Saturday, 26 July 2014

Sanctification and the Heidelberg Catechism (Part One) by Rev Jon Payne

Following a recent conversation with Rev Jon Payne, I have requested his permission to publish an excellent article which he has recently written onto this blog. It was published on the Reformation 21 and Gospel Reformation Network websites recently. I hope that you will find this subject profitable. It is easy to hold to reformed doctrine and an easy view of sanctification instead of a reformed view of sanctification.

Exploring the Heidelberger's robust doctrine of progressive sanctification

In the recent and engaging discussions on the doctrine of sanctification, I have found it interesting that some in my own denomination, The Presbyterian Church in America, are quicker to reference the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) than the Westminster Standards to assert their views on this crucial issue. But why? Could it be that some view the HC as less demanding in its teaching on progressive sanctification, law, piety, and good works in the Christian life? The HC is invoked to assert, among other things, that gratefulness is the sole motivation for Christian obedience, and that the only effective way to cultivate real spiritual growth is to look back to our justification in Christ. However, these views - often touted as the Reformed position - are supported neither by Scripture nor the HC.

So what does the HC teach about progressive sanctification? Is gratitude the only legitimate motivation for Christian obedience? Does the third-use of the law play a significant role in progressive sanctification? Are Christians meant to be active and earnest in the pursuit of spiritual growth? Before we answer these questions, let's take a moment to consider a little background on the HC.

A Most Beloved Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) ranks as one of the most beloved Reformed Confessions since the days of the Protestant Reformation. Its warm piety, pastoral tone, and gospel-driven approach to the Christian life make it a favorite among Reformed believers everywhere. Personally, I refer to it often for doctrine and devotional purposes.

Written primarily by Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583), the HC is a masterful exposition of the gospel. The main divisions of the 129 questions and answers -- guilt, grace, and gratitude -- underscore the biblical fundamentals of salvation through faith in Christ. These three divisions are set forth in Q.2 which asks, "What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?" A. First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance."

The third division, namely, "how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance," is found in questions 86-129 and is a wonderful exposition of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. This section follows, of course, the magisterial, Gospel-heralding exposition of questions 1-85 which includes an explication of the Apostles' Creed and the nature and efficacy of the preached Word and sacraments (c.f. Q.65, 70, 81). Rather than minimizing the role of prayer and the Ten Commandments in the sanctification of the believer, the HC makes these divinely appointed means of grace an important, necessary, and required part of the Christ-centered, Spirit-enabled process of progressive sanctification (Q.115-116). With this background in mind, let's consider a few of the important questions posed above.

1. Is gratitude meant to be the only motivation for Christian obedience?

The HC teaches, without question, that gratitude for redemption in Christ is the chief motivation for Christian obedience (Q.2). Gratitude is indeed a cardinal theme in the HC as it concerns good works and obedience. Good works are described as "fruits of thankfulness" (Q.64). The Christian's Spirit-enabled obedience should surely flow from a heart bursting with gratitude for what Christ has done on our behalf-- his sinless life, propitiatory death, and Hell-conquering resurrection to deliver us from the wages of sin. Through His sufferings, "especially on the cross," Christ has "delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell" (Q.44). We overflow with thankfulness when we consider our justification through faith in Christ, the fact that even though each one of us has "transgressed all the commandments of God ... God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me [through faith] the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ ... as if I had never had had, nor committed any sin; yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me" (Q.60). Gratefulness, therefore, is a defining mark of the Christian. But it is overly simplistic to assert that gratitude for our justification is the only biblically or confessionally recognized motivation for Christian obedience. Rather, there are other factors, in addition to gratitude, that motivate Christians unto obedience and good works. Take, for example,

A. The Glory of God: Is there any doubt that God's glory motivates the believer unto obedience and good works? The HC asks in Q.91, "What are good works? A. Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory ... ." As God's redeemed children, we obey God that He would be "glorified in all our words and works" (Q.99). Individually, our obedience should be motivated by a passion to "glorify Him with my whole heart, so that I renounce and forsake all creatures, rather than commit even the least thing contrary to His will" (Q. 94)-- and additionally, "that we may so order and direct our lives, our thoughts, words and actions, that Thy name may never be blasphemed, but rather honored and praised on our account" (Q. 122; cf. Matt. 5:16). In this same vein, the Westminster Standards declare that God's glory is man's chief end (WSC Q. 1), and the apostle Paul states "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Cor. 10:31). According to Scripture and the Heidelberg, the glory of God motivates believers to obey his commands.

B. A Desire to be Holy: Another biblical motivation that the HC recognizes for Christian obedience and spiritual growth is the desire to reflect the holiness of God. Christian baptism, according to the HC, reinforces this point as it represents "the remission of sins freely, for the sake of Christ's blood which He shed for us by His sacrifice on the cross; and also to be renewed by the Holy Ghost, and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die to sin, and lead holy and unblamable lives" (Q. 70 - emphasis mine). God's redeemed children are called to imitate and reflect their Father's holiness by manifesting "the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God" (Phil. 1:11; cf. Eph. 5:1). After a stirring exposition of the gospel in I Peter 1:3-12, Peter states: "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'" (I Pet. 1:14-16). Therefore, a clear motivation for every Christian's obedience is the sincere desire to be like their heavenly Father, to show forth the family resemblance--manifesting an always imperfect yet growing measure of Spirit-wrought holiness in their lives (Q. 114). The redeemed rejoice in the good news that Christ "gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14).

C. Fatherly Discipline and Warnings: In Ursinus' commentary on Q.115 he states that one reason for the strict preaching of the law, including its sober warnings is, in part,
"in relation to the godly, because on account of the weakness and corruption of the flesh, it is useful and necessary, even to them, that the threatenings of the law, and the examples of punishment set before them, may keep them in the faithful discharge of their duty. For God threatens severe punishment even to the saints, if they become guilty of sins of a shameful and grievous nature (Ez.18:24)" (Ursinus, Commentary On the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Reprint, 1852), 613-614).

This line of thinking corresponds with the HC's reference to divine punishment and the "heavy wrath of God" as deterrents to disobedience for the believer (Q. 102; 112).

Paul writes that church discipline is not only intended for the censure (and potential restoration) of the offender (I Tim. 5:20; cf. Q.85). It is also meant to foster godly fear in the hearts of onlooking believers-- to encourage them, by God's grace and Spirit, to walk more circumspectly according to God's Word. In addition, the Scripture provides sober warnings to believers throughout, in part, to motivate them unto obedience. Isn't the book of Hebrews full of such solemn warnings (e.g. Heb. 2:1-4; 3:7- 4:13; 10:19-39)?

It is precisely because God loves his children that he provides "useful and necessary" warnings for "the faithful discharge of their duty." For both Scripture and the HC, then, these warnings are biblical motivations for godliness (cf. Q.102).

In addition to gratitude, these three key motivations, namely, the glory of God, a desire to be holy, and the Father's sober warnings, are legitimate motivations for Christian obedience found in the HC. Of course, there are many others. Other motivations include the fostering of God's praise, the deep and growing assurance of faith, and the hope that "others may be gained to Christ" as our lives show forth the fruit of the gospel (Q.86). Once again, gratitude is without a doubt the chief motivation for Christian obedience in the HC. However, it's not the only one.

The Gospel Reformation Network's Article V rightly states:

"We affirm that gratitude for justification is a powerful motivation for growth in holiness .... but deny that gratitude for justification is the only valid motivation for holiness, making all other motivations illegitimate or legalistic" (See GRN Affirmations and Denials at

Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne is the organizing pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina, and co-editor of A Faith Worth Teaching: The Heidelberg Catechism's Enduring Heritage (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013).
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Monday, 21 July 2014

Forrest Gump Spirituality

Most of us have probably seen the 1994 Tom Hanks hit movie, Forrest Gump in which the titular character shares his experiences and reflections on life and society with various people on a Savannah park bench.
   As the story goes on, Gump often shares with us little insights and maxims from his mother, which invariably begin, “Mama always said...”
   For many who have been reared in a “pseudo-Christian Culture” such as the United States, we have a tendency to assume that the values and norms that we have known, lived under, and been taught are universal and transcendent truths and “Christian.”
   Sadly, this is not always the case. For instance, you may have been told that it’s okay to tell a “little white lie” if it means not hurting someone’s feelings. God’s word, by contrast, tells us that God is a God of Truth, hates liars, and demands that His people love the truth so much that they forsake lying.
   Many people who call themselves Christians live out a spirituality that consists simply of what they were taught by their parents and the traditions of their society. But is that where Christians are supposed to learn how to live as His people? Yet many in our society have a religion that consists of little more than “my mama always said...”
   True Christianity is found and learned from God’s word, the Bible. The Bible teaches us that every culture is imperfect, riddled with sin, and doomed to pass away. Because of this, God’s word confronts every culture with its sins, failings, and shortcomings as it calls the people of every culture to embrace Jesus Christ offered in the gospel and follow His commandments.
   As Presbyterians, we must not be crippling our growth in grace by living a “Forrest Gump spirituality” that consists only of traditions and sentiments of the past. We must be constantly looking to Christ and His word to see if the traditions and values that we hold dear are actually from God or merely of man’s devising.
   One of the problems that has continually dogged the Church is that as persecution dies down, the saints become increasingly comfortable with the culture and the church begins to increasingly resemble the culture. The only defense against this is a robust and disciplined love for God’s word, not simply the “idea” of God’s word, but the actual words, sentences, paragraphs, teachings and themes of the Scripture.
   Do you love God’s Word? Is your Christianity, your piety founded upon a faithful study of the words of Christ? Do you make time to know your Bible? Or is your religion simply that of traditions and customs? A religion that resembles the culture is not a religion of the Christ who was crucified for offending the traditions and customs of the society in which He lived. We must each ask ourselves and evaluate is my religion based on “my mama always said” and “I always thought” or “God says in His word?”

This was written by a friend of mine Rev. Ryan Biese who is the minister of Winona PCA church in Winona, MS. He wrote this for his church bulletin and after visiting with him I asked him if I could post this on my blog. I hope that you enjoy it.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Liturgical dances are not the way forward for the church!

In recent times, I have encountered a new phenomena which is the use of liturgical dances in public worship. This kind of thing is sometimes included in churches as a means of facilitating the worship of God. But does it actually achieve its intended purpose? I have never personally seen this in the West, but while our family served oversees, I found it to be a common occurence in Kenya. Why would good churches go down such routes?

In talking to various people, ones who have observed churches sliding away from biblical faithfulness by introducing such novelties into public worship, there appear to be two primary causes of this phenomena.

1. Some churches become more concerned about people outside the church than those already in the church. Therefore, they seek ways to attract non-Christians, while abandoning their duty to feed the sheep.

2. Pragmatism drives the agenda rather than by searching the Scripture for biblical directives.

On a pragmatic level, watching a bunch of amateurish women performing a choreographed dance, dressed in lively colors, would seem at best a distraction, at worst a cause of stumbling. This is not the apostolic method and in my opinion it acheieves nothing in communicating the gospel to a lost and dying world. These liturgical dances move the church on deviant paths trod by the church in the Middle Ages, ones which sought visual means to communicate instead of preaching. Let us ask two questions.

1. Did Jesus and the apostles use such methods in their ministries? The plain answer is no, but they could of. In Ancient Greek cities there were always amphitheaters which were used for dramas and visual performances, but these worldly methods were never used.

2. What does the Scripture teach regarding liturgical dances in public worship? There are no references of such things. Yet many well meaning Christians sit in churches which conduct themselves in ways not becoming of the church of God. In my experience when churches seek such methods such as dances, puppets, handing out balloons and free hair cuts, then there is a slide away from a confidence in God's primary method for gospel advance. This is the preaching of the gospel. If you are sat in a church that talks about sharing and not preaching, perhaps you should consider seeking out a church that is committed to preaching sound doctrine instead.

Listen to three passages from the Book of Acts.
Acts 8:5: "Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them Christ".

Acts 17:2-3: "Paul went in, as was his custom and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying 'This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ'".

Acts 28:30-31: (Paul in Rome) " He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance".

Preaching the message of the gospel was the primary means for extension in the New Testament church and it should be ours also today. There is no mention of novelties such as liturgical dances in the New Testament, so why would any church that is faithful to the Lord God even consider such a possibility? May congregations return to solid paths using solid methods which is a joyful commitment to preaching in our worship services in season and out of season.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Thoughts on the latest Noah Movie

I have to confess that I am not a huge movie expert, but on a recent flight I had the opportunity to check out the latest Noah movie starring Russell Crowe. I had heard mixed reports from different sources and ironically I have been preaching through Genesis in our evening services at church. The story of Noah is therefore fresh in my mind. So, what were my impressions of the movie?

As a Christian, I was not impressed by the opening line that "in the beginning there was nothing" and then the narrative of Genesis is unfolded in a way that I could not reconcile with the biblical record. Fallen creatures that look like deformed transformers with rock skin, apparently helped fallen man to build huge cities. There is Gandolf style mysticism and magic inter-twined,and Noah kills people in self-defense in the hostile world that he lives in pre-flood. It was a huge surprise to find that Hollywood had no problem in including an adopted daughter into Noah's family though the biblical record does not have any such details.

From a non-theological point of view, the movie was not impressive, I got bored and I admit that I did not finish the whole film. It was like watching a low-budget "Lord of the Rings" movie, but without any of the impressive scenery and thought of the "Lord of the Rings". Its deviation from biblical truth, its bizarre imagination that bore little resemblance to Noah's godliness, and the poor quality of style means that I do not endorse this movie whatsoever.

What are some learning points? Hebrews 11:7 reminds us of Noah's faith: "By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith". The first lesson should be to draw us all to the faith of Noah from the biblical record. This is because he walked by faith in the midst of loneliness, with a lack of spiritual fruit from his warnings to his fellow men, and he spent just over a year in the ark before he stepped out into the new world after the flood. Faith always requires us to walk into a degree of the unknown, trusting the Lord. Therefore, Noah's example should encourage the church in our own day.

The second lesson for me is that the world cannot be trusted today to faithfully handle biblical narrative. In times past, credible movies of the life of Moses, and stories such as Ben Hur, moved millions of people to simply acknowledge historically based narratives. Today, Hollywood and the world have so departed from truth in their post-modern fantasies, that they cannot be trusted to handle Bible stories or truth itself.

Thirdly, the Lord Jesus taught explicitly that Noah did not know the exact time when the floods will come, so also we will not know the time when Jesus returns but we must be ready. In the time before the Lord Jesus returns to bring final judgment upon this world and all of its inhabitants, then the world's population will behave the same as in Noah's day. Matthew 24:38 "For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man". Therefore, do not be surprised by the world's indifference to the gospel, Noah faced the same. However, let us look to the Lord for great fruitfulness, and pray that God by his grace would save some, those who will come into the Lord's ark of salvation, before it is too late.