A Solemn Covenant with God and His Church—Part V

RPC

Today I am writing about the last membership vow that a new member of a local Presbyterian Church in America congregation takes to become a part of that body. After promising that he is resting alone in Christ’s work for his salvation in the first two vows; promising generally to live as a Christian should as he relies upon the Holy Spirit to enable him in the third vow; promising to support the worship and work of the church in the fourth vow; in the last vow he promises to submit [himself] to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise[s] to study its purity and peace.

Before we talk about the “s word” [submission], I would like to say a little bit about the phrase, “promise to study its purity and peace.” The word to study here means to “make an effort to achieve a result.” The first result that the new member makes an effort to achieve is purity. Yes, it is speaking of purity of life (to live as becomes a follower of Christ), but also purity of doctrine. One of the wonderful things about the PCA is that we are a confessional church. One can see very clearly what we believe the Bible teaches by looking at our doctrinal statements. The Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Smaller Catechisms, lay out in great detail what will be taught in a PCA congregation. One does not have to believe all that is contained in those statements to be a member (remember, all that is needed is a credible profession of faith), but that is what will be preached and taught in that place. So, in theory (as long as the pastors have integrity), one knows exactly what he is going to get doctrinally before he joins. No “bait and switch” in the PCA.

The second result that the new member will make an effort to achieve is peace. As the Psalmist has written, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psa. 133:1) Stirring up conflict, gossip, factions, “secret meetings,” slander, etc. have no place in the Body of Christ. Paul’s advice to the Roman church about relationships within the local body is very straight forward:

16 Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.  17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.  18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.  19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.  20 Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”  21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Rom. 12:16-21)

Now for the “s word.” The new member promises to “submit [himself] to the government and discipline of the church.” The writer of Hebrews (whoever that may have been) under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Heb. 13:17) The elders will have to answer to God for how they shepherded the sheep, but the sheep have a responsibility to submit to the elders. One must remember that there is never a struggle with submission until one disagrees with the one in authority. The Dad who says, “Let’s eat some ice cream,” will probably have a 100% approval rating from those under his care, but when he says, “It’s time for bed,” it is a different story. Even on the session there is accountability and submission. It didn’t happen often but there were times when I disagreed with the final decision of the session and was on the losing side of a vote, but I would dare to say that there was no one in the church, when the decision came down, that knew that I disagreed. The decision had been made after much prayer and discussion for the long term good of the church, and it was my responsibility to submit to my brothers. I did so gladly.

May the Lord work within each of us, to take seriously the vows that we have taken, and may He give us the grace and strength to fulfill them, that God may be glorified and His church strengthened.

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A Solemn Covenant with God and His Church—Part IV

RPC

Over the last few days we have been looking at the membership vows that church members take when we become a part of a local Presbyterian Church in America congregation. The first two vows speak of the justification that we have in Christ through no merit of our own, but established completely through the finished work of Christ. The third vow was a general promise that said, “I do,” to the following question, “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? In other words, depending upon the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, we promise to seek to live as a Christian should live.

The fourth vow consists of a promise to live like a follower of Christ by seeking “to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability.” I once knew a man who was serving as a school board member and was confronted by a parent who had just heard that the School Superintendent was going to retire and in great concern asked, “What are we going to do if Dr. _______ retires?” My friends response was: “How are we going to know?”

Just as we should know that a School Superintendent is doing his job by seeing the results of his work, we also should be able to tell that someone is a follower of Christ because he supports the worship of the Church. Gathering with God’s people on the Lord’s Day is not something that he does if he finds the time, but it is at the top of his priority list. My Dad was not a perfect man in any way, but I appreciate the fact that I was raised knowing that on the Lord’s Day we would be in church to worship the living God with His people. I never once asked, “Are we going to church this Sunday?” because that would be a stupid question. Of course, we were.

We can also tell that someone is a follower of Christ because he supports the work of the Church. We support the work of the church by being involved as much as possible in ministering and loving people with our lives, but it also means that we are involved in supporting the work of the church through God’s tithes and our offerings. A police detective once said that he could tell if someone was a faithful Christian by simply looking at their checkbook (yes, there was a time when people wrote checks for everything). He said it was not the extravagance of the giving to the church that was the key, but the consistency of the giving that gave it away (Remember the widow’s mite).

The Christian’s relationship to God and His Church is not a discretionary relationship, but it is at the heart of all that he is and all that he does. There is one last way of “living as becomes a follower of Christ” mentioned in the last of the membership vows, which I will cover in my next post.

A Solemn Covenant with God and His Church—Part III

RPC

My last two Blog posts have been a discussion of the vows that members of the Presbyterian Church in America take when they become a part of a local church. Being Presbyterian, I must admit that I am a “Westminster-kind-of-guy,” but I do appreciate the three-part division of the Heidelberg Catechism: (1) Guilt, (2) Grace, and (3) Gratitude. The membership vows follow somewhat that same pattern. The first two vows (see last blog post) speak of the guilt that is ours because of our sin (both original and actual), and God’s gracious salvation that becomes ours through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The last three vows, however, speak of our thankful response to God’s gracious salvation by the lives we live for his glory. Today, we will look at vow #3 which is a general promise, and in a later post we will look at the last two vows which describe what we do to keep that vow.

The third membership vow is a positive affirmation of the following question, “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?” While the first two vows speak of our justification, this vow begins to describe the sanctifying work of God in our lives. While we are resolving and promising to do something, we also realize that it can only be done through the grace and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

What is it that we are resolving and promising to do? We are relying on the Holy Spirit to enable us “to live as becomes the followers of Christ.” In the specific context of Christians striving to be sexually pure, Paul makes a general statement that speaks to all of our living in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” When we join a church, we promise that we will endeavor to live our lives to the glory of God, according to His Holy Word. Yes, we rest totally in the finished work of Christ as our only hope in this life and the life to come, but even as we do that we are to “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

What are some things that we can do specifically to accomplish that? We will see in Blog posts to come.

A Solemn Covenant with God and His Church—Part II

RPC

 

People in the United States join groups quite often. They join health clubs, book clubs, Parent/Teacher organizations, Classical Music Clubs, political parties, Neighborhood Watch groups, Educational Cooperatives, and the list could go on and on and on. In most of these groups there are some minimum requirements to join and at times there are some penalties when one walks away.

However, when one joins a local church, it is a sacred bond which should be a “cord that it not easily broken.” Much like the vows taken when a man and a woman become a husband and a wife, the vows taken when one joins a congregation are made with God and His Church. The first two vows that new members take when they become a part of a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America, are at the heart of what is “a credible profession of faith.” These two vows are all about the Gospel.

Vow #1 is a positive affirmation to the following question, “Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?” It is an admission that apart from the grace of God, we have no hope. Because of the fact that we are “dead in our trespasses and sins,” and “by nature, children of wrath,” we cannot earn a right standing before Him, and could never deserve eternal life. Our only recourse is to trust in His mercy alone as our only hope of salvation.

Vow #2 is a positive affirmation to the next question, “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?” This vow is saying that we are not trusting in anything that we can do to merit our salvation, and that we are trusting entirely in what Jesus has done for our salvation. He lived a perfect life that we could never live, He died a sacrificial death as our substitute, and we understand that “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) All we can do is receive this precious gift of salvation with the empty hands of faith.

Maybe the Apostle Paul does the best job of summarizing the heart of these two vows in Romans 11:36, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

A Solemn Covenant with God and His Church

RPC

 

Before I became a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 2005, I had been a Southern Baptist pastor for right at twenty-five years. I had always been as diligent as possible to make sure that people understood what it meant to be a Christian before they became a member of the church of which I was the pastor. I did not want it to be as Grady Nutt once described, “I’m glad that you have come, sit here on the front row, and here is your box of offering envelopes.”

One thing that I have appreciated about the PCA is the time the session takes when people desire to become members of the church, at least at Reformed Presbyterian Church. Of course, there is no process that is foolproof, but eternity is a very long time, and we want to make sure that those desiring membership truly understand the Gospel and have a “credible profession of faith.” After ascertaining as much as humanly possible the sincere nature of the professions of the new members, they are asked to take their membership vows. Every time I hear them, I am reminded of the importance of being a living part of the visible church of Jesus Christ.

All of you being here present to make a public profession of faith, are to assent to the following declarations and promises, by which you enter into a solemn covenant with God and His Church.

  1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
  1. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
  1. 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?
  1. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship andwork to the best of your ability?
  1. Do you submit yourselves to the government and disciplineof the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

Lord willing, over the next few days I will touch on the meaning of each of these vows.

“I Hear the Rolling Thunder”

how great thou art

I am sitting on my porch on this early Sunday morning once again in awe of the beauty of God’s creation. The thunder is rolling and the rain is falling (again), and the words of Stuart K. Hine’s, “How Great Thou Art,” dance through my brain:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
.”

Although the world is not God, it is His creation, and we see His order, power, and majesty every time the sun rises, the lightning flashes, the storm winds blow, the flowers bloom, the birds sing, the hummingbirds hover, and the list goes on and on. And, as my old friend, Dr. Bill High, once reminded me, “And this creation is fallen, can you imagine what the new heavens and new earth will be like?” (That quote is from my memory so the years may have wreaked some damage to it.)

However, while the glory of God’s creation is an amazing thing, the glory of His redemption is even more so:

And when I think of God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin
.”

“Heil Schicklgruber”?

shirer

I am about halfway through William L. Shirer’s classic work entitled “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (all 1280 pages of it). I remember reading a very condensed version of it when I was in Jr. High School (I think it was a Scholastic Book Service paperback) but it lacked the arduous details of the original version. It has been a fascinating read for me.

I found out that if Hitler’s grandfather wouldn’t have come forward and publicly acknowledged that he was the father of Hitler’s dad (and very late in life no less) Hitler’s father would have continued to use his mother’s last name, Schicklgruber, and Adolf Hitler would have been known as Adolf Schicklgruber. Somehow, “Heil Schicklgruber” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Heil Hitler” did.

The question uppermost in my mind I as read the book, however, was the same question that Spencer Tracy’s character, Chief Judge Dan Haywood, asked in the movie “Judgement at Nuremberg,” “How could the German people have allowed someone like Hitler to come to power?” It was interesting to me that Hitler had never won a majority of votes in his favor until he had such control with the ruthlessness of his Brown Shirts and the SS that everyone was afraid to vote against him.

There was one opportunity when several of the German generals were ready to seize power and arrest Hitler, which would have saved all of Europe from the devastation of war. They had decided that at the moment the British and French declared war against Germany for Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia (a war that they were convinced that they could not win), they would rise up against him to save Germany; but, lo and behold, Neville Chamberlain and the western powers instead, capitulated and gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler, making him a hero in the eyes of the entire nation. The generals were afraid popular opinion had turned in his favor and they were afraid a coup d’état would not succeed.

It happened there. It could happen here, but for the grace of God.

Happy Mother’s Day

Mom, Dad, and I (1990) 001

I was the “surprise” baby in our house. I know because Mom had already given away the baby bed by the time I came along, plus, when your sisters are eleven and thirteen years older than you are, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you weren’t planned. All of that being said, I am grateful to my Mom (and Dad, too) for all that they did for me. I am thankful that they took me to church every Sunday (and I do mean EVERY Sunday), read the Bible to me every night (and I do mean EVERY night), made sure that I heard the Gospel often, taught me what I ought to do, and then when the time was right, gave me room to fail in order that I could learn.

For all of eternity, I will thank the Lord for the home He saw fit to place me in, and the parents He gave to me. Happy Mother’s Day!

“”Life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie”

puddleglum

 

Puddleglum (my youngest son) and I went to Beaumont to give platelets and plasma at LifeShare Blood Center, and, lo, and behold, sitting in the chair next to me was an old friend of mine. I explained our connection to my son by saying, “We went to different high schools together.” (He went to LCM and I went to West Orange [no Stark]) As we began to talk, I asked about a certain lady, and his response was, “She’s retired now.” We started talking about someone else and I found myself saying, “I haven’t seen him since _______’s funeral.” Our talk turned to DuPont and we talked about how many fewer workers there are now than there were in its heyday back in the 1970-80s. The conversation ebbed and flowed around people’s sicknesses, weight losses and gains (mostly gains), and, sadly, deaths. It reminded me of something that I said a couple of weeks ago to an old friend, “Roy, when did we get old?

 

It is much like Jayber Crow, one of Wendell Berry’s characters describes:

 

Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory. Though I knew early of death, it still seemed to be something that happened only to other people, and I stood in an unending river of time that would go on making the same changes and the same returns forever. And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.”

 

As I have floated down that river of time I have experienced good times and bad times, happy times and sad times, anxious times and peaceful times, and I have seen people enter my life and leave my life (some sadly and, I really hate to confess, some gladly), but through it all there has been one constant, the Triune God. Before the foundation of the world, God, the Father, chose me by His grace; in the fullness of time, God, the Son, took on human flesh and sacrificed His life on my behalf; and, God, the Holy Spirit, one day quickened my heart (brought it to life), showed me my sin, and enabled me to rest totally upon the grace of God for my salvation. So that, in whatever season of life I am living, I can be content and know that I am in His all-powerful and all-loving hands.

 

Yes, as Puddleglum once said, (C.S. Lewis’s character, not my son), “Life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie,” but in Christ, life is good, both then and now, and into all eternity.

 

 

I’m Not Nearly as Smart as I Used to Be

means of grace

I miss my younger days when I knew it all. Back then, at the ripe old age of thirty-nine, I had the answers for all of my fellow pastors. Because of the fact that the two churches that I had pastored had grown, and, more or less, had acted “Christian,” I would often sit back and think (I wouldn’t dare say it out loud) when I saw pastors struggling in their churches, “If they would only be patient, keep loving the people, and preach God’s Word consistently, things would turn around.” Why? Number one, because I knew that is what we were called to do, and, number two, I had been “successful” by doing that. Of course, successful meant that the budgets, buildings, and baptisms measured up to everyone else.

However, when I arrived at my third church, my bubble burst. I did what I had always done: I preached “the whole counsel of God” by preaching expositionally through books of the Bible; I loved the people by being there when they were sick, troubled, dying, struggling, and, to be totally honest, fighting; and I was patient, knowing that in time everything would turn around…but it never did. And, that is when I discovered something: not that I was doing it all wrong and that I needed to have “Pack a Pew Sundays,” do the Sunday School Action plan (see, I’m older than you thought), or to bring it up to date, wear raggedy, skinny jeans, and a tee shirt to preach in, or put a bed on the roof of the church for 40 days (not going there), or have a “fire truck baptistery” for the kids to be baptized in (I’m really not going there). No, I was doing the right things, but my problem was my definition of success. It is not bigger buildings, growing budgets, and numerous baptisms, but it is being faithful to God and His Word.

When we look at Scripture we see times when there is great growth in the kingdom of God. We see Jonah at Nineveh, we see Peter on the Day of Pentecost, we see Paul at Corinth; but if we are honest, we also see Jeremiah preaching for decades with no outward result, we see John banished to the Isle of Patmos, we see Jesus being rejected by His own people, and we see many “lean years” down through history when it was almost as if God’s church went underground to survive.

So, keep in my mind, whether you are in a time of great reaping and rejoicing in your present situation, or in a time of great struggle; that we plant, we water, but it is God “who gives the increase.” Focus on providing God’s Word (Law and Gospel), prayer, and sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) to your people every Lord’s Day, and loving them all during the week, and then trust God in His time to accomplish His work in His people, whether you see it visibly in your time there or not.

By the way, I’m not nearly as “smart” as I used to be.