Banner

"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

Contributors

  • Rev. John Samson
  • Rev. David Thommen (URC)
  • John Hendryx
  • Marco Gonzalez

    We are a community of confessing believers who love the gospel of Jesus Christ, affirm the Biblical and Christ-exalting truths of the Reformation such as the five solas, the doctrines of grace, monergistic regeneration, and the redemptive historical approach to interpreting the Scriptures.

    top250.jpg

    Community Websites

    Monergism Books on Facebook

    Blogroll

    Latest Posts

    Categories

    Archives

    Ministry Links

  • « When Your Values Are Threatened | Main | Is Divine Election Fair? by Pastor John Samson »

    Jesus Asks His Church: "Who Do You Say That I Am?" -Part 2


    Confessing Christ with All the Saints

    The Word of God is the foundation, the sole infallible and inerrant authority and source for all we believe and do as Christians. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness in his holy word (2 Peter 1:3). We are to teach the Word of God as Christians, and particularly as Christian ministers we are to seek to teach the Bible as accurately as we can (2 Timothy 2:15).

    For any Christian, and particularly ministers of the Bible, one of the first things realized in the study of the Bible is that the Word of God must be interpreted, and because of this need of correct interpretation we as members of Christ’s Church must know how to interpret the only infallible rule of our faith and practice, and know that our interpretation is correct. The Word of God must be taught and preached by the minister called of God, and we must seek to be faithful to our calling for Jesus’ sake.

    In seeking to be faithful to Holy Scripture, and especially with regard to interpreting the Bible, we as Christians should seek to interpret the Word of God together in as well as with the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and confess this faith before the world. This is a most important way of striving for unity in the one Church of Christ, and of confessing to the world what we believe, and protesting what we do not believe with regards to what the Bible teaches. Studying creeds and confessions can help in our interpretive faithfulness as well as honor the work of the Holy Spirit as he has providentially taught and watched over Christ’s Church throughout the years.


    Confessing Christ with All the Saints

    The Word of God is the foundation, the sole infallible and inerrant authority and source for all we believe and do as Christians. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness in his holy word (2 Peter 1:3). We are to teach the Word of God as Christians, and particularly as Christian ministers we are to seek to teach the Bible as accurately as we can (2 Timothy 2:15).

    For any Christian, and particularly ministers of the Bible, one of the first things realized in the study of the Bible is that the Word of God must be interpreted, and because of this need of correct interpretation we as members of Christ’s Church must know how to interpret the only infallible rule of our faith and practice, and know that our interpretation is correct. The Word of God must be taught and preached by the minister called of God, and we must seek to be faithful to our calling for Jesus’ sake.

    In seeking to be faithful to Holy Scripture, and especially with regard to interpreting the Bible, we as Christians should seek to interpret the Word of God together in as well as with the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and confess this faith before the world. This is a most important way of striving for unity in the one Church of Christ, and of confessing to the world what we believe, and protesting what we do not believe with regards to what the Bible teaches. Studying creeds and confessions can help in our interpretive faithfulness as well as honor the work of the Holy Spirit as he has providentially taught and watched over Christ’s Church throughout the years.

    This is a real concern today that we as Christians should prayerfully consider together. We need to stand firm in the faith, to contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and to fight the good fight. But we must do this together as those who call themselves by the name of Christian, and we must do this without becoming unnecessarily offended by those who disagree with what we believe. We should not merely brush aside, or sweep doctrines under the proverbial rug in order to try and achieve some outward, yet false and artificial unity. Rather, we must seek to know and interpret our Bibles with the historic Christian Church. This may take some hard work and patience, but it is the unity Jesus has called his people to.

    Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

    What Does Your Congregation Believe?

    Unfortunately, many evangelical Christians today have no formal creeds, confessions, and councils from which to identify them with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, nor to prevent them from making the same mistakes of the past due to their ignorance of these things. They may have brief statements of faith, but how is this seeking unity beyond the boundaries of that individual congregation? How can evangelical Christians more precisely seek unity with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in their interpretation with a mere statement of faith, written within their own generation, without being connected creedally and confessionally to the historic Church? If Jesus taught us to seek unity by His grace, then we must take this seriously as members of his one Church.

    Commenting on this anti-creedal and anti-confessional trend in evangelicalism, historian D. G. Hart writes in his excellent book Deconstructing Evangelicalism that evangelical Christians do not have anything that really defines themselves or that visibly shows before the world their unity with the historic Christian Church. He writes that what unifies them are powerful personalities and “para church celebrities” and the beliefs and confessions that these few individuals through books, television and radio teach the people of God. He writes:

    "Churches, unlike parachurch entities, have creeds that let people contemplating membership know the content of the denomination's faith. Churches also have structures of governance that provide a mechanism of accountability that is very different from that of the market model, which determines which parachurch celebrities are the most popular and therefore authoritative."[1]

    Hart’s concern as a Churchman as well as historian is that when the visible Church loses creeds, confessions, and councils that teach and uphold God’s Word, we lose sight of any true and visible Church on earth and form substitutions in para church ministries that in essence become the church. In Hart’s book he fairly acknowledges the good that evangelicals have accomplished and in no way undermines the good that God has done through the work of twentieth century evangelicals.

    What Hart seeks to historically understand is how we should categorize a people who have no confessions, or external denominations to hold them together, but rather are held together by a few famous teachers (Billy Graham, James Dobson and Tim Lahaye he names as the "parachurch celebrities"), and a few lowest-common-denominator doctrines that allow evangelicals to work without any threat or offense to one another as a threat to their unity. Hart asserts that evangelicalism cannot exist as a visible part of Christ's Church in historically upholding the three "marks of the church": Right preaching of the Word of God, correct administration of the sacraments, and discipline in order to uphold the first two.”[2]

    Truth Divides and Truth Unites

    We should all be for loving each other and getting along together as Christians, but we should want to consider whether seeking unity will always allow us to “agree to disagree” one with another. It is a biblical truth that truth divides. When John the Baptist and Jesus went about preaching and proclaiming the truth of the Kingdom of God, people either accepted this, or they rejected it. Jesus himself says he came not to bring peace in the way the world thinks of it, but actually division with regard to the truth:

    So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. 34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person's enemies will be those of his own household.

    Seeking unity in what we all can agree upon is not the way the Bible teaches us to properly seek unity as Christians. We should want to take seriously Jesus’ prayer for Christians to be one and we ought to seek unity in John 17. By God’s grace, we must attempt to go back to our sources and study in and with the Church the creeds and confessions of our most holy faith. If we do not return to seeking to study with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, then we in our generation may have failed to live up to our calling of working for unity according to Ephesians 4:4-5.

    We are commanded by God to be unified and this cannot happen merely with individuals making private judgments and interpretations of what they think the Bible teaches. When mere individuals with their Bibles are trying to interpret alone in their study with no help from the Church, this can lead to relativism in the church, a disregard for objective truth, which is another aspect of not allowing ourselves to be conformed to the pattern of this present age (Romans 12:1-2).

    Seeking unity in evangelicalism may seem like an impossible task today when we look around and see such blatant and deep individualism and sects multiplying around us, including so-called home and house churches, but this is the call of the Church for this present moment and God’s grace is sufficient in our weakness. In fact, it is just in our weakness that God promises to build his Church and be glorified!

    What has happened in the history of the visible Church, from which we can all learn a valuable lesson, is that when the orthodox Church's proclamations and declarations of what Scripture teaches is denied, the heresy that was opposed formerly is usually raised up again to threaten the Church at a later time.

    Ignoring the teachings of the past carefully articulated and laid out in creeds, confessions and councils is to disrespect and dishonor the historical and providential work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, there is an implicit claim by some that the Holy Spirit has just begun his work within the Church within their own generation.

    Reconsidering the Popular Confession: “In Essentials, Unity…”

    In our relativistic climate in evangelicalism today we need to consider challenging the thinking that true unity can be found in Christ’s church by merely finding the lowest common beliefs of Christians and organizing ourselves visibly around these. In others words, modern evangelical Christians need to be careful that they are not redefining true biblical unity in the truth as merely something that doesn't offend! We find these kinds of lowest common denominator beliefs especially in organizations or para churches that try to reinvent their own creeds and confessions from Scripture as if Scripture had never been interpreted correctly and biblically before the organization was founded!

    In an effort at so called unity, some evangelicals today base everything on a quotable saying of Saint Augustine that in essence replaces and becomes the foundational creed and confession of everything they do. In other words, this short creed or confession, while true in its original context, and especially helpful in our kind dealings with others Christians, should not be used to replace what the Church has taught collectively in creeds, confessions, and councils that have rightly interpreted or handled the Word of God. The short creed says this:

    "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, and in everything charity."

    What is meant in this brief confession is that Christians should be unified and embrace other Christians who believe in the essential truths of the Christian faith, in non-essentials we should allow liberty to believe what one would like within boundaries, and everything should be done in a charitable and loving manner. My concern is not with this quotation per se, but with how evangelicals today decide and define the difference between what is an essential and a non-essential.

    What must be pointed out is that Saint Augustine himself would disagree with much that evangelicals define as "non-essentials". I have met some who hold to this foundational and basic creed who deny the essential teaching concerning salvation by grace alone and the visible Church, both essentials that Saint Augustine strove to defend his entire life in protest against the Donatists and Pelagianism.

    Yet some evangelicals will use this short slogan to say to other Christians that discussions about how God saves a person is a non-essential that Christians can “agree to disagree” on. Some have even told me that they think a doctrine of the Church and her unity is a non-essential that we can “agree to disagree” on and therefore writing on the Church, and pastorally seeking unity in this way is unnecessarily divisive and unloving (I guess they don’t realize they are not merely disagreeing with me, but the Nicene Creed). I would say briefly in response to this that perhaps a specific government of the Church is a non-essential, but the doctrine of the Church is not.

    What can happen when this short and helpful phrase of St. Augustine is misunderstood out of context or abused is that this becomes the primary confession, and ironically those who would deny the importance of creeds and confessions implicitly and experientially show the importance of why we should read and interpret Scripture with the Church in the past.

    One of the abuses of this short phrase is the ability to decide for oneself individualistically what is "essential" and what is "non-essential".

    The way we ought to respond to this as Christians is by gently and lovingly reminding those who would think this way, that "essentials" are defined by what the Church in the last 2000 years thought important to confess, defend, clarify, and articulate as the Biblical teaching and confession of Christ's Church, as well as what it considered important to protest and deny as the teaching of the Bible. All of these are essentials because they are the teachings of Scripture.

    How Do You Know an Essential and a Non-Essential of the Christian Faith?

    I question whether anyone can actually know what the essentials are and make proper determinations of what are the “non-essentials” that Christians can “agree to disagree on” without an ongoing study of what the Church has taught since her beginning. Unity is to be sought not merely with what evangelicals think is important today, but what the Church has thought important, declared as truth, and protested and denied as error in Church history.

    Now don’t get me wrong, charity or love as Augustine pastorally encouraged should be the foundation and motivation of our hearts as we seek to direct others toward biblical truth. I am not denying the fact that there are essentials and non-essentials in the teaching of the Bible; I am concerned with how we come to our conclusions of what makes a teaching in Christianity essential or non-essential.

    For example, the Biblical teaching of the Trinity is an essential of the Christian faith. How would you know that this is true if your pastor said this from the pulpit next Sunday? Because the Church has confessed this interpretation of the Bible, and has specifically protested against anti-Trinitarian heresies for the first four hundred years of her existence by proving from the Bible that God was revealed as Trinity.

    The Biblical teaching of the Trinity is an essential teaching of Christianity because this teaching has been exegeted from the Bible, confessed by the Church, and written down in creeds such as the ‘Apostle’s’ and the ‘Nicene’ for all in the Church to know and understand. Was this my personal decision to make the teaching of the Trinity an essential? No, it was the collective interpretation and confession of the Church in history.

    What is a non-essential? A non-essential would be something like the mode of baptism. It is an area where there can be disagreement on an issue. Why is this a non-essential, merely because I think it should be? No. It is a non-essential because the Christian Church has never in creed or confession made a particular mode of baptism a litmus test as to whether one is orthodox or not (although there have been statements of faith that made mode of baptism an essential, but this places them out of step with the historic Christian Church).

    How about the doctrine of the Church that I brought up earlier? It is clear from passages such as Ephesians 4 that we are to understand the Biblical teaching on the Church, and that we should seek unity. There has never been any debate about this. In fact, during the Reformation, the Reformers did everything they could in their writings to prove that they were not sectarians and schismatics in the Church, but were trying to reform the one church from within. They were seeking Scriptural truth and unity based on the early, foundational creeds and confessions of the Church long before the aberrant teachings of Medieval Roman Catholicism were given prominence in the visible Church.

    The Church of Jesus Christ has never made a specific form of government in the Church, like Presbyterianism or Congregationalism, a doctrinal litmus test, as to whether one is a Christian or not. We can learn from this as modern Christians and call this a non-essential (but this does not mean we will not seek to understand better what the Bible does reveal as being a Biblical form of government, and even argue about it in love sometimes!). We can say that the doctrine of the Church and her unity is an essential, but the doctrine of what kind of Church government is a non-essential, but we come to this conclusion through study of what the Church has confessed, as well as protested in the past.

    The study of early creeds and confessions will teach us all that Christians have differed on this issue throughout history, and yet there has been some solid exegesis and study to come out of this theological wrestling that is important for any Christian, and especially Christian ministers to know and be aware of. This can also help us to find those who might try to place an unnecessary expectation on a person’s conscience that is not Biblical and has been defined as a non-essential, which was the second concern above of those who reject creeds and confessions.

    To be continued in Part 3...
    SDG,
    CRB
    www.aplacefortruth.org

    Posted by Charles Biggs on November 30, 2005 09:05 AM

    Post a comment

    Please enter the letter "f" in the field below: