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Confedrate Statues New OrleansThe reaction to Mitch Landrieu’s edict to take down the statues of Confederate generals in New Orleans has been as loud as it was predictable. Clearly, no respectable American can give any legitimate, sane defense for retaining these monuments and still be considered someone with whom you can be safely seen in public. Clearly.

I wish I could say that it’s only secularists and the modern political front runners and attention seekers who are doing this, but, alas, even evangelical Christians are rushing to get on the “right side of history” – with all the “respect” that affords (and we all know that nothing is more important than getting the respect of our modern arbiters of truth, beauty, and righteousness).

And I could respect this in some measure if it weren’t so easy to attain. All it takes is the willingness to learn the habit of selective indignation. Selective indignation is the ability to be outraged over the “sins” of those who are clearly out of favor with the ruling class while overlooking the same “sins” of those who are in favor with that group. Learn this and respect is all yours! It may be a bit more difficult than falling off a log, but it’s not as hard as it sounds.

So, in response to Mayor LAndrieu’s edict to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, we hear cheers and very righteous endorsements from all the hip coolsters who know which way society’s winds are blowing. “We can’t defend anyone who fought to continue slavery!” “How dare you try to re-write history and make these men honorable?” “They fought for the Confederacy! They were all racists and rebels!” “To defend these men is equivalent to defending Nazis and the KKK and no one but blind bigots and liars are fools enough to do that!”

And on and on, until we get to the point where we can finish all their sentences.

But what if I told you that Abraham Lincoln believed blacks were inferior (by nature) to whites? What if I told you that Robert E. Lee freed more slaves than the Great Emancipator? What if I pointed to the fact that Lincoln plainly stated, more than once, that he thought the best solution for slavery was to ship all the African slaves back to Africa so that America could be what America (in his mind) was intended to be: a white/European country? What if you learned that Ole Abe was not an Abolitionist?

What then?

Here’s the oddity: In spite of the fact that all of the above statements are absolutely true (and well known to everyone who is familiar with Mr. Lincoln), we have yet to hear any demands that all the statues of Lincoln come down forthwith. There have been no denunciations of our Great Liberator. No demonstrations against his overt hypocrisy. No outrage. No editorials. Not even, heaven help us, a single blog post.

Why this response? Admire, dear friends, the work of selective indignation.

But at bottom, it’s just plain ole hypocrisy. The same old game that the self-righteous have been playing since Cain got insulted over the Lord’s inquiry about his brother’s whereabouts. “How dare you challenge our integrity? We’re on the right side here, not you. Your side lost. You’re a racist, ignorant bigot and we’re not. Our hands are pure, yours are dirty. How dare you defend what we condemn?”

Right. Got it.

18620104_10155518883424610_2100548177273971692_nSo, let’s see if we understand the rules here: We’re not allowed to point out that it was the North that practiced the truly damnable slave trade – and practiced it up through the beginning of the War? We’re not allowed to observe that slave owners in the North did not free their slaves but sold them for profit (and then condemned the buyers for being money-grubbing, immoral, heartless, man-stealers)? We’re not allowed to point out that the Confederate Constitution was the only modern constitution to outlaw the slave trade? We’re not allowed to observe that the Emancipation Proclamation was a merely a cheap piece of political maneuvering – that it did not free a single slave and was never designed to do so? That the Proclamation’s true message was not that one human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own another unless he is loyal to the United States?

Your rule is that Southerners are not allowed to re-write history – and we happily agree with that – but the rule also says it’s ok for the Northerners to do so.

And lastly the new rule is that if you have offended any of our new standards of morality and truth, you are not allowed to be honored – and if you happen to be honored, we have the right to demand that all honor be stripped away and stripped away with our fresh condemnations poured on with ladles of piping-hot disgust.

Of course, if sinless perfection is required before we give honor then everything must be damned. Nothing and no one is, nor ever can be, worthy of honor. And if we point out that God Himself honors flawed and sinful men (even those who owned slaves!) then He too, must be damned along with all those who agree with Him.

The new directive is that there must be no mercy shown, no concern for true justice, and no need for walking humbly before God or man or the neighbor’s bulldog. Our sensibilities are the new standards of holiness and righteousness and all who refuse to acknowledge our superiority must go to directly to Hell – and the sooner the better.

Jesus reminded us that we will face the same standards of judgment that we apply to others. So, what will future generations say of all our condemnations of the honorable men of the past when we presided over the period in which the greatest legal mass murder in the history of the world occurred?

But to return to our point: We are having the hardest time taking your condemnations seriously. Hypocrisy has that effect upon us – out of date and old fashioned as we are. But until we hear demands for the dismantling of the Lincoln memorial from you and your sweet friends, we will be forced to continue to assume that your concerns for justice, compassion, and mercy, are nothing more than play-acting – political posturing – an effort to win the approval of our self-appointed guardians of “righteousness and truth” and gather some scraps of precious “respect” from those who condemn the rest of us.

And in this effort, we can do nothing more than simply (and sadly) wish you the best. It’s a tough crowd to please and you’re gonna need all the help you can get.

Oh, and we gladly give up our seats on the “right-side-of-history” train. They’re all yours. But we need to warn you – that train ain’t going where you think it’s going.

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Protestants generally have paid little attention to the lesser feast days that have been set aside by the Church – and for the most part, we have done so for very sound reasons. But there are some feast days that it might be well for us to remember and commemorate – and one of these is today, the Feast of the Incarnation (or Feast of the Annunciation).

This feast commemorates Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive a Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Since the celebration of Jesus’ birth was set on December 25, this feast was set nine months earlier, on March 25.

We commonly think of December 25 as the day we celebrate Jesus’ incarnation – but actually, Christmas is the celebration of His birth (the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord). His INCARNATION, the day on which He took on human flesh, occurred nine months previous when Mary conceived Him in her womb.

The Church has always believed that human life begins at conception. So appropriately, it has celebrated the incarnation of our Lord on March 25 – a day that falls during the season of Lent – as the day on which Jesus was conceived.

And, it seems to me this is a most helpful feast for us to observe – and it is so for at least a couple of reasons:

1. It’s an important testimony to the world (and a timely reminder for Christians) that life begins at conception. Jesus became man on the day He was conceived in His mother’s womb, NOT on the day of His birth. In a day when this reality is widely denied, it is a good and helpful thing for the Church to stand and testify to the truth that life begins at conception – and the fact that we can do it with a celebration makes it all the better.

2 But it’s also another opportunity for us to rejoice and remind ourselves again of God’s grace and love in giving us His Son. It’s helpful in the midst of the season of Lent to have a time set aside to give thanks that Jesus came for us, to give His life as a ransom for us, delivering us from condemnation, death, and the devil, freeing us from the dominion of sin and darkness, and enabling us to walk in newness of life as lights in the world.

So, take time today to rejoice over God’s great mercies to us in giving us the greatest of all gifts! And if you can have a party, please do so! Nothing is more worthy of celebration than the coming of our Lord.

“Lord God, we ask that you would pour your grace into our hearts; that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, by his cross and passion may we be brought to the glory of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”

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A Fasting Primer

Our elders have called for a time of congregational prayer and fasting tomorrow, the eve Independence Day, and we invite you all to join us. Fasting, however, is not something that we are all that familiar with and for that reason, I’ve made up a very brief primer on fasting to assist the members of our congregation. Much more could be said of course, but if you fast, please remember these things:

A Fasting Primer

What is fasting? Fasting is the voluntary abstinence from food for a particular period of time for the purpose of humbling ourselves before God and seeking His forgiveness and the restoration of His blessing. Fasting is one of the ways we acknowledge that we have sinned and deserve death.

Just as one of the chief blessings God gives is food (Deut. 28:4-5,8,11-12), one of the marks of repentance and contrition for our sins is abstaining from food.

Thus, in Scripture, fasting is most often connected with grief over sin:

  1. God called for an annual fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27-29).
  2. When David’s son by Bathsheba lay dying as a consequence of David’s sin, he fasted in repentance (2 Sam. 12:15-16).
  3. When Nehemiah heard of the desolation of Jerusalem, he fasted, acknowledging the judgment of God upon covenant-breaking Israel (Neh. 1:4).
  4. When Jonah preached to the people of Ninevah of God’s anger and judgment against them, they repented with fasting (Jonah 3:5).
  5. When Paul was struck down by the Lord on the road to Damascus, he spent the next three days in fasting and prayer (Acts 9:9).

Fasting is also a response of the people of God during times of crises and danger:

  1. When Jehosaphat heard the news of the Syrian invasion, he called for a fast (2 Chron. 20:2) to beg for God’s protection.
  2. Ezra calls for a fast when he begs God for protection as the Jews return to Israel (Ezra 8:21).
  3. Esther calls for a fast among the Jews before she goes to see the King (Esther 4:16).

Jesus assumes that there will times after His resurrection and ascension that will call for fasting (Matt. 9:15). In the Sermon on the Mount, He condemns the hypocritical fasting of the scribes and Pharisees, but then instructs His disciples on the proper way of fasting (Matt. 6:17-18). Thus, fasting was a common practice of the Church during times of crisis and danger (Acts 13:2; 14:23).

How ought we to fast?

  1. Not like the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 6:16).
  2. We must fast with sincerity – sincerely acknowledging our sins and the fact that we don’t deserve God’s food. By fasting, we agree with God’s judgment of our sins. We acknowledge that we deserve to starve to death. Fasting is an acknowledgment that there are things more important than our own well-being and comfort. God’s glory and the good of others take priority over my own comfort and satisfaction.
  3. We must not fast in despair but with holy confidence in God’s grace and mercy. He delights in mercy and stands ready to forgive (Isa 58:6-11).

What ought we to confess?

  1. Confess your personal sins and the sins of your family.
  2. Confess the sins of our church.
  3. Confess the sins of the Church in our country and the world.
  4. Confess the sins of our country and the world.

Helps: Think through the 10 commandments and confess sins (you may want to use the exposition of the commandments in the Westminster Shorter or Larger Catechism). Pray through Psalm 51; the prayer of Nehemiah for Israel (Neh. 1:4-11); the prayer of Daniel (Dan. 9:3-19); Romans 12-13; 1 Cor. 13; Eph. 4:17-6:20; etc.

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Gonna miss her

Well, with all the hubbub about flags coming down and such, I confess that I’ve had to do a lot of rethinking over the past few days. This often happens to me when violent, wicked racists commit despicable crimes (and not just despicable crimes, but crimes committed against my own brothers and sisters in Christ, whose only fault was trusting the murderer who killed them) and doing so while wearing on their clothing symbols of countries (past and present) that imply their agreement with wicked presuppositions, Pharisaical assumptions, and unbiblical prejudices. And then when fellow Christians come out and demand that historic flags be removed and denounced because some wicked men lived and fought under those flags and some people who believed and stood for very wicked things love those flags, it gives you pause.

Makes you do a lot of rethinking.

So that’s what I’ve been doing.

And I’ve been forced to come to some very hard and painful conclusions that only now am I ready to acknowledge (and I’m sure this is going to be a shock to many of my friends given my past commitments and convictions, but I can’t help it – facts are facts after all and there’s no use running and hiding from them as if they’re not true, right?).

So I’ve been thinking.

And I’ve decided that I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over a country that endorsed the genocide of a race of people that they viewed to be inferior.

I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over a country that put images of overt, unapologetic racists on its currency and coins.

I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over a country that endorsed African slavery and allowed it to exist up to and even past 1861.

I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over ships involved in the evil slave trade and over a capital whose leaders refused to take any truly effective action to stop that hateful and wicked traffic – even when they knew it was continuing after 1861!

I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over cities which condoned race riots, public lynchings, false arrests and other persecution of innocent black people.

I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over a nation that provoked a war that costs hundreds of thousands of lives and left hundreds of thousands without husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers.

I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over a nation whose leading general was not only a slave holder who refused to emancipate his slaves until after the war but also said that if he had thought that the war was for the purpose of abolishing slavery, he would have resigned his commission.

I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over a nation whose president believed that white people were inherently superior to black people and said that he would do nothing to end slavery and had no interest in doing so.

I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over a nation that not only praised racist terrorists who murdered innocent people but erected monuments in their honor.

I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over a nation whose armies were allowed to rape, pillage, and kill non-combatants (black and white), pursuing a policy of “total war” with the full authorization of their President and War Department.

I can no longer support the public display of a flag that flew over a nation that kept prisoners of war in despicable, deplorable conditions and refused to give them adequate food and medical care when it was fully in their power to do so.

And, of course, I can no longer support the public display of a flag that was used in the rallies of and became identified with the KKK.

Sorry, but, as they say, “facts is facts,” and as I’ve reviewed the history of this country, I’ve had to confess that, following the logic of our new “popular front” I have been wrong in supporting the display of this flag and seeking to honor the country for which it stands.

So, I confess.

And I repent.

And now I have come to the difficult conclusion that this flag should be taken down. As much as I will miss seeing it, it is causing incredible pain to a significant portion of our citizens. It has to go.

My only question is, who is going to serve on the committee to design a new flag for the United States of America?

I hope they do a good job, cause I for one am going to miss Old Glory.

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Moist with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul
Shall—though she now be in extreme degree
Too stony hard, and yet too fleshly—be
Freed by that drop, from being starved, hard or foul,
And life by this death abled shall control
Death, whom Thy death slew; nor shall to me
Fear of first or last death bring misery,
If in thy life-book my name thou enroll.
Flesh in that long sleep is not putrified,
But made that there, of which, and for which it was;
Nor can by other means be glorified.
May then sin’s sleep and death soon from me pass,
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last and everlasting day. 

–John Donne, from La Corona

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Good Friday

A little John Donne for this Good Friday:


By miracles exceeding power of man,
He faith in some, envy in some begat,
For, what weak spirits admire, ambitious hate:
In both affections many to Him ran.
But O! the worst are most, they will and can,
Alas! and do, unto th’ Immaculate,
Whose creature Fate is, now prescribe a fate,
Measuring self-life’s infinity to span,
Nay to an inch. Lo! where condemned He
Bears His own cross, with pain, yet by and by
When it bears him, He must bear more and die.
Now Thou art lifted up, draw me to Thee,
And at Thy death giving such liberal dole,
Moist with one drop of Thy blood my dry soul.

–John Donne, from La Corona

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[This article appeared in TableTalk magazine (a publication of Ligonier Ministries) sometime before the turn of the century]

Dear John,

I trust this finds you well and prospering. Forgive me for coming right to the point, but I feel an urgency to address your last question to me and to tell you why I am “so upset” over your rejection of traditional “six-day” creation. I recognize that rejecting the traditional view of Genesis 1 is not as serious as rejecting of the divinity of Christ. Good and gracious men have embraced the position you now hold.

And I grant your contention that we cannot ignore extra-biblical insights which might clarify our understanding of certain Scriptural texts. Your admonition to me to “remember Galileo” is not forgotten. But Galileo’s observations on the existing universe strike me as of a quite different nature than the speculations of modern science on the origins of the existing universe. There we are beyond the capabilities of scientific inquiry. Science is helpless to explain miracles (which is precisely what Genesis 1 presents to us) and when it attempts to do so, we are under no obligation to take it seriously.

You have asked why God would create a world that looks so old if in fact it was as young as the Bible indicates (approximately 6000 years-old). “Wouldn’t that be deceptive?” you asked. Well, frankly, no. God tells us clearly that He created all things by His Word and created them “full grown” as it were. Obviously, Adam looked older than he actually was, the trees were created mature, etc. If God expected us to guess their age, one might consider His work deceptive, but when He tells us how He did it, where is the deception?

Further, why is it considered “deceptive” for the world to appear old, but actually be young, but honest for the world to be old even though God clearly tells us that it is young? Why should we assume that scientific speculation about the age of the earth is more honest and accurate than the plain statements of Scripture?

But your view has other ramifications beyond Genesis 1, for example: What are we to do with the genealogies of Genesis 5? There we read that Adam was 930 years old when he died. But if the sixth day was of indeterminable length, how can we know that this statement is accurate? Indeed, what are we to make of this genealogy altogether? It clearly teaches that from the creation of Adam to the birth of Noah there were only 1,056 years.

Now, you may say, “But this is not intended to be a complete genealogy, there are obvious gaps in it!” Well, surely it is not a complete genealogy, there are many sons (and daughters) left unmentioned. But even so, we are still told how old the “father” was when his “son” was born. Thus, even if the “son” was a great-great-great grandson, where are the “gaps”? And even if I grant your contention that there are “gaps” can we imagine “gaps” large enough to make you (or our scientific friends) comfortable with the resulting length of time? (Remember, science now thinks the world is at least four billion years old; can we find that many gaps?)

If you protest that the age of the earth can be accounted for by the length of time prior to Adam’s creation, that only leads to more questions. Was the sixth day different from the first five days in its length? Did “normal calendar time” begin after Adam’s creation on the sixth day? On what basis can we assert these things? Your view appears to be an unwarranted accommodation to unprovable scientific claims.

Again, what shall we do with the Flood account? We are told precisely what day the Flood began (Gen. 7:6,11) which was, according to the biblical genealogies, in the 1656th year of the world. And we are told how long the waters “prevailed” upon the earth and the extent of this terrible judgment.

I bring this up not to switch subjects but to say that we have similar problems here as in the creation account. Our scientists (some of them good and faithful evangelicals) tell us that there is absolutely no evidence of a universal flood. They assure us, the flood could not have happened in the year 1656 after the creation of Adam because the “geological evidence” makes this an impossibility. They also say the Flood must have been a local disaster, confined to the Mesopotamian area.

Not to be disrespectful (and I am certainly no scientist) but I have a few questions: How can water “stand” (15 cubits “higher than the mountains”) for 150 days if the Flood was only “local”? And if the Flood was “local” why did Noah have to build the ark to escape it? And why take all those animals on board? God told him the Flood was coming 120 years before the event, plenty of time to migrate to higher ground, it seems to me. If, however, we follow your assumptions regarding science and Genesis 1, are we not equally bound to re-interpret Genesis 6-9 in light of the scientific “evidence”?

Indeed, what is to prevent someone from doing this same thing with the account of the Lord’s resurrection? Science says that’s impossible too. I know you would not want to go that far, but my point is that the assumptions which call for a rejection of the traditional view of Genesis 1 can be taken that far. If the claims of Genesis 1 are not true, why are the claims of John 20 true?

It seems that rejecting the traditional reading of Genesis 1 leaves us with far more problems than we have taking the text as a straight-forward historical account. Accepting scientific theories as authoritative seriously threatens the integrity of Scripture. If contradicting the observations of science places biblical teachings in doubt, then most of the claims of historic Christianity must of necessity be classified as “doubtful.”

In the end we must make a choice: Believe God’s Word and live with a few “scientific dilemmas” for the present or embrace the Word of the scientists and spend our lives in the impossible task of reconciling their unprovable theories with the text of the Bible. I happily take the former position and promise to be stubbornly insistent that you rejoin me!

Please give my best regards to Meredith, Jack, and Bruce. May the Lord continue to bless your ministry for our Creator and Redeemer,


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One of the chief goals of the Westminster Assembly was to produce a confessional statement which the majority of evangelicals of the British Isles could endorse and upon which they could stand together. This was a much more daunting task than many today might realize.

Peter Wallace in his essay “Whose Meaning? The Question of Original Intent,” (available here) has pointed out that because there were a wide range of theological opinions present in the Assembly and because there was a concern to frame statements that all could embrace without giving up these particular convictions, the Assembly’s language was often not nearly as precise and specific as it sometimes appears to be.

Some of the issues over which there were divisions were passed over in silence (infra- vs. supra-lapsarianism and the millennium, e.g.) but this could not be done at every point of difference. Among the best known of the doctrinal accommodations of the Assembly are those relating to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ and baptismal efficacy. Both issues were carefully debated and, in the end, the Assembly adopted language that was sufficiently broad and ambiguous to allow for all views that were considered to have plausible scriptural support. Coming to a definitive position on these issues was judged to be secondary to being able to stand together.

The Westminster Divines did not believe all ministers had to accept exactly the same interpretation of the language of the Confession in order to affirm it. The Confession was a consensus document (as is true of nearly all the creeds). It was designed to bring together all those who were Reformed in doctrine so that a solid front could be presented against Romanism, Arminianism, Socinianism, the Antinomians, and other errors which existed in the British Isles.

Far from trying to frame a document which would “lock” men into a precise theological position on every issue, they wrote the document in such a way as to allow for a diversity of interpretations at particular points where there were legitimate, honest differences in understanding. So long as a man could affirm the wording of the Confession based upon responsible exegesis, they were willing to live with a diversity of opinion and trust that the Lord would bring them to further unity in time.

This is not the way many view the Westminster Confession today, however. We commonly hear the Westminster Confession acclaimed as “the best” and “most thorough” of all the Protestant creeds – and from this many have drawn a very dangerous implication. If the Westminster is the “most faithful summary of the teaching of the Bible” then it is often assumed (in practice if not always in theory) that to disagree with it is tantamount to disagreeing with the Bible itself.

In practice we come perilously close to equating the Confession with the Scriptures. This is shown in how some seek to interpret the Confession. It is viewed as a precisely worded, internally consistent document which accurately reflects the harmony and consistency of the Bible. Rather than viewing the Confession as the fruit of committee work, sewn together by amendment, some insist on treating it as if it was somehow inspired of God and infallible. In spite of our protests to the contrary and our affirmation of Sola Scriptura, we have not successfully avoided this error.

For this reason some are appalled over the mere suggestion that Westminster’s language is at points confusing, inconsistent, and in need of amendment. The distinction between the teaching of the Scriptures and the teaching of the confession has been, for all practical purposes, lost.

We must remember that the confession is a summary of some of the teachings of the Bible (it is not a comprehensive compendium of all the Bible teaches). Nor is it an authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures. To view the Confession in either of these ways is to make all disagreement with the creed a departure from the Bible and practically to destroy the supremacy of the Scriptures over the creed.

Alister McGrath has observed that these problems are not new to the Reformed Church. In the early years of the Reformation a great many beliefs and practices were viewed as matters of indifference. But as the arguments between the Lutherans and the Calvinists intensified, the need to distinguish between the two groups led them to search for distinctive doctrinal differences.

McGrath notes, “At the social and political level, the communities were difficult to distinguish; doctrine therefore provided the most reliable means by which they might define themselves over and against one another.” Each group produced precise doctrinal formulations in hopes of demonstrating the places in which they differed. This led not only to a loss of theological “elbow room” but to something far worse:

Perhaps more importantly, given the central role of the Bible for Protestantism, this new trend meant that the Bible tended to be read through the prism of ‘confessions’ – statements of faith that frequently influenced, and sometimes determined, how certain passages of the Bible were to be interpreted. This shift was a contributing factor to the rise of ‘proof-texting’: citing isolated, decontextualized verses of the Bible in support of often controversial confessional positions. Paradoxically, this development actually lessened the influence of the Bible within Protestantism, in that biblical statements were accommodated to existing doctrinal frameworks rather than being allowed to determine them, and even to challenge them. (Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 103)

We see the same thing in our own day as recent controversies over the so-called “Federal Vision” have demonstrated. But this stands in stark contradiction of our profession to Sola Scriptura and to the goal of continuing reformation. In its most vibrant seasons, the Reformed Church has been concerned to preserve the liberty of theologians to examine creedal statements in light of the Word of God and refine them as necessary. Faithfulness to the Word of God, not adherence to the language of a particular confessional statement, was supreme.

If loyalty to a confessional statement supplants faithfulness to the Scriptures (or if loyalty to a confession is identified with faithfulness to the Scriptures), we have fallen away from the Reformed tradition. Indeed, we are, at that point, in danger of  departing from Jesus Himself and identifying with His enemies.

(to be continued)

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In spite of the Westminster Assembly’s warning that the Scriptures are “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined,” and its caution that “All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both,” we see all around us, those who act as if the Westminster Confession is infallible and the standard of orthodoxy.

The desire for a timeless creed is a normal and quite understandable desire. After all, God’s Word is applicable to all men in all ages and is in itself unchanging and authoritative for every day and age. Truth by definition does not change and thus, it is not irrational to desire a creedal statement which contains formulae that stand as reliable expressions of the teachings of God’s Word in all times and places and remain so for every succeeding age. But no matter how reasonable this desire might appear, it is in fact ultimately impossible to attain.

This longing for creedal permanence has always been present in all branches of the church but historically, the Reformed have been particularly keen to avoid this snare. The emphasis placed upon the supremacy of the Scriptures as the one infallible rule of faith and life has worked to undermine the temptation to absolutize confessional statements. Consequently, no branch of Christ’s Church has been more quick to write new creeds and confessions in light of the circumstances and needs of their own day as the Reformed (no less than 50 major creedal statements were formulated in the 125 years after Luther’s posting of his 95 theses in 1517). And we may add, no group has been more careful to warn against idolizing their creedal statements.

When Henrich Bullinger and Leo Jud signed the First Helvetic Confession, they added this comment:

We wish in no way to prescribe for all churches through these articles a single rule of faith. For we acknowledge no other rule of faith than Holy Scripture. We agree with whoever agrees with this, although he uses different expressions from our Confession. For we should have regard for the fact itself and for the truth, not for the words. We grant to everyone the freedom to use his own expressions which are suitable for his church and will make use of this freedom ourselves, at the same time defending the true sense of the Confession against distortions. (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. I, 389-390; translated by Leith, The Assembly at Westminster, 19).

Their preeminent concern was to prevent any confession of faith from usurping the supreme authority of the Scriptures. The confession was not to be used to bind the consciences of men as if it had the authority of the Word of God. Of course, there were important reasons for this in addition to maintaining the Scriptures’ supremacy. In the early stages of the Reformation it was vital that the various groups and leaders be given room to disagree amiably within the confines of God’s Word. If there was to be any unity at all among the various groups and movements of the Reformation, this freedom had to be maintained.

But they were also keenly aware of other realities which stood as barriers against absolutizing confessions and creeds. The first of which is the influence of the historical situation upon theology (i.e. all theology is historically conditioned, i.e. molded and formed in the light of the peculiar historical circumstances in which theologians live). This is always the case no matter what the creed or confession or the giftedness of the authors. John Murray writes:

the creeds of the church have been framed in a particular historical situation to meet the need of the church in that context, and have been oriented to a considerable extent in both their negative and positive declarations to the refutation of the errors confronting the church at that time. The creeds are therefore, historically complexioned in language and content and do not reflect the particular and distinguishing needs of subsequent generations. (“The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” Collected Writings, IV, 242)

All creeds are framed by men who have grown up in a particular culture with particular influences and experiences — all of which have contributed to the way in which they read the Bible and understand its teachings and applications – and this reality limits the usefulness of all creeds and confessions, no matter how closely they may express an accurate understanding of the Word of God. Unavoidably, the form and content of particular creedal statements are shaped and influenced by the peculiar historical circumstances in which they are composed.

Thus, to say that the Westminster Confession (or any other confession for that matter) doesn’t address or fully meet the needs of our current theological and cultural milieu, is not necessarily to say that it is mistaken or erroneous. Many of us can affirm the statements contained in the Confession with few, if any, reservations while realizing that there is much more to say still. To acknowledge the time-bound nature of creeds is not a harsh critique. It is simply a fact. But it is a vital fact to remember in order to avoid falling into the trap of creedal idolatry.

The realities of history, distinctive cultural traditions, and the evolving situations in which the Church found itself were preeminent factors in provoking the proliferation of creeds in the Reformed branch of the Church. Reformed churchmen often chose to write new creeds even though existing creeds were available. They believed it was important to confess the faith in ways appropriate to their particular time and place and culture. As John Leith observed, “They refused to exalt any one creed as the perennial theology of the church or as a theology for eternity. They knew that every statement of faith is very historical and limited by the finiteness and sin of man.” (The Assembly at Westminster, 19).

The last observation (remembering the limits placed upon man by his sin and finiteness) leads to the second factor that mitigates against absolutizing the creeds: the progressive sanctification of the Church. God has promised to cause His people to grow up to maturity in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 4:11-16). Just as individuals grow in wisdom and knowledge throughout their lives, so the body of Christ collectively grows in wisdom and maturity throughout history.

Living later is a great advantage. We learn from those who have gone before us. We see some things more clearly simply because we have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of those who have preceded us. The sanctifying work of the Spirit means that those who come after us will have a more clear and accurate understanding of the Word of God than we have at present. This reality means that all creedal statements are limited in their usefulness simply because they are the expression of the best knowledge of the church at the time in which they were written. Professor Murray again notes:

There is the progressive understanding of the faith delivered to the saints. There is in the church the ceaseless activity of the Holy Spirit so that the church organically and corporately increases in knowledge unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . the Westminster Confession . . . is the epitome of the most mature thought to which the church of Christ had been led up to the year 1646. But are we to suppose that this progression ceased with that date? To ask the question is to answer it. An affirmative is to impugn the continued grace of which the Westminster Confession is itself an example at the time of its writing. There is more light to break forth from the living and abiding Word of God. (Collected Writings, IV, 242)

This means that we ought not to be surprised if the Church determines the Westminster formulations (or those of other creeds) are not totally adequate for today and the future – even as those who have gone before us determined that the Apostle’s, Nicene, Athanasian, and Chalcedonian creeds were not fully sufficient for their own times.

This is exactly what is happening today. Recent studies have reminded us of the historical situation which shaped the Westminster Confession. We have been shown that the Confession was written using language broad enough to allow for a rather wide range of doctrinal views at specific points and not just one narrow position. We are seeing how the particular circumstances and concerns of the members of the Assembly affected their doctrinal formulations. Westminster theology was no more immune to the forces of history than any other theology.

This, coupled with the fact that we are continuing to grow in our understanding of God’s Word means that we may be on the verge of  seeing some things more clearly than those who have preceded us (think particularly in regard to the doctrines of the Trinity, the covenant, the church, worship and the sacraments among others).

And these insights should lead to the formulation of new confessional statements that build gratefully upon the old. As heretical as that may sound to some, this is the Reformed tradition – indeed, it is the tradition of the holy catholic Church.

(to be continued)

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It’s been a while coming but finally the new printing of The Federal Vision is at the printers and will be arriving in bookstores soon.

But, before it does, Athanasius Press is giving you an opportunity to purchase this new printing at a special pre-publication price of $16!

(That’s 35% off the retail price)

A new foreword has been added along with all the original essays.

All you have to is click here and place your order.

But do it soon so you don’t miss out!


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Singing dads

Singing with vigor and joyful abandon has always been one of the things we’ve tried to emphasize over the years. I’m usually especially rabid about it after going on vacation, having visited churches where all you can hear is the piano (or organ) playing and a few weak voices here and there in the congregation like night thieves sneaking around afraid of waking someone.

When we join these churches for worship, our family always causes “a stir” – not because we want to or try to, but just because we actually sing the hymns. Out loud. And the result is, before the fourth verse is finished, everyone in the congregation has turned around to get a sneak peak at the show-offs who’ve come to disturb the peace and serenity of the Quiet Waters of Tranquility Church.

Truth is, not many churches sing anymore. I mean, SING – singing the words of the hymn with something that approaches zeal, following along in the general proximity of the tune being played, and acting like they really believe what they’re singing. In some churches, nobody sings. Except the choir. Or the singers in the worship band. In other churches only the women sing – while the men stand, uncomfortably looking about with the same interest and enthusiasm they would have if their wives had dragged them to the matinee of La Traviata.

It’s a shame really. Given what the Scriptures teach about the importance and significance of singing.

It has to be an indicator of our spiritual well-being when the worst singing we hear each week is usually that which we hear in church. During worship.

But let’s, for the moment, put aside a full critical analysis of why this is so and focus upon one reason it is so: Dads – men – don’t sing anymore. And that has had many bad consequences. I was reminded of this after seeing an article by Trevan Wax, titled “A Dad Who Sings.” After mentioning the fact that his dad was always singing, Mr. Wax observes:

We certainly weren’t a charismatic family. We weren’t the type to raise our hands in church. We didn’t dance in the aisles.

But I never remember a time I sat with my parents in church that they did not sing. Not once.

Outside the church, Dad sang too. In the van, he may not have lifted his hands off the steering wheel, but he lifted the roof with his praises. He wasn’t a soloist or a choir member, but he was a worshiper.

Dad didn’t see himself as being “above” praising the Lord. He didn’t see praise and worship as something unmanly. In fact, I remember how many of those songs celebrated the power of Jesus Christ over the principalities and powers of this world. The impression the songs left on me was that Jesus had achieved an important victory, and He was worth singing about and cheering for. Jesus was the Conqueror, so praise the victorious Lamb!

Dad never had to tell me I should sing along. Much of what I learned wasn’t verbal instruction. I knew Jesus was good and powerful, not just because the Bible told me so, but because Dad sang about it so much. The impact wasn’t in him telling me that Jesus was everything; it was him singing it. For that example of faithfulness, I am, as one of those old songs said, “forever grateful.”

There you go.

Dads lead families. Dads often set the “tone” of the family. Dad’s example is always a powerful one – for good or ill. But dads often forget this and think that their lectures are more influential than their example. Wrong.

If you’ve been distressed over the poor singing in your church (or other churches) or in your family, here’s what you can do about it: SING. Sing loudly. Sing with joy. Sing like the gospel is true. Sing like Jesus really is alive. Sing like you would sing if you had been delivered from certain death and given unending life piled high with the most joyful things. Sing like you have been given the great honor of being adopted into the family of the King of the Universe.


And your children will join you.

And, more importantly, they will learn about the One who is worthy of all praise. At all times. In every place.

And others will too.

And things will begin to change.

So . . . sing!



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Moist with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul
Shall—though she now be in extreme degree
Too stony hard, and yet too fleshly—be
Freed by that drop, from being starved, hard or foul,
And life by this death abled shall control
Death, whom Thy death slew; nor shall to me
Fear of first or last death bring misery,
If in thy life-book my name thou enroll.
Flesh in that long sleep is not putrified,
But made that there, of which, and for which it was;
Nor can by other means be glorified.
May then sin’s sleep and death soon from me pass,
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last and everlasting day. 

–John Donne, from La Corona

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In the grave

For Holy Saturday:


O BLESSED bodie! Whither art thou thrown?
No lodging for thee, but a cold hard stone?
So many hearts on earth, and yet not one
Receive thee?

Sure there is room within our hearts good store;
For they can lodge transgressions by the score:
Thousands of toyes dwell there, yet out of doore
They leave thee.

But that which shews them large, shews them unfit.
What ever sinne did this pure rock commit,
Which holds thee now? Who hath indited it
Of murder?

Where our hard hearts have took up stones to braine thee,
And missing this, most falsely did arraigne thee;
Onely these stones in quiet entertain thee,
And order.

And as of old, the law by heav’nly art,
Was writ in stone; so thou, which also art
The letter of the word, find’st no fit heart
To hold thee.

Yet do we still persist as we began,
And so should perish, but that nothing can,
Though it be cold, hard, foul, from loving man
Withhold thee.

–George Herbert

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The cross

For Good Friday:


By miracles exceeding power of man,
He faith in some, envy in some begat,
For, what weak spirits admire, ambitious hate:
In both affections many to Him ran.
But O! the worst are most, they will and can,
Alas! and do, unto th’ Immaculate,
Whose creature Fate is, now prescribe a fate,
Measuring self-life’s infinity to span,
Nay to an inch. Lo! where condemned He
Bears His own cross, with pain, yet by and by
When it bears him, He must bear more and die.
Now Thou art lifted up, draw me to Thee,
And at Thy death giving such liberal dole,
Moist with one drop of Thy blood my dry soul.

–John Donne, from La Corona

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For Maundy Thursday:


A Hymn to God the Father



WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.


Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.


I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
And having done that, Thou hast done ;
I fear no more.

–John Donne

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