The Pieces Fall into Place

(The following is a continuation of my journey from the life as a Southern Baptist pastor to life as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.)

When I last left you, I mentioned that I had taken some time to study with as open a mind as possible, the Biblical arguments for the baptism of the infants of believers. Question 95 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks: “To whom is baptism to be administered?” With the answer being, “Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized.”  To the first part of the equation I quickly agreed, the other took some time, but the Biblical arguments eventually won me over.

After much study I came to the belief that the infants of believers are also to receive the sign and seal of baptism. Why, you may ask? First of all, because of the continuity of the covenant that God made with Abraham. We see the evidence in Galatians 3:7-9, as Paul says, the Scriptures “preached the Gospel to Abraham” that “all the nations would be blessed through him,” and Paul goes so far as to say that “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Thus, “Abraham and his seed” under the Old Covenant were to receive the sign and seal of the covenant which was physical circumcision. What did that sign represent? Much more than just many descendents and a “promised land,” for the Scriptures say in Romans 4:11 that Abraham received the sign of circumcision as the “seal of the righteousness that he had by faithafter he had believed. However, he was also to give that same sign to his infant sons on the eighth day after their birth, before they believed. (Gen. 17:9-14)

Under the Abrahamic Covenant the children were always involved in the life of the Old Testament “church.” For example, when Jehoshaphat gathered the people before the Lord the congregation included the wives and “little ones.” (2 Chron. 20:13) When a solemn fast was called in Joel 2:15-16, even the nursing infants were in attendance. Then, when the covenant sign was changed from circumcision to baptism (Math. 28:19-20, Acts 2:38-39, Col. 2:11-12) there was no command to stop giving the covenantal sign to the infants of believers. As a matter of fact, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter’s sermon included the covenant language that the promise was to the believers and “to their children, to as many as the Lord would call.” Of course, not everyone who received the sign in the Old Testament were true sons of Abraham for many did not believe, such as Ishmael and Esau, just as there will be those who receive the New Testament sign of baptism who will not believe. But, if those that have been baptized as infants believe in Christ alone for their salvation, then the promises signified by the sign will be theirs, and they will receive the “righteousness that is [theirs] by faith.” (Rom. 4:11) The Westminster Confession of Faith explains it so well:

 The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time. (WCF:XVIII.vi)

Are there other reasons why the infants of believers should be baptized? Absolutely. There is also the probability that the household baptisms in the Book of Acts included infants. In Acts 16:15 Lydia and all her household were baptized (although the Scripture only speaks of her believing), as was the household of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:33, and the household of Stephanas in 1 Cor. 1:16. We are also told that the “Covenant of Peace” will include the children (Isaiah 54) and in Jeremiah 31:31-34 that the new covenant is promised to those “from the greatest to the least.” Last of all, the entire Book of Hebrews was written to portray the superiority and graciousness of the New Covenant over the Old. Would the New Covenant be more gracious if it refused the covenant sign to the children of believers, while in the Old Covenant it was allowed? Jewish parents would have been horrified to have been told that a practice that had been a part of their lives for over 2000 years (the giving of the covenant sign to their children) had now been rescinded. Even our dear Baptist friends have begun in the last few decades to “dedicate” babies in their worship services (without any real Scriptural warrant, I might add) because they understand that the children of believers receive spiritual benefits that other children do not, such as being raised “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” hearing the Law and Gospel preached, being taught to pray, read the Bible, etc.

I must admit, in this short space I could not delineate all the reasons for the covenantal baptism of the infants of believers (because volumes and volumes have been written on the subject), but at least you have heard from my own lips (okay, word processor) the rationale why. So, yes my journey was long, and I realize there are those out there who still disagree (that’s all right, people have argued over this doctrine for centuries), but I hope you have seen that my journey into Presbyterianism has not been because I love and believe the Bible less…but because I, by His grace, love and believe the Bible (if possible) more. (To be continued…what about the mode of baptism?)

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Tuesday Hymns: “Not What My Hands Have Done”

Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who came from a long line of Presbyterian ministers. He and his brothers, John and Andrew, studied under Thomas Chalmers at the University of Edinburgh, and were all a part of the founding of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. Bonar wrote over 600 hymns primarily for use in his mission work in a poverty stricken area called, Leith, and has often been called “the prince of Scottish hymn-writers.” He, as many in his day experienced great sorrow, having five children die in infancy, yet was strengthened to carry on by the sufficient grace of his Savior. He continued his work as a pastor in spite of deteriorating health well into his 70s, and preached his last sermon in Edinburgh at the age of 80.

Last Sunday we sang my favorite Bonar hymn, Not What My Hands Have Done, which points to the finished work of Christ as our only hope of salvation.

Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul; Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole. Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God; Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.

Your voice alone, Oh Lord, can speak to me of grace; Your power alone, Oh Son of God, can all my sin erase; No other work but Yours, no other blood will do; No strength but that which is divine can bear me safely through.

Thy work alone, Oh Christ can ease this weight of sin; Thy blood alone, Oh Lamb of God can give me peace within. Thy love to me, Oh God, Not mine, Oh Lord, to Thee, can rid me of my dark unrest, and set my spirit free.

And I bless the Christ of God; I rest on love divine; And with unfaltering lip and heart I call this Savior mine. His cross dispels each doubt; I bury in His tomb each thought of unbelief and fear, each lingering shade of gloom.

And I praise the God of grace; I trust His truth and light; He calls me His, I call Him mine, My God, my joy, my light. Tis He Who saveth me, and freely pardon gives; I love because He loveth me, I live because He lives.

The Deep Breath Before the Plunge

(The following is a continuation of my journey from the life as a Southern Baptist pastor to life as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.)

On the Sunday afternoon following our last meeting as Providence Baptist Church we began to discuss where we should worship the Lord on the following Sunday. Many of the Baptist churches in the area were somewhat suspicious of us (okay, that may be a bit of an understatement), so we thought we might try Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPC) in Beaumont because we had heard some positive comments about it from some acquaintances.

Visiting a Presbyterian church was quite a jump for us, for in southeast Texas the only Presbyterian churches of which we were aware belonged to the ultra-liberal Presbyterian Church USA. However, we knew that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was a Biblically conservative denomination (for I had a friend that attended one in a different part of the state) and after reading up on the history of the Presbyterian Church in America, to which RPC belonged, we found a denomination that subscribed to the Westminster Standards which for us was a positive sign. We also looked online and found an order of worship and were very impressed and determined to visit on the following Sunday.

We fell in love with the simple, reverent, God-centered worship, and heard a Gospel message directly from God’s Word (I believe Pastor Mark was preaching through the Book of Hebrews at the time). We went back the next week and then the next, and other then a few times when I was the pulpit supply at another church, we never missed. After a month or two we decided that it was important to do more than visit, and that the time had come for us to join. I realized that all that was required to join RPC was a credible profession of faith, but I thought that if I was going to be a Presbyterian, I should at least honestly look at areas where I disagreed a little more closely.

Being someone who personally subscribed (at the time) to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith meant that I had much in common with the doctrine there. The only real issues that I had were with the covenant baptism of the children of believers, and the mode of that (or any) baptism. I had often argued against “infant baptism” but always from the frame of reference of one who was defending his own credobaptist-only views (Presbyterians also believe in credobaptism), and desired to try to look at the paedobaptist arguments with an open mind.

I asked Pastor Mark for a few books on baptism, and he handed me a stack of books about 20 inches high. I nestled down for the next couple of months, digging into the covenantal arguments for the baptism of the children of believers. (To be continued)

An Agnostic and the Word of God

I came across an interesting paragraph in my reading Saturday. It comes from Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir by Christopher Buckley, the son of William F. Buckley, Jr., who lost both of his parents to death during 2008. Buckley, a self-proclaimed agnostic (although not an obnoxious one), described going to the hospital to sit with his mother during her last few hours on earth:

I’d brought with me a pocket copy of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The line in Moby-Dick had lodged long ago in my mind: “The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” I’d grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way to Virginia, figuring that a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I’m agnostic now, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion at the deathbed of a loved one.

It is interesting to me that in a time of crisis, an agnostic would still consider the Word of God an appropriate source of comfort. Could it be, that even in man’s fallen state, the reality that man was made in the imago dei (the image of God) still affects his decisions at some level?

Growing Pains

(The following is a continuation of my journey from the life as a Southern Baptist pastor to life as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.) As I sunk my teeth deeper into God’s Word, I began to desire to be a part of a more open expression of the Reformed theology that had become the warp and woof of my life. While some at the Shreveport church openly accepted my theology, others only patiently tolerated them because I worked so diligently at being a caring pastor to the flock of God there. When a small group of families back in my hometown in southeast Texas began to show an interest in starting a distinctively Reformed Baptist work, I jumped at the opportunity. I was convinced that there would be a large group of people in that area who would desire a church with a God-centered theology, reverent God-centered worship, and a desire to not be shackled to the program-driven mania that was a part of so many contemporary churches (Needless to say, that group turned out to be not nearly as large as I thought it would be).

Starting with a group of five families, Providence Baptist Church was born. We met in our home which had a large living room and dining room together, and hoped to move to a larger facility as soon as possible. Looking back, I see many things that could have been done differently (I am at fault for most of them), but it was a great four years of learning and growing, and I will always appreciate those families who were willing to take part in that grand experiment.

Because I had been a pastor of a growing Southern Baptist Church in that area in the past, the rumors about us began to swirl. One particularly aggravating falsehood that was circulating was that one was required to have an invitation to worship with us (That story made my blood boil!). Another pastor actually preached a series of messages against Calvinism in a church where I once was the pastor, and after listening, I discovered that the only thing that he “got right” about the doctrine was when he began by saying, “Now, I don’t know much about Calvinism….” We were also confused by some with the “house church movement” and others just simply thought that we were some kind of cult.

To quote the opening line of the Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities, it was the “best of times, it was the worst of times….” On the one hand, I had time to think, to pray, to study, to learn, and to discover how much I really didn’t know (It is always good to discover that one is not nearly as smart as one thinks one is!) On the other hand, “failure” had become a new word in my vocabulary. Little did I know how God was graciously working behind the scenes to change the direction of my life.

After limping along for several years, God in His providence, saw fit to bring that work to an end. The original families began to depart for different reasons, until we finally came to the point where we felt that we could not in good conscience call the group that met in that place a congregation. We disbanded in February of 2005 and on that Sunday afternoon I turned to my wife and said, “Now what? Where are we going to go to worship next week?” (To be continued)

Government Health Care

Yesterday I made a “quick” trip to the United States Post Office to buy ONE stamp, and mail ONE birthday card. There were thirteen people in front of me waiting for the ONE clerk (who was doing her very best) to wait on us. After standing in line for twenty-five minutes, I mailed the birthday card. And we want to put these people in charge of our health care!

Connecting the Dots

In my last blog post I shared how the Lord had worked in my life to open my eyes to the message of God’s grace as it was displayed in the Gospel. As I looked back through church history, it encouraged me to find that I was not alone in my belief of God’s sovereignty in salvation. The history of the Church was full of people who shared this belief, such as the Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, who proclaimed:

I have my own private opinion, that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless you preach what now-a-days is called Calvinism. I have my own ideas, and those I always state boldly. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism. Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith without works; not unless we preach the sovereignty of God in his dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor, I think, can we preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the peculiar redemption which Christ made for his elect and chosen people; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation, after having believed. Such a gospel I abhor. The gospel of the Bible is not such a gospel as that. We preach Christ and him crucified in a different fashion, and to all gainsayers we reply, “We have not so learned Christ.

By this time in my life, through God’s providence, I had moved to Shreveport, Louisiana to be the pastor of a Southern Baptist church on the north end of town. While there, I attended a conference where Fred Malone, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Clinton, Louisiana, taught about a Biblical doctrine called the Regulative Principle of Worship. The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) defines this doctrine in the following manner:

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and doeth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture. (WCF XXI.i)

The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 follows the WCF almost word for word. I discovered that this was a great controversy during the 1600s with the Baptists, Puritans, and Presbyterians uniting in their support of this principle, while the Lutherans and Anglicans opted for the view that one can worship God in any way he chooses, so long as that particular form is not prohibited in Scripture. I must admit my understanding of this principle changed entirely my view of the corporate worship of God. Prayer, of course, is one element that is to be a part of public worship along with the “reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as, also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: besides religious oaths, and vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasion; which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.” (WCF XXI.v)

As I studied the Scriptures, it was becoming clear that God was sovereign, not only over one’s justification, but over all things, particularly His church. (To be continued)

The Journey Begins

I have had several people ask me recently how a lifelong Southern Baptist like I was could end up as an Associate Pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. First of all, I must admit that it is a loooooooong story and that it would be impossible for me to document that journey in just one blog post, but I will try, over the next several days, to at least cover the high points (or if you are of a differing opinion, the low points) of my quest.

In my years as a Southern Baptist pastor, I always had an extremely high view of the doctrine of Holy Scripture. There was never any doubt in my mind that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) Believing in the inerrancy of Scripture brings about a crisis in a Southern Baptist pastor’s life who also believes it is important to preach through the books of the Bible, because he comes across texts such as Ephesians 1, Romans 9, and John 6 which speak of the sovereignty of God in salvation. Even before I became a thoroughgoing Calvinist, I would tell my people, “Well, God’s Word says we were chosen ‘in Him before the foundation of the world’ and that He ‘predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will,’ and I am not sure how that works itself out, but I know it is true, because God says so.” (At that time, the only Calvinists I had ever met were Dr. Tom Nettles who taught me Church and Baptist History at Southwestern Seminary and one of my New Testament professors, Dr. Curtis Vaughn.)

As I worked through all the theological ramifications of those texts, I began to see the sovereignty of God in salvation throughout all the Scriptures. It took some time, but early in the decade of the 1990s, a friend overheard me saying at a Baptist associational meeting that the “last petal on the tulip had fallen” and that “I had become a five-point Calvinist.” (I couldn’t believe that I had said that loud enough for anyone other than one of my Calvinist friends to hear!) My fall from the semi-Pelagian way of thinking did not affect my evangelism, because although I knew that the end of evangelism was the salvation of God’s elect to the glory of God, the means to that end was through the preaching of the Gospel to all and calling sinners to Christ. So I continued to preach through the texts of Scripture calling men to look to Christ as the only way of salvation.

It was during this time that I was blessed by many groups (and individuals) who helped me to grow in my knowledge of the Scriptures which included ministries such as Founders Ministries, Banner of Truth, and The White Horse Inn. Also, many authors such as R. C. Sproul, J. I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the English Puritans, and the 19th century Southern Baptists, such as J. L. Dagg, James Petigru Boyce, John Broadus, and Basil Manly, Jr. (Yes, that Broad-man, which was the SBC publishing house for many years) had a profound effect on my spiritual life. (To be continued…)

Tuesday Hymns: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”

It’s Tuesday again, which means it is time for another version of “Tuesday Hymns.” Today’s hymn is a marvelous verse entitled God Moves in a Mysterious Way by William Cowper (1731-1800). He was mentioned in last week’s “Tuesday Hymns” as a collaborator with John Newton in the publishing of the Olney Hymns (he provided 68 of the hymns). Cowper’s life was a difficult life of lost love, missed career opportunities, and battles with deep depression which led to several attempts at suicide, yet his hymns continue to bring comfort to the life of many Christians around the world two hundred years after his death. He also authored such classics as There is a Fountain Filled with Blood, and Jesus, Where’er Thy People Meet.

God Moves in a Mysterious Way was written in 1774, and some say it is the last hymn that he ever wrote (although that is up for debate). It is normally sung to the tune, Dundee, from the 1615 Scottish Psalter. It has been a great comfort to my personal life for many years, especially the line, “Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” Enjoy now Cowper’s poetic description of our Sovereign God’s providence in this beautiful hymn.

 God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.

For those who would like to read a more detailed biography, John Piper has an excellent one on his website entitled, Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint.

Church Membership (4)

3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

While the first two membership vows deal with the reality of our justification, vows 3-5 speak of the reality of our sanctification. We proceed from the vows that speak of our entrance, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, into the kingdom; to the fruit of that grace in our Christian life, lived in His grace and for His glory.

Vow #3 speaks of our desire to live “as becomes a follower of Christ.” Those who have truly been redeemed have a desire to live to bring glory to our Lord, and not shame, as the Scriptures say, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1 John 2:3-4) And, while there is great freedom in Christian living, God has set clear parameters in His written Word as to what is right and what is wrong. We are vowing by the grace and enablement of the Holy Spirit to live our lives to please our Lord.

Vow #4 involves a promise to the “best of our ability” to support the “worship and work” of the Church. People automatically think of finances when they hear this vow, and although that is a part of the promise, it goes much deeper. It entails a seriousness about the Lord’s Day, and, that apart from providential hindrances, we will gather with God’s people to worship the One who has redeemed us from the curse of the Law. It does, however, include a giving of God’s tithes and our offerings for the work of the Kingdom (but we, as a session, have made it a policy that we will never know what someone gives in order to safeguard our desire to treat all of God’s sheep with equity as we minister to them in the love of Christ).

The last vow consists of a promise to submit to the elders, under Christ and His written Word, and to seek the purity and peace of the church in doctrine and unity of the Spirit. As the writer of Hebrews instructed, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17) It is not for the elders to micro-manage your life, but they are spiritually responsible for your soul and will use the shepherd’s crook to tug a sheep back into the fold who has strayed into the forbidden pasture of sin, where wolves threaten “to steal, kill, and destroy.” Morevover, a promise is being made that the new member will not cause disharmony, but work to preserve the unity that we have in Christ.

While we, as members of Christ’s church, still must battle the remaining sin in our own hearts, and resist the temptations of a fallen world, the Body of Christ is a realm where “steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:10)

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