Reformation Day or Halloween?

Yes, I know it is almost Spring and not that season. But this has been on my mind, so here we go. It is about a  strange situation that I have puzzled about for years – the non-starter of Reformation Day in almost all Protestant denominations and churches.

Fact -> If the pivotal event of Reformation Day had not occurred (by God’s grace, of course), then each and every single person in all Protestant denominational churches would today be a Roman Catholic or a non-believer, or both. In the majority of cases, they would not be saved.

Fact -> Not only does Reformation Day and the events thereof it go largely unnoticed and uncelebrated in most churches today, but those churches seems much more concerned with Halloween silliness than with any awareness of the events that shaped (and still does) their own denominational history.

What does this mean? What does it say about the church today?

I have, over the years, attended a number of churches – mostly Baptist and mostly Reformed to one degree or another. With one exception, they have proceeded to ignore the Reformation almost completely, as if the work of the Reformers of the 1500 and 1600s was largely unrelated to their freedom from Rome and their beliefs. The historic martyrs are simply lost.

I have no explanation other than intellectual hubris and entitlement of the first order, and I just don’t understand it. I see it as a failure of the congregation but much more a huge pastoral failure.

They look hither and yon for alternatives to Halloween, running about in many case with great angst over things are for the most part meaningless. At the same time, they ignore that which formed the foundation of their beliefs and which would provide something to celebrate in the Lord.

I can only attribute the phenomena to a subtle man centered philosophy that will concentrate on almost anything of flesh rather than celebrate the reality of the sovereign Spirit of God that has shaped their Christian reality.

What can I say but WAKE UP!


Proscriptive Principles of Small Groups

In the previous posts, it was proposed that the paradigm of small assemblies from the early church was still applicable today. Further, there has been no other prototype given in biblical revelation that replaced that paradigm for Christian gatherings. That limited size structure is what properly supports the growth of each believer in all required ways. It effectively disavows the need for cookie cutter approaches.

Any assumptions that contemporary social science has developed new or even superior paradigms that make biblical paradigms less sufficient or outdated would in effect propose that the Scriptures are incomplete, insufficient, in need of help, or all three. That is simply not part of our system of beliefs.

So, are small groups the answer to the apparent insufficiency of mass Sunday assemblies in supporting biblical Christian growth and need for interpersonal connection? I would have to answer with the proverbial yes and no.

What, you say? All this palaver to take the fifth? Well, not quite…

Small groups have much to offer any sized church. They provide an intimate fellowship structure that is solidly Christian and with legitimate biblical oversight. That is no small contribution. They allow a membership that is (hopefully) voluntary and therefor can reflect individual preference. However, does this fulfill that same need as the fellowship of the regular assembly, where everyone knows one another? I would say no.

The church in the present age often seems about growth, growth and more growth. That is understandable to sustain building, staff, programs and other infrastructure. But that is not what the local church is about. The result can be a local church where people are there by alone. And the bigger the church, the bigger the issue. The solution given is small groups. My point is that they are not the solution and they are definitely not a reflection of the early church. The local church as a mega institution does not reflect the church of the Bible.

The church assembly is not present in Bible as scalable. Once it gets beyond a couple of hundred members there is no possibility for biblical  church fellowship and a Christian family relationship among the members and adherents. Splitting into small groups just yields a fragmented set of groups.

I would propose that the church should always divide once it has reached the point where members can know most other members, and where the care of the membership requires a staff infrastructure. Saying that small groups make it possible to provide the early church environment while having many hundreds or thousand of members is simply untrue even if it supports the organization.


Regulative Principles

A couple of verses that we have discussed before to start…

“And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42.

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Colossians 3:16.

And there are numerous others addressing the assembling of the beloved in Christ.

The question is, are these regulative for the gathering of believers now? And what precisely are they describing?

As I stated in another post, my interest in this was initially focused by several articles in the Canons of Dordt. In those sections it is pointed out that the believer can draw great assurance from the fact that they are assured of their standing before God by the very beliefs that saved them – in Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), and not necessarily in other outward signs. Further, it is pointed out that believers should continue to diligently avail themselves of the ‘Means of Grace” that were provided by the Lord in support of their justification, sanctification and assurance.

In the two verses quoted above we find a Scriptural proscription not only for the assembling of the Saints, but even more for their ongoing life in Christ. I am more and more convicted that these specifications from Scripture are both regulative in nature and exclusive in scope. Moreover, there are no alternatives specified in Scripture.

The obvious counter argument is that these were culturally based, for those times alone, and thereby can be redefined today for modern cultural norms. However, I do not see any specifics of times and culture in these verses or their context that would indicate that. In fact, the terms used are sufficiently general to define a model for life as opposed to some specific actualization of a cultural venue. As such, I reject that argument.

Next, am I implying a narrow reading of the principles that would imply a specific instrumentation (a big issue today) or style of hymnody? Not at all. Although I think that there are some restrictions implied, we are not talking about an RPW (Regulative Principle of Worship) which demands the acapella singing of KJV-only Psalms (to take an extreme but existing example). In its restrictiveness, I think that would defy the regulative principles implied here, just as much as many emergent approaches most certainly do.

I am talking about an ‘attitude’ model as much as anything else, and the actualization falls naturally from that, not the other way around.

What is that model? Well, let me close this post by parsing the verses above for the implied components:

1. devoted to the Apostles’ teachings – for us, the Scriptures
2. fellowship – notice that is fellowship in the teachings
3. breaking of bread (communion, not dinner)
4. prayer
5. Word dwell richly within you, (the Word) teaching and admonishing in
5.1 songs
5.2 hymns
5.3 spiritual songs
all rejoicing in thankfulness to God.

There you have it – a gathering focused upon the Lord in every way, directly and primarily through the Scriptures and things drawn from them – always looking up so to speak. Not a single word about anything at all of man – no mention of programs, books about programs and self-actualization, etc.

These plus a few others that expand upon them embody the sole regulative model in Scripture and thereby the regulative model for God’s people, the beloved in Christ – a model for all time.


Are Small Groups Biblical?

The contemporary church (irrespective of denomination) has seen a legitimate need to minister to individuals outside of the usual Sunday Service and Sunday Schools. This comes from a realization that a mass gathering does not often reflect the mentoring requirements for individual Christian growth and accountability. The Bible makes clear that we are to study the scripture and be accountable in community (for example Acts 17:11). But a large group can easily stifle more intimate sharing and questioning.

In our time, this rational for smaller group mentoring and fellowship has often been unconsciously melded with the theories and assumptions of secular and New Age psychology surrounding personal growth, self esteem, group dynamics and the individual entitlement of man. Not that these areas of study do not yield results for society, but they are frequently not based upon biblical principles and make very different assumptions about the status of man in creation. They are, at their root, completely at odds with Biblical values based upon the absolute sovereignty of God.

Secular values are predominantly post-modern. They have a relative value structure, assuming that all truth is relative (either socially or individually), and that every individual is entitled to self-drive actualization. Many congregants operate unconsciously from a mindset which selectively uses these values, with each set given almost equal weight or the post-modern more weight.

This is completely at odds with the Biblical truth of a sovereign God, His absolute universal laws, and individual responsibility to precepts beyond individual entitlement of any sort.

Put more practically (and to use the biblical analogy of Isaiah 29:16 very loosely), society see the clay as entitled to a hearing and compliance from the potter, while the biblical truth of creation is precisely the opposite. with the potter having completely independent and sovereign control over the clay, owing it nothing whatsoever (Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:4).

Why does this matter? It matters because the view point that current small group ministry grows from determines whether it can fill the need that the formal church does not, that of the smaller integrated fellowship described in the early church (see Gathering in the Beloved).

So, we have something of a quandary. Does the present small group structure in most churches address the Biblical proscription modeled in the early church gatherings – one based on wholly biblical precepts?

Let me also close this post by pointing out that this discussion does not discount the many wonderful benefits of fellowship in current groups. The question is whether they address the biblical model and any regulative principle that it implies, since all biblical principles are by definition important.


Gathering in the Beloved

Let us start with biblical prototypes for believer interaction.

“…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” Ephesians 5:18-19. There is no indication at all that this is culturally or time period relative. It is a time independent prototype.

In Colossians 3:16 we have method. As we gather “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

And in Hebrews 10:24-25, motivation to gather regularly. “…let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Thus, we have believers exhorted to gather together regularly, to study and speak of the Word, to exhort and support one another in holiness, while thankfully (and by implication humbly) rejoicing in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

The disciples modeled this in their behaviour once they were on their own, after Pentecost.

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42

“Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,” Acts 2:46.

It is significant to note the “Day by day continuing” phrase. This was not something occurring only periodically, be that weekly or monthly. It was a daily mode of living the believing life.

Putting this prototypical model together, what do we have and what happens when we follow this paradigm? As an aside, we should take note that, although church is vitally important, this does not sound anything like many, if not most, church services – an issue for another blogging day.

A key here is that the focus and feeling of these gatherings centered around a humble thankfulness in salvation, and the upon the Lord, through the primary means he specified, scripture. This may have taken several forms and many possible expressions, but the focus was on Him and His Word.

It is useful to note what the focus was not on. It was not on ‘activities’ outside of praise, worship and directly associated fellowship. It was not on the work of the assembly in the community. It was not that this work did not exist or was not important, but it played no apparent part in the assembling. That work was external to and a result of  it. For example, there was no focus on the men who were helping the widows. In fact, it appears from the necessity of their appointment that they were appointed so that work would not be disruptive to the gathering in the Lord’s name. “Then we can appoint those men over this business, and we apostles will continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:4

The sole reason for the beloved to gather was to fellowship in rejoicing in the Lord and His work of salvation. All part of gathering were an expression of that rejoicing. And this was a daily way of life, which would result in that mindset overshadowing all other worldly activities. It was their worldview¹.

Considering what the Lord has done, especially in salvation, rejoicing in Him in a way that eclipses all else would seem only appropriate. But here we see that path modeled explicitly.

So, how about us in the 21st century? I don’t see that anything has changed much or at all. Yes, life has become cluttered with countless distractions of the world, and as with the early church world it would have us believe that this clutter is of over-riding importance. But remember who the world represents and to whose ends this worldly emphasis contributes – none other than the Prince of the Air, Satan (Ephesians 2:2). And the Scriptures have not changed. There has not been any new revelation that changes the prototypes as given in the existing canon.

The implication is that we and our earthly brethren are to follow suit in our focus. Our worldview is to be centered on the Lord.

The resultant experience, though mine has been tiny and sporatic, is wonderful, humbling and convicting even on a small, tentative scale. The gatherings in this model that I have experienced can only be expressed in the words of David in Psalm 139:6 “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.” The humble thankfulness and joy of such gathering with other believers is just too wonderful to be truly take in. And that, I think, is how it is intended to be.

¹For more on worldview, see Naming the Elephant, Worldview as a concept, 2ed., James W. Shire.


Election does not imply complacency

“[A Christian] does not make election his opiate and say, I am safe, O may sleep or wake as I please. He says, I am safely but this only makes me doubly vigilant that I may not dishonor Him who has saved me; and even though I may not finally fall away, I know no how much I may lose by one day’s slothfulness or how much I may gain by maintaining that watchful attitude to which, as the expectant of an absent Lord, I am called. ‘Blessed is he that watches,’ and even though I could not see the reason for this, I will act upon it that I may realize the promised blessedness. He who has called me to vigilance can make me partaker of its joy. He can make my watchtower, lonely and dark as it may seem, none other than the house of God and the very gate of Heaven.”

– Horatius Bonar from The Everlasting Righteousness


A Tale of Two Johns

John Calvin and John Wesley, of course! In reality, though, it is a case of Augustine versus Pelagius or Calvin versus Arminius. But the current title is true and just so cool.

Let us use the lens of Spiritual Warfare, but more specifically responsibility and consequences.

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
                                                                                              Ephesians 6:12 (NASB)

With the outworking of life as a reflection of this invisible warfare, and an active actualization of this battle between principalities and saints, where does personal outcomes as a result of individual actions fit in?

The premise of saving grace in Reformed Theology is that it is not of us: ” For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” Ephesians 2:8 (NASB). We can not save ourselves, even a little bit. So what implication does this have for living in the world after He has called us to Himself?

By virtue of our lives in creation, we are actively involved in the divine struggle. Looking at the power of the principalities involved, and our human affinity for the world of Natural Man, if we do not subscribe to the Perserverance of the Saints (the P in TULIP), we are in big trouble indeed.

Those who know that salvation is not of ourselves, but of the Lord, also know from Scripture that “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand;” John 10:27-28 (NASB). Thus they can rest in the knowledge that in the ongoing battle they are safe in His arms for eternity, worldly outworking and appearances notwithstanding.

For those who take a Wesleyan view, and see a human role in salvation, and more importantly a human role in maintaining that state, there are big worries and loads of jeopardy.

We are born to sin, and for all intents and purposes can not help ourselves. We required His quickening in order to consider the promise of salvation to be other than foolishness. If any of the responsibility was or remained ours, then even once we are His how could we maintain that state? Clearly we could not, and we would be in constant danger, particularly if the end of life should approach at the wrong moment. A life of constant jeopardy is not the promised life of joy in the Lord.

Thankfully, it is all of Him alone (Solus Christus), through His Grace alone (Sola Gracia). And since His will can not be thwarted, we as believers shall preserver into Glory.

Now, does the fact that the Wesleyan does not believe this mean that he, once saved, is in any actual jeopardy? The Wesleyan would likely say yes, but the answer must of course be no.

To say yes one must assume that there is an ongoing battle in progress of the actual salvation and that the believer participates actively in its determination. The narrative of Scripture says that this is wrong.

Five Points and Luke 6:45-49

“The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” Luke 6:45.

Some time ago I heard a sermon on this and several following verses from Luke. I actually wrote about it elsewhere. The sermon made a number of good points surrounding human communications difficulties. The thrust of the sermon was that when words are exchanged (whether good or bad), it is not just the words that are important, but the fact that they implicitly reveal the state of the speaker’s heart. As such, communications problems (in this particular sermon, those between the sexes, often in the heat of the moment) must be addressed as heart issues as much as, if not more than, issues of verbal technique. A very good point! And to take it to the obvious next step, to alter the symptomatic expressions in a vacuum is unlikely to yield real, long lasting success.

Thinking about this, both then and later, it would seem that this principle should be extended to other communications, possibly even less direct modes of communication.

For the moment I wish to address only the case of the believer. For the believer, it struck me that one can delve beyond the initial reality that words expose the heart. The tone of that heart, expressed implicitly through the words, is a reflection or barometer of the speaker’s level of confidence in the Grace of our Lord, in a very personally sense. Surely the major component of the good treasure that is stored up in our hearts is the conviction and confidence that not only are we the Lord’s by His power and not our own, but also that in this belonging is an unchanging reality that was established by Him, not us.

If this is not the case, and if indeed the good or even the bad treasure of our hearts is established even marginally by us, then problems arise and our eternity exists on very shaky ground indeed. Scripture states (Jeremiah 17:9) that by virtue of its fallen nature the heart is bad (evil) and that none are worthy to be saved, not one. We are both collectively and individually portrayed as utterly lost in our trespasses and sin. These trespasses and sins are always against God, irrespective of the external circumstance, since He is the standard beyond all circumstance. Since (Romans 3:12) bad can not create good of itself, we are without any ability to alter our basic nature. That being the case, intervention from outside our natural state is required for change to occur. There is no other possibility. Proverbs 28:8 sums it up well, in that even the prayers of unbelievers are “an abomination to the Lord.”

If whatever treasure is in the heart is established by us, outside His intervention, it can not be of Him and thereby can not be truly good – that is, of Him. In that case, any apparent good treasure must be from who we are naturally, and be jaundiced by that natural state from which it springs. What subsequently issues forth from that heart, appearances not withstanding, in the form of words can not be other than similarly jaundiced. This can in no way truly glorify a totally holy God.

Now, in reference to apparent good verbal acts of the unsaved, these are good in the natural sense. They can not, however, appear good to God since their root does not emanate from God. They must therefor fall short before Him no matter how they might appear in the world or what temporal benefit they might exact. They are based in the natural world and its standards of good. They are based on the standards of heaven, which are only achievable through the representation of Christ.

On the other hand, once the heart is changed by the Spirit (again, by the Spirit because the natural man is defined scripturally as completely lost, unable to create good from evil, and thereby unable to change himself) the good exists as the core of his nature, though not completely perfected until sanctification is completed. That path of sanctification, from imperfection to perfection, is certainly one of progressive and at times even faltering change. However, within is the heart claimed by God and regenerated with a core of good. Even at the beginning, but more as the process unfolds, the heart is progressively purified, and so must be the result in the words issuing from it, irrespective of the topic or situation.

A later point made in the same sermon was that, in the end, the heart issue comes down to the issue of rightness with God – that is, salvation. Clearly this is true, since it is from the movement of the Spirit, as evidenced in salvation, that the change of heart occurs.

All this is to say that though words are a good barometer for the heart, they are an even better barometer for self analysis and accountability within ones self, and within our close family in the Lord. What is required is the courage to examine both aspects of our communications and their implications. Only we will truly see the dichotomy between our own heart, how we would like it to be, and the evidence of its expression. A powerful tool in the process, and one that should humble us.

Accordingly, the remedy for the communications slips that we all exhibited in our imperfect state is not communications training, but heart training. Since we, as natural men (or women) are incapable of exacting change from our natural state and can not train our own hearts, the only remedy is to humbly seek change from the Lord, in prayer and the Word. That is the only venue for this development.

Further, in this we can only seek His face. Since it is His sovereign hand that exacts the continued change, on His timetable, we can only bring supplication and worship in obedience. Therein lies the solution, the final part being to rest in confidence in His eternal plan, sufficiency and preservation of the elect.

And once again, I never said easy.

“the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart” Matthew 15:18

Further, for those who would object that we might be in some way entitled to understand the situation more completely, I would cite one of my favourites.

“”The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Deuteronomy 29:29


Always a Work in Progress

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