28). But while these may help to address certain aspects of the heresy of easy believism, I do not believe they are the solution to the problem of easy believism.
What, then, is the “solution” to easy believism? Not “hard believism.” Not more emphasis on God’s Law. Not more calls to “radical discipleship.” Not by incessantly calling upon congregants to question the genuineness of their faith through soul-searching self-examination. Instead, ironically, the solution to the heresy of easy believism is to proclaim the gospel of justification by faith alone in all of its fulness and freeness!
The Law of God is good, but it condemns us as sinners and law-breakers. Christ’s call to discipleship is vital, but it (like the Law) reveals to us just how far short we fall when it comes to living up to Christ’s lofty call to “radical discipleship.” And an over-emphasis on self-examination inevitably ends up ministering to doubt rather than to faith, thereby leading sensitive or overly-scrupulous believers down the pathway toward despair. But the gospel of God’s free gift of forgiveness in Christ by faith alone inspires within us a love for the Savior who died for us and a deep desire to cast off sin and to live in grateful obedience to the One who loved us so!
After explaining the universal sinfulness of mankind and God’s solution to human sin through the justification of sinners in Christ, the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Romans addresses this question in response to the gospel he preached: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1, ESV) Apparently there were some in the early church who either misinterpreted Paul’s teaching on salvation by grace as a license to sin, or else Paul’s enemies slanderously misconstrued Paul’s teaching on grace as involving such a license to sin. This was basically an ancient type of “easy believism”.
How does Paul respond to this ancient version of “easy believism” – this idea that God’s grace gives believers a license to sin?
Does Paul turn to emphasizing the demands of God’s holy Law?
Does he launch into an exposition of Christ’s call to discipleship?
Does he urge the duty of self-examination before the Lord?
What, then, does Paul do? He takes his readers back to the implications of the gospel!
In answer to the question of verse 1, Paul responds as follows:
“By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:2-4, ESV)
Paul takes his readers back to their union with Christ in His saving death and resurrection, a union signified and sealed to them in their baptism. In other words, he reminds them of the gospel of their salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, and he draws out for them the practical implications of their saving union with Christ. Because they are “in Christ” (as signified and sealed to them in holy baptism), how can they imagine that the grace of God gives them a license to sin? In Christ they have, in principle, “died to sin”. The gospel of God’s free forgiveness in Christ does not give them a license to sin. Instead, it summons them to “walk in newness of life” because of their union with Christ in His death and resurrection!
In conclusion, what is the solution to the prevailing problem of easy believism? Certainly not “hard believism”. Not law-preaching. Not moralism. Not more calls to “radical discipleship.” Not piling more burdens upon lost souls to “do more, try harder” (thereby turning the “light” and “easy” burden of Christ’s yoke – Matthew 11:28-30 – into a heavy millstone about the sinner’s neck). Instead, the solution to this heresy is ultimately the solution to all heresies: the gospel of Jesus Christ in its biblical clarity and fulness!
If we in the church want to counteract the problem of easy believism, let us seek to proclaim and make known the biblical good news of free and full salvation in Christ with greater clarity and emphasis. Moralism and law-preaching (minus the gospel) kill true holiness, but the biblical gospel inspires us believers to walk in newness of life, not out of a sense of guilt and duty, but out of love and gratitude toward the Savior who died for us.
The Scriptures contain repeated and frequent warnings to God’s people about the danger of false prophets and false teachers. Satan uses false teaching to divide and corrupt the church and to destroy souls. Due to the spiritual danger posed by false teaching, one of the duties that God calls His people to is the duty to exercise discernment, including the duty to recognize and avoid false teachers. “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Romans 16:17-18, ESV) “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (First John 4:1-3, ESV) “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8, ESV)
Given the danger that false teaching and false teachers pose to our spiritual health as individual believers and to the unity, purity and integrity of the church, what are some reliable indications of one who is likely to be a false teacher? Here are five red flags for recognizing false teachers:
1. A pastor or preacher who is not authorized by Holy Scripture to preach is likely to be a false teacher.
God’s Word teaches that Christ calls men to the pastoral office through His visible, organized church. Those who would serve in church office (ministers, elders and deacons) are required by Scripture to meet certain personal and character qualifications (see First Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). Furthermore, such men are to be tested – meaning tested by the church – to see if they meet the doctrinal, personal and character qualifications requisite for serving Christ in the sacred offices (First Timothy 3:10).
In addition, one who would serve in the pastoral office in particular must have sufficient training to be able to rightly handle the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17, ESV), namely, the Word of God. As the Apostle Paul writes to pastor Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (Second Timothy 2:15, ESV; the King James Version translates this charge as “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Emphasis added.) Those who are thus recognized by God’s people as being qualified and called to serve in the pastoral office (or any other church office) are to be solemnly set apart to such office by the act of ordination (Acts 14:23; First Timothy 4:14, 22).
Since pastors and elders in the church are called to be stewards and guardians of the sacred treasure of the gospel (First Timothy 2:2), those who would serve in such sacred office must be well trained and meticulously “vetted” and tested prior to being ordained and installed into such office. (This is why historic, biblical Presbyterianism requires that men who would serve in the gospel ministry must, under ordinary circumstances, be college and seminary graduates, and why they must undergo “ordination trials” before the Presbytery prior to being approved for ordination.)
In view of the above, if a preacher is self-appointed and unordained, having never been tested or screened by a faithful church body, it is quite possible that he is a false teacher. A man is not called to the gospel ministry simply because he “feels” a strong desire to serve in such office (though a strong desire to serve in the sacred office is an important subjective factor in such a calling – First Timothy 3:1). If a man is truly called to the gospel ministry, then God’s people (the church) will recognize his character, gifts and calling. If he is truly called to the gospel ministry, he will not be insubordinate and in rebellion against Christ’s Lordship by refusing accountability to the visible Body of Christ, but instead will be willing to be in subjection to his brethren in the Lord. Self-appointed “pastors” and preachers whose only “calling” to ministry is their own personal, subjective “liver shiver” are in rebellion against God’s Word, and thus are likely to be false teachers.
Likewise, one big red flag for recognizing a false teacher is if the pastor or preacher is a woman. God’s Word clearly commands that the pastoral office be restricted to qualified men (see First Corinthians 14:33-37, where this restriction is called “a command of the Lord”, ESV; First Timothy 3:2, which requires that an overseer in the church is to be “the husband of one wife” if he is married, not “the wife of one husband”; First Timothy 2:11-15). This has nothing to do with sexism, for Scripture makes it clear that Christian women are equally God’s image bearers and spiritually equal in Christ (Genesis 1:27; Galatians 3:25-29), and the Scriptures often recognize the valuable contributions of believing women to the life of God’s covenant people. However, this does have to do with God’s creation order and with the diverse roles God assigns to men and women in the church (again, First Timothy 2:11-15). A woman who presumes to mount a pulpit and preach the Word is doing so in open defiance and rebellion against the clear commands of God’s Word, and in many cases it is likely that such a “pastrix” will be spewing forth false teaching.
2. A pastor or preacher is likely to be a false teacher if the Bible is not the main source of his/her sermons.
A pastor’s main job as a “minister (i.e., servant) of the Word” is to preach God’s Word. Period. That means that when he mounts the pulpit his job is to exegete (explain) a text of Scripture and apply its truths to his congregants. It is not his job or calling to be a “life coach”, a motivational speaker, a stand-up comedian, or a winsome storyteller. It is his job and calling to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (First Timothy 4:2, ESV). He is to preach Law and Gospel. He is to proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). He is to proclaim Christ crucified for the forgiveness of our sins, assuring believers and calling the unconverted to repentance and faith.
A preacher who mounts the pulpit and preaches politics (whether of a left or right wing variety), instead of preaching Christ and His Word, is a false teacher. A preacher whose “sermons” primarily involve giving book reports or telling personal stories or offering commentary on the latest news reports is a false teacher. And a preacher who claims direct revelation (apart from Scripture) and who preaches his own personal revelations or dreams or visions is especially a false teacher, since God has spoken His final Word for this present age in Jesus Christ, and we have that completed revelation in the apostolic and prophetic canonical writings of the New Testament Scriptures (Hebrews 1:1-2; Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 22:18-19). If a preacher mounts the pulpit and begins his or her message with “I want to share with you what the Lord told me…” or something similar, claiming to have received a new, fresh revelation from God apart from the Scriptures, run and don’t go back! There is no question that such a person is a false teacher, and such teachers should be shunned and avoided like the plague.
3. If the “sermon” is all about you and your needs, instead of about Christ and His salvation, then the preacher is likely a false teacher.
As I stated above, a faithful pastor’s job is to teach “the whole counsel of God” as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. He is to proclaim Law and Gospel. Of course, the gospel meets our deepest need – namely, our need for the forgiveness of sins and salvation from the guilt, power and penalty of sin – but if a preacher is focused more on claims that God wants to bless you with mere temporal blessings (such as health, wealth and temporal happiness), then it is quite likely that he is a false teacher. God’s Word is God-centered, and true believers hunger to know more about Him and His amazing plan of salvation. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (First Corinthians 2:2, ESV)
4. If Jesus Christ and His saving work are sidelined and not central to the preaching, then it is possible that the preacher is a false teacher.
There are many professedly Bible-believing, evangelical churches which confess and even proclaim the basic gospel message, but which don’t make that message central to everything they are about as a church. The preacher in such churches may quickly mention or refer to the gospel in passing at the end of a “life principle” style topical sermon, but the good news of salvation through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is not prominent or central in his sermon. In my opinion, this is a very common problem in today’s “evangelical” preaching. Preachers get up and preach “how to”, life-principle type sermons (“How to have a great marriage”; “Seven steps to dealing with anger”; “God’s guidelines for getting out of debt”; etc.), but a text of Scripture is never exegeted, and while the gospel might be mentioned, it is sidelined.
In a sense this kind of preaching is far more dangerous than straight-out false doctrine, since it sends the subtle message that the gospel is not all that important or central to our lives as Christians, even while it still mentions the gospel. But the Scriptures make it clear that Christians need the gospel too and that the Christian life is grounded in the gospel! “Life-principle” and other kinds of moralistic or therapeutic preaching is really law-preaching which often loads down God’s people will all kinds of new rules, as it burdens God’s people with multiple laundry lists of more things to do. The basic thrust of such preaching is often “Do more! Try harder!” Whereas the gospel proclaims the good news that “Jesus paid it all!” and “It is finished! The Lord has done it for you!”, thereby granting precious relief and rest to weary souls. If a preacher sidelines the gospel in his sermons, then it is quite possible that he is a false teacher.
5. If the sermon is ambiguous in its wording, it is quite possible that the preacher is a false teacher.
While there are some difficult portions of God’s Word, most of Holy Scripture is revealed in plain, clear language and is written for the ordinary, everyday reader. Be wary of a preacher who regularly uses vague, ambiguous, elusive or evasive language. A man who is incapable of explaining the basic message of the Scriptures with clarity and plain speaking is a man who is not qualified to rightly handle the word of truth (Second Timothy 2:15), and who therefore may be a false teacher.
There are many “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, many who disguise themselves as angels of light and who use godliness as a cloak for greed. Let us learn from the Scriptures how to recognize the red flags of potential false teachers, and let us do our duty in exercising biblical discernment in evaluating the teachers out there in the Christian world who put themselves forward as reliable guides for God’s people. Let us “test the spirits” (First John 4:1-6). Amen.
“I really experienced the presence of God at that revival service!”
“As the worship band was playing that song I really felt God touch my soul.”
“God’s presence was so thick at that service that people were just falling over in the aisles!”
From what I have observed, statements like the above are extremely common among Christians today, especially in our American context. They reflect a view of God’s presence with His people which is deeply rooted in mysticism and in a heresy that the Protestant Reformers identified as “enthusiasm” (literally, “God within-ism”). It is the view that the manifestation of God’s special presence with His people can be measured by what I would call “the goosebump meter”. The idea seems to be that the more goosebumps you get as a result of a religious experience, the more God is making His presence known to you. Many contemporary churches implicitly buy into or promote the spirituality of the goosebump meter by re-labelling their worship service “the worship experience“. (After all, in the man-centered, narcissistic, self-absorbed context of American Pop Christianity, worship is all about me and my experience rather than about God and His grace & glory manifested in the cross of Christ.)
Is this view of God’s presence biblical? Is the “goosebump meter” a valid biblical way of knowing God’s presence and blessing? Or does God’s Word point us to a better, more certain way of knowing and being assured of God’s presence?
Let me start by making a few important clarifications. First of all, when talking about God’s presence and how we know or experience His presence, we must distinguish between God’s omnipresence (on the one hand), and His special, saving presence with His people (on the other hand).
The Bible teaches that the true and living God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is omnipresent. This means that all of God is present everywhere, at all times. God is the infinite, transcendent Creator and Providential Lord over heaven and earth. Among other things, this means that He is not bound by creaturely limits, such as time, space, matter or any other creational factors. In fact, it is impossible for God not to be present everywhere, for by definition God is everywhere present. All people, even hardened atheists and skeptics who vigorously deny the existence of God, live and move and have their being in the God whose existence they deny (Acts 17:28), for God’s presence is inescapable in view of His attribute of omnipresence. The Scriptures abundantly testify to the omnipresence of God, both by direct statement and by implication (for example, see First Kings 8:27; Psalm 139:7-10; Psalm 145:3; Psalm 14:2; Matthew 28:20; Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:3; etc.).
On the other hand, the Scriptures also indicate that God is with His people in a special way, in a way that goes beyond His simple omnipresence. God’s Word indicates that God is present with His believing people in a way that He is not present with unbelievers – namely, God is with His people in saving grace and covenant blessing.
The goal of God’s covenant of grace is God coming to dwell – to be present! – amongst His people in abiding grace, peace and blessing (see, for example, Genesis 17:7; Revelation 21:3-4, 22, etc.). And God’s covenantal presence means shalom – God’s peace, grace and blessing, and the wholeness that results!
The Garden of Eden was the first temple of God, where Adam and Eve used to fellowship with their Creator before mankind’s fall into sin, a fellowship of life that was symbolized by the tree of life (Genesis 2:9). After the fall, the first couple was cast out of the garden-temple, barred from the gracious presence of God (Genesis 3:22-24). The rest of redemptive history is an inspired record of God’s plan in history to restore His gracious dwelling among mankind, initially through the covenant nation of Israel, and ultimately through the Person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. The Old Testament tabernacle and temple were pictures of God’s coming to dwell in the midst of His people. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who came to dwell among us (John 1:1-3, 14), is the ultimate fulfillment of the temple symbolism, for He is the Living Temple, and in Him the church has become a dwelling place of God by His Spirit (Ephesians 2:22; see also First Peter 2:4-5, 9-10).
The point of all of this is that, if you are a Christian (i.e., if Jesus Christ is truly your Lord and Savior), then God’s special, gracious presence is always with you, whether or not you “feel” His presence in your personal goosebump meter. Not only does God by His Spirit dwell in and with the believer; more significantly He dwells with His church corporate, for where two or more are gathered in the Name of Christ, He is there in their midst (Matthew 18:20, the context of which deals with the church’s exercise of church discipline, though I believe the principle taught in this passage can be applied beyond the matter of church discipline).
So how and where do we personally experience Gods’ presence, and what are the signs of God’s presence in our midst as His people? Popular Christianity today would seem to teach that things like goosebumps arising from a powerful, emotional religious experience, often brought on by the emotional manipulation of hyper-repetitious worship songs, are to be understood as indicators of God’s presence with His people (i.e., the “goosebump meter” view I wrote about above). But I would assert that the Bible nowhere teaches the “goosebump meter” view of God’s presence. In fact, goosebumps and other subjectively induced factors can be deceptive, since Satan and our own sinful flesh can manufacture powerful religious experiences, as can time-tested techniques of crowd manipulation as practiced by many of today’s television evangelists and “vision casting” pastors (see the warning of Second Corinthians 11:12-15). Instead, God’s Word indicates that God’s special presence with His people is known and experienced through objective, external means – namely, the Word and the sacraments, received with personal trust in Christ and His gospel promises.
Where do we today find signs of God’s dwelling among His people? Wherever the Word of God is faithfully preached and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered according to Christ’s command, and in the Christian community of a faithful church gathered around the gospel word and sacraments, there God comes to dwell in the midst of His people in grace and blessing (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:42-47; Romans 6:3-4; 10:17; First Corinthians 10:16-22; Hebrews 10:24-25; etc.)!
Believer, if you are looking for a sign that God is present with you, you need not strive after a mountaintop emotional experience produced by hyped-up revivalistic fervor. You simply need to open up the Bible sitting on your bookshelf. God’s special presence comes to us in His word-revelation. His Law exposes your sin and shows you your need for Christ. His gospel reveals that all your sins have been forgiven through Christ, and that He will never leave you nor forsake you! What more do you need than His Word to assure you of His presence?
But God knows that we are weak creatures of flesh, and that we need as much assurance as we can get of His shalom and presence. So He has also given us the ministry of the Word and sacraments, which He has entrusted to the community of God’s people, the visible, organized church. So, even more important than personal Bible reading and prayer, the public means of grace serve as powerful signs of God’s presence and Christ’s kingdom. Christ is really present in word and sacraments, not in a physical and carnal manner, but by His Spirit. However you might feel subjectively on a given Lord’s Day, when you gather with God’s people in the community of the church around God’s word and sacraments, God assures you of His peace and presence, even in the absence of goosebumps. God’s Word is objective, unchanging and reliable, not subjective, ever-changing and unreliable (like our emotions), so we can bank on that word. And to us believers that word is a word of grace!
How do I know God is present with me in grace and blessing? Not because my goosebump meter is reading high and I constantly experience an emotional-religious high, but because the Bible, God’s objective, outside-of-me Word, tells me so! Because God has promised in His gospel that Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead to earn for me the gift of eternal life, and therefore that all my sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake! Because in my baptism God has pledged that Jesus has washed me clean from my sins and renewed me by his Holy Spirit. Because in the Lord’s Supper Jesus assures me that His body was broken “for you” (even me!) and His blood was shed “for you” (even me!). All of these promises of grace are most certainly true, whether or not they happen to produce goosebumps. What more could I want? What more could I or anyone else need?
I’ll admit that sometimes the wonder of God’s Word does produce in me goosebumps, especially when I think about His amazing grace to me, an unworthy sinner. The good news of salvation in Jesus does indeed bring joy and excitement to my soul when I consider it! But I’ll take God’s objective, reliable Word any day over the subjective, unreliable “goosebump meter” approach to spirituality, especially on those “bummer” down days of life that we all inevitably face. I encourage you, dear reader, to do the same.
One of the biggest obstacles that often prevents evangelical Christians of a Baptist persuasion who are attracted to Reformed theology from leaving the fold of broad evangelicalism in order to join the Reformed and Presbyterian fold is the issue of infant baptism. There seem to be many evangelical believers today who have embraced the biblical truth of the “doctrines of grace” (otherwise known as “the five points of Calvinism”), and who appreciate the strong biblical emphasis in Reformed theology on truths such as the absolute sovereignty and holiness of God, but whose embrace of Reformed theology comes short of leading them to actually attend a Reformed church or pursue membership in such a church. What is it that prevents these evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ from leaving their broadly evangelical churches in order to become part of a confessionally Reformed or Presbyterian church? Again, I suspect that the obstacle that prevents many of them from committing to a biblically Reformed church is this issue of infant baptism.
For those of us who are members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church or other Bible-believing, confessionally Reformed churches, one of our biggest challenges in relating to our evangelical brothers and sisters of baptistic persuasion is the challenge of gently helping these dear brethren to see that the practice of applying the sign of the covenant (namely, baptism) to the children of professing believers is firmly grounded in the teachings of God’s inerrant Word. In other words, helping them to come to understand that infant baptism is biblical and that that is why it was the near-universal practice of the historic Christian Church from the very beginnings of church history. Contrary to the oft-repeated Baptist critique of infant baptism, it is not a “holdover from Roman Catholicism”, but rather a practice firmly grounded in the teachings of the Bible.
Of course, there are many excellent resources out there which lay out the biblical case for infant baptism. (In my opinion, one of the best books to get into the hands of a Baptist believer is Robert R. Booth’s book, Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism, which is published by P & R Publishing.) However, when interacting with Baptist believers on the subject of infant baptism I think one of the best ways to help them re-think this issue is not to shove a bunch of books on the subject into their hands, but simply to ask them some good, probing questions. Below are some suggested questions I would recommend that you ask your Baptist friends the next time you get into a conversation with them on the subject of infant baptism.
(1) Where in the New Testament does God explicitly command His church in this new covenant age to stop applying the sign of covenant initiation (which today is baptism) to the children of believers?
This question takes the common Baptist challenge to Paedobaptism (i.e., the practice of infant baptism), “Where does the New Testament explicitly tell us to baptize babies?” – a question obviously designed to put paedobaptists on the defensive – and turns it around in a way that puts the Baptist position on the defensive.
(2) All throughout redemptive history, up until the coming of Christ into this world, God has included the children of believers as members of His visible covenant community. If the Baptist position is correct, then God no longer includes the children of believers as members of His visible covenant community, the church. Why would this be the case? Why would God be less gracious under the new covenant than He was under the old covenant? Why would God be less gracious after the coming of Christ than He was before Christ’s advent?
(3) Doesn’t infant baptism picture God’s grace in a more powerful way than believers-only baptism? After all, an infant is utterly helpless and dependent upon others for everything. What a perfect picture of us sinners in our sins! Before God saves us we are utterly powerless and helpless, utterly unable to lift a finger to save ourselves! But then Christ comes to us in mercy through His word, takes us into His arms, and washes us clean from our sins through His blood. He comes to us in sovereign grace even before we “decide” for Him! Isn’t infant baptism a wonderful picture of the sovereign grace and Divine initiative of God in our lives?
(4) If the Baptist position is the correct biblical view, why does the evidence from the early church fathers seem to show that the practice of infant baptism goes all the way back to the very beginning of church history as an almost universally undisputed practice in the church? If infant baptism is such a gross unbiblical error, how is it that the early church fell into such gross error in its teaching on baptism so soon after the death of the apostles? Why do we not read of a vocal and vigorous Baptist movement rising in the early church in protest to such a seriously erroneous and un-apostolic practice? Why do we not read of church fathers and great theologians and Bible scholars in the early church vigorously seeking to demonstrate from Scripture that the sacrament of baptism must only be applied to professing believers, and not to infants? Did the Holy Spirit so cease from guiding the post-apostolic church into the truth that it was allowed to wander into such gross and dangerous error so quickly?
Do you have any additional ideas for good questions to ask our Baptist friends? If so, why not share them in the comments below?
Who is worship for, anyway? The common answer to that question from evangelicals, and even from many of the Reformed, is “Worship is for God, of course!”
Closely related to this view of worship is the oft-stated assertion that “We don’t come to worship for what we can get out of it; instead, we come to give to God our ‘sacrifice of praise’!”
In other words, worship isn’t designed to benefit man, but to benefit God. As I’ve heard it said in various ways, “We don’t come to church for what we can get out of it; instead we come to church to give God our worship.” The “service” in “worship service” is man serving God, not God serving man.
Such a view of worship, as common and pious-sounding as it may be, is utterly unbiblical, and even (when taken to its logical extreme) contrary to a Reformed understanding of worship.
Before I explain what I mean and make my case, let me make a few clarifications, lest the reader misunderstand me.
First of all, let the reader understand that I do indeed recognize and confess, along with our Shorter Catechism, that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” As the Scriptures teach, we were created and exist for God’s glory. God is not a cosmic bellhop who exists to cater to our every wish and whim. Rather, we exist for His good pleasure.
Let the reader also understand that I wholeheartedly affirm that we believers ought to approach worship with the desire and intention to glorify God in our worship, and with an attitude of reverence and awe. Our goal in worship ought to be to see Christ magnified and God glorified in the assembly of His saints. In this sense worship must indeed be God-centered, not man-centered.
At the same time, my basic point in this article is this: God is most glorified when His people are most edified.
In other words, worship is ultimately designed for man’s benefit, not God’s. In biblical, God-centered, Reformed worship, the direction and flow of worship is from God to man, not (as is common in evangelical worship) from man to God. In worship our Triune, covenant God graciously takes the initiative and condescends to serve, feed and edify His covenant people through His means of grace (the primary means being the Word and the sacraments) and by His Spirit, and His people respond to this Divine initiative with their prayers and praises and offerings. All of this magnifies God’s glorious grace, and thus glorifies God.
“But is this view of worship biblical?”
You bet it is!
First of all, the true and living God, the God revealed in the Bible, is perfectly self-sufficient in and of Himself. He is the great I AM, the Ever Blessed God who is perfectly self-sufficient and perfectly content within His own Triune Being. He is already infinitely and unchangeably glorious in and of Himself, which means that He stands in need of nothing from His creatures, including their worship. When we speak about “glorifying God” in our worship, this does not mean that we somehow add to God’s glory through our worship, for God is already infinitely glorious, and you cannot “add” to infinite, boundless glory! While God is pleased to accept the heart-felt worship of His people, He doesn’t “need” our worship. Our worship is not designed to somehow give God an “ego-boost” – as if the Creator of the universe had a low self-esteem and needed our affirmation in worship to feel good about Himself. Rather, our worship “glorifies” God in the sense that it declares, manifests and publicly displays His glory through those elements of worship which He has prescribed for His holy worship. (And as God’s glory is declared, manifested and displayed in worship, God’s people are edified in their faith!)
In the Bible-based words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, found at the beginning of chapter 2, section 2: “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them.” (Emphasis added.)
In other words, while God delights in the worship of His people, He does not “need” our worship. Therefore, our worship is not ultimately for His benefit, but for ours.
Another biblical evidence for the view of worship that I am presenting here is found in the biblical emphasis on worship being for the believer’s edification and for the building up of their faith. For example, in responding to the liturgical chaos and “charismania” exhibited in the Corinthian Church, the Apostle Paul urged the Corinthian believers to strive toward a more orderly worship practice (“But all things should be done decently and in order” – 1 Cor. 14:40, ESV). Why? So that the church might be built up and edified! “Let all things be done for building up.” (First Corinthians 14:26, ESV) Clearly, God’s primary goal in commanding His people to worship Him is that they might be edified and built up in Christ! Again, God is most glorified when His people are most edified.
In holy worship our covenant God comes to us to commune with us and to feed our souls in Word and sacrament, and we respond with gratitude to His gracious initiative with our prayers, our praises, and our financial gifts. This “dialogical principle” with its interplay of Divine initiative and human response is reflected in the “flow” of historic Reformed liturgical practice, such as we practice at Lake OPC.
For example, in our worship service God comes to us in grace and blessing through the apostolic salutation, and He calls us into His presence through the call to worship. We respond with an opening hymn and a prayer of praise. We then reaffirm our trust in the Lord through the recitation of one of the historic creeds of the church (usually the Nicene or Apostles’). God’s presence confronts us with our sin, so we confess our sins, and then we hear God’s gracious word of forgiveness in a human voice through the mouthpiece of His ordained servant, the minister, who declares our sins to be forgiven for Christ’s sake. God then continues to build us up by His Word through the Scripture readings. We then respond to the reading of His Word with our hymn of faith, our prayers of intercession, our offerings, and our hymn of preparation for the sermon. God then continues to feed our souls through the proclamation of His Word, the sermon, which is the highlight and center of our service, and once again we respond with our hymn of commitment. (On Lord’s Days when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper God seals His word of grace proclaimed with the holy supper, which is the word of grace signified and sealed.) Finally, God sends us forth into the world with His blessing through the benediction. Thus a reformed worship service begins with God’s word of grace and blessing, ends with His word of grace and blessing, and is saturated throughout with His Word (read and preached), all to the edification and building up of God’s people!
In Divine worship God kills our pride and self-righteousness through His Law, raises us up and forgives our sins through His Gospel, and builds us up in our most holy faith, equipping us to go forth into the world to serve Christ in our daily callings. In other words, worship is primarily for the benefit of His people!
“But doesn’t this make worship man-centered rather than God-centered?”
Not when we understand the truth that in worship we don’t ascend to God through our prayers and praises (as an evangelical theology of glory implies), but rather God comes to us in grace through Christ (as reflected in a theology of the cross). Not when we understand that God is most glorified when His people are most edified!
For a helpful podcast related to this subject I would encourage the interested reader to listen to a recent “Issues Etc.” radio show podcast featuring the conservative Lutheran pastor Rev. Chris Rosebrough who speaks on the topic of “The Liturgy of Pop-American Christianity”. Pastor Rosebrough hosts a program called “Fighting for the Faith” where he addresses heresies and trends within Pentecostalism, revivalism and broader evangelicalism, and is a regular guest on the confessional Lutheran “Issues Etc.” program. As a biblically Reformed and Presbyterian Christian I would not necessarily endorse or agree with everything that Pastor Rosebrough says, as we differ with our Lutheran brethren on some significant points of doctrine and practice. But, nonetheless, his perspective on worship is very thought-provoking and helpful.
You can listen to the podcast here: http://issuesetc.org/2017/05/29/1532-the-liturgy-of-pop-american-christianity-pr-chris-rosebrough-6217/
“For whom did Christ die?” Most Christians today would answer that question by saying, “For everyone!”
In other words, most Christians today hold to a view known as “universal atonement”, which is the view that Christ’s atoning death on the cross redeemed every single individual who ever has and who ever will live, thus making eternal salvation possible for all, yet guaranteed for none. With the exception of those holding to a consistent universalist position (which is the view that in the end all human beings without exception will be eternally saved through Christ), most Christians who believe in some version of universal atonement also believe that many of those for whom Christ died will end up lost in hell due to their impenitence and unbelief.
In other words, Christ is believed to have paid for the sins of everyone without exception, but many of those for whom Christ died will still have to pay for their own sins in hell for eternity, because they rejected Christ. Thus, in the case of the lost, their sins end up getting paid for twice (once by Christ on the cross, and again by the impenitent sinner in hell).
But does this view not imply an injustice on the part of God, who demands payment for human sin at the hands of His Son on the cross, only to demand payment for those same sins again by the impenitent in hell? Thus, the position of universal atonement poses problems for the perfect justice of God.
And does it not also do a dishonor to Christ by implying that He failed in His saving work, since many for whom He died fail to be saved in the end? And if the advocate of universal atonement objects by saying, “No, Christ did not fail in the case of those who die in their sins; instead, they failed to avail themselves of Christ’s ransom!”, may we not respond by asking: Does not this view of “universal atonement” actually limit the power and efficacy of Christ’s atoning work on the cross by making it depend for its efficacy upon man’s response of faith? Does this view not imply that man’s “free will” decision to reject Christ is more powerful and efficacious than Christ’s redeeming work to overcome human hardness of heart, thus making man’s unbelief stronger than God’s grace? And does not this position, if carried out to its logical extreme, end up making the efficacy of Christ’s redeeming work dependent upon the “work” of man’s response of faith, thus making human salvation partially dependent upon God and partially dependent upon man (in other words, synergism), and thus denying the biblical truth of salvation by God’s grace in Christ alone?
In opposition to the popular and prevalent position of universal atonement, Bible-believing Presbyterian and Reformed Christians have historically held to a view which has come to be called “limited atonement” (or, to put it more positively, “definite atonement” or “particular redemption”). This is the view that Christ’s atoning death on the cross, while certainly infinite in value and sufficient to save all without exception, was intended to benefit only a limited number of individuals; namely, the “elect”, those whom Scripture identifies as Christ’s “sheep”, those who (by God’s sovereign grace) come in due time to trust in Christ as their Savior (see, for example, John 10:11; compare with vv. 25-29).
In the historic Reformed understanding of the atonement, Christ did not die merely to make sinners savable. Such a view denigrates the actual meaning of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice by making it a mere hypothetical atonement, an atonement which might satisfy Divine justice if certain human conditions (namely, faith and repentance) are met. But in the biblically Reforned understanding Christ did not die on the cross to offer the Father a mere hypothetical atonement for everyone without exception (i.e., an “atonement” which doesn’t actually atone without the help of human faith). No, instead He died to actually secure the eternal salvation of all those whom the Father gave to Him, namely, His chosen ones – a great multitude from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9).
In other words, if Jesus died for you, your eternal salvation is absolutely certain and infallibly secure, for the Divine Son of God Incarnate has satisified the demands of Divine justice once-for-all and for all of your sins (past, present and future) – including your sins of unbelief and impenitence!
So, while the position of “universal atonement” actually limits the power and efficacy of Christ’s atonement (by teaching that it only makes sinners merely savable), the Reformed view only “limits” the atonement in the sense that it is designed by God and intended to benefit a limited number of human beings (namely, the elect, who in God’s timing become believers in Christ). But, in the Reformed view, Jesus’ death actually saves (once and for all and forever!) those for whom He makes atonement!
“But what about the biblical requirement that sinners trust in Christ as their Savior and repent of their sins if they would be saved?”
Certainly the Reformed Faith affirms the necessity of repentance and faith. The Reformed or “Calvinist” view of “limited atonement” offers no comfort to those who presume upon God’s grace and persist in the way of impenitence and unbelief. We wholeheartedly affirm that the salvation Christ purchased for His people is received and experienced only in the way of true faith in Jesus Christ and repentance unto life. And certainly we who are Reformed affirm the biblical truth that God commands all people everwhere to repent (Acts 17:30)! Repentance and faith in Jesus Christ are universal duties enjoined upon all who are privileged to hear the gospel message.
At the same time, ultimately true saving faith and repentance are graces and gifts of God that God by His Spirit works within the souls of His elect in due time, and through the ordinary ministry of the Word. Ultimately they are not works of man, but gifts of God, purchased by Christ for His elect (see Acts 11:18; 13:48; Ephesians 2:8; Philippians 1:29; etc.). How could it be otherwise, since (as I explained in my blog article on Total Depravity) fallen man is spiritually dead in his trespasses and sins and thus incapable of converting himself by his own supposed “free will” (Ephesians 2:1; Romans 9:16; John 3:3; etc.).
What is the Reformed doctrine of “limited atonement” based upon?
First, it is based upon the nature of Christ’s death as a satisfaction for sin.
In the Bible, Christ’s atonement actually (not hypothetically) atones. It is an atonement that actually secures the eternal redemption of God’s people. A careful study of the Epistle to the Hebrews (especially, for example, chapter 9-10) will make this clear. When we consider the fact that the Bible makes it abundantly clear that not all will be saved in the end (see, for example, Matthew 25:46; Second Thessalonians 1:8; Revelation 20:12-15; etc.), by logical necessity we can infer that not everyone’s sins have been atoned for by Christ. Otherwise they would be saved.
Second, it is based upon explicit biblical teaching.
For example, in the good shepherd discourse in John chapter 10, the Lord Jesus explicitly states that He as the “good shepherd” lays down His life “for the sheep” (John 10:11, ESV). Later in that passage He explains to the unbelieving Jews who rejected Him that the reason they do not believe in Him is “because you are not among my sheep” (v. 26, ESV). If Christ laid down His life for His sheep, but these individuals are (by Christ’s own testimony) not among His sheep, then the clear implication is that Jesus Christ did not lay down His life for them – meaning that He did not die for them. Later on, in John chapter 17, in our Lord’s “high priestly prayer”, Jesus makes it clear that He is praying to His Father for those whom the Father has given Him. He explicitly says that He is not praying for the world (i.e., those not given to Him by the Father; see v. 9). This too implies that Jesus did not die for the purpose of saving them, since He refuses to pray for them as their high priest. Futhermore, in Ephesians 5:25 the Apostle Paul states that Christ gave Himself up for the church (meaning, in this context, the “invisible church” – the elect of God).
“But what about all those passages that speak of God loving the world and Jesus dying for all?”
John 3:16 is a favorite among advocates of universal atonement. And yet even that passage “limits” the benefits of Christ to those who believe in Him! But in response to this kind of objection it should be pointed out that the terms, “world” and “all” and similar “universal” language, must be interpreted within their own contexts. Often the terms “world” and “all” are used to indicate all without distinction (i.e., Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, etc.) rather than all without exception (i.e., every single human being without exception).
In addition, these words can often be used to make general statements which might have exceptions. For example, if I make the statement that “Everyone knows that Donald Trump is the current President of the United States”, I am making a generic statement which is generally true, but to which there may be some exceptions. Just as there is a semantic range of meanings to the words “all,” “everyone,” “world” and similar universal terms in the English language, so there is a similar range of meanings in the biblical languages. Only a careful contextual study of each passage in question can make it clear how these words are being used in particular contexts, and I would make the case that there is no passage of Scripture which explicitly requires that we understand it to be teaching that Christ died for the purpose of saving each and every human being without exception.
The good news of “limited atonement” is that Jesus Christ died on the cross, not merely to make salvation possible, but to actually save sinners from their sins, and to infallibly secure for them their everlasting salvation! While Christ’s atonement is effective only for His people, it is nonetheless sufficient for all. Dear reader, do you recognize yourself to be a sinner in need of salvation? Christ is offered to you in the gospel! Repent and turn to Christ in faith. Believe that Jesus’ death is sufficient to pay for your sins, and trust in Him as your very own Savior and Lord. If, by God’s grace, you do, you can be assured that Jesus died, not merely to make your salvation a hypothetical possibility, but to actually save you from the guilt, the penalty and the power of your sin! “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:31, ESV).
If you are interested in digging deeper on this topic, I recommend that you read The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by John Owen (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust; Reprinted 1989)
Anyone who has ever attended a worship service at Lake OPC, or any other confessional Reformed and Presbyterian church, on a Sunday when the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is being observed, will notice that before administering the elements the minister will explain who may and who may not partake of the holy supper. (This is a historic practice in the Reformed liturgy.)
While confessional Presbyterian churches like Lake OPC do not practice closed communion – which restricts communion only to those who belong in communicant membership to a particular church or denomination or family of denominations which share the same beliefs about the Lord’s Supper – at the same time neither do confessional Presbyterian churches practice open communion where everyone, without distinction or exception, is welcomed to participate.
Instead, confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches typically practice what could be described as restricted communion. The practice is sometimes referred to as “fencing the table” (meaning that a verbal explanation and/or warning is given prior to administration of the sacrament). This means that communion is restricted to those who meet certain criteria. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church these criteria include the following:
(1) You must be validly baptized in a professing Christian Church which upholds the biblical and historic Christian view of the Trinity.
Valid baptism with water, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in a church which (at least on paper) confesses the Holy Trinity, is the visible sign of initiation into the visible “catholic” (i.e., “universal”) church, and thus a prerequisite for participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Unitarian or “Jesus only” baptism, cultic baptism (for example, Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon baptisms), “gender-neutral” baptisms (which purge out reference to Father, Son and Holy Spirit and replace the Trinitarian Names with such designations as “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer”) – all such “baptisms” are in reality non-Christian baptisms, and thus invalid in the eyes of God.
(Please note that there is a difference between an invalid baptism – which is really no baptism at all – and an irregular baptism. There are many examples of irregular baptisms – baptisms performed under less-than-ideal or extraordinary circumstances – which are nonetheless valid from a biblical standpoint. For example, a baptism administered by a heretical or scandalously immoral pastor is still a valid baptism, so long as it is administered with water in the Name of the Trinity in a professedly Trinitarian church, even though such a baptism may be irregular with respect to the circumstances of its administration.)
(2) You must have made public confession of your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in the presence of a congregation of God’s people.
Passages like Matthew 10:32-33 and Romans 10:9 make it clear that an open confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God and as one’s Lord and Savior is ordinarily a requirement for salvation (since such open confession of Christ is a fruit and evidence of true saving faith), and by implication a prerequisite for communicant membership in Christ’s visible church.
Furthermore, the very act of participating in the Lord’s Supper implies a reaffirmation of one’s public confession of faith in Christ. Therefore, those who reject Christ as the Divine Son of God Incarnate who was crucified for sinners and raised bodily from the dead, or who do not personally trust in Christ as their very own Lord and Savior and are not personally repentant for their sins, desecrate the sacrament and bring judgment upon themselves if they presume to come to the holy table. In addition, participation in the Lord’s Supper by unbelievers is an act of supreme dishonesty and hypocrisy, since unbelievers reject the very gospel that is signified and sealed in the holy supper. (See, for example, the warning about unworthy partaking that is given by the Apostle Paul in First Corinthians 11:17-32.)
(3) You must be a member in good standing of a biblical church which preaches the gospel.
Church membership implies accountability. It implies that you are willing to be subject to the God-ordained authority that Christ has entrusted to His visible church. To wilfully and knowingly reject the accountability of responsible church membership is to reject one very important aspect of Christ’s Lordship.
While it is true that the Bible does not, in proof-text fashion, have an explicit command that says “Thou shalt be a church member if thou wouldst take the Lord’s Supper”, responsible church membership involving submission to the elders and overseers of the church is clearly implied as a given in the New Testament Scriptures. (See, for example, Hebrews 13:7 & 17; First Peter 5:1-5, etc. Also note that almost all of the New Testament Epistles were written to local congregations with a definite membership, such as the church in Corinth, the churches of Galatia, the church of Thessolonica, etc. In addition, the Book of Acts describes the three thousand baptized converts on the Day of Pentecost as “those who were added” – Acts 2:41 – meaning added to the visible church.)
What about the requirement of being a church member “in good standing”? What does “good standing” mean? It means that you are not under any kind of church censure or church discipline. For example, let’s say you had belonged to a biblical church which excommunicated you for scandalous, unrepentant sin. This means you have been excluded from taking communion (hence “ex-communication”) due to your impenitence. Due to your persistent impenitence the church has judged you to be outside of saving communion with Christ. In such circumstances you are not a “member in good standing”, and thus you have no right in such circumstances to receive the visible emblems of such communion. In such circumstances you may not receive the Lord’s Supper until such time as you repent, make amends and are publicly restored to good standing in the fellowship of Christ’s church.
“But pastor, why such restrictions? And why do I need to be an actual member in good standing before I can take holy communion?” Allow me to offer some further arguments in favor of our communion practice.
The belief that communion is only for those who are church members in good standing of a biblical church is a legitimate inference from the fact that, like baptism, the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance for the church. It makes no sense for someone to partake of an ordinance appointed by Christ for His church if he/she is not an actual member of the church. Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper with His apostles on the night in which He was betrayed, and the apostles were themselves the foundation of the visible church (Ephesians 2:20). So, clearly, Christ intended this ordinance to be for those within His church, not those outside of it. (Indeed, one of the functions of the sacraments is to make a clear distinction before the world between those who belong to Christ and His church and those who do not.)
A similar argument for this practice can be seen when we compare the old covenant sacraments of circumcision and the passover with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Under the old covenant administration Gentile foreigners to the covenant community of Israel could not eat the passover meal until their males were first circumcised (see Exodus 12:43-49). In other words, before a Gentile could celebrate the passover he first had to become a Jew. Such Gentile converts had to become members of God’s visible covenant people, at the time called Israel, before they could receive the covenant meal of the passover. Likewise, in this new covenant age, an outsider to God’s covenant community of the church may not partake of the Lord’s Supper until he/she is first baptized and becomes a member of God’s covenant people, the church.
Finally, the New Testament teaches that under the new covenant the old covenant sacrament of circumcision (a bloody rite pointing forward to Christ) has been replaced by baptism (an unbloody rite pointing us back to Christ). Likewise the passover (again, a bloody rite involving the death of the passover lamb) has been replaced by the Lord’s Supper (an unbloody rite pointing us back to Christ’s bloody sacrifice on the cross). (For example, see Colossians 2:1-12 and First Corinthians 10:1-4, and also consider the fact that the Lord Jesus insituted the Lord’s Supper in the midst of celebrating the passover with His disciples.)
What is the conclusion? If God’s people under the old covenant had to be members in good standing of the covenant community before they could participate in the covenant meal of the passover, so likewise God’s people under the new covenant have to be members in good standing of the visible covenant community of the church before they are welcome to partake of the covenant meal of the Lord’s Supper.
Of course, at Lake OPC and at most other confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches we don’t have “communion bouncers”. The Lord’s Supper is not a “presbyterian” supper. Rather, it is the Lord’s Supper, and thus it is for the Lord’s people, whatever their church affiliation may be. Nevertheless, it is a serious ordinance in Christ’s church, and therefore we in the OPC seek to make it clear who may and who may not partake – for God’s glory and for the spiritual welfare of those who would partake.
During the celebration of the Supper the minister offers a “verbal fencing” of the table, and the elders will usually try to pass the elements over those who are not yet able to take communion (for example, the communion plate will be handed past young children who have not yet publicly professed their faith). But, once the verbal warning has been issued, the ultimate responsibility for partaking or not partaking of the holy supper rests upon the shoulders of those in attendance, who are summoned by Scripture and through the pastor’s exhortation to examine themselves of their fitness to partake (again, see First Corinthians 11:17-34). Let us all take this solemn responsibility seriously.