Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Son of God in Church

Matthew 18:20  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.
This presence of Jesus Christ in the midst of the gathering of his church is not just omnipresence as we normally conceive of it.  It is a special presence by which he makes himself present "in the midst of the church" when we gather in his name.  He is a Person, and he is really there.  We have company.  Or, rather, we have come into His company.  This is not just the presence in our hearts that we always carry with us.  This is his special presence in our gathered worship.  He is "in the room with us," in the Temple of his Church.  It is like Isaiah in the Temple, but only seen by faith:

Isaiah 6:1  In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.  Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one cried to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!"  And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.
Or, John on Patmos:

Revelation 1:12  Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands,  and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band.  His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire;  His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters;  He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.  And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, "Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last.  I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death."
We are all familiar with how we behave in the court of civil authority, all sitting so quietly, hearing the bailiff say "All Rise" as the judge comes in, seeing the judge's robe, and his commanding presence, the deference and orderliness of the attorneys (and defendant) in their suits, the ritual and process of court business, the seriousness, the oaths, the testimony of the witnesses, ... and hearing the Verdict.

Knowing how we respect God's civil authority, how much more should we be filled with awe, gratitude and joy, in gathered worship in the gracious court of God's Presence, where we meet our Lord literally among us and hear him speak his Word through his servants, where we confess our sins to him and receive his forgiveness and teaching, where we glorify him as he showers his grace upon us, and where we present to him our offerings of gratitude as he feeds us with Himself at his table!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

More on Feast Days in the Reformed Tradition (v 2)

This is Version 2 of this blog post.  Version 2 rewrites the final exhortation which you might have read in the initial version of this post written previously.

One reads in the Second Helvetic Confession, concerning the "church calendar":


Of Holy Days,
Fasts and the Choice of Foods

THE TIME NECESSARY FOR WORSHIP. Although religion is not bound to time, yet it cannot be cultivated and exercised without a proper distribution and arrangement of time. Every Church, therefore, chooses for itself a certain time for public prayers, and for the preaching of the Gospel, and for the celebration of the sacraments; and no one is permitted to overthrow this appointment of the Church at his own pleasure. For unless some due time and leisure is given for the outward exercise of religion, without doubt men would be drawn away from it by their own affairs.

THE LORD'S DAY. Hence we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in the week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord's Day itself, ever since the apostles' time, was set aside for them and for a holy rest, a practice now rightly preserved by our Churches for the sake of worship and love.

SUPERSTITION. In this connection we do not yield to the Jewish observance and to superstitions. For we do not believe that one day is any holier than another, or think that rest in itself is acceptable to God. Moreover, we celebrate the Lord's Day and not the Sabbath as a free observance.*

THE FESTIVALS OF CHRIST AND THE SAINTS. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity[1], circumcision[2], passion[3], resurrection[4], and of his ascension[5] into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples[6], we approve of it highly. but we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone.

Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all[7].

FASTING. Now, the more seriously the Church of Christ condemns surfeiting, drunkenness, and all kinds of lust and intemperance, so much the more strongly does it commend to us Christian fasting. For fasting is nothing else than the abstinence and moderation of the godly, and a discipline, care and chastisement of our flesh undertaken as a necessity for the time being, whereby we are humbled before God, and we deprive the flesh of its fuel so that it may the more willingly and easily obey the Spirit. Therefore, those who pay no attention to such things do not fast, but imagine that they fast if they stuff their stomachs once day, and at a certain or prescribed time abstain from certain foods, thinking that by having done this work they please God and do something good. Fasting is an aid to the prayers of the saints and for all virtues. But as is seen in the books of the prophets, the fast of the Jews who fasted from food but not from wickedness did not please God.

PUBLIC AND PRIVATE FASTING. Now there is a public and a private fasting. In olden times they celebrated public fasts in calamitous times and in the affliction of the Church. They abstained altogether from food till the evening, and spent all that time in holy prayers, the worship Of God, and repentance These differed little from mourning, and there is frequent mention of them in the Prophets and especially by Joel in Ch. 2. Such a fast should be kept at this day, when the Church is in distress. Private fasts are undertaken by each one of us, as he feels himself withdrawn from the Spirit. For in this manner he withdraws the flesh from its fuel.

CHARACTERISTICS OF FASTING. All fasts ought to proceed from a free and willing spirit, and from genuine humility, and not feigned to gain the applause or favor of men, much less that a man should wish to merit righteousness by them. But let every one fast to this end, that he may deprive the flesh of its fuel in order that he may the more zealously serve God.

LENT. The fast of Lent is attested by antiquity but not at all in the writings of the apostles. Therefore it ought not, and cannot, be imposed on the faithful. It is certain that formerly there were various forms and customs of fasting. Hence, Irenaeus, a most ancient writer, says: "Some think that a fast should be observed one day only, others two days, but others more, and some forty days. This diversity in keeping this fast did not first begin in our times, but long before us by those, as I suppose, who did not simply keep to what had been delivered to them from the beginning, but afterwards fell into another custom either through negligence or ignorance" (Fragm. 3, ed. Stieren, I. 824 f.). Moreover, Socrates, the historian, says: "Because no ancient text is found concerning this matter, I think the apostles left this to every man's own judgment, that every one might do what is good without fear or constraint" (Hist. ecclesiast. V.22, 40).

(The quotation of the Chapter from the Confession will stop here.)


There is enough here, I think, to pretty well undermine claims that the Regulative Principle of Worship denies the use of Christ-centered elements of the "church calendar" by a Christian assembly  -- at least on the grounds of the doctrine of this Confession.

One can have one's free opinions on the subject of special days, and the church cannot impose observance of any special day, fast-day, or feast-day against a man's conscience, but all these are left to the free use of individuals, and the churches.

To deny the evangelical character of an individual or church because Christ-centered elements of the "church calendar" are used therefore cannot be accomplished on the grounds of the Regulative Principle without having a "tighter" principle than is established in this Confession.  One is free to have a "tighter" principle, but one is not free, on the grounds of history, to deny the evangelical or the Reformed character of an individual or church, simply because Christ-centered elements of the historic "church calendar" are used.

All who feel bound in conscience to stay away from all church celebrations of this character should certainly be free to do so, but it is likely that they will also miss out on opportunities for edification in the knowledge of Christ.


I suspect that those who oppose the Christ-centered holidays are in churches which don't observe them.  Most believers' conceptions of these holidays may then be filled with the vision of the civil and secular manifestations which surround a holiday (such as Christmas).  Not being in liturgical churches, they may not realize that Holy Days are celebrated religiously with worship services, singing, praying, reading the Scripture, sermons, and the Lord's Supper in the church buildings and also in the homes of the Christians.  This means that a Holy Day is an evangelical opportunity for edification in the knowledge of Christ.


The use, or opposition to the use, of Christ-centered "holy days" in the church ought to be done only in good conscience and in truth, using the Scriptures, accurate doctrine and good knowledge of relevant history, without casting unfair aspersions on other brethren, thereby promoting division in the Church.

Furthermore, for anyone arguing on this issue to bear any kind of false witness historically, doctrinally or morally, either directly or by hint or slur, just isn't the way of truth.  All sides must argue in a spirit which desires as much unity with other believers as conscience permits and as the Scripture demands.  The Moral Law does not allow me to fight, willy-nilly, "just because I'm right and it makes me feel good," even if I am right.  This can be a real temptation.  I know.  I like a good fight, too.  Pardon me, but I'm trying to hold down the flesh in this regard, as I write this! 

If free observance of Christ-centered days in the Church Calendar is the right of the church, as I allege, then I have to discipline myself not to wound your conscience by insisting that you ought to do something which is actually against your conscience, just as it is not your right to deny my use of my liberty to have extra days to worship Christ, as long as I don't do it in such a way as to cause you to sin.  All the rules of policy about things like this are spelled out by the Apostle Paul.

We ought all to fight like Christians, according to the Moral Law and the rules of Scripture, and fight for "hills worth dying on," by spending our time defending big stuff -- like the Gospel, instead of fighting one another while the Spirit grieves.

May the Lord Jesus deliver us from this!


* This is not the same doctrine as the Westminster "Puritan" Doctrine of the Sabbath, which sees the Lord's Day and Sabbath as synonymous, nor is the nature of the "rest" the same, either.

[1] This is the so-called "Christmas Day."
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Circumcision_of_Christ
[3] This is the so-called "Good Friday."
[4] This is the so-called "Easter," or "Resurrection Day."
[5] This is the so-called "Ascension Day."
[6] This is Pentecost.
[7] This is to be done any time, but the so-called "All Saints Day" can be used for this, too.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fast Day, Feast Day

In certain corners of the conservative Christian public space this time of year (the Christmas Season) there emerge feisty discussions of the meaning, validity and Christian "legality" of observing Christmas.

My contribution is as follows:


1)  According to the Regulative Principle of Worship, the Church may declare "thanksgiving days" in recognition and remembrance of major events of divine providence.

2)  Reasoning from the lesser to the greater, it is therefore within the church's liberty to declare "thanksgiving days" in remembrance of greater things, such as major events in the life of Christ.

3)  But, this liberty of the church to remember major events in the life of Christ has been decried by a false application of the Regulative Principle of Worship, which stems from anti-Roman Catholic sentiment.

4)  As a result of the church denying herself the use of her liberty to declare "thanksgiving days" in remembrance of major events in the life of Christ, the emphasis and development of these major gospel events is lowered within the life of the church, and

5)  The "church calendar" has been secularized to contain only civil holidays and days of remembrance.


I read somewhere that the tradition of "public days" called for by Church and State was carried to this country from European origins, and that in this country the tradition was carried forward, probably initially mostly by New England Puritans.  They would call for days of fasting as well as days of thanksgiving, in response to events of providence, such as wars, plagues, famines, victories, deliverance from enemies, etc.

Therefore, as they saw it, the Regulative Principle of Worship, in harmony with Scriptural (Old Testament) examples of days of feasting and fasting, in no way prohibited the declaration of fasting- and feasting-days in modern times when it seemed appropriate in the providence of God.

But, the non-Anglican Reformed and Baptist believers took considerable exception to the traditional "church calendar," including any recognition of the days devoted to remembrance of major events in the life of Christ.  There are several reasons for this that I can think of quickly:

1)  The "church calendar" was cluttered with all sorts of saints days and other inappropriate material, distracting attention from Christ.

2)  There were probably legal requirements requiring participation in church holidays, rather than permitting free participation in good conscience.

3)  But, perhaps most important of all, the "church calender" was "Catholic," and therefore to be avoided.

As I see it, anti-Romanism is the reigning thesis in this argument opposing Christmas, not the Regulative Principle of Worship.  Anti-Romanism distorts the pure application of the Regulative Principle.

Anecdotally, it is alleged that some Puritans would prostrate themselves (lie on their faces) on the floor in private prayer, but would not kneel.  Kneeling was "idolatrous" because Catholics did it.

I can't verify the accuracy of that anecdote, but the alleged reason for avoiding kneeling illuminates the well-known attitude of many of the advanced Puritans and Baptists of the 17th and 18th centuries to Romanism in general:  It was considered to be entirely a cult of the anti-Christ, and therefore, all religious behaviors in public and private had to avoid doing anything that looked "Catholic."  Besides kneeling, this includes use of "holy days" from the traditional "church calendar," even "holy days" in remembrance of Christ.


It seems to me that the fast-days and thanksgiving-days of the early American and Puritan experience have now evolved to become a new, secularized "church calendar."  New Year's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving Day, etc., etc. have become the new "feast days," and are often mentioned or possibly observed in some churches.  But the church has denied herself the right to declare "thanksgiving-days" in honor of Christ!

Nowadays, in churches which profess to adhere to the Regulative Principle, all you might have for an extraordinary meeting during this season could be a meeting on Thanksgiving Day or New Year's Eve.

What a loss!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Glorious Man, Our Savior

I have reproduced the first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews below.  As you read it, notice how the author mixes references to the divine and human natures of the Son of God as the author recites his argument for the superiority of the Son to the angels.  I have marked some minor alterations in the first verse or so, to help bring out the contrast being made between the prophets and the Son.  Suggested or certain references to the manhood of the Son are underlined.

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us "by Son," whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who, being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
For to which of the angels did He ever say: "You are My Son, Today I have begotten You"? And again: "I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son"?  But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says: "Let all the angels of God worship Him."  And of the angels He says: "Who makes His angels spirits And His ministers a flame of fire." 
But to the Son He says: "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your Kingdom.  You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness more than Your companions."  And: "You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands.  They will perish, but You remain; And they will all grow old like a garment; Like a cloak You will fold them up, And they will be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not fail." 
But to which of the angels has He ever said: "Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool"?  Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?   (Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 1, alt.)
The fully and completely divine and the fully and completely human attributes and natures of the Person of the Son are interleaved and mixed in this record  of his career in such a manner that the natures are not distinguished in order that each nature might receive its own appropriate glorification.  Rather, all the glory of the God-man is holistically applied to his whole being -- including the manhood!

Therefore, as the Westminster Larger Catechism states:

WLC 39  Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be man? A. It was requisite that the Mediator should be man, that he might advance our nature, perform obedience to the law, suffer and make intercession for us in our nature, have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; that we might receive the adoption of sons, and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace.
WLC 53  How was Christ exalted in his ascension? A. Christ was exalted in his ascension, in that having after his resurrection often appeared unto and conversed with his apostles, speaking to them of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God, and giving them commission to preach the gospel to all nations, forty days after his resurrection, he, in our nature, and as our head, triumphing over enemies, visibly went up into the highest heavens, there to receive gifts for men, to raise up our affections thither, and to prepare a place for us, where himself is, and shall continue till his second coming at the end of the world.
WLC 55  How doth Christ make intercession ? A. Christ maketh intercession, by his appearing in our nature continually before the Father in heaven, in the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth, declaring his will to have it applied to all believers; answering all accusations against them, and procuring for them quiet of conscience, notwithstanding daily failings, access with boldness to the throne of grace, and acceptance of their persons and services.
What Adam lost, Jesus Christ has more than regained.  Our Head, our Husband, our Savior, our Prophet, our Priest, and our King is in every case the selfsame single God Incarnate, Man Divine, the God-Man, a man of our flesh, full of knowledge, wise and sympathetic, compassionate, forgiving all manner of iniquity and sin, a High Priest ever on our case to save us, the answerer of all our prayers, the giver of all good, the Helper of the weak, the Savior and deliverer of sinners, filling us with the triumph of his power and glory, for His Name's sake.

Will he not help you?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Gospel, Gospel! And there is no Gospel

Life under the Gospel is just not at all easy.

Talk of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is easy, but enjoying the peaceful and nonthreatening environment of gospel talk is not the same as exercising faith in the Christ of the Gospel.

Believing in the Christ of the Gospel delivers from all condemnation only those who are, and who continue to be, abased by their sins before God.  But, sadly, we're more ashamed if men see our sins, than we are if God sees them.

This feeling of abasement and shame before God, so seldom felt (and a product of his grace), is also a strange feeling because it is simply so wonderful.  It moves a person powerfully toward humility.  It is inevitably sanctifying.

The justification of the shamed and their sanctification cannot be parted.