The use of confessions of faith is a common practice among reformed churches. Dutch Reformed Churches use the Three Forms of Unity, Presbyterians have the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Reformed Baptists hold to the 2nd London Confession of Faith of 1677/89 (2LCF). Typically, the broader evangelical churches have statements of faith but tend to stay away from the doctrinally and practically rich confessions from the seventeenth century. There are several reasons why churches should use confessions of faith –

First, the confession of faith defines the doctrine of the church. Using biblical and theological language, the confessions provide wonderful and succinct statements that articulate biblical doctrines. Churches benefit the most when they have agreement over the main teaching of the Bible. B. H. Carroll observed,

“A church with a little creed is a church with a little life. The more divine doctrines a church can agree on, the greater its power, and the wider its usefulness. The fewer its articles of faith, the fewer its bonds of union and compactness. The modern cry, “less creed and more liberty,” is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jellyfish, and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy. Definitive truth does not create heresy—it only exposes and corrects. Shut off the creed and the Christian world would fill up with heresy unsuspected and uncorrected, but none the less deadly.[1]

Second, the confession of faith aids the church in the defense of the doctrine of the church. Jude says that the church of God must “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). In order for the church to defend the doctrine of the church, she must know that doctrine, and of course, the confession of faith is most helpful in this way.

Third, the confession of faith aids the church in the task of discriminating against who should be in a particular church. Robert P. Martin wrote, “The Bible envisages the local church not as a union of those who have agreed to differ, but as a body marked by peace and unity.”[2] While the use of the word “discrimination“ may alarm readers, it should be obvious that discrimination here is not based on ethnicity or gender or other such things, but on doctrinal convictions. For instance, a confession of faith helps a potential member to know whether or not a church is reformed, charismatic, etc.

Fourth, the confession of faith aids the church in the task of disciplining those who depart from the teaching of Scripture. Scripture is clear concerning this most important task of the church and the confessions of faith provide a helpful summary of those truths in Scripture that one must affirm in order to be considered correct. Samuel J. Miller said, “Whenever a group of men began to slide, with respect to orthodoxy, they generally attempt to break, if not to conceal, their fall, by declaiming against creeds and confessions…Men are seldom opposed to creeds, until creeds have become opposed to them.”[3]

Finally, the confession of faith aids the church in distinguishing doctrines that must be believed from matters of Christian liberty. The 2LCF says concerning Christian liberty, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word, or not contained in it.” The idea here is simple: the confessions are not only useful in what they do teach, but also in what they do not teach. The seventeenth-century confessions of faith did not hyper-regulate every jot and tittle of the Christian life; rather, they set forth the main doctrines of the Bible as consensus documents while recognizing Christian liberty on those things not directly addressed in the Bible.

Sunday school lesson – November 1, 2020

Sources

[1] Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 2nd edition (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1995), 16. The quotation is from the Introduction (“The Legitimacy and use of confessions”) by Robert P. Martin and is highly recommended.

[2]Ibid, 17.

[3]Ibid, 14.

The question of good works and the final judgment is one that often perplexes the people of God. The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25 is relevant as it is a clear statement of the judgment of the sheep and the goats. There are several reasons why the traditional, Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone is consistent with Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 25:31-46. Protestantism has traditionally viewed good works as the consequence of saving faith, or the lively evidences that one does possess saving faith, which is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 25 –

The passage does not teach salvation by works:

  1. the sheep and the goats are already sheep and goats when they stand in judgment before Christ
  2. the sheep are called “blessed of My Father” which points to them having already been favored by God
  3. the sheep are called to “inherit the kingdom” – we don’t earn or merit an inheritance
  4. the sheep are given a kingdom that was “prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (the sheep were elected by God before the foundation of the world [Eph 1:4], and the good works they walk in were prepared for them by God [Eph 2:10])
  5. the good works are evidences of the presence of saving faith; good works are the consequence of saving faith in Christ
  6. the surprise of the sheep with reference to their blessedness indicates that they were not doing good works in order to be saved; they did them as a consequence of their salvation
  7. the continual emphasis in Matthew’s gospel is on salvation by grace through faith (1:21; 7:21-23; 9:9-13; 11:25-30; 20:28)
  8. the idea that Jesus taught salvation by faith plus works and Paul taught salvation by faith alone is absurd; it is a rejection of the one way of salvation and destructive of the unity of Scripture, among other things
  9. the words of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:21 which destroy the notion that a person’s works are involved in justification, “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” J. Gresham Machen’s comment on Galatians 2:21 is helpful:

    This verse is the key verse of the epistle to the Galatians; it expresses the central thought of the epistle.  The Judaizers attempted to supplement the saving work of Christ by the merit of their own obedience to the law.  “That,” says Paul, “is impossible; Christ will do everything or nothing:  earn your salvation if your obedience to the law is perfect, or else trust wholly to Christ’s completed work; you cannot do both; you cannot combine merit and grace; if justification even in the slightest measure is through human merit, then Christ died in vain.”[1]

The passage does teach –

  1. the absolute certainty of judgment to come (cf. Jn 5:22, 27-29; Acts 17:31; Rom 14:10, 12; 2 Cor 5:10; Rev 20:11-15)
  2. the glory of Christ as the Judge to come (an allusion to OT texts ascribing judgment to Yahweh; the title “Son of Man;” the self-identification of Christ as the “King” who is the eschatological judge)
  3. the separation of the righteous from the wicked on the day of judgment and into eternity
  4. the truth that works give evidence to the presence of saving faith (Gal 5:6; Eph 2:8-10; Titus 2:13-14; Jas 2:14-26; 2LCF 16:2)
  5. the identification of good works (the talents of vv.14-30) – acts of charity toward God’s people (and the needy in general, cf. Gal 6:10)
  6. the necessity for God’s people to engage in such good works. John Calvin comments, “We must be prodigiously sluggish, if compassion be not drawn from our bowels by this statement [v.40], that Christ is either neglected or honored in the person of those who need our assistance.”[2]
  7. the two (and only two) places where persons will go for eternity
  8. the blessedness of the righteous (with Christ / a prepared kingdom / eternal life)
  9. the misery of the unrighteous (the goats are cast away from Christ, a punishment of loss; the goats will go away into everlasting punishment, a punishment of sense)

[1] J. Gresham Machen, Notes on Galatians, ed. John Skilton (1972; reprint, Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2006), 161.

[2] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume XVII (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, re. 1996), 181.

The Bible often speaks about the “fear of God.” There are two types of the fear of God, the first is a slavish fear, and the second is a filial fear. Both are referred to in Exodus 20:20, “And Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear [slavish]; for God has come to test you, and that His fear [filial] may be before you, so that you may not sin.’” John Murray described the fear of God (in this second sense) as “the soul of godliness.”[1] He also wrote, “The fear of God in us is that frame of heart and mind which reflects our apprehension of who and what God is, and who and what God is will tolerate nothing less than totality commitment to Him.”[2]

  1. The fear of God is produced by the grace of God.The apostle Paul summarizes the natural man’s condition in Romans 3:18 by saying, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” By nature, man sees God as his enemy and therefore, man does not fear God as he ought to (Rom 8:7-8). If man is to be moved into a state of the proper fear of God, God’s grace must produce that fear in the heart of man. John Newton captured this sentiment in his famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear…”[3] This accurately reflects the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 32:40, “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me” (emphasis added). As John Flavel wrote, “This fear of God is a gracious habit or principle planted by God in the soul, whereby the soul is kept under an holy awe of the eye of God, and from thence is inclined to perform and do what pleases Him, and to shun and avoid whatsoever He forbids and hates. It is planted in the soul as a permanent and fixed habit…To fear man is natural, but to fear God is wholly supernatural.”[4] 
  1. The fear of God affects our thinking. The Book of Proverbs often refers to the fear of God and it begins with a reference to this positive aspect of the fear of God: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (see also Prov 2:5; 9:10; 14:26; 15:33). The great commandment of the law assumes the fear of God and demonstrates the effect upon the mind of man: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all you mind(Mt 22:37, emphasis added). Believers in Christ have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) and Christ is described in Isaiah as One who had the “fear of the LORD” (Is 11:2).
  1. The fear of God affects our actions.This is another recurring theme in the Book of Proverbs, for instance, “Do not be wise in your eyes; fear the LORD and depart from evil” (Prov 3:7; see also 8:13; 15:16; 16:6; 19:23). Though Genesis 39 does not specifically mention Joseph’s fear of the LORD, it does emphasize that “the LORD was with Joseph” (Gen 39:2, 21, 23). No doubt this fear of the Lord was an impetus in Joseph’s continual resistance against the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife and his wonderful statement in verse 9, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul commands the believer in Christ to perfect “holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1).
  1. The fear of God conditions our public worship.This lesson was vividly demonstrated in Leviticus 10 when Nadab and Abihu offered “profane fire before the LORD” (Lev 10:1), after having received specific directions on how to approach the Most High in Leviticus 1-9. The Lord who had previously sent fire to consume the proper sacrifice (Lev 9:24), now sent fire to consume these men who had perverted the worship of God. The Lord underscored the reverence (fear) that is due to Him in worship by saying, “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified” (Lev 10:3). The Book of Hebrews makes the same application for the New Covenant people of God: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29). Much of what passes for Christian worship fails miserably at this point.

Conclusion

The people of God today must realize that the fear of God is not an Old Testament concept that was done away with the coming of Jesus Christ. It is not an outdated, antiquated concept confined to a primitive people serving their god among the nations serving their gods. Rather, it is “the soul of godliness” that is the result of the grace of God and which frames the heart and actions for service to God. It is that disposition of soul which should find expression in the church of Christ as the people of God gather together for worship. It is the right response to those who are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. David rightly recognized this: “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Ps 130:3-4).

Book References

[1] John Murray, Principles of Conduct (1957; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 229.

[2] Ibid., 242.

[3] John Newton, Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Great Commission Publications, 1961), 402.

[4] John Flavel, The Works of John Flavel (1820; reprint, Edinburgh/Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 3.252.

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The problem of easy believism is a legitimate threat to Christian orthodoxy, but to properly address how it departs from biblical doctrine, it is important to identify its characteristics and to guard against its misrepresentation. In the first place, it is vital to establish that easy believism is distinct and separate from the biblical pattern of gospel preachers articulating the facts of the gospel and telling sinners to believe that gospel. The biblical presentation of the gospel as the message of Jesus Christ is clear: He lived a life of perfect obedience, He died for our sins in a sacrificial and substitutionary death, and He rose from the dead (1 Cor 15:1-4). The means by which this gospel is appropriated in the life of a sinner is through faith and repentance, both of which are graces given by God (faith as a gift, Eph 2:8-10; Phil 1:29; repentance as a gift, Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25). The Bible frequently links justification (the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) to the instrumentality of faith. We acknowledge that faith itself is a gift of God, but this does not mean we do not call on sinners to believe the gospel, but just the opposite – we call all men everywhere to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Mk 16:15). The sovereignty of God, in which He gives the grace of faith to His elect, does not minimize the use of the means of gospel preaching that calls hearers to believe that gospel (Rom 10:14-17). This is the gospel logic that underlies Paul’s invitation for the Philippian jailer to believe on Christ (Acts 16:31), Jesus’s invitation for “heavy laden” sinners to “come” to Him (a metaphor for believing on Him) in Matthew 11:28-30, and Yahweh of Israel’s calls to “look” and “come” (Isa 45:22; 55:1). In sum, gospel preaching is articulating biblical truth based on the consistent exegesis of scripture.

However, easy believism replaces the biblical pattern with a formulaic approach that obscures or truncates gospel truths into an oversimplified presentation. For example, one version of easy believism rushes sinners through the “Romans Road” which consists of a handful of verses in Romans such as Romans 3:23; 6:23; 10:9; and 10:13. In this scenario, the evangelist or “soul winner” will stress the sinfulness of man, death as a penalty for sin, and the need for sinners to call on God to be saved. However, in many cases, the “Romans Road” presentation skips over a more robust presentation of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and the need for sinners to receive the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by faith (Rom 4:22-25; 5:12, 18-19). Upon getting the sinner to generically agree with his guilt and the need to call on God, the “soul winner” leads the sinner through a “sinner’s prayer” followed up by a similarly hurried presentation of “eternal security” based on proof texts such as 1 John 5:13. Based on this interaction, the “soul winner” assures the sinner that he should never doubt his salvation, and thus, the “soul winner” counts that sinner as being legitimately converted. This is consistent with certain strands of Arminian or synergistic theology that affirm the sinner’s will as being ultimately determinative of one’s salvation, which is contrary to Scripture (Jn 6:44; Rom 9:16).

Worse yet, by giving sinners a premature dose of assurance, those who practice easy believism proceed to undermine the biblical doctrine of sanctification. While we can appreciate their desire to protect justification by faith alone by guarding against any sort of mixture of human works, and while it is important to resist those who would undermine the grace of God in so doing (cf. Rom 11:6), the Scriptures present justification and sanctification as being distinct and yet closely related in the experience of the believer in Christ. In the Second London Confession of 1677/89 (2LCF), chapter 11 (“Of Justification”), paragraph 2 helpfully explains this when it states, “Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument in justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.” If a sinner is justified freely by God’s grace, there will be good works in his life, and while those works do not contribute anything to his salvation, they are “the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith” (2LCF 16:2). Easy believism tends to focus on the work of Christ in dealing with the penalty of sin (justification) but gives little attention to the work of the Spirit in dealing with the power of sin in the Christian life (sanctification). For “soul winners” that rush to present the “Romans Road” or other similarly constructed “gospels,” there is a tendency to neglect the doctrine of sanctification in the Christian life which leads to defective churchmanship and a host of other practical problems.

Therefore, while easy believism may include a call to believe of some kind, it is different than true gospel preaching. To confuse easy believism with true gospel preaching is wrong. Instead of labelling the biblical pattern of gospel preaching as “easy believism,” we would call those who do so to study the issue, learn the differences, and to conform to a biblical view of the topic.

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Written by Pastor Jim Butler, with contributions from Isaac Szijjarto.

In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul writes, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” There are several things the church needs to hear about this text.

In the first place, the Christian ministry must be populated by men who work hard. Like the farmer in 2 Timothy 2:6 who is described as “The hardworking farmer,” ministers are to labor diligently in the word and doctrine. Second, the Christian minister is to seek the approval of God, not men. This is not to say that he should purposefully try and offend men, but he should not cater to men by sacrificing the truth of God’s word. If God is pleased with the minister of the gospel, that is the minister’s greatest reward. Third, it is only as the minister is diligent and approved by God that he will have a clear conscience (“a worker who does not need to be ashamed”). If he is lazy, seeking the favor of men, and otherwise negligent in his calling, then he should be ashamed.

There is, unfortunately, a common misunderstanding concerning the ministry of the word that is associated with Jesus’s words in Matthew 10:19. Jesus said, “But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak.” In the context, Christ gives specific instructions to the apostles for their missionary endeavors. Verses 16-23 deal specifically with the persecution the apostles would face when they preached the gospel to unbelieving Jews and later in the Roman Empire (note Acts 4:8-12 for the specific application of this promise in the ministry of Peter). It should be obvious that Christ is not giving universal rules for the normative conduct of gospel ministers, but He is giving an extraordinary promise of the Spirit’s aid for the coming persecution that His apostles would face. France writes, “As in [Matthew] 6:25-34, the assurance is not an excuse for failure to make responsible provision for foreseeable needs; to take this assurance as an excuse for lazy preachers, insisting that all Christian utterance must be spontaneous and unprepared, is to take it seriously out of context.”[1]

The normative instruction for gospel ministers is found in our text, for Paul says the minister of the gospel must rightly divide the word of truth. This is consistent with Paul’s emphasis on sound doctrine throughout the Pastoral Epistles (cf. 1 Tim 1:10; 2:4; 3:2; 3:15; 4:6; 4:13; 2 Tim 1:13; 3:16-17; 4:3; Tit 1:1; 1:9; 2:1). For the minister to rightly divide the word of truth (or, handle “accurately the word of truth” NASB), he must study; he must prepare; he must strive to accurately expound the Scriptures. He does this, of course, with prayerfulness and with dependence on the Holy Spirit, but he must “Be diligent to show [himself] approved to God…”

It is not an either/or scenario: godly ministers will only depend on the Holy Spirit, or godly ministers will only study. Rather, it is both/and: godly ministers will give themselves to the study of God’s word and do so in dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Only then will they be able to prepare sermons that will feed the sheep of Christ.

[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 392.