“Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat”

john newton

We sang two John Newton hymns during our morning worship today and neither one of them was “Amazing Grace.” The first hymn was “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder” which has that marvelous line, “when through grace in Christ our trust us, justice smiles and asks no more.” And, because Pastor Nick was preaching on prayer from Philippians 4:4-9 we also sang the less familiar, “Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat.” It is a marvelous hymn that describes Christ’s invitation to us to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16)

Approach, my soul, the mercy seat
where Jesus answers prayer;
there humbly fall before his feet,
for none can perish there.

Thy promise is my only plea;
with this I venture nigh:
thou callest burdened souls to thee,
and such, O Lord, am I.

Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
by Satan sorely pressed,
by war without, and fears within,
I come to thee for rest.

Be thou my shield and hiding place,
that, sheltered near thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
and tell him thou hast died.

O wondrous love! to bleed and die,
to bear the cross and shame,
that guilty sinners, such as I,
might plead thy gracious name!

 

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“Old Truth in Old Forms”

Givens Brown Strickler lived quite a life. He was born on April 25, 1840 in northern Virginia. While a student at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion in the South. Promptly, many in the student body formed themselves into “The Liberty Hall Volunteers,” and became a part of the Stonewall Brigade to protect their beloved Virginia against an invasion by their own countrymen. Strickler fought bravely until he was captured at the top of Cemetery Hill during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. While a prisoner of war he “prayed, conducted religious meetings, made religious addresses; and in every practicable way sought to exert the best moral and religious influence on his fellow sufferers in prison,” according to John Miller Wells.

After the war he returned to Washington College (where Robert E. Lee was president at the time) to finish his degree and then on to Union Seminary to prepare for the ministry. As a pastor and seminary professor he touched many lives for the Gospel of Christ. But, his friend and colleague, Thomas Cary Johnson, said something about him which spoke volumes to me about what a pastor should be:

Dr. Strickler was a pre-eminently great teacher of the Reformed Theology. He gave himself to inventing no new statement of any old truth; but accepting the old truth in its old forms he exhibited unrivalled skill in expounding, defending, and impressing this theology as set forth in the Westminster Standards—that rugged and massive system of Christian truth which so perfectly matched his own character, which had moulded his own character.”

Pastors don’t have to “cast visions,” be clever, entertain, come up with new and imaginative ideas, etc., they just need to “expound, defend, and impress” the truth of Scripture to their congregations. God’s flock needs to be fed with the green pastures of God’s Word, not the spirit of a shallow and callous culture. Thank you, Dr. Givens Strickler, for showing us a better way.

“Signs, signs, everywhere signs…” Part II: “Church”

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As I mentioned in my last post, our church sign, while not saying everything, says much about who we are at Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPC). And since the adjectives, “Reformed” and “Presbyterian,” both define the noun, “Church,” I will start with “Church.” What is a church? As a child growing up in a Baptist church in the south during the 1960s, I learned in Royal Ambassadors (a boys mission group) that a church was a “group of baptized believers.” That isn’t a bad start, but a church is a little more complicated than that.

I do not have the time or the space to delve into what the church universal, the church triumphant, and the church militant are, but the Westminster Confession of Faith gives us a pretty good picture of what the visible church is:

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (WCF 25:3)

RPC is a particular congregation within that worldwide church. What is the primary responsibility that Christ has given to His Body on earth? It was not formed to be a political action committee. It was not formed to be a social work group (although benevolence work does go on there). It was not formed to be a center of entertainment. It was not formed to be a mover and shaker of culture.

Again the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of the mission of the church:

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.” (WCF 25:4)

The church is here to gather and perfect the saints through Word, prayer, and sacraments in the power of His Spirit. The Apostle Paul told the Ephesians that the church was on earth “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12) And, that the focus of the church is to be found in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) May we never lose our focus on the primary objective to chase after the superficial baubles and trinkets of our modern culture.

Next: Part III, Presbyterian.

What about the Poor?

what about the poor
It was over a decade ago. After being a Southern Baptist pastor for approximately twenty-five years, I was becoming a Presbyterian; not a mainline, liberal Presbyterian, but a conservative, Bible-believing, Westminster Standards confessing Presbyterian. For my ordination to be accepted I had to pass written tests over the English Bible, Church history, the Sacraments, Theology, and the Book of Church Order. I then went before the Candidates and Credential Committee to be examined and was eventually questioned before the entire Presbytery.

There were several things that to me were interesting through that process. The first surprise came when I said that I had no exceptions to the Westminster Standards; the chairmen looked at me with some surprise and said, “None?” I responded by saying, “None.” He, with a funny look on his face said, “Oh.” The second surprise came when I answered the question, “What view did the Westminster Assembly take on the time of the Creation?” I responded by saying, “six, twenty-four hour days.” The chairman smiled and patiently explained that there were several views of Creation that were acceptable in the Presbyterian Church in America, and I smiled back and said, “But the question was, ‘What view did the Westminster Assembly take on the time of Creation?’” And, yes, I happened to agree with them.

There was a question that caught me off guard when I stood before the entire Presbytery, also. Someone called out, “What about the poor?” I said, “Pardon?” “What about the poor?” I think I responded with a rather long comment about how we should always be ready to care for the physical needs of the poor, etc. While I believe that there was some truth in what I said; looking back, I believe I would have answered differently.

What do the poor need from the church? They need the same thing that the rich, the middle class, and every other strata of society needs from the church: The Gospel. The church’s primary responsibility is, as Paul said, to proclaim that “the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30) We are to call upon people to turn from trusting in themselves, and to put their trust in what Jesus Christ has done on their behalf; no matter the size of their bank account. Jesus told the messengers that John the Baptist had sent to him that one of the evidences that He was the Messiah was that the “poor have the good news preached to them.” (Matt. 11:5)

So, while it is important to remember Paul’s admonition to the Galatians, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith,” (Gal. 6:10) the most important thing we can do, as Christ’s Church, is to point men to Christ through Word, prayer, and sacraments, that they might discover the abundant grace that God has poured out upon all who believe the Gospel.

What about the poor? The poor need the Gospel.

 

Ordinary Actions

new-and-improved

We live in a world where “new and improved” is the rage. We need excitement! We need thrills! We need bells! We need whistles! As one church advertised: “No more boring church!” However, all of that reminds me of something that R. C. Sproul once said, “There is one thing that I never find in the Bible when a person comes into the presence of the living God: ‘He is never bored.’” We don’t need a “new and improved” way to come into the presence of God, we have the “tried and true” way.

Way back in 1640s the men at the Westminster Assembly restated the Biblical proviso of how to draw near to God as His people that we might grow in grace:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

We recoil at the word, “ordinary,” yet Christ has ordained the simple actions of “reading and preaching the Word; administering water, bread, and wine; and calling out to God in praise and supplication” as the means to discover Him anew, when we as His people gather in His name week in and week out. It is sufficient whether you are in a cathedral in London, a storefront in New York, or a grass hut in the jungle of deepest Africa. Word. Sacraments. Prayer. It is sufficient, and never boring (at least it isn’t if you are one of His children).

 

Tomorrow is the Lord’s Day

patriotic worship

The story is told (although I have never seen other than anecdotal evidence that this event actually happened) that during the Revolutionary War a group of British soldiers entered a Long Island church on a Sunday morning and ordered the congregation to sing, God Save Our Gracious King which was the British national anthem (sort of, not officially until the 19th century). The congregation responded by singing a hymn which (at that time) was sung to the same tune:

Come, thou Almighty King,
Help us thy name to sing,
Help us to praise:
Father, all glorious,
O’er all victorious,
Come, and reign over us,
Ancient of days.

Come, thou Incarnate Word,
Gird on thy mighty sword,
Our prayer attend:
Come and thy people bless,
And give thy Word success;
Spirit of holiness,
On us descend.

Come, Holy Comforter,
Thy sacred witness bear
In this glad hour:
Thou who almighty art,
Now rule in every heart,
And ne’er from us depart,
Spirit of power.

To the great One in Three
Eternal praises be,
Hence evermore.
His sovereign majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore.

I have never read what the supposed response of the British soldiers was to this declaration that there are higher allegiances in existence than just earthly political allegiances, but it does make for a good story. It also makes an important point: When we gather together as the church of God on His Day, we are there for the worship of the living God, not to espouse any political or national agenda.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I love the country in which I live. I appreciate the sacrifice that has been made by those who have fought and died to protect her. I pray regularly for President Trump (although I didn’t vote for him), and for all those that God has placed in governmental authority over me. However, when we gather on the Lord’s Day, it is not to salute the flag, sing songs about our country, or recite the pledge of allegiance (although I have no problem doing that in other places); it is to worship the Triune God and to focus on Him. The first two paragraphs of Chapter Twenty-one of the Westminster Confession of Faith speak directly as to how God should be worshipped by His gathered church:

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth 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 worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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.

Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.

So, if a group of soldiers were to ever enter our worship service and demand that we sing “The Star Spangled Banner” (or any other anthem), I hope that we would respond as did that supposed Long Island Church, by singing of our primary allegiance to the Triune God.

 

 

“The Morn of Song”

RPC

After several challenging years, the last twelve months being especially challenging because we did not have a pastor, our church (and I use that “our” to denote belonging, not ownership) unanimously has voted to call a pastor. I am truly excited about the future as this man is a Confessional Presbyterian who understands the importance of the ordinary means of grace in the life of the church. Pending approval by our Presbytery, he should be on the field within the next couple of months. I believe he will fit in well with something that I used to write in a letter to those who visited Reformed Presbyterian Church during my almost decade as an Associate Pastor:

RPC is a church that desires to be God-centered in our theology, God-centered and reverent in our worship, and God-centered in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost world.”

As I think back over the last year I am especially grateful to those who kept things going at RPC. I appreciate our Interim Pastor, John Wagner, who has stepped in and preached God’s Word faithfully and showed pastoral care to a hurting flock. I, also, appreciate those who filled the pulpit on Sundays before Pastor John arrived.

I appreciate the work of our ruling elders who had a difficult situation thrust upon them and worked diligently to hold things together, reading and answering numerous emails, phone calls, and questions. These are men who have families and real jobs in the real world, who sacrificially give of themselves to minister to the people of God. They are not perfect men, but they did the best job that they could do as they attempted to lead us through uncharted territory.

I also appreciate the Pastor Search Committee who worked so diligently in finding the right man to lead this congregation to be a Gospel light in a very, very dark world. I pray that the Lord will bless them for the time that they spent away from their families during this past year, meeting, praying, sorting through MDFs, listening to sermons, etc.

And, maybe most of all, I appreciate those faithful members who continued to worship, pray, give, and work uncomplainingly that RPC might continue on during this challenging time. I am sorry that I could not do more during this time because of my demanding family responsibilities, but I can say that even through this difficult season, there is no other place that I would rather be than with my brothers and sisters in Christ at RPC. Over the past year my thoughts have returned again and again to a hymn by Samuel Stone that gave me hope during that troubled time:

Though with a scornful wonder the world see her oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up: “How long?”
and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

“For bodily exercise profiteth little”–1 Timothy 4:8

[On February 18, 2011, I posted this for the first time, and after going from the exercise bike, to running, then back to the exercise bike, my weight still is hovering around the 180 pound mark. I am grateful to the Lord for that, but I am also grateful that the Lord has given us the ordinary means of grace to grow spiritually healthy: Word, prayer, and sacraments.]

 

Many of you know that since August I have been trying to take off a few pounds (okay, maybe more than a few). I had gotten up to 223 pounds and was having to buy bigger clothes, my feet hurt, etc… Since then, I have managed to get as low as 186, and now I have plateaued between 186 and 188. My plans are, Deo Volente (Lord willing), to lose down to 180 and try to keep my weight between 180 and 185 for the rest of my life. (I know that you are thinking, “Dream on, dream on, teenage queen…” but that’s okay, because it is in the back of my mind, too.)

Along with cutting back on how much I eat (I really didn’t change what I ate, just how much…no broccoli for me!), I thought it might be wise to do a little cardio exercise. My thinking was: what good would it do to lose all of that weight if I die from cardiac arrest? I would just be a dead, skinny guy. My thoughts about exercise had always been similar to what the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, had mused, “I believe the Lord has only given my heart so many beats, and I am not going to waste any of them exercising.” However, now, five or six days a week, I get on my wife’s exercise bike and get my heart beat up to 130 beats a minute for thirty minutes. Could I still die tomorrow of a heart attack? Sure; my life is in the Lord’s hands and He can call me to heaven when He chooses, but the Lord may use this exercise bike as a means to keep me around long enough to watch my grandkids grow to adulthood. It is good to remember that the Lord does use means to accomplish His purposes on earth (granted, He is also “free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter V, paragraph iii)

I had often quipped that my lifetime Scripture verse was, “For bodily exercise profiteth little” (I’ve never understood that “lifetime Scripture verse” thing, but I digress), but if one looks at that verse in its entirety, it says something very important to the people of God, “For bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (New American Standard) As God’s people who have been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; it is “profitable” to live godly lives. But how could that ever be possible? As God said to a very aged and childless Sarah, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”

Just as the Lord can use means to do His work in my physical life, He can also use means to grow me in His grace. The answer to Question 88 of the Shorter Catechism mentions three of those means, “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” It is through the hearing of the Word of God read and proclaimed, seeing and taking part in the right use of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and through calling out to God in prayer, that the Lord, week in and week out, works out His sanctifying grace in our lives. It may not always give one “goose pimples” (although, there is nothing wrong with “goose pimples”) but the simple gathering together with Christ’s church on His Day to worship and praise our Triune God is a wonderful way to cooperate with our God as He builds His holiness into our lives.

It is true that one can go to corporate worship services every week and not grow in God’s grace, but I find it inconceivable that one could refuse the ordinary means of grace (unless providentially hindered) on a regular basis and still see his life full of the fruit of God’s Spirit. Having said all of that, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all of those who are reading these words to take advantage of the means that God has chosen to “communicate to us the benefits of redemption” and worship with God’s people this Lord’s Day.

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’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.

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