Pastoral

The Tender Mercies of the Wicked are Cruel, but the Lord’s Mercy is Good–Psalm 119 Devotional (Ayin)

ע Ayin

121 I have done justice and righteousness;
Do not leave me to my oppressors.
122 Be surety for Your servant for good;
Do not let the proud oppress me.
123 My eyes fail from seeking Your salvation
And Your righteous word.
124 Deal with Your servant according to Your mercy,
And teach me Your statutes.
125 I am Your servant;
Give me understanding,
That I may know Your testimonies.
126 It is time for You to act, O Lord,
For they have regarded Your law as void.
127 Therefore I love Your commandments
More than gold, yes, than fine gold!
128 Therefore all Your precepts concerning all things
I consider to be right;
I hate every false way. Psalm 119, nkj

The Lord is good.  His mercy can be relied upon, but “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” Proverbs 12:10  The world oppresses and marginalizes, especially Christians that it sees as different and other.  In the midst of cruelty and oppression, the psalmist cries out to the Lord, where he knows he will find refuge.  Are you turning to the Lord with Life’s problems and hardships, or to something or someone else?  His hope is that the Lord will right all wrongs, especially violations of His law.  It is up to God to punish and not to us.  Leave that to Him.

The greatest blessing that the Lord gives to His people, is that He writes his law upon their hearts, His statutes and commandments.  Trouble in life is often caused by our own sin.  God’s grace teaches us to obey him more faithfully, so that we do not repeat the same sins that got us into trouble.  It is a grace from God.  Starting your day, pray and ask God to teach you His statutes, and go trusting that he will answer your prayer.

 

 

 

 

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How to Tell if You are on your Way to Heaven

First, then, whosoever thou art that wouldest try this title to thy heavenly glory, thou mayest try it by this: if the

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

design of thy life be to glorify God, and promote their heavenly interest, then thou art one of those that are entitled to the heavenly inheritance; if thou drivest a trade for heaven, and if that the obtaining of heaven be the principal part of thy care and business, and the great design that thou drivest at in all thy actions, then by this thou mayest try thy title to heaven.  Apply now this home to thy soul, what trade and design art thou now driving in the world? Is it thy main business here to promote thy temporal or thine eternal state? Art thou more striving more after earth or heaven?  If thy design here be after riches, honor, or greatness in the world; and makest all thy actions subservient to thy design, then though art none of those that have a title to heaven.  But if it be the business of thy life, and the trade that thou drivest in the world to advance God’s glory, and thine eternal salvation, and dost care for no more of this world, than may tend to promote God’s glory, and thine eternal happiness; then thou mayest safely conclude that thy name is written in heaven, and that thou hast an interest in that kingdom.  It is the grand mistake of thousands of souls everywhere, that they pretend to seek after the kingdom of heaven, but they seek it only by the by, and their main design in the world is somewhat  else, as to grow rich, or great, or honourable here.  They do not make it their principal business, and their great design to secure their title to heaven; but they look upon heaven only as a reserve for them, when they can enjoy the world no longer.  And therefore they will have some glances, and some faint endeavors that way; but if ever we will enter into heaven, we must first of all seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness, Matthew 6:33. Luke 12:31.

John Gaspine, from a sermon preached at Ashpriors, Somerset, before the great ejection in 1662, Farewell Sermons, Solid Ground Christian Books, 2011.

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Precious Promises: Zechariah Devotional, Part 10

Zechariah Devotional, Part 10

God’s promises sometimes seem far-fetched, especially when they are very different from what we see in our daily lives.  It is often hard to believe God’s promises when they so contradict what may seem to appear before our eyes.  In our passage (chapter 8), Zechariah received a word of encouragement from the Lord to His people.  Let us recall that in the previous century they had gone through some very tough times and been ransacked by wicked nations, but God’s promise for a future salvation brought a sustaining blessing that carried them through to those times ahead.

Again the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying,

Thus saith the Lord of hosts; I was jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I was jealous for her with great fury.

Thus saith the Lord; I am returned unto Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem: and Jerusalem shall be called a city of truth; and the mountain of the Lord of hosts the holy mountain.

These verses speak of God as a jealous God.  We may often be accustomed to think of jealousy as a negative personality trait or a form of insecurity, but there is a such thing as righteous jealousy.  A woman with a cheating husband has a right to be jealous for his affection.  And just as you would not want to mess with a mama grizzly bear’s cubs, so God’s tender affection for his chosen ones burns with hot fury against any who would come against us.  Israel may have been punished by the Lord’s fatherly hand by evil nations, but woe to those nations!  It would be better for them if they had never existed than to face the jealousy of God for his chosen ones.  He who was angered by Israel’s past sins will not be angry forever.  This applies to the Church, which is the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16), today as much as it did in Zechariah’s day.  He will yet establish Zion.  God is jealous for His people and will never utterly forsake them, but will raise them in Christ and bless them forever.

As the Church of Jesus Christ, it seems like we are a dim light shining in an ocean of darkness.  So many churches have lost the last flicker that remained of their light, whether through compromising the pure word of God in order to conform to the world, or by outright closing their doors.  But God is jealous for His Church, which is Mt. Zion, the New Jerusalem. (Hebrews 12:22, Revelation 21:2.)  The Lord who has established her has promised to yet build her so that she continues to be the place of His presence with men. (Matt 16:18)  Though the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ is experiencing difficult times, there is a promise of future blessing to come.  Let this be a comfort and sustaining source of joy for us when we think about our place in this world as the mountain of God on earth, the place of His presence and glory.  Let us continue diligently in worshiping God and doing everything that Christ commanded, knowing that our God does not dwell in buildings made with hands, but in the hearts and praises of his people gathered in His name.

This mountain of God is to be called a “place of truth.”  The Church is where God’s truth is proclaimed and believed.  The word of God is central to her worship, and the Holy Scriptures are the sufficient standard and regulative norm of all of her activities.  We can be sure of God’s presence as long as the truth of his word is proclaimed among us.  Where His word if faithfully proclaimed, that is where He is.  Unto this mountain which is the “place of truth” we must gather and never forsake it.

This mountain of God is a holy place.  It is “set apart” for Him, which is the meaning of the word holy.  In the Church of Jesus Christ, common worldly ways of doing business do not hold sway, but only the commandments of the Lord administered through the offices He has appointed.  The Church is holy because it has been set apart by God for himself.  Just as the whole is holy, the individual members of the body are holy.

Do you think of yourself as set apart for God in day to day work and activities?  Although Christians must and do engage in lots of things that are very common ways of life even for non-Christians, like work, recreation, family ties, etc., yet the Christian is set apart for the Lord.  There should and must be a noticeable difference in the way that we do things versus the way the world does things.  This comes out especially in motives.  Whereas those of the world are looking out for their own self-interest as commonly understood, their safety and income, those belonging to the Lord are firstly and foremostly concerned with minding the things of God.  They are “set apart”, holy, and consecrated to Him so that nothing will entice them to do something contrary to the glory of God.  And, although we all fail deeply in many ways all the time, there is a high calling to holiness in Christ for all who are in him.  Let us be diligent to be holy, to be consecrated to God when we gather to worship as His church and also in whatever we do in life, for this is God’s work in us, to make of us this mountain his holy place.

Thus saith the Lord of hosts; There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age.

And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof.

Thus saith the Lord of hosts; If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in these days, should it also be marvellous in mine eyes? saith the Lord of hosts.

God confronts the doubting spirit of His people.  They had been in a state of war and slavery for so many years that it was almost too much to imagine children playing in the streets and old men and women alive in the city.  It is hard to imagine such things when all the old people have died and the young children cannot be allowed to play outside.  The modern culture that surrounds us commonly looks down upon children and the elderly.  Yet despite what our modern culture would have us to believe, having children is a blessing from God, and so is living to an old age.   What is impossible for us to imagine is possible with God.  His miracles are far beyond any of our expectations.  There will come a day, God says, fulfilled by Christ for His Church, when peace will be won and victory so established that His kingdom reigns in majesty, symbolized here by the peaceful and unworried presence of children and old men.  While this prophesied blessing is partly fulfilled in the kingdom of Jesus Christ on earth, especially in the churches where His word is purely preached and the sacraments administered with discipline, the full fulfillment must await the consummation, when Christ Jesus will return.  Every tear will dry from our eyes and all will experience God’s peace.  On that day, and we will not have to worry about any enemies harming us, and perfect peace and happiness will reign forever.

God’s gracious plan in Christ brings peace to us that we can now only taste a little and imagine, but someday we will dine on the full meal.  We can trust it because it is God himself who has promised, as unlike what we see before our own eyes as it may be.  We can work diligently building His holy Temple assured that He who has promised will bring it to pass in His own timing.  Thank God for this precious promise.  Let it sustain us in difficult times.

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What is Repentance?

“Mainly, it is aqua fortis, which breaks in two what was once one.  Secondly, it is jalap powder, which purges the wound.  Thirdly, it is a tincture of myrrh, which heals the wound completely, and does not cover it with dead flesh.”

Iefan, Ticlai, in response to the question, “What is repentance?”

Jones and Morgan, The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, vol. II, 167.

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An Endless Supply of God’s Spirit: Zechariah Devotional, Part 6

By Pastor Riley Fraas

In this chapter of the book of Zechariah, the prophet receives another word-picture from the Lord, given by an angel.  Remember that the Jewish people had been restored to Jerusalem, brought back from captivity in Babylon by the decree of Emperor Cyrus of Persia, whom God had stirred up to support this good work.  The work of rebuilding the destroyed temple had begun, but the building project languished in an incomplete state.  The people of God had grown tired and disinterested in the project, and enemy nations living nearby had taken advantage of the situation to stymy the project, persuading King Artaxerxes to order the construction to stop (Ezra 4:23.)  The future looked bleak for finishing what had been started (the rebuilding of the temple,) but God had more messages of hope to give to his people to motivate them with encouragement to rebuild and to trust in Him to provide necessary materials and undo obstacles.  This chapter gives us encouragement that our hope is not in our own efforts or abilities, but that we may labor in hope that God will complete that which He has started.

temple destruction

Zechariah chapter 4

1And the angel that talked with me came again, and waked me, as a man that is wakened out of his sleep.

And said unto me, What seest thou? And I said, I have looked, and behold a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and his seven lamps thereon, and seven pipes to the seven lamps, which are upon the top thereof:

And two olive trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side thereof.

So I answered and spake to the angel that talked with me, saying, What are these, my lord?

Then the angel that talked with me answered and said unto me, Knowest thou not what these be? And I said, No, my lord.

Then he answered and spake unto me, saying, This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.

Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain: and he shall bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace unto it.

Zechariah had fallen asleep.  The Angel woke him up to give him another prophetic revelation of what God had planned for His people.  How often is it that we receive God’s words of comfort and are lulled to sleep by it instead of paying careful attention and actively applying it to our hearts and lives[i]?  Yet God’s messenger the angel is gracious and patient to wake Zechariah out of his sleep with even more comforting words of hope, of what God has in store for his people.  God is gracious to awaken his people by continuing to prompt them, despite their sleepiness.  In the time of Zechariah, the center of God’s presence among his people was located in Jerusalem.  The Church of God at the time was located there, symbolized in the vision God gave to Zechariah by one golden lampstand with seven lamps burning on it.  This was something that was commanded to be used in the temple of old, which must have seemed to Zechariah to be but a faint memory of past glory after all those years in Babylon, but the angel shows it to him to give him hope that the temple will be rebuilt and that God will be worshiped as in old times.  The lamps’ supply of oil would never go out because it is supplied by God Himself, “by my Spirit”, and not by the efforts of men.  Although the people of God may seem lazy and distracted at times to do the hard work of building the temple of the Lord, God Himself will sustain her through a supply of his own Spirit.  He has mysterious ways of keeping the spiritual life of his chosen people aflame by his Spirit.

lampstand_bowlToday, in the new covenant, the Church of God is no longer depicted by only one lampstand, but by seven lampstands (Revelation 1:20), symbolizing the dispersion of the worship of God in many locations over the entire world.  (Seven is the number of perfection and completeness in the Bible.)  The Church of God is no longer confined to one location in Jerusalem, but is spread out over the entire world.  Though the building of God’s Church through evangelism and discipleship may seem like a futile and useless effort to the eyes of human understanding, God promises to bless His people still.  We may seem small and insignificant in the eyes of the world and ready to die out at any moment.  But the One who gives the life of the Spirit to His Church is the One who gives it a continual supply of His Spirit that will never go out.  Our faith as Christians, and as the Church of Christ, is not in our ability to build the Church, but in the promise of Him who said, “Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18  The Church of Jesus Christ will never end, and it will be completed, through God working in it by a never-ending supply of his Holy Spirit.

Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,

The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also finish it; and thou shalt know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me unto you.

10 For who hath despised the day of small things? for they shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel with those seven; they are the eyes of the Lord, which run to and fro through the whole earth.

11 Then answered I, and said unto him, What are these two olive trees upon the right side of the candlestick and upon the left side thereof?

12 And I answered again, and said unto him, What be these two olive branches which through the two golden pipes empty the golden oil out of themselves?

13 And he answered me and said, Knowest thou not what these be? And I said, No, my lord.

14 Then said he, These are the two anointed ones, that stand by the Lord of the whole earth.

It is easy to think little of small beginnings.  Though the Church of Jesus Christ, as we see it in the world, may seem to be relatively few in number and weak in comparison to all of the forces of evil in the world that combat it, the One through whom God has started the work will also finish it.  Zerubbabel is the King of Judah and ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Matthew 1:12)  He came out of captivity in Babylon with the nation of the Jews to rule as God’s anointed.  He is a picture and foreshadowing of King Jesus, the Christ (anointed One) and Ruler of God’s people.  God promises that the temple will be rebuilt completely within Zerubbabel’s reign.  Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith.  What has been started through Him will be completed by Him.  God places one olive tree on either side of the lampstand pictured to Zechariah, symbolizing His endless provision of oil to the lampstand.  These are trees planted by the Lord, two “anointed” ones.  The two trees most likely are symbols of the two prophets that God sent to Judah during this time of rebuilding: Zechariah and Haggai, to encourage the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 5:1.)  Through his Spirit, God anoints and appoints the ministry of the word to bring his gracious words of comfort and grace to his people.  The Church of Jesus Christ is the “pillar and ground of truth” in the world (1 Timothy 3:15.)  By means of his Spirit, he supplies her with life, and the offices necessary for her nourishment, especially the gospel ministry.  Let us never forget where the life and strength of the Church comes from when we grow weary and are tempted to think that it is completely insignificant.  Through His holy Church God is accomplishing His purposes in the world to save many souls and make disciples of Christ for His everlasting glory.  He will accomplish His purposes despite the opposition of the world.  As the Church of Jesus Christ, this is our comfort and hope.


[i] Cf. Matthew Henry’s commentary.

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Pastoral Letter — Oct 27, 2013

From Pastor Riley, to the members and friends of Hope Congregational Church,

Greetings in the name of Him who is reforming His Church, bringing her to greater conformity to His will!

The days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer.  Temperatures are dropping.  Perhaps spending more time indoors than we normally do in the summer months will give us time to reflect on some important topics.  The one I would like to focus on at the moment is Reformation.  Reformation is a work of God found in the Scriptures, when He conforms and reforms His Church to His will as expressed in His holy word.  In the days of Hezekiah the King there was a mighty reformation, a time of revival and smashing the idols that people had been following instead of God.  We see the same thing occur under the reign of Josiah after the book of the law was rediscovered.  There are times of blessing when the word of God is rediscovered, ignorance is uprooted, and idols are smashed for the glory of God and the blessing of His Church.

On October 31, 1517 such a work of God began through the humble protest of a conscientious monk and Bible professor at Wittenberg University named Martin Luther.  Luther95thesesIn the middle ages Christianity had overtaken Europe, although North Africa and Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), once important centers of the Christian faith, had for the most part been overrun by Islam through successive conquests.  In the Middle Ages Bibles were scarce, and if available, it was only available in the Latin Vulgate translation.  As a result, many superstitions and errors had developed to cloud and obscure the gospel of Jesus Christ based on some key mistranslated passages in the Vulgate.  A general ignorance prevailed over Christian people, who generally did not have access to the Bible and heard homilies in Latin every Sunday, a language they could not understand.  Due to the interest of Renaissance scholarship, the original Hebrew and Greek Scriptures became more widely available in western Europe for the first time.  God used these events to bring about a reform movement back to the source of truth, the Holy Scriptures, and to restore the purity of the gospel in the tenets of the Reformation: upon the Scriptures alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, for God’s glory alone.  On Sunday, November 3rd, in the afternoon following a potluck at church, you will have an opportunity to learn more.  I would like to invite everyone, including friends, relatives and neighbors to our first ever Reformation History talk.

Church History is important to the body of Christ.  It is our history, as God’s people.  It lets us know where we’ve come from, gives us an opportunity to praise God for what He has done, warns us of the errors of the past (which tend to keep reappearing under new names), and gives us hope that the God of our fathers is the same God who leads us today.  As we follow Him, in thankfulness for what He has done in history, let us also remember that as His Church we are to be ever increasing in our knowledge and application of what He requires of us.  A watchword of the 16th century Reformation was, Semper Reformanda – “always reforming”, (from Latin.)  God has helped us until now, but we always have room for improvement.  The correct attitude toward obedience to God as His church is to always be willing to change in ways (and only in those specific ways) that God requires of us in His word, the Holy Bible.  Just as individual Christians are to be brought more and more into conformity to Christ, so it is with His Church made up of them.  May God continue to richly bless us and reform us in accordance with His word.

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Three Things I Need to Say

A man apologizes to his former church, for leaving. He’s learned some important things about the Christian’s relation to the church.

I Say Stuff -- E.A. Love

I left First Baptist Church just over three years ago. I had had enough.  I was tired of inefficient committees.  I was tired of worship wars.  I was tired of what I perceived as passive leadership. I was tired of the infighting. I was tired…of the church.  To be clear, I was not just tired of FBC; rather, I was tired of the institutional church.  I grew up at a rural Baptist church in central Missouri that, while smaller, operated much like FBC, the first church I’d really planted myself in as an adult.  A bit of history might be helpful here; there are more good memories associated with the church I grew up in than I can recount, but I most closely associate it with the tumult and upheaval that prompted my family’s exit. It’s probable that the sour taste in my mouth left over from that negative experience…

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Satan’s Prosecuting

Afghanistan prosecutionAll that enter actions against others, pretend that wrong is done, either against themselves or against the King. Now Satan will never enter an action against us in the court above, for that wrong by us has been done to himself; he must pretend, then, that he sues us, for that wrong has, by us, been done to our king. But, behold, ‘We have an advocate with the Father’, and he has made compensation for our offenses. He gave himself for our offences.

–John Bunyan, The Work of Jesus Christ as an Advocate, Works, Banner of Truth, vol. I. p. 162

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Zechariah Devotional, part 4: God’s Plans Are Greater Than Our Expectations

Cattle stockyard. Mendota, California.Zechariah 2 I lifted up mine eyes again, and looked, and behold a man with a measuring line in his hand.

Then said I, Whither goest thou? And he said unto me, To measure Jerusalem, to see what is the breadth thereof, and what is the length thereof.

And, behold, the angel that talked with me went forth, and another angel went out to meet him,

And said unto him, Run, speak to this young man, saying, Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein:

For I, saith the Lord, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her.

The second chapter of Zechariah continues with a series of word-pictures, symbolizing what God has in store for His people.

There is a man with a measuring line, a method of measuring the city, similar in use to a yardstick.  Why is he measuring the city?  He’s apparently measuring the size of the new city, which will be much greater than anyone would think[i].

They have been scattered and abused by nations like Assyria and Babylon, but God is her Builder.  Although only small remnant was allowed by the Persian Emperor Cyrus to return and rebuild the city, and the rebuilding seems at this stage quite pitiful compared to its former splendor, God’s building plans are far larger than the remnants’ imagination.  Human ability seems weak, but God is planning to bless His holy city to such an extent that it will have too many people and cattle living in it to be contained within walls!

Isn’t it true that the churches of Jesus Christ in our day and age seem to be small and few?  Is there not a small remnant calling upon the name of the Lord?  But God’s plans for His people are much bigger than our imagination.  Even today, the good news of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God is going forth throughout the nations.  And knowing what a great God we have, don’t think for a minute that God can’t do it right within our midst!  His plans for us are greater and more abundant than anything we can expect or think.

Ho, ho, come forth, and flee from the land of the north, saith the Lord: for I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heaven, saith the Lord.

Deliver thyself, O Zion, that dwellest with the daughter of Babylon.

For thus saith the Lord of hosts; After the glory hath he sent me unto the nations which spoiled you: for he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye.

For, behold, I will shake mine hand upon them, and they shall be a spoil to their servants: and ye shall know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me.

Although the world has troubled God’s holy people, just a shaking of His hand over them will be their undoing.  God will continue to bring back the rest of His people who are exiled in faraway Babylon, and join them to His flock in Jerusalem.  And all those who held them in bondage will suffer for their crimes, for God is a God whose jealous love burns hotly for His people whom He loves.

Even in our day and age, God has His chosen people scattered here and there, whom He is bringing into blessed and sweet communion with His Church, His holy Bride.  Whoever they are, wherever they are, wherever they came from, he will bring them out of their captivity to sin and the thrall of Satan to enjoy the blessed fellowship of the redeemed, in His own timing.  And He is doing this even now.  We can be assured that all the purposes of our great God will be accomplished in this.  The sins will be purged away and Satan will pay for his crimes against God’s elect for holding them under his sway, until the day of their blessed deliverance, when grace made them alive and they were made willing and able to respond positively to the savory gospel promises by the work of the Holy Spirit within them.

10 Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the Lord.

11 And many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me unto thee.

12 And the Lord shall inherit Judah his portion in the holy land, and shall choose Jerusalem again.

13 Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord: for he is raised up out of his holy habitation. 

Here the promise and fulfillment come together in description in a prophetic song of victory.  This is one of those choice and delicious passages of the Old Testament which triumphantly proclaims God’s grace pervading the nations—not only one nation.  There will come a day, says the prophet Zechariah, when the grace of God will extend beyond national lines, to join nations which have not known Him unto His people.  “Many nations,” says he, “will be joined to the LORD”, to be “my people”!  That is, they will come and be citizens of Jerusalem, in the midst of which He dwells.

We can all be thankful for God’s grace in saving not only one nation, but some of every nation, including ourselves!  And He made us all one in Christ.  We see this mighty action of God having worked itself out in history through the proclamation of the gospel and the effectual application of it to many souls by the Holy Spirit across the entire globe from shore to shore to shore.  There is scarcely a nation or a language on the entire earth today in which the Father is not worshiped in the name of His Son Jesus Christ.  And let us be sure that He is not finished yet.  He is adding yet more to the number of the redeemed, to the citizenry of that Holy City which shall never pass away.


[i] Some Insights gained from the ESV Study Bible

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Q&A About the Unity of the Church of Jesus Christ in her Current State, Denominations, and the Obligation of a Christian

Question: In 2013, the Christian churches are woefully and hopelessly divided, and yet Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:11.)  Should we attempt to determine which of all the churches (denominations) is the most pure or correct, and just consider all the others to be illegitimate unless they join her?

Answer:  According to the united testimony of the Church throughout history, No.  It is true that the Church of Jesus Christ is divided, in visible form.  There are literally hundreds of separate communions and denominations which are not inviting one another to take part in their important work and decision-making.  This is due to many factors and circumstances of history.  Many of them involve sin.  But, wherever there is the pure preaching of the Word in its fundamental truths of the law and gospel, the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are administered according to Christ’s commandments, and the members of Christ’s Church are walking together in love and mutual discipline, Christians ought not to abandon her.

Because:

      1.       Even though the Church is divided in visible form, she is 1 in essence.

      2.       Divisions over doctrine based on genuine difference in understanding are better than disobedience to Christ.

      3.       Christians must NOT separate themselves from that Church, which is                         recognized by the three distinguishing marks: Pure preaching of the word, the right administration of the Sacraments according to Christ, and church discipline.

This position is supported by the best Bible-scholars and theologians throughout the history of the Christian Church.  Following are some key examples:

1.       Even though the Church is divided in visible form, she is 1 in essence.

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol III.  turretin

Of the unity of the Church, Turretin states, “Nor is it uniform as to rites and government.” P. 27

Speaking of the Church visible, he writes, “Although there are many particular churches scattered through the world, the unity of the church is not on that account broken up or his body despised because the catholic church remains always one, composed of these various parts, which (because they are homogeneous) obtain the same name with the whole.”  Note that in referring to the “same name”, Turretin affirms the legitimate ecclesiastical power and authority of separated churches.

In what sense is the church called catholic?  P. 30 “First, the proper signification of this word teaches not that an assembly, which is restricted to certain places, can claim for itself the name of the catholic church; but only that society which embraces all the elect and believers (those triumphant in heaven as well as those militant upon earth), in whatever place they have been or will be, and in whatever time they have lived form the beginning of the world or will live even unto the end.”

p. 31 “Now although the word “church” popularly speaking denotes an external and visible assembly, it does not on that account follow (speaking accurately of the church of Christ) that its proper and natural signification implies simply a visible assembly or a simple external profession: for a spiritual and internal communion constitutes its essence, as has been seen.”

On p. 143 he discusses disagreements between the evangelical and Reformed churches, “Disagreements are a prejudice under which the evangelical churches labor.  But they cannot hinder them from retaining the name of the true church, because they agree as to the foundation.  And if any differences exist, (which God wished to permit in order to prove our faith), they are about articles less necessary, in which there can be a disagreement without touching the essence of saving religion:  as the apostolic churches formerly had their differences and stains, as is evident from the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles; nor were the eastern and western churches, the Latin and the Greek, the African and Italian churches free from them, which did not on that account cease to be true churches.  Again, the contentions and differences of the evangelicals are far less than those which are agitated among the Romanists, who, as was seen before, frequently charge each other with heresy.  Nor do we notice here the more rigid judgments of some of those who take their name from the great Luther, who, carried away by sinister prejudices, are accustomed to attack us.  For however harshly they may have treated us, we do not cease to honor them with brotherly affection.  And if, their prejudices and private affections being laid aside, they would seriously examine the thing itself by the law of love, truth, and Christian prudence, they would not be so much averse to a pious syncretism and reconciliation with us, or at least a mutual toleration, to which not a few of the more moderate among them are not indisposed.”

p. 307 “councils are not simply and absolutely necessary to the being of the church.”

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ

p. 46 “In the first place, the principles laid down as to the Church local and catholic, serve to evince the nature of the relation in which both member and office-bearers of separate Churches stand to each other, notwithstanding of the separation.”

He goes on to say on p. 47, “the office-bearers of the Christian Church are not the office-bearers of any particular society alone, but the office-bearers of the whole visible community of believers.  It may be necessary for the advantageous exercise of their office, and profitable for the Church, that particular ministers should be set apart to labour in particular charges, as more exclusively theirs.  But their ministry is not limited to these.  Their commission as preachers of the Gospel is a commission co-extensive with the visible Church of Christ; and they are free to exercise their ministry wherever and whenever they have a regular opportunity to do so…Difference of doctrine or administration or worship may indeed hinder their fellowship,–and not without sin on one side or the other; but it ought never to be forgotten, that both members and office-bearers, however separated, if they belong to the Christian society at all, belong not to many Churches, properly speaking, but to one; that they are in communion, not so much with various local societies, as with the one catholic Church of the Redeemer.” P. 50 “The oneness of the invisible [church] is the ideal, to which, amidst all its breaches and divisions, the visible Church can only approximately approach.”

2.       Divisions over doctrine based on genuine difference in understanding are better than disobedience to Christ.

Hodge, Charles, Church Polity.

hodgeWhile acknowledging the normal, ideal, and biblical form of the church, would have all churches meeting together in common councils and taking part in mutual submission p. 93, Hodge states that the current denominational lines and distinctions are a necessary evil, due primarily to disagreements between Christians on the biblical model of church government.  He gives a summary of what has divided each of the major denominations from one another, then says, “Thus the evil has gone on increasing until the Church is split into sects and independent communions almost without number.  Nevertheless, the existence of such divisions is the less of two evils.  When men differ, it is better to avow their diversity of opinion or faith, than to pretend to agree, or to force discordant elements in a formal uncongenial union.” p. 95  He then goes on to discuss what the relative duties of these divided denominations are, in recognition of one another as churches of Christ.

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. III

Speaking of the term “catholic”, Turretin states, p. 32, “But whatever is the reason of this appellation, it is certain that it does not belong to the Roman church, since it neither holds the catholic faith, nor is it everywhere diffused—innumerable churches both in the east and in the west having been separated from and having nothing in common with it.

Speaking of whether the external splendor of the church may be entirely obscured in any age, Turretin writes, p. 48, “The church can never wholly fail on earth (as was seen before), but not that it is always conspicuous and prominent, but is often so obscured and sunk (whether by persecutions or errors) that no assembly of her appears clearly in the world, but remains obscure and withdrawn from the eyes of men.”

p. 55 “It is one thing for the gospel ministry to be the ordinary means of the gathering together and conservation of the church, which will perpetually endure even until the end of the world (which Paul asserts in Eph. 4:11, 12 and is granted by us); and another for this ministry to be perpetuated in an uninterrupted succession in any one seat (to wit, the Roman) and always with the same splendor of uncorrupted doctrine as well as of inviolate order and observable dignity.  Following the Scriptures, we deny the latter.”

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ  bannerman

”different interpretations of Scripture have introduced among professing Christians a difference of belief regarding the doctrines of Christianity.  Opposite opinions, too, as to the forms of administration and modes of worship appointed for the Christian Church, have led to apparently irreconcilable breaches among them.  And now the vast society of professing Christians throughout the world is broken up and divided into distinct sections, which not distance of place, but distance of opinion and practice keeps apart; so that, while they profess to worship one through one Mediator, they would not meet together for that worship in common, even although they could.”

3.       Christians must NOT separate themselves from that Church, which is recognized by the three distinguishing marks: Pure preaching of the word, the right administration of the Sacraments according to Christ, and church discipline.

Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics

p. 670

Heppe summarizes the historic Reformed position being that where the three marks of the purity of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline exist in a communion, Christians must not separate themselves from this church.  20. Naturally all these attributes do not attach to all separate Churches in the same perfection, yet that is why the Christian must not forthwith separate himself from the communion to which he belongs when he notices in it errors and lacks of minor importance.  All that matters is that everything belonging to the saving nature of revelation is preserved in complete purity.  calvin  –Calvin (IV, I, 12): “When we say that pure ministry of the word and pure rite in celebrating the sacraments is a fitting pledge and earnest, that we may safely embrace as the Church a society in which both exist, it holds to the extent that it is nowhere to be rejected, so long as it persists in these things, although it is otherwise rife in many defects.”

Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. III

p. 86 on the marks of the true church, “After having treated of the nature, properties and adjuncts of the church, the order demands that we discuss its marks.  This question pertains to its external state and is of the highest importance in religion.  For since salvation cannot be obtained except in communion with the true church and many glory in this sacred name who are destitute of this truth, it is of great value to know its true marks that we may be able to distinguish the true fold of Christ from the dens of wolves; and the genuine society of pious Christians (to whose communion we are called) from the conventicles of heretics, which must be shunned by us; also that thus we may know what that assembly is to which it is necessary that we should join ourselves that we may obtain salvation.  And because the question can be twofold (the first concerning true marks, which are asserted by us; the other concerning the false and adulterous which are obtruded by the Romanists), we shall discuss each separately and now treat of the first.”

In response to the Romanist assertion that “the union of the members with the head and with each other” is an essential mark of the true church, Turretin argues, p. 111 “The seventh mark is “the union of the members with the head and with each other.”  But neither can this be a mark. (a) For since a union can be twofold—one internal, the other external—neither can be a mark.  Not the internal and mystical of believers with Christ and with each other because it is invisible, known to God alone.  Not the external or with a visible head because there is none; or of the members with each other by the possession of the same sacred things and symbols and offices of mutual love because this can be obscured and hypocritical, separated from the truth of doctrine (without which there can be no true union.)  …XXXVI (c) It is not inseparable because there can be dissension among Christians, while the truth is unimpaired and often was (Acts 11:2, 15:39, Phil. 3:15, 16).  It is indeed the property of a well-constituted church [that is, unity]; it is the duty of all.  It is the surest method of defending and preserving the church, peace, and concord being recommended unceasingly by Christ and the apostles.  But not forthwith does a church cease to be true which is afflicted with certain discordancies and whose parts are drawn asunder in various heads, provided an agreement as to the foundation remains.  Thus formerly there were various differences between the apostles about the primacy, between Paul and Peter, Paul and Barnabas.  Thus among the ancients (between the Eastern and Western churches), there was a fierce contention which lasted through many centuries about the celebration of the Easter.  Among the fathers there was more than one dissension: as between Irenaeus and Victor, Cyprian and Stephen, Chrysostom and Epiphanius, Jerome and Ruffinus, Cyril and Theodoret and various others, which nevertheless did not make the church of that time lose either its name or its truth.”  Name for Turretin means legitimate ecclesiastical authority which extends to all its acts and ordinances.  Above Turretin recognizes external unity as a duty of the true church, yet emphatically denies that it is a distinguishing mark of the true church.

…”Hence unity is to be estimated by faith, not faith by unity.” P. 112  …”Otherwise, as Nazianzus well remarks, ‘A discord arising on account of piety is better than a corrupt concord’”…”Athanasius did not cease to be orthodox, although Liberius had expelled him from his communion and would not receive into common converse the bishops sent by him from Africa.  He commanded the whole fraternity not to admit them to their houses, so that not only hospitality, but also peace should be denied to theones coming (as Cassander informs us on the seventh article;”

p. 137 Are the evangelical and Reformed churches true churches of Christ?  We affirm.

“…which seceded from Rome, in communion with which therefore salvation can certainly be obtained.”

Note that in all of this discussion of Turretin in distinguishing among churches that are called Christian, between those that are true, and those that are false, he is writing in the context of the duty and obligation of Christians to join themselves externally to the true church for their own salvation.  (Because this is where the ordinances and ministry are which God has ordained to be the means of grace to lead men to salvation.)

Although Turretin recognizes external, formal, unity as a duty of all churches, he explicitly denies that it is or can be a mark which distinguishes that true church to which Christians must unite themselves from the false church from which Christians must separate themselves.

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ

It is in the context of viewing the true Church of Jesus Christ catholic and visible as historically divided in doctrine, worship, and government that Bannerman goes on in the second part of his work to discuss the existence and exercise of ecclesiastical power in doctrine and ordinances.  The power that the Church has in doctrine and ordinances is not, according to Bannerman, confined to one sect or party, but exists wherever the true Church of Christ exists in the world, despite a sinful state of separation.

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