Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Brief Survey of Covenant Theology by Richard Barcellos







Many of the blog's readers will no doubt be familiar with Richard Barcellos, especially if you have watched the excellent introductory videos at the 1689 Federalism website (which I have recommended in the past). For those who are not familiar with him, you may read a little more about him on our Reformed Baptist Resources page or check out his bio page at the website of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, where he serves as a pastor. In the videos posted above, Dr. Barcellos offers a very helpful overview of Covenant Theology from a Reformed Baptist perspective. I have included all three of them here for your convenience.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

God's Great and Gracious Love – John 3:16 Part 2 (Teaching Outline)

Introduction: Just as I pointed out last week, even so this week I want to observe how important it is to begin reading the text at verse 1 in order to refresh our minds concerning the context leading up to this verse. As the text is read, observe again that the word for (γάρ, gár) at the beginning of verse 16 tells us that this verse is explaining the cause of what Jesus said in verses 14-15. This means that God's love is what caused the Son of Man to be lifted up for our salvation, not anything in us!
NKJ  John 3:16 For [γάρ, gár] God so [οὕτως, hoútōsthus, so, in this manner] loved the world [κόσμος, kósmos] that He gave His only begotten [μονογενής, monogenḗsone and only] Son, that whoever believes [πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, pãs ho pisteúōn] in Him should not perish [Aor. Dep. Subj. > ἀπόλλυμι, apóllumi] but have [Pres. Act. Subj. > ἔχω, échō] everlasting life.
Last week we began our examination of the first part of this verse under the heading, “The Greatness of God's Love,” and this week we will continue our study of the latter part of this verse under two headings, first “The Grace of God's Love,” and then “The Goal of God's Love.”

The Grace of God's Love

This idea was implicit in our study of this verse last week, when we saw that God's love for us sinners was so great that it led Him to give His one and only Son for the elect from all over the world. Today I want to make this idea explicit, because John himself definitely means to communicate that our salvation is by God's grace when he highlights two facts.

First, John highlights the fact that it was God Himself who took the initiative to do what was necessary to save us. It was God in His love who offered His one and only Son so that we might not perish but have everlasting life. His presentation here thus highlights what he later stresses in his first epistle:
NKJ  1 John 4:16-19 And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love Him because He first loved us.
What a comforting truth it is to know that God has loves us even though we don't deserve it! Such love does indeed cast out fear!

Second, John highlights that salvation is by God's grace when he specifically says that God “gave” His one and only Son. So, when the Lord Jesus died on the cross, He did so as God's gift to us by which we are saved and receive everlasting life. This leads us to our next major heading.

The Goal of God's Love

John tells us what was God's goal or purpose in giving His Son. It was so that “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” But it is important to here to understand clearly what John is saying, especially since so many well-intentioned Christians tend to misunderstand this verse precisely at this point.

For example, when many Christians read this verse and see that God loved the world, they assume that He loved everyone without exception and that He loved them all in the same way. But we saw last week that this is not necessarily the right way to understand John's use of the Greek word for world here.

Yet this is not where the problem ends, because these same Christians then go on to assume that John means to imply that everyone is equally capable of believing when he says that “whoever believes” in Him should not perish. Yet John says nothing in this verse about who is able to believe in Christ. Nor does he say anything about how anyone comes to believe in Christ. He simply says that every one who does believe will not perish but have everlasting life.

The Greek phrase here is pãs ho pisteúōn. Pãs is an adjective which means all or every, and ho pisteúōn is a participle preceded by an article, and it means he who believes or the believing one. John is thus quite clearly saying that God's intention in giving His Son Jesus was so that every believing one should not perish but have everlasting life. He is specifying a particular group of human beings – those who believe – and nothing in the grammar indicates that all human beings are in mind. Yet, whenever certain Christians see the word whoever or whosoever in an English translation, they automatically assume that John is speaking of some indefinite group and that he is trying to say that all human beings have the same capacity to believe. They also often assume that simply citing this verse is enough to defeat the doctrine of election as taught elsewhere in the Bible and as understood by Reformed believers.

But, as I have pointed out, this text says nothing at all about who will believe in Christ or how they will come to believe in Him. For an explanation of these ideas we would have to look elsewhere in Scripture. For example, if we want to know how it is that people come to faith in Christ, then we might want to pay close attention to Jesus' teaching as recorded by John later on in this same Gospel. Perhaps a brief look at John 6 will suffice.

First, it is important as we read John 6 to see how Jesus used the terminology of coming to Him as equivalent to believing in Him. This can be seen in verse 35-40:
NKJ  John 6:35-40 And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. 40 And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” [Notice that everlasting life is spiritual life that may be experienced now, but which also includes our future resurrection.]
We have taken the time to read these verses so that you can be assured that, when Jesus speaks of someone coming to Him, He means that this person believes in Him. He uses the terminology interchangeably. Now, with that understanding, let's take a look at a couple of other points Jesus makes later in the same context.
NKJ  John 6:44-45 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.
How can we tell who has been taught and drawn by the Father? All we have to do is look to see who is coming to Jesus in faith. Clearly, only those who have been so taught by the Father and drawn by the Father to Jesus can and will believe in Him. And, since no one can come to the Jesus unless they are thus drawn by the Father, then no one can believe in Jesus unless they are drawn by Him. Later on in this passage, Jesus stresses the same point:
NKJ  John 6:65 And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted [Perf. Pass. Part. > δίδωμι, has been given] to him by My Father.”
Now, if coming to Jesus is the same thing as believing in Jesus, and if coming to Jesus is a gift from God the Father, then believing in Jesus is a gift from God the Father. So this is just one of a number of passages that show that saving faith is a gift of God, not something that anyone has in and of himself, aside from God's having granted it to Him. The Apostle Paul would later put it this way:
NKJ  Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God....”
But if this is true, if faith is the gift of God, then we have even more evidence that the common understanding that many Christians have of John 3:16 is simply wrong. For they see it as indicating that all men are somehow equally capable of believing, when the Bible clearly teaches that no one is capable of believing in Christ at all unless saving faith has been given to him by God.

But what is the nature of the faith that God gives? What is saving faith like? I think Wayne Grudem gives us a helpful start in answering this question when he explains the sense of the Greek phrase employed by John in this verse, a phrase which is also commonly used elsewhere in the New Testament:
John 3:16 tells us that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Here John uses a surprising phrase when he does not simply say, “whoever believes him” (that is, believes that what he says is true and able to be trusted), but rather, “whoever believes in him.” The Greek phrase pisteuo eis auton could also be translated “believe into him” with the sense of trust or confidence that goes into and rests in Jesus as a person. Leon Morris can say, “Faith, for John, is an activity which takes men right out of themselves and makes them one with Christ.” He understands the Greek phrase pisteuo eis to be a significant indication that New Testament faith is not just intellectual assent but includes a “moral element of personal trust.” Such an expression was rare or perhaps nonexistent in the secular Greek found outside the New Testament, but it was well suited to express the personal trust in Christ that is involved in saving faith. (Systematic Theology, p. 711)
In other words, saving faith is more that intellectual assent to facts about Jesus. Saving faith is rather personal trust in Jesus to save you from your sins. It is faith such as this which embraces Christ so that one might not perish but instead have everlasting life. And, as we have already seen when we looked ahead to John 6, this everlasting life refers to spiritual life now that looks forward to and includes the resurrection.

But those who do not trust in Jesus will perish, which means that they will experience the eternal death which involves separation from the love of God that has been so wonderfully declared in this verse. Later John would write more about the fate of unbelievers in the Book of Revelation, where he described the final judgment and said, “Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (20:14-15).

Conclusion: I will conclude with an illustration from a sermon by S. Lewis Johnson:
What does it mean to believe? There is a story of a skeptical physician who was administering to a Christian patient. He said to his patient, “I could never understand saving faith. I believe in God and I suppose I believe in Jesus Christ. I’m not conscious of any doubts. I believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and I believe in the Bible, yet I’m not saved. What’s the matter with me?” The Christian patient said, “Well, a day or two ago I believed in you. I believed that you were a very skillful physician; I believed that you could possibly prescribe for me and heal me. But then a few days just recently I discovered I was really sick and so I came to you and I put myself in your hands to be healed. In other words, I trusted you.” He said, “For a time now I’ve been taking some mysterious stuff out of a bottle. I don’t know what it is, I don’t understand it, but I’m trusting you.”
Well that’s a good explanation of what saving faith is. It’s to turn to the Lord Jesus and say, if you’re puzzled, “Lord Jesus, Christianity seems to me to be full of mysteries. I don’t understand all those mysteries but I believe that you are trustworthy and I trust you. I entrust myself and my eternal destiny into your hands because you have offered an atoning sacrifice for sinners, and that’s what I am.” That’s saving faith. (Online sermon entitled The Greatest text of All)
I pray that all who read these posts and who have not yet come to know Christ as Lord Savior will so trust in Him.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

God's Great and Gracious Love – John 3:16 Part 1 (Teaching Outline)

Note: As we prepare to examine this text, I just want to point out that there is some legitimate disagreement as to whether or not Jesus is still speaking in verse 16. Although red letter editions of the Bible typically continue with red print through verse 21, I think it highly likely that the Apostle John begins to add his own comments on Jesus' statements to Nicodemus beginning in verse 16. Of course, either way we still have the inspired Word of God, and we must still understand John's teaching as having derived from Jesus Himself. So, even if we have John's comments in verses 16-21, we must understand his statements as reflecting the teaching he had previously received from our Lord Jesus. With this in mind, it is important to begin reading the text at verse 1 to refresh our minds concerning the context leading up to this verse. As the text is read, observe that the word for (γάρ, gár) at the beginning of verse 16 tells us that this verse is explaining the cause of what Jesus said in verses 14-15. This means that God's love is what caused the Son of Man to be lifted up for our salvation, not anything in us!

Introduction: James White has written concerning this verse that:
Sometimes the passages we know best we know least. That is, when we hear a passage repeated in a particular context over and over and over again, we tend to lose sight of its real meaning in its original setting. This is surely the case with John 3:16, for it is one of the most commonly cited passages in evangelical preaching. And yet, how often is it actually subjected to exegesis? Hardly ever. Its meaning is assumed rather than confirmed. (Online article entitled, Blinded By Tradition: An Open Letter to Dave Hunt)
I agree with James White's assessment, which is why I want to devote the entirety of today's and next week's teaching to this single verse. We all know that it is one of the most quoted verses of the Bible, but I hope we will see after our study of the verse that it is perhaps also one of the most commonly misunderstood verses of the whole Bible. We will examine the verse under three headings. This week we will consider the meaning of the first part of the verse under the heading, “The Greatness of God's Love,” and next week we will consider the second half of the verse under the headings, “The Grace of God's Gove” and “The Goal of God's love.”

The Greatness of God's Love

We see the greatness of God's love in the first part of the verse, which tells us that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten – or, better, one and only – Son.
NKJ  John 3:16 For [γάρ, gár] God so [οὕτως, hoútōsthus, so, in this manner] loved the world [κόσμος, kósmos] that He gave His only begotten [μονογενής, monogenḗsone and only] Son, that whoever believes [πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, pãs ho pisteúōn] in Him should not perish [Aor. Dep. Subj. > ἀπόλλυμι, apóllumi] but have [Pres. Act. Subj. > ἔχω, échō] everlasting life.
In other words, God's love for the world was so great that it led him to give even His one and only Son to become flesh and dwell among us (1:14) and to be lifted up on the cross to die for our sins (vss.14-15). This is the primary way in which the greatness of God's love is seen. It is seen in the greatness of the gift He has given for sinners such as you and me.

But the greatness of God's love is not only seen in the greatness of the gift it led Him to give; it is also seen in His loving such a big, bad world of sinners. But here we come to a potential problem in our interpretation of this verse, because many believers automatically assume that, when John speaks of the world, he must mean every human being without exception. Indeed, there have even been renowned Reformed theologians who have understood the term this way. For example, in his commentary on this passage, John Calvin wrote concerning this verse that:
It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.
Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith. (Commentary on John, e-Sword)
Thus Calvin clearly saw the Greek term kósmos – translated world in this verse – as having a universal connotation, although he is quick to point out that this does not mean that anyone and everyone without exception will be saved, since God gives faith only to the elect.

A modern Reformed theologian, D.A. Carson, agrees with this broader understanding of the term world in this verse. He has written a fascinating and very helpful book – one which I heartily recommend to all of you – entitled The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, and in it he writes:
I know that some try to take κόσμος (“world”) here to refer to the elect. But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John's Gospel is against the suggestion. True, world in John does not so much refer to bigness as to badness. In John's vocabulary, world is primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God. In John 3:16 God's love in sending the Lord Jesus is to be admired not because it is extended to so big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such wicked people. Nevertheless John elsewhere can speak of “the whole world” (1 John 2:2), thus bringing bigness and badness together. More importantly, in Johannine theology the disciples themselves once belonged to the world but were drawn out of it (e.g., John 15:19). On this axis, God's love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect.
The same lesson is learned from many passages and themes in Scripture. However much God stands in judgment over the world, he also presents himself as the God who invites and commands all human beings to repent. He orders his people to carry the Gospel to the farthest corner of the world, proclaiming it to men and women everywhere. To rebels the sovereign Lord calls out, “As surely as I live … I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11). (pp. 17-18)
Thus we have two Reformed theologians who think that John's reference to God's love for the world here means that He loves all men, whether elect or not, even if it is only the elect who will believe and be saved. But I am not so sure either of these men are correct in their understanding of this term in this context, especially since even in this Gospel there are instances in which the Greek word kósmos does not indicate a reference to all men without exception. For example:
NKJ  John 12:19 The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, “You see that you are accomplishing nothing. Look, the world [κόσμος, kósmos] has gone after Him [Jesus]'”
Clearly these Pharisees do not mean to say that all men without exception have gone after Jesus. Rather they are using the word kósmos figuratively, as hyperbole, in order to stress how great a number there are who have gone after Jesus. Now, I do not think that John is using the term as hyperbole here in 3:16; I simply point out this instance to you in order to demonstrate that we must be careful not to automatically assume that the term must have a universal reference.

But I think there is an even better example for a more restricted meaning of the word that comes from Jesus Himself. It is found in His high priestly prayer in chapter 17:
NKJ  John 17:6-9 I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world [κόσμος, kósmos]. They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. 7 Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. 8 For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me. 9 I pray for them. I do not pray for the world [κόσμος, kósmos] but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.
In this passage Jesus uses the Greek word kósmos in order to speak of the world of the non-elect versus the elect who have been given to Him by the Father out of the world. So we see again that we have to be careful not to assume that this word always refers to all men without exception. It may indeed have a more restricted meaning, and I think that this is likely the case in John 3:16. But in John 3:16 I think the term refers to the world of the elect versus the non-elect, since it speaks of God's love for the world leading to His giving of His one and only Son so that those who believe may be saved.

In other words, just as the context of Jesus' prayer in chapter 17 indicates that he intends to restrict the meaning of the word to the world of the non-elect, so here in chapter three the context indicates that John means to restrict the meaning of the word to the world of the elect. I also think he uses the term because he wants to stress that it is not just the Jews that God desires to save, but rather all the elect from the whole world, a concept that many Jews would have rejected. In fact, later in this Gospel, John felt the need to stress this point when he reported the unwitting prophecy of Caiaphas:
NKJ  John 11:47-52 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, “What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. 48 If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” 49 And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, 50 nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad.
I hope you can see, then, why so many Reformed theologians over the years have seen a more restricted meaning of the term world here in John 3:16. James White, whom I cited earlier, provides a good example of this view when he writes:
The great controversy that rages around the term “world” is wholly unnecessary. The wide range of uses of kosmos (world) in the Johannine corpus is well known. John 3:16 does not define the extent of  kosmos. However, a few things are certain: it is not the “world” that Jesus says He does not pray for in John 17:9, a “world” that is differentiated from those the Father has given Him: “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours.” It is not the “world” that is arrayed as an enemy against God’s will and truth, either, as seen in 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Obviously, the “world” we are not to love in 1 John 2:15 is not the world God showed His love toward by sending His unique Son. The most that can be said by means of exegesis (rather than by insertion via tradition) is that the world is shown love through the giving of the Son so that a specific, particular people receive eternal life through faith in Him. Since we know that not all are saved by faith in Christ, it is utterly unwarranted to read into kosmos some universal view of humanity: how is God’s love shown for one who experiences eternal punishment by the provision of salvation for someone else? (Blinded By Tradition: An Open Letter to Dave Hunt)
I must frankly admit that the more I study the issue, the more I agree with this latter point of view, but I want you to see that there is room to agree to disagree on the precise meaning of the term world in this passage, so long as we avoid the mistakes that both John Calvin and D.A. Carson have avoided, namely making the assumption that this word somehow provides ammunition to deny God's sovereign and unconditional election of believers unto salvation or to deny His special love for the elect.

But, someone may ask, “If the word world in this verse is to be taken in a restricted sense, as referring only to the elect, then must we conclude that God does not love everyone in the world? Must we say that God loves only believers?” My answer to this question is, “No, we should not conclude that God does not love everyone in the world.” In fact, I think there are other passages that teach us that God does love even unbelievers. Consider, for example, Jesus' teaching in the sermon on the Mount:
NKJ  Matthew 5:43-45 You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
In other words, if we want to be like our heavenly Father, we will love our enemies as He loves his enemies and thus causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. There is, then, a real sense in which God loves even the non-elect who never believe in Him. But He does not love them as He loves believers. There is a special sense in which God loves the elect who believe in Christ. And it is when this special, electing love is in view that the Bible speaks of God's hatred for sinners, such as when God said, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” (Rom. 9:13, citing Mal. 1:2b-3a).

Now, all you have to do to see that God showed His love to Esau is to look back at the accounts in the Old Testament to see how greatly God blessed him (e.g. Gen. 33:9; 36:6-8ff; Deut. 2:5; Josh. 24:4). However, none of these blessings included Esau's having been chosen for salvation. In fact, the author of Hebrews uses Esau as an example of an irremediable apostate and warns professing Christians not to fall into the same trap into which he fell:
NKJ  Hebrews 12:14-17 Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: 15 looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; 16 lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. 17 For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.
So, we may say that there was a sense in which God loved Esau, but that there was also a sense in which He hated him. He loved Him by causing His sun to rise even upon him and by sending His rain even upon Esau's crops, and He loved Him by giving him the land of Seir as an inheritance (Deut. 2:5; Josh: 24:4). But God did not love Esau as He loved Jacob, for He did not choose Esau for salvation as He chose Jacob.

The Apostle Paul speaks of this very issue when he writes to the Romans concerning God's sovereign grace and election:
NKJ  Romans 9:10-16 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac 11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), 12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” [Gen. 25:23] 13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” [Mal. 1:2b-3a] 14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” [Exod. 33:19] 16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
So, I think we must conclude that there is a sense in which God loves all sinners, but there is a special sense in which God loves the elect. And we must conclude that this special love for the elect is not extended to the non-elect, who are rejected by God as Esau was rejected by Him.

Perhaps I can make the point with a rather meager, human illustration, since even we humans can manage to love people in different ways. For example, I can honestly say that I love all the women who belong to Immanuel Baptist Church, all of whom are my sisters in the Lord. But I don't love any of them like I love my wife. I have a special love for my wife that I have for no other woman. In a similar way, God has a special love for those whom He has chosen for salvation, and He does not share this love with unbelievers, even if He still bestows many blessings of love and common grace upon them.

Conclusion: I will conclude this teaching by reminding you all that we may perhaps agree to disagree on the meaning of the word world here in John 3:16, but I think we all must agree that there are different senses in which God loves the elect and the non-elect and that it is only the elect who experience the fullness of God's saving love.

I also want you to see that the interpretation of this verse is not nearly as obvious as so many make it out to be. One thing is certain though: This verse quite clearly tells us of the greatness of God's love, which led Him to give even His one and only Son for the salvation of sinners, and that this love was not restricted to any particular race. God has purposed to save sinners from every tribe and tongue and nation, and He will accomplish that purpose. Remember, for example, what the Spirit revealed to the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation:
NKJ  Revelation 5:8-10 Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, 10 and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth.”
I believe that it is this global family that John has in mind in John 3:16, and I praise the Lord that we who have trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior may count ourselves among them.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Couple of Helpful Videos From the 1689 Federalism Website

Discover the covenantal heritage
of the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith.
In a previous post, I recommended the 1689 Federalism website as a good place to start if you want to get  a good introduction to Reformed Baptist theology. The site focuses on the Biblical basis for and the distinctiveness of Reformed Baptist Federalism, also known as Covenant Theology, as outlined in the the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. Now I want to recommend the site again. It has a number of helpful videos, two of which I offer for your viewing pleasure here:





The site also includes some helpful charts and a list of resources.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Psalm 15 – Who Can Have Unhindered Fellowship with the LORD? (Teaching Outline)

Introduction: Charles Spurgeon refers to the opening verse of this psalm as “the great question. Asked by idle curiosity, despair, godly fear, earnest enquirer, soul troubled by falls of others, holy faith” (Treasury of David, e-Sword). Such are examples of the many motivations that lead people to ask such a question. Yet, no matter what motivates a person to ask such a question as David asks here, the answer is the same, as we shall see in our examination of the psalm. We will focus our attention on 1) a crucial question, 2) a careful answer, and 3) a comforting promise.

I. A Crucial Question: Who may experience unhindered fellowship with the Lord?

This is essentially the question set forth in the opening verse.
NKJ  Psalm 15:1 A Psalm of David. LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?
As we consider these two questions briefly, we will see how they really amount to one question, as I have already suggested. In fact, there are a couple of important points to observe concerning these questions if we are going to properly understand what they are really about.

First, the combination of references to God's "tabernacle" and His "holy hill" seems to indicate that the ark of the covenant had already been moved to the tabernacle David had built for it on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. This means that David is contemplating entering into the presence of God in worship in this psalm. He is thinking about going there to experience fellowship with the God.

Second, when David asks who may "abide" in the tabernacle or "dwell" in the holy hill, he is using terms that speak of a continued, enduring experience of fellowship with God.

So, again, these two opening questions are actually two ways of asking essentially the same question, namely "Who may experience unhindered fellowship with the Lord?" This is not, then, a question about how someone may be made right with God, about who may enter into a relationship with Him. Rather it is a question about how someone who already has a relationship with God may experience fellowship with Him more fully and consistently. It is about the kind of person of which God approves. The question thus has more to do with assurance of salvation than with attainment of salvation. Having thus understood the nature of the question, we are ready to move on to the second major point.

II. A Careful Answer: David describes the kind of person who may experience unhindered fellowship with the Lord.

David begins with a general description of the character of such a person, and then gives specific examples of how such character is displayed. So, his basic answer to the question “Who may experience unhindered fellowship with the Lord?” is that it is a person of godly character who can have such sustained fellowship with God. This is seen in the beginning of verse 15:
NKJ  Psalm 15:2a He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness ...
Here David is talking about the kind of person who consistently lives in a way that pleases God. He is using the common Biblical metaphor of walking to speak about the way ones lives his life. And such a person's life will not be just talk of righteousness; it will be filled with righteous actions, what David here refers to as working righteousness.

But David does not stop with this general description. He is very careful to demonstrate that genuinely righteous character involves all of life, everything that a person says or does. This is why he goes on to list at least six specific – and representative – ways in which this godly character will show in a person's life.

1. Godly character will show in a person's love of the truth.
NKJ  Psalm 15:2b And speaks the truth in his heart ...
When David refers to a person who speaks truth in his heart, he means to indicate a person who embraces the truth in his heart and thinks about it. He doesn't just pay lip service to the truth, but truly believes it. In other words, he loves the truth.

Now, of course, only God can really see whether or not we sincerely embrace the truth in our hearts, but then it is God's assessment with which David is most concerned in this psalm. Still, however, when a person sincerely embraces the truth in his heart, then it will show in ways that other people can see as well. And this leads us to consider the other ways in which godly character will be seen in a person's life.

2. Godly character will show in a person's speech.
NKJ  Psalm 15:3a He who does not backbite with his tongue ...
This refers to a person who does no harm to others through gossip, which is a terrible evil indeed! Benjamin Keach offers a strong admonition about this subject in his discussion of church discipline in his excellent little book The Glory of a True Church:
If any member walks disorderly, though not guilty of scandalous sins, he or she, as soon as it is taken notice of, ought to be admonished and the church is to endeavor to be used to bring him to repentance. “For we here that there are some which walk disorderly, not working at all, but are busy-bodies.” [2 Thess. 3:11-2] Such as meddle with matters that do not concern them, it may be (instead of following their own trade and business) they go about from one member's house to another telling or carrying tales and stories of this brother or of that brother, or sister: which perhaps may be true or perhaps false, and may be also to the reproach or scandal of some member or members; which, if so, it is backbiting. This is so notorious a crime that without repentance they shall not ascend God's holy hill. [Ps. 15:1, 3] (pp. 37-38)
In addition, James Montgomery Boice was almost certainly correct when he said, “I think more damage has been done to the church and its work by gossip, criticism, and slander than by any other single sin. So I say, don’t do it. Bite your tongue before you criticize another Christian” (As cited by David Guzik, Commentary on Psalms, e-Sword).

But, of course, what David has in mind here is that we will never slander anyone, whether that person is another Christian or not.

3. Godly character will show in a person's conduct toward others.
NKJ  Psalm 15:3b Nor does evil to his neighbor, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend ...
When David says that a righteous man does no evil to his neighbor, he means that he will avoid injuring in any way anyone with whom he has contact or dealings of any kind. In other words, he means to say that we will do no harm to anyone at all.

As for David's assertion that a godly person will not take up a reproach against his friend, I think Albert Barnes accurately captures well the meaning and application when he writes:
The idea is that of “taking up,” or receiving as true, or readily giving credit to it. He is slow to believe evil of another. He does not grasp at it greedily as if he had pleasure in it. He does not himself originate such a reproach, nor does he readily and cheerfully credit it when it is stated by others. If he is constrained to believe it, it is only because the evidence becomes so strong that he cannot resist it, and his believing it is contrary to all the desires of is heart. (Notes on the Bible, e-Sword)
As David's son, Solomon, would later say through the inspiration of the Spirit, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins” (Prov. 10:12).

4. Godly character will show in a person's choice of role models.
NKJ  Psalm 15:4a In whose eyes a vile person is despised, but he honors those who fear the LORD ...
James Montgomery Boice hits the nail on the head when he writes in his commentary:
Who are your models? Who do you look up to? Whose actions and character do you find offensive?
This is one of the saddest things about today's younger generation. A few years ago a government commission in Canada studied the characteristics of today's young people, and one of the things they discovered is that youth of today have no heroes. This is hard for most older people to appreciate, for we did and do have heroes. There are people we have looked up to and have tried to be like. But the youth of today generally have no heroes, no models. Without heroes they tend to drift along.
But there is one thing worse than having no models, and that is having the wrongs ones. And I suspect that, in spite of the Canadian study, many young people are drifting in this direction now. They admire the rock singer who has an abominable lifestyle but is nevertheless rich and famous. They admire the crack dealer who prances around in fancy clothes and sports gold jewelry. And the upright people? Fathers who provide for their families? Mothers who are faithful in caring for and rearing their children? People who sacrifice for others? The young couldn't care less about such people.
In fact, many older people do not think much of such people either. One social critic says, “We have reached a point in our day where people would rather be envied than admired.” (Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 126)
A godly person will not get caught up in our culture's love of celebrity status, nor will he excuse away the faults and sins of noted celebrities just because he might like some of their music or movies, nor will he overlook the sins of his favorite politicians, just because he might agree with them on some things.

A godly person will always want his role models to be other godly people, men like Epaphroditus, of whom Paul wrote:
NKJ  Philippians 2:25-30 “Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need; 26 since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. 27 For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I sent him the more eagerly, that when you see him again you may rejoice, and I may be less sorrowful. 29 Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem; 30 because for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life, to supply what was lacking in your service toward me.
If we want role models, it is men like this to whom we should look!

5. Godly character will show in a person's integrity.
NKJ Psalm 15:4b He who swears to his own hurt and does not change ...
If a godly person gives his word to do something, or enters into a contract, he will not go back on his commitment even if he later finds out it will do him harm, cost him dearly, or cause him loss in any way.

6. Godly character will show in a person's use of money.
NKJ  Psalm 15:5a He who does not put out his money at usury, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.
First, a godly person does not try to profit from the misfortune of others. This was typically what happened to poor people in ancient times. It was common for those who had plenty of money to loan it to desperate people – people who were just trying to survive – and to charge them exorbitant interest rates. There is no room for such greed in a godly person's life!

Second, a godly person will not pervert justice for money. Again, bribery was common in the ancient world, but a godly person would have nothing to do with it. Even if he himself was poor, he would never accept a bribe!

Thus we have considered the crucial question asked by David in this psalm, and we have also considered at some length his careful answer to the question. We are now ready for our third and final point.

III. A Comforting Promise: Such a godly person will never lack assurance.

This is the teaching of the last line of the psalm:
NKJ  Psalm 15:5b He who does these things shall never be moved.
Recalling the questions with which the psalm began, we must understand David as saying that such a person will never be moved from abiding in the LORD's tabernacle, from dwelling on His holy hill (vs. 1). Such a person can always be confident in approaching the Lord in worship. In other words, such a person will not lack assurance in His relationship with God. In this regard the message of this psalm is not much different from what Peter later wrote to all “those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1):
NKJ  2 Peter 1:5-10 But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, 6 to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, 7 to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. 8 For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. 10 Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble.
Conclusion: In closing today's teaching, I would like to remind you all of a critical point made by Derek Kidner his commentary on this passage. He correctly points out that “the qualities the psalm describes are those that God creates in a man, not those he finds in him” (TOTC 14a, p. 82-83).

I have no doubt at all that David would agree. Remember that in this psalm David is not dealing with the attainment of salvation. He is not dealing with how one becomes such a godly person, but is rather dealing with assurance of salvation for the one who already is such a person. As for how one actually becomes such a person, David has much to teach us elsewhere in the Psalms. Let's take some time now to look at just a couple of examples:
NKJ  Psalm 32:1-5 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. 4 For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer. 5 I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,' and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.
David clearly understood that He had been made right with God only by the grace that God had shown him. I have no doubt that, if David had lived to see the Lord Jesus and to hear of His sinless life, His atoning death, and His resurrection from the dead, he would have agreed with Paul when he said:
NKJ Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
And based on Psalm 15 we know that David would also add that those who demonstrate that they are, indeed, God's workmanship will never lack assurance! And to this Paul and all the Apostles would voice a hearty “Amen!”

As those in the Reformed theological tradition often put it, “We are saved by grace through faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Saving faith brings righteous works along with it, and this is a great source of assurance that God is indeed at work in us for His glory and for our good.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Baptist Reprints by Free Grace Press

Free Grace Press (FGP) has begun to reprint important books from past Baptists. These books have been specially selected for their importance for Baptist history as well as their helpfulness for the church today. They are of special interest to Reformed Baptists. FGP has recently released the second in this Baptist Reprints series. The book is called The Glory of a True Church by Benjamin Keach. Here is a portion of the description from the website:
Free Grace Press has had the privilege of adding another book to our Baptist Reprints set: The Glory of a True Church by Benjamin Keach. This book was last printed in the early 1880’s.
Benjamin Keach was one of the best and most well-known Baptist, Puritan theologians of the 1600s. He was instrumental in introducing hymns into the church’s worship, and also was one of the framers of the 1689 London Baptist Confession. He also had a profound love for the church.
He began preaching at 18, and pastoring at 28 and his ministry was tremendously blessed by God with growth in truth and defense against error. He was despised by the authorities of the Church of England and often persecuted for his faith. His church had to be added onto many times; and a little over 100 years after his death a preacher by the name of Charles Spurgeon took up the office of pastor there in his church.
This little book was written to be easily and readily available to all, even the poor. Many Congregationalists had written large books on the subject, but Keach was the first of the Baptists to put forth a book on church discipline; and he made it short in hopes that it would spark a Baptist discussion that would show the order and beauty of the Baptists in the midst of the Church of England’s persecution on them.
Though it is short, it is packed with practical examples on church discipline, and a contagious love for the church. You will find it very easy to read, and the book is sure to grow you in your love for Christ and his church, and to bring order to the church.
I would also recommend reading the first book in the Baptist Reprints series, which is Baptists: The Only Thorough Reformers by John Quincy Adams. Here is the description from the website:
What does it mean to be a Baptist? Though ideas abound, we must go to the one man for a sure answer, John Quincy Adams. For with unashamed boldness and clarity Adams articulates the fundamental distinctives of the Baptist Faith. These fundamentals include the importance of Sola Scriptura, believer’s baptism, the separation of the church and state, equality of the saints, and liberty of conscious. Even C. H. Spurgeon, calling it “the best Manual of Baptist Principles he had met,” included the text in his Pastor’s College curriculum. First published in 1858 and reprinted multiple times since, this work has become a classic tome upon Baptist principles.
In addition, you will find a great price on both of Jeff Johnson's outstanding books on Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology, namely The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism (in my opinion, the best ever written by a Baptist on the subject) and The Kingdom of God.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Bob Gonzales on the Impassibility of God

Some of the blog's longtime readers will remember that several years ago I had posted an article recommending a series of articles by Bob Gonzales, the Academic Dean and a professor of the Reformed Baptist Seminary, concerning the doctrine of the impassibility of God. Such readers may also have noticed that some time ago I removed that post. Now, however, I wish to make it clear that the post was not removed because I no longer recommended Bob's writings on the subject, but rather because Bob himself had removed the articles from his own blog for a time, and I did not want to have a post linking to articles that were no longer available. However, since an updated series of the articles has once again been made available on Bob's blog, I and my blog partner, Jeff Johnson, wanted to post in support of them again here. We understand full well that the issue of God's impassibility has been a matter of significant debate recently, and we are saddened at the division that has arisen over it, since it is our belief that there has long been an openness among Reformed theologians toward suggested refinements in the expression of the doctrine. It is our hope that such an openness will continue and that Reformed theologians will be able to agree to disagree on the matter, especially since we respect many on both sides of the current debate among Reformed Baptists as well as Presbyterians.
 
Having thus made our basic perspective on the matter clear, we want to recommend Bob's articles on our blog once again. Bob is our friend, but, more importantly, he also happens to be on the right side of the issue in our judgment. In fact, we also share his sorrow over the unnecessary division that has arisen concerning the issue in some quarters in recent years. 
 
At any rate, the first article Bob published that touches on the matter was actually written in response to an article by James Renihan concerning whether or not we should speak either of God or of believers as "passionate." Here is the link:
In this article Bob concludes:
Are you passionate for that which is contrary to God’s revealed will? Then you do need to repent. Are you passionate for God, his worship, and the advance of his gospel? If so, please don’t repent! Instead, pray for more passion in order that you might be passionate as your heavenly Father is passionate.
Then there is a four part series of articles dealing more directly with the doctrine of divine impassibility. Here they are in order:
Bob states his ultimate conclusion thusly:
So we affirm that God is self-contained, independent, and wholly satisfied with himself. He possesses a kind of joy that cannot be marred. Yet, we also affirm that within the matrix of time and space, God expresses various cognitive-affective valuations such as grief, sorrow, anger, pleasure, love, hatred, jealousy, joy, and peace in ways that are perfectly consistent with his unchanging "being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth." Accordingly, God's transcendent qualities -- his sovereignty, immutability, and eternality -- remain intact. 
We highly recommend reading all five of these articles, and we would also encourage reading from the other side of the issue, such as God Without Passions: A Reader, edited by Samuel Renihan, who lays out his own view in the "Introduction to the Reader." We have friends on both sides of the debate, and, as indicated above, we believe that those on both sides of the debate are well within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy, even if we come down on one side rather than the other.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Guide to Biblical Commentaries & Reference Works

Today I just thought I would take some time to highly recommend one of the most helpful resources I have had on my shelf for years, namely A Guide to Biblical Commentaries & Reference Works by John F. Evans. I think I have been using one edition or another of this book since I first found it in notebook form in the Covenant Theological Seminary bookstore while a student there years ago. In fact, Evans is himself a CTS alum, as his biographical information states:

John Frederick Evans is a lecturer at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology in Nairobi, Kenya.
A native of North Carolina, Dr. Evans grew up the son and grandson of Presbyterian pastors. He completed his Bachelor of Arts at Calvin College, a Masters degrees in Divinity and Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctorate of Theology at the Universiteit can Stellenbosch. He himself served as an ordained Pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) before moving onto the mission field in Zambia in the late 1990s. He served in Zambia until 2007, then for one year in Namibia before moving to Kenya in 2009.
The book is thus written from a Reformed perspective, and it offers excellent recommendations while giving helpful descriptions of the strengths and weaknesses of most of the primary works it lists. Here are the editorial reviews found on the Amazon webpage:
John F. Evans' A Guide to Biblical Commentaries and Reference Works (9th ed.) is an indispensable handbook for scholars, preachers, and serious students of the Bible. Covering both the Old and New Testaments, book by book, Evans offers an update (9th ed. no less!) of his guide to commentaries and reference works, a daunting task, but one he has accomplished with remarkable currency and theological sensitivity. This work is not a dry bibliographical list, but is distinguished by ample and insightful annotations, providing a "guide" in the real sense of the word. Of particular value also is his introduction which contains "Standards for Evaluating Commentaries," an excellent list of "Other Bibliographies," along with the author's assessments, and a most helpful evaluation of the major commentary series. The broad theological range of the works included is a further positive quality of the Guide, which belongs alongside the reference books in the libraries of scholars and preachers alike. --C. Hassell Bullock, Franklin S. Dyrness Professor of Biblical Studies, Emeritus, Wheaton College 
This exhaustive and practical volume is a tool that needs to be in the hands of every minister and Biblical studies teacher. With so many books now in print, we need a guide to lead us through the maze of titles. John Evans is precisely who we need. With a remarkable knowledge of the discipline, Evans has selected the best titles for ongoing study, written annotations for each entry, and the result has been the most thorough bibliography in print. Very highly recommended. --Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College and Graduate School 
Evans' annotations of the NT commentaries are very impressive. He is well versed in both critical/liberal and conservative views. I rarely found an annotation that I could disagree with. My New Testament seminary students need this book. This will be immensely helpful for their research on papers and for deciding which commentaries to buy for their future pastorates. I especially appreciate Evan's even-handed annotations of critical/liberal New Testament commentaries. He notes many positives, but also offers brief critiques based on a conservative/evangelical/Reformed view point. Evans has a very good grasp of the many scholarly issues that are present in New Testament commentaries. He also is concerned to note which commentaries are useful for evangelical pastors. Although knowledgeable about the liberal/critical world, Evans is clearly evaluating the New Testament commentaries from an evangelical/Reformed perspective. My students and many pastors will appreciate that. -- Robert Cara, Ph.D., Hugh and Sallie Reaves Professor of New Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary 
It is exceptionally well done and far better than anything else I have seen! The introductory material is excellent. It seems to me to be something that will help a lot of students and pastors, and even professors! --Donald Hagner, PhD, George Eldon Ladd Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Fuller Theological Seminary
For further help, I have included a scan of the first two pages on the Book of Joel, which I recently consulted because I am currently preparing to teach on the Book of Joel:



To read the scan picture, just click on the image, and it should enlarge enough to read it. If not large enough to read, just zoom in on it (or download it and zoom in if need be). You will notice that Evans employs some symbols to the left of many entries. these symbols help the reader to prioritize to decide which works he might need to buy first, especially if, like most pastors and students, he may be on a very limited budget. The darkened star symbol highlights a work as essential for one's library, one that should be on the top of the list to buy. The outline star symbol "designates a valuable commentary or reference work that would be worth buying but would ... be a second priority." The check-mark symbol "designates an important scholarly work that could profitably be consulted for seminary papers, but is either difficult/expensive to obtain or of debatable value for a pastor's library." The 'F' symbol "indicates a forthcoming volume."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

10 Steps in Maintaining the Unity of the Spirit

Christian unity is a beautiful thing in the eyes of God. It is more than the absence of discord as it includes warm fellowship that is saturated with love and goodwill. “Behold,” David says, “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Ps. 133:2). There is nothing like collectively worshiping God with a unified in heart and mind – it is the closest thing to heaven on earth.

This unity is established by the fellowship that all God’s children have in Christ Jesus. The church is one body and is united by one Spirit. This unity is deeper than a shared interest, for it is rooted in the spiritual life that all of God’s people share in Christ Jesus.

But, sadly, not all churches experience such unity. Fractions, discord, and clicks can abound in churches. This is because of two things. One, as wheat and tares often grow together, there are often unbelievers mixed within the membership of the church. Without spiritual regeneration, there is no unity in the Spirit. Two, though Christians have a new nature and are untied to Christ and to each other, they still struggle with sin. Christians can be prideful, harsh, and hurtful. Wherever unforgiveness and pride reside, unity will have a difficult time thriving. Regardless, this means that sin is the cause of discord within the church.

But how do we battle discord? How do we battle sin? What are ways to foster unity in the church? Though not an exhaustive list, here are at least 10 things we can do to maintain the unity of the Spirit within our churches.

1. Understand that Maintaining Unity is Our Responsibility

Paul exhorts us “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3). Listed here are many of the traits needed for unity – humility, gentleness, patience, and love. The command is for us to utilize these traits in order to “maintain the unity of the Spirit.” This exhortation implies that unity cannot be taken for granted. Selfishness still exists within us all and sin will continue to occur within the church. This is why patience, forgiveness, and love are needed attributes for the saints. If there were no selfishness in the church, then there would be no need for forgiveness. Yet, long-suffering and forgiveness are required because the danger of discord and factions are ever present. We are all called to exhibit and display the fruit of the Spirit because we have been charged by God to do all we can to maintain the unity that has been established by the Spirit. If we disregard this charge, we are living in sin.

2. Understand that Causing Discord is a Sin

Strife and discord are easy to sow, but woe to those who plant such wicked seeds in God’s vineyard. God hates sin, and it is a sin – a great sin – to sow “discord among the brethren” (Pr. 6:19). That which divides God’s people and tears the unity of the church is a great sin indeed. If we are commanded to maintain unity, then we must realize that we sin against God when we initiate discord among the saints.

3. Love the Those Who are Difficult

Because they do not stack well, it is difficult to carry a bundle of crooked sticks. Yet, crooked sticks are easy to carry when bounded by a cord. The Puritan Thomas Watson reminds us that a group of Christians is similar to a pile of crooked sticks that are bound together by love. Our different personalities do not always mesh. Our flaws often rub people the wrong way. But, “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Love is “the perfect bond of unity” (Col. 3:14). If we are going to be able to look past the personality flaws of others and maintain the unity of the Spirit, then love must prevail.

A critical spirit that easily finds fault and complains about the slightest disagreement is a symptom of pride and selfishness. Love thinks the best – it assumes people are innocent until proven guilty. It thinks no evil and rejoices not in wrongdoing. If we are to love others as we love ourselves, then we should seek to give people the benefit of the doubt and think the very best of them.

4. Do Not Allow Our Hearts to Pull Away from the Church

We must guard our hearts. Before discord erupts openly, usually it takes place inwardly. Once we become critical and unhappy with a few things – without properly dealing with our concerns – then we will begin looking for problems. But once we start looking for problems, the floodgates will open and we see offenses everywhere. We may not leave the church immediately, but our affections have already started to pull away from the congregation. Though we still attend bodily, our hearts have already exited. Where love and goodwill once ruled, a critical spirit – the saw of disunity – now rules. Slowly, we will start missing church functions increasingly until we remove ourselves altogether – causing a breach in the unity of the church.

We must remember that it is a sin to harbor animosity for a fellow church member without seeking reconciliation (Pr. 10:18). To be secretly offended without seeking to forgive will separate friendships and fracture the unity of the church. Thus, we must be careful to guard our hearts from all forms of resentment, envy, and pride. We must maintain a love for our brothers and never allow bitterness or contention to separate our affections from the people of God.

5. Redirect Gossip with Words of Grace

A critical spirit is contagious. It can spread quickly throughout the congregation. Subtle complaints, even when they are legitimate, often breed discontentment, and discontentment often spreads until it causes division within the church. “I wish the church was more friendly to visitors.” Or, “The church does not focus upon missions enough.” Though these may be proper concerns, these complaints can be mishandled and cause discord.

It often starts with a simple concern, but the concern soon turns into gossip. Rather than seeking to handle the problem in a biblical fashion, the problem is often communicated to others. Moreover, it is natural for us when we hear criticism to respond with our own criticism. “Well you are worried about missions; I am concerned about how business meetings are handled.” We become critical and our critical spirits influence others to be critical. Not only have we sinned in our own hearts, we have led others into this sin. We have ceased to promote unity but rather have shown seeds of discord among the saints.

It is not wrong to have concerns, but once we take pleasure in pointing out flaws and sharing these flaws with others, then we have failed to operate in love. We have spoken against our brothers and this is a transgression against God’s law (James 4:11). Minor concerns should be overlooked – for love covers such things. Yet, when concerns need to be addressed, they should be directed to only the people directly involved, in most cases to the leaders of the church. This should be done in the spirit of humility and with the desire to resolve the issue while strengthening the unity of the Spirit (Gal. 6:1).

A way to maintain unity when we hear others complain about the church (complaints that slander and devalue the name of individuals or the reputation of the church) is to redirect that criticism with words of grace. Paul commands us that we are to “let no corrupting talk come out of [our] mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). This command is to be implemented in every situation. If our communication is not seeking to assist others in their walk with the Lord, then we must refrain from speaking until the Spirit and His Word retunes our hearts.

So, when we hear a person complaining, there is no need to tell that person that he is in danger of gossiping. We simply and gently need to redirect the conversation. One of the best ways to redirect gossip is by saying, “You are concerned about John Doe? We love John Doe. Have you addressed your concern with him? If not, I will be happy to go with you.” This usually does the trick. Regardless, the goal is to always respond in a way that seeks to reconcile and build up our precious brothers – not tear them down.

If we, however, enter into their gossip, we share in their guilt. It is our duty not only to seek to defend the honor of our brothers, but to assist others in refraining from slander. If gossip continues, it will surely bring much disunity within the body of Christ.

6. Identify Yourself with the Problems of the Church

To help guard our hearts from causing division by a critical spirit and by emotionally pulling away from the church we should identify ourselves with the problems of the church. If there are problems in the church (as there always are), then these problems are our problems. We have a responsibility to correct them. We all have sin in our lives, but this does not cause us to separate ourselves from ourselves. Not only is this impossible, but we love ourselves too much to give up on ourselves. We overlook our problems, or we deal with them. Yet, when it comes to church problems, it is too easy to separate ourselves from the rest of the church by saying, “The church does this, or the church does that.” We tend to separate ourselves from the problems in the church as if we are not united to the church body. We begin calling our church by its name and complain by saying, “Grace Baptist Church is not very friendly to visitors.” No pastor enjoys hearing members of the church say, “The church should do this, or the church is doing this wrong.” Rather, we should say, “We could do better at welcoming visitors.” Or, “Our church may need to think about how we can improve hospitality, and I am willing to help.” Identifying ourselves with the problems of the church is a helpful way of addressing a problem without potentially introducing a division within the congregation.

7. Fill in the Gaps

Once we identify ourselves with the problems of the church, the next thing we need to do is seek to strengthen the weaknesses of the church by filling in the gaps. The church may not be as welcoming as it needs to be, but our awareness of the problem should cause us to pick up the slack. Rather than finding fault with the church and building up a résumé of criticisms in our minds, we should seek to be an example of friendliness to all visitors. It is amazing that the person who complains the most of feeling unconnected is often the person who does the least in reaching out to others. If we see a need, then we should seek to fill that need. Our good example will likely influence others as well. We must remember that not all members are gifted alike. We should not expect that everyone would be as concerned about visitors as we are. Yet, no doubt, were we lack, others must help carry our load. If we are not seeking to bear the burdens of others and seeking to strengthen the weaknesses of the church, then we have no business complaining about those weaknesses.

8. Humble Yourself Before God

All these things, however, depend upon humility. While prideful people are never satisfied with others, the meek are amazed that they have friends at all. A true church consists of precious people – the children of God. They may have flaws, but they have Christ living within them. They love the Lord, and they are gifted in a unique way. The world is unworthy of such people. We are unworthy to be included in such a glorious assembly. We need to remain humble and remember this. It is by the grace of God and the grace of God alone that we are counted among God’s precious people. We should always remember that.

When Paul exhorted us to be of “the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2), he did so by displaying the humility of our Lord Jesus Christ. If the Lord is humble enough to accept us, to serve us, and to even die for us, how much more should we be willing to place the unity of the church above our own personal interests and concerns? Who are we to be too good for those whom Christ died?

9. Submit to Church Discipline

With all this said, a major objection remains. “Jeff, you don’t know my special situation.” “It is impossible to maintain unity under the circumstances that exist in my church; there are grievous sins and heretical teaching.” “What am I suppose to do? Am I to act as if nothing is wrong?” Even so, we are still to do all that we can to maintain the unity of the Spirit – we are never exempt from obeying this command. The way to maintain the unity of the Spirit in such circumstances, however, is by following through with church discipline. We are not to gossip or harbor a critical spirit, but privately seek to maintain fellowship with the body by following the instructions of Christ in Matthew 18. We must desire forgiveness and reconciliation. When there are grievous sins within the church, then we must humbly and lovingly address the issue(s) with only the people directly connected or involved in the situation. We must restrain from slander and gossip, and we must seek to restore those who have brought discord within the body to full unity. We must remember that the objective of church discipline is keeping peace and unity within the church body. We must be long-suffering and not strive with others. Everything must be done in humility and be motivated by love.

10. Do Your Best not to Leave a Church Upset

Yes, I know that people leave churches all the time and for the slightest reasons. No longer do Christians seek to maintain the unity the Spirit and work out their differences. Once their feelings are hurt, it is not long before they find a reason to abandon ship. But if church membership includes being united to a spiritual family – where our joys, trials, and sorrows are mutually shared, then to depart from this family is to potentially place a tear within the body. If our union with our Christian brothers is connected with our union with Christ, then we must do all that we can to maintain that unity.

First, it is unbiblical to leave a church without doing our best to be reconciled to all of her members. Being offended is not a warrant to leave a church – not when the Bible commands us to forgive and, if necessary, follow through with steps of church discipline. Leaving a church upset – without seeking reconciliation – is a sin.

Second, it is unbiblical to leave a church without notice or explanation. Simply dropping out quietly may seem like the easy way out, but this brings a division within the unity of the church. How would you like a close friend to stop talking to you without any explanation? Would this not be hurtful? If it is unkind to drop a friendship without explanation, how much more hurtful is it to walk away form a church – God’s people – without seeking do what you can to maintain Christian fellowship?

If we leave a church without striving to do our best to keep the unity of the Spirit, then we have not followed the command given to us by God. When we can no longer remain a member of church in good conscience, and if we have already sought to humbly resolve our concerns with the leadership of the church to no avail, then it may be permissible to leave, but we should seek to leave in good standing and with the blessing of the church. The biblical reasons for leaving a church is a topic for another article, but suffice to say here, leaving a church should done humbly, slowly, and with much sadness. 

In the end, we must strive to foster and maintain the precious unity that Christ established by His blood.