Celebrating the Protestant Reformation by Highlighting the Doctrine of Justification

On October 31, 1517, a German monk, named Martin Luther, posted a document for academic debate on what was effectively the local bulletin board, the castle-church door. Luther probably wanted a discussion and debate with other professors and theologians over a matter of theological concern.

Luther was only 33 years old at the time, but he was a Roman Catholic priest, a Doctor of Theology, and a professor at the university in Wittenberg. He saw himself, in that moment, as a faithful servant of the Church of Rome. But Luther had heard about a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel, who was selling indulgences to people all over the Roman empire.

Indulgences, which are still part of Roman Catholic teaching and practice today, [1] are official letters from the Roman Church which absolve a person of some or all of their sin based a faith-infused act of some kind. Tetzel’s indulgences, authorized by the Roman Pope, were effectively absolution for sins for a financial donation. Tetzel’s jingle was, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

In 1517, Luther knew more theology than many, and he believed that indulgences were antithetical to any biblical understanding of repentance or forgiveness. So, Luther wrote 95 statements of dispute against indulgences – the document we know today as “Luther’s 95 Theses.”[2]

Some of his students translated Luther’s original document from Latin to German, and they also used the newly invented printing press to make lots of copies. Before Luther knew it, he had become the spearhead and voice of many discontents with Rome. In response, Luther also became the target of Rome’s fury, and he was the kind of man who usually added fuel to the fire.

On April 17, 1521 (not quite 4 years after he had nailed the 95 theses to the church door and probably about 2 years after he had trusted in Christ alone as Savior[3]), Luther was standing in a room with the Roman Emperor – Charles V – and several high representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Copies of Luther’s books and tracts were piled on a desk in front of him and the full authority of the church and of the state was bearing down on him. The one question Rome asked was, “Will you recant (or retract and apologize)?”

Luther was forced to make a brief response. So, he said,

“I am bound by the Scriptures… and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”[4]

Everyone, including Luther, expected that he would be burned at the stake. But in God’s providence, Luther was spared a martyr’s death. He lived another 3 decades, in which he translated the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew to German, he wrote many more books and tracts, and he pastored and taught with a keen focus on the cross and the justifying work of Jesus Christ.

In one sense, Luther was a giant among the reformers. His voice echoed throughout the western world, and it continues to do so today. My own church still sings songs Luther wrote, and I still quote him in my sermons and teaching. But, in another sense, Luther was just one reformer among many.

Zwingli and Bullinger were notable reformers in Switzerland, and, in England, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley both lived and died for their Protestantism. These two, Latimer and Ridley, were burned at the stake together in Oxford, England on October 15, 1555. As the wood was being stacked around their legs, Latimer (now famously) said, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.” And so, they did. The flame consumed them, but the gospel-fire spread wildly.

John Calvin was a French reformer who spent most of his time writing and preaching in Geneva. Calvin was nearly the opposite of Luther, a studious introvert and not the bombastic life-of-the-party. Calvin spent most of his life suffering from some chronic illness or another, but Calvin also had a precise mind and a profound ability to speak and write with clarity.

Every Christian is indebted to Calvin for his incredible work of systematic theology, a multi-volume set we know today as “Calvin’s Institutes.” He first published the text in 1536 as a “Basic instruction in the Christian Religion.” It was 6 chapters and about 200 pages long by today’s formatting. Calvin published the final version of that work in 1559, which has 80 chapters and about 1,600 pages, but Calvin still called it a “Basic instruction…”

Calvin’s preaching, which is available today in manuscript form, and his commentaries are both quality sources of deep intellectual study as well as practical/pastoral instruction. And, I believe, the Christian who throws Calvin out because of a distorted view of some truncated version of Calvin’s doctrine will inevitably suffer loss for it.

Each of these reformers, and many others like them, protested the common teaching and practice of the 16th century Roman Catholic Church. But what was it exactly that they were protesting? And should Protestants still protest today?

On the one hand, Protestants and Roman Catholics, both then and now, have a great deal in common. We believe the same things about God as trinity, about Jesus as both God and man, and about the value of human life, which is grounded in the fact that all humans were-and-are created in the image of God.

But, on the other hand, Evangelical Protestants (including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, and even non-denominationalists) have been and continue to be at odds with Rome on some very important issues. During the time of the Protestant Reformation, we can see at least two major disagreements, which still remain today: 

One, on the doctrine of justification… “How are guilty sinners justified before God?” And two, on the place of ultimate authority… “Who has the authority to answer this question, or any other on faith and practice, definitively?”

In this essay, I will (like a good Protestant) argue from the position that the Bible is our highest authority. But the authority of Scripture is not my main focus here, so I will just have to assume that point for now. For the interested reader, I’ve written on that subject elsewhere.[5]

Primarily, I’ll focus here on the question of how sinners can be justified. And I’ll argue that justification is by faith alone in Jesus Christ. I will make my case from the Bible and then I’ll urge us to believe this gospel, as opposed to any other, by clarifying the biblical position in contrast to others – both old and new.

If you’re reading this essay with your Bible beside you, then turn now to Romans 3, and let’s try to understand the biblical answer to our desperate question: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?”

THESIS

God justifies sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, and unjustified sinners should expect God’s justice; therefore, let us receive God’s righteousness by faith.

1.  GOD JUSTIFIES SINNERS THROUGH THE WORK OF JESUS CHRIST

Romans 3:9-28 is a small portion of an entire letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome during the first century. Though the “Roman Catholic Church” would grow to mean something far different in time, the “church in Rome” then was simply the united body of Christian believers who lived in Rome.

Paul’s letter to these Christians was and is a masterful treatise on the gospel. As a matter of fact, this letter was one of the books of the Bible which Martin Luther taught through at the seminary in Wittenberg. But he didn’t always enjoy the book of Romans as a marvelous display of God’s grace and love.

Luther initially had some trouble with chapter 1, verse 17, which says, “In it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness [or justice] of God is revealed…” Luther said of this verse,

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle [or letter] to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice [or righteousness] of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing [sinners]… My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my [good work] would [satisfy] him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.”[6]

Luther understood that sinners are guilty before God, and Luther knew God’s righteousness demands justice. And that’s where the gospel message begins for all of us… with bad news, and not good.

In Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, he had begun his description of the gospel by talking about the unrighteous foolishness of all sinners, who naturally reject God’s truth and choose lies and sin instead (Romans 1:18-32). The Jewish Christians might have been tempted to think that they were better off than everyone else, since they had received God’s special revelation of His law… or, as Paul calls it in chapter 3, verse 2, “the oracles of God.”

Remember, up until that point in human history, God had only revealed His law to one people-group – the descendants of Abraham. But that revelation was not sufficient to solve the problem of sin for anyone – Jew or Gentile. And that’s where I’ll pick it up in chapter 3, verse 9.

Paul asked, “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” And his answer was, “No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…” The Scripture says, everyone is “under” sin… both those who know God’s law and those who haven’t received any special revelation of it. But, what does it mean to be “under” sin? 

Well, verses 10-18 describe it for us. Drawing from multiple Old Testament passages, Paul lays out a diagnosis of natural humanity – that is fallen, unregenerate, and unbelieving humanity.

Romans 3:10-18 says, “10 as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, noteven one.’ 13 ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ 14 ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ 15 ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.’ 18 ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”

This is terrible news! The Bible tells us clearly that no human being is naturally “righteous” (v10), no one “seeks for God” (v11), no one “does good” (v12), and no one has any “fear of God” (v18). Friend, this is a diagnosis of you and me. Neither of us naturally seeks for God; neither of us naturally does what is right; and neither of us naturally has any genuine fear or reverence for God.

Why in the world, then, should God be favorable toward us?!

The short and honest answer is, He should not be! 

But it gets worse. Even the benefit of God’s law is no help to sinners like us. Look at verse 19 and following. The Bible says, “19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19–20).

What does the Bible say God’s law does to us when it shows up in our lives? It “stops” our “mouths” and it shows us our “accountability” or “liability” or “guilt” before God. The law is no help to us, not because the law is bad, but because we are.

Do you feel the weight of what Luther was wrestling with when he thought the gospel revealed only “the justice” or the “wrath” of God? What does God’s “righteousness” or “justice” mean for sinners like us?

If God’s gospel only reveals the justice by which God judges sinners, then the gospel mocks us in our despair and misery by giving us wretched news. It only condemns us more profoundly.

But Luther kept on reading and he kept on thinking this through. He said,

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17). Then I grasped that the justice of God is thatrighteousness by which… through grace and sheer mercy… God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise…”[7]

What did Luther understand that brought such a change? I think he understood the heart of the gospel, which we find in Romans 3, verses 21-26. The Bible says, “21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Friend, we see here the beginning of the good news. There is a sense in which God gives righteousness, through Jesus Christ, to those who believe. But how can this be? How can God, who is righteous and just, grant or give righteousness to dirty rotten sinners like us?

Look at the end of verse 22. It says, “For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Friend, here we come right to the blazing core of the Christian gospel. The question we’re after is: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” Or, to put it the other way around, “How can God’s justice against sinners be satisfied without punishing sinners?”

The answer we see in Romans 3:22-25 is that God satisfied His own wrath by “putting forward” His own Son (Jesus Christ) as a “propitiation” …or as J. I. Packer put it, Jesus was put forward as a “wrath-quencher.”[8]

I don’t think it’s important that you be able to pronounce the word (propitiation), but your soul depends on you being able to understand the meaning of it. Propitiation is the act of appeasing or satisfying someone. In this case, the furious party is God, and the object of His wrath is the sinner (disobedient people like us). And the propitiating act was the work of Christ upon the cross.

We know Jesus offered propitiation at the cross because it was “by his blood” (v25). And we know that it was this substitutionary sacrifice that brought about “justification” because“justification” is what this whole passage is about. Those sinners who are condemned by their sin in verse 23 are “justified” by God’s grace “through” Christ’s “propitiatory” death in verses 24-25. And verse 26 continues the same thought. “It,” i.e. the propitiating work of Christ, “was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time, so that he [God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Only in the wrath-quenching death of Jesus, who died as a substitute for all those who repent (turn from sin) and believe (trust in Him), can God be both the just God who judges sin and the justifying God who saves or justifies sinners.

Only in the person and work of Jesus Christ is God’s righteousness displayed, both in the punishment of some sinners and in the reward of righteousness, which God gives to other sinners through Jesus Christ.

But is this reward of righteousness something that any sinner earns or deserves? NO! It is a “gift” that comes to sinners by or because of God’s “grace” (v24). And, now, Paul’s question in verse 27 is appropriate: “Then what becomes of our boasting?” And what does he say? “It is excluded. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”

You bet it’s excluded! What boasting can you do if all you contribute to your justification before God is your sin?! How can you boast if all you’ve done is passively put your faith in God’s gracious gift?!

God accomplished it all! God effectively, actually, and irrevocably saves sinners!

God alone and sovereignly makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His own Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross. This is why our hearts may rejoice as we sing: 

How deep the Father’s love for us… How vast beyond all measure…                    

That He should give His only Son… To make a wretch His treasure, 

Why should I gain from His reward… I cannot give an answer…                                  

But this I know with all my heart… His wounds have paid my ransom.

But what does this doctrine of justification by faith or trust in what God has done in Jesus mean for those sinners who do not trust in or have faith in Jesus?

2.  UNJUSTIFIED SINNERS SHOULD EXPECT GOD’S JUSTICE

This will be a relatively short point, but it’s one worth making. And it will probably be the second-most offensive point I’ll make in this essay.

If you look to verses 25-26 of our passage, you’ll read an interesting couple of lines. The Scripture says, “This [and This is referring to Christ’s propitiating work on the cross] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It [i.e. Jesus’ propitiation, His sacrificial death] was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time…”

Friend, the Bible never asks, “How could a loving God send someone to hell?” The Bible, unlike self-centered rebels like us, is far more interested in God’s glory than it is in man’s comfort or in our foolish presumptions about fairness.

In verses 25 and 26, the Bible is telling us that God’s own righteousness might have been in question if He hadn’t displayed His wrath in the work of Jesus Christ. The underlying question here is: If God is a perfect judge who always delivers impartial justice, then where is it?! Sinners seem to be walking around freely right now, and God has even promised to let some sinners escape His justice!

Ah, the Bible says, God hasn’t let His waves of justice roll just yet, but there is no question that God will pour out His wrath on all sinners everywhere. We know this because we can see God’s commitment to justice in the cross of Jesus Christ. Do you think God will spare any of us if He did not spare His own Son?  

Friend, do not presume upon the riches of God’s kindness and patience!

Don’t you know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

You should turn away from your sin and cling tightly to Jesus. You should plead with God to blot out your transgressions with the blood of His own Son, so that you may be spared from God’s unrelenting wrath, which is surely coming.

God will show no pity in the day of judgment. Look what He has done to His beloved Son in order to save those sinners who are recipients of His grace!

The Bible says that if you do not repent and cling to Jesus then you are “storing up wrath for yourself” which will be poured out “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

Unbelieving and unrepentant sinners should expect nothing but God’s justice.

3.  GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IS RECEIVED BY FAITH ALONE

With this point, which will probably be the most offensive one to some readers, I’m going to contrast the biblical gospel with other versions of the gospel, which are not really any gospel at all. My purpose here is not to be divisive or mean just for the sake of meanness. But, rather, my purpose is to hold up the true gospel, right next to some other ideas that try to pass themselves off as the gospel, so that we will know better how to tell the difference. 

Remember our primary question. We’re asking, “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” I’ve answered this question already by pointing us to Romans 3, and by arguing from the Bible that God makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross.

But how does any sinner receive this gracious gift of righteousness? In real time and in the experience of our real lives, how do we move from being an object of God’s wrath to being an object of His grace and mercy? 

Well, from God’s perspective, the matter is already settled. From before the foundation of the world, He has loved and chosen a people for His name’s sake. And the Father sent the Son into the world in order to die as the substitute for those He came to save (or to justify). And God’s Spirit perfectly applies the work of Christ to all those the Father has loved and chosen.[9]

Praise God for such a marvelous salvation! He has decided it. He has planned it. And He will complete it perfectly… all the way through to the end!

But, from our perspective, the matter is still unfolding. We don’t come into this world knowing and believing the gospel of Christ. We are not naturally loving and serving our good King. Rather, we begin as guilty and rebellious sinners.

How, then, do sinners like us trade our unrighteousness for the righteousness of God in Christ? Or, to put it another way, what must we do to be saved (or justified) before God?

It will probably be helpful if I add a little clarifying note with regard to the precise language I’m using when I say “justified.” The Bible speaks of “salvation” as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that will happen.

The Christian has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved. But this is a way of using the same word to mean slightly different things.

What we really mean when we speak this way is: The Christian has been regenerated, justified, and adopted into the family of God. The Christian is being sanctified, renewed, and spiritually matured. And the Christian will be glorified, resurrected, and made perfect in Jesus Christ.

So, to speak of “justification” is to refer to a precise aspect of the overall work and experience of Christian salvation. But justification is a critical piece of the puzzle. In fact, Martin Luther said,

“The article of justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness.”[10]

Indeed, to get justification wrong is to lose the gospel altogether. To get justification wrong is to lose salvation and to lose even the whole Christian church. So, let’s dig just a little deeper into justification here.

In the 16th century, and still today, the Roman Catholic Church taught and teaches that a sinner actively participates in his or her justification by (at minimum) observing the sacraments of the Church, of which baptism is primary.[11] In other words, justification is not only an act of God, but it is also an activity in which the sinner plays an “instrumental” role, namely the sinner contributes to the “process” of his or her justification by performing religious duties.[12]

In fact, Rome has formally condemned anyone who teaches or believes the view that justification is something only God does through Christ, which is to be received only by simple faith.[13] Simply put, Rome has officially declared eternal damnation on anyone who teaches or believes the doctrine of justification as I have explained it above.

But Rome is not the only church to teach a gospel of justification by faith plus religious obedience. Historically consistent Churches of Christ teach the same. For example, Graceton Church of Christ (located near me) affirms that baptism is “an act which is essential to salvation.”[14]  Very much like official Roman Catholicism, Churches of Christ seem to mix together faith in the Lord Jesus with other religious activities which Christians are commanded to do as a result of their faith in Jesus.

But the Bible doesn’t teach justification by faith plus anything!

The Bible teaches us that God justifies by His grace through the work of Jesus Christ. Justification is not something we do. It’s not something we can do! We don’t contribute to our justification in any way. We are passive recipients of God’s gracious and effective work, which provides perfect righteousness for us.

This is marvelous good news for sinners like us, because it means that we have a truly effective savior. Jesus didn’t just make salvation possible for sinners like us; He truly and actually died in our place. And in so doing, He quenched God’s wrath against us and made us righteous in God’s sight. We must simply believe or trust that this is true.

At 3:00 AM on February 18, 1546, Martin Luther was dying, and his friend asked him, “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?” Luther simply responded, “Yes.”

May God help us too, to have no guilt in life and no fear in death. May God help us all to stand in the love, in the sacrifice, and in the power of Jesus Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Luther, Martin. The Large Catechism. Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dan. Published in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921. http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/wittenberg-boc.html

Packer, J. I., and Dever, Mark. In My Place Condemned He Stood. Crossway, 2007.

Rafferty, Oliver. P. Catholic Views of Justification. In P. R. Eddy, J. K. Beilby, & S. E. Enderlein (Eds.),Justification: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Crown Publishing Group, First Image Books edition, 1995.

Sproul, R. C. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Baker Books, 1995.

Waterworth, J. Ed. and trans. The Council of Trent. The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent. London: Dolman, 1848. Scanned by Hanover College students in 1995.

ENDNOTES


[1] See the official Vatican authorization of indulgences as recently as March 20 of 2020. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/03/20/pope-francis-authorizes-plenary-indulgences-and-general-absolution-coronavirus

[2] See Luther’s 95 theses: https://marcminter.com/2017/03/30/martin-luthers-95-theses/  

[3] See this article on Luther’s conversion: https://www.ligonier.org/blog/story-martin-luthers-conversion/

[4] Quote from: Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (p. 15). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

[5] Here’s a popular level article I wrote on the subject: https://marcminter.com/2017/05/10/christians-dont-need-the-bible/ and here’s a more academic article on the same: https://marcminter.com/2018/11/01/sufficiency-of-scripture/

[6] Sproul, 56-57.

[7] Sproul, 57.

[8] Packer, 23.

[9] See all of this laid out in Ephesians 1:3-14; Romans 8:27-39; 2 Timothy 1:8-12; and elsewhere.

[10] Sproul, 67.

[11] Rafferty, 280. See also chapter 7 of the sixth session of the Council of Trent, which says, “Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only- begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just…”

[12] Rafferty, 278-280.

[13] See Waterworth, session 6, especially canons 9, 12, 24, and 30.

[14] See full content at http://www.churches-of-christ.net/tracts/job041u.htm

Prepare to Preach

So, you’re scheduled to preach… huh?

Whether you are a seasoned preacher or a novice who is only just starting out, you are probably glad to hear how other preachers prepare for the task. As a matter of fact, a preacher spends far more time on preparation than he does on preaching, and yet preparation is the part the job which very few people actually see. So many preachers have fewer tools in the belt than they’d like as they start to build their sermon.

To the interested reader, a few good books will give you more than this article. I recommend Preach by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert. This book will provide an over the shoulder look at how two different preachers think about preaching and how they each prepare to do it. I also recommend Getting the Message by Daniel Doriani. This book will help the preacher with some basic mechanics for interpreting and applying the Bible faithfully.

The content below is my own list of tips and helps, which I give to any preacher in my own church. When I invite a church member to preach for the first time or when i want to encourage an experienced preacher to hone his craft, I send the substance below. In other words, this is the stuff I use in real life as a preacher and as a pastor of other preachers. May it be a help to you in some way.

Prepare Yourself

As you begin to prepare, you’ll want to keep some general thoughts in mind.

In one sense, preaching is nothing special. You aren’t firing a rocket to the moon. You’re simply reading a text from the Bible, interpreting that text, and then seeking to explain it and apply it in generally helpful ways.

Take comfort, my friend. Your effort to faithfully perform this simple (i.e. uncomplicated) task is likely going to honor Christ and edify His people!

In another sense, preaching is totally unique. A preacher stands between God and the world, and he has the audacity to say, “Thus says the LORD God of the universe…” A preacher stands ahead of a congregation and aims to do great good to all of them by feeding their eternal souls with the living and active words of God.

Take notice, my friend. God Himself will judge you for what you say and do in the pulpit.

Lastly, remember that God is delighted to bless faithful preachers. The time and effort you give to preparation and to the delivery of your sermon will likely be a great blessing to you and to those who hear you. Just try your best to be faithful to Scripture. Aim to persuade the unconverted, to motivate the lethargic, to comfort the downcast, to rebuke the rebellious, and to strengthen the weak. In humility, pray that God will help you… and trust that He will.

Now, on to the mechanics of preparing.

Basic Steps

First, familiarize yourself with the context of your passage.

Try to understand the basic idea of the book and the context of the verse or verses. Read the whole book in which your verse is found (in one sitting if you can). Most books of the Bible can be read in less than 30 mins, and those that take longer are usually narratives, which can be broken into smaller portions according to the storyline. Psalms and Leviticus are exemplary exceptions, but books like these can also be broken into productive chunks.

If you can read the whole book multiple times (like once every day for a week or two), then you will notice great gains in your familiarity with the flow and content of the book. This will help you keep from pulling your particular preaching passage out of context later. You’ll also want to read your specific passage many times over. I recommend reading it aloud as well, and you may benefit from having someone else read it out loud to you (audio tech tools can be a help here).

Pray through your passage, asking God to grant what He commands there or praising God for what He reveals about Himself there. I regularly find myself praying, “God, help me believe this!” or “God, help me trust You for this!” or “God, help me do this!” Prayer will be helpful throughout your preparation, and remember that God intends for us to depend upon Him for illumination and insight.

Outlining your passage is another exercise to familiarize yourself with it. You might outline the whole book (like Titus or Colossians) or you might just outline the immediate Scripture context (like the storyline centered upon Joseph in the book of Genesis or the storyline focused on Jesus and the woman at the well in John’s Gospel).

However broad your outline reaches, you want to zero in on an outline for your passage. This outline for your preaching text is often called an exegetical outline. Try to create an outline on your own, without using someone else’s notes. If you’ve never done this before, or if you want to check yourself after you’ve done it, then you can usually find an outline of each book of the Bible in a study Bible or a commentary. In a study Bible, it’s almost always at the beginning of the book, where other introductory notes can be found as well.

The second step in preparation is collecting your thoughts.

Write or type them out. Don’t worry about organizing them yet, and don’t worry about having too much. Just put down everything that comes to mind.

  • What does God reveal about Himself here?
  • Is a major Christian doctrine addressed here?
  • What does God reveal about humanity here?
  • Is this passage primarily an imperative (command) or an indicative (a description of what is true)?
  • How does the indicative of this passage lead into or undergird the imperative?
  • What is the main point or theme or idea of this passage?

Write down personal questions or comments too.

  • What do you personally find confusing here?
  • Is there some odd word or concept you don’t quite understand?
  • What sticks out as especially profound or powerful?
  • Is there anything about this passage you’d like to study further when you have the time later on?

Whatever personal thoughts or questions you have about your passage, these may give you insight to the kinds of confusion or interest your listeners might have when you preach through it. In the end, you’ll have to decide what content to keep and what to leave on the cutting room floor, but everyone will benefit from the time you give to diving into your passage as deeply as possible within the time-frame you have available.

Third, you should organize your thoughts.

Arrange your thoughts in a sermon outline (often called a homiletical outline), such as the one below. Most preachers have a set time window, and I find it helpful to generally allocate space to each major point or section based on the time I want to spend there. An even distribution might be: 5 minutes on an introduction, 10 minutes on each major point, and 5 minutes on a conclusion.

Preparing an introduction may give you the chance to sharpen your focus at the outset of creating your outline, but I often write my introduction after I’ve completed most or all of my outline (sometimes even after I’ve written most of my sermon’s content). I am regularly not clear about how to concisely introduce my theme or emphasis until I’ve gotten pretty far into my sermon outline.

Whenever you choose to create your introduction, the body of your message is where you’ll spend most of your time. I find the traditional 3-point-sermon to be a faithful friend. I have sometimes strayed, using many more or even less, but 3 points regularly work just fine for building out the message I want to communicate. Here is one way you might structure your points:

  • Background/Scene/Context – Help the congregation understand the basic idea of the book and the context of the verse. 
    • Who is the author?
    • Who is the audience?
    • What is the author’s purpose? 
    • What is the occasion?
    • How does this relate to our own circumstances?
    • How should our own perspective or posture be calibrated by this information?
  • Explain/Interpret the Passage – Help the congregation understand what the passage is actually saying.
    • What did this mean when the author wrote it?
    • What themes or doctrines or commands do we see in the verse?
    • How might you summarize the truth-claims or the commands in modern language?
  • Application – Help the congregation understand what they should do and/or what they should believe because of what you have explained.
    • What should a non-Christian do with this verse?
    • What should a middle-aged mom do with it?
    • What should a retired couple do with it? 
    • A weak or hurting Christian?
    • A proud or indifferent Christian?
    • What should the church as a whole do or change by way of application?
    • How should church members adjust their practice of hospitality or their discipling efforts or their financial giving?

Fourth, decide what you’re going to bring with you to the pulpit.

Once you have your thoughts organized, you may want to write out a full manuscript of what you intend to say when you preach. Even if you don’t plan to preach from a full manuscript, the exercise of writing the whole thing out will probably help you be far more focused in your preaching than you might otherwise be.

There are various arguments among preachers about what you should bring with you to the pulpit. Should you preach from a full manuscript? Should you bring detailed or limited notes? Should you bring nothing at all? The short answer is: do whatever seems to fit your skill and personality best. But whatever you do, do it for God’s glory and not yours or anyone else’s.

If your personality is strong and you are comfortable with extemporaneous speaking, then you might use a manuscript in order to keep yourself from becoming too much of a distraction from the content of the message. You might also want a manuscript if you are less experienced or if you are prone to chase rabbits off the trail.

If you are naturally dry and monotone, then maybe you’ll want to use as few notes as possible so as to keep your eyes up and your face toward the congregation. Some preachers also find the discipline of using no notes in the pulpit to be an invigorating experience of God’s help and human dependence.

Remember that God’s Spirit will be with you in the study just as much as He is with you in the pulpit. Don’t be so naive as to think that a greater or lesser use of notes in the pulpit necessarily means any greater or lesser dependence upon God’s Spirit. Just prepare diligently, pray for God’s help, and faithfully preach as well as you may with whatever tools will help you do it with excellence and without distracting from God’s word.

May God raise up more faithful preachers, and may God bless the time and effort you might spend on this worthwhile task of preaching.

If you are a preacher, and if you are helped by any of the content I’ve listed here, then I’d be so glad to hear from you. If you aren’t far from East Texas, then I might even be interested in hearing you preach sometime. Drop me a line… Who knows what could happen?

What has the Sabbath to do with the Lord’s Day?

Have you ever thought much about the calendar?

If you’re like me, then your calendar pretty much runs your life most days. I have everything from church activities to gym time and my work schedule to family dinner scheduled on my calendar. My phone is constantly beeping at me, telling me what I’m supposed to be doing next.

But I wonder if it’s ever occurred to you that some people in the world, even right now, don’t have the same calendar as you do. I’m typing these words on September 13, 2020. But, on the traditional Chinese calendar, it’s the 26th day of the seventh month in the year of the Rat. Of course, China uses the Gregorian calendar when relating to most of the rest of the world, but there are several cultures in the world that keep dates and times differently than Americans do.

In Iran and Afghanistan, it’s the 25th day of the first month of the year 1442, which counts from the year when Muhammad arrived in Medina. On the Jewish calendar, it’s either the last month of the year 5780, or the first month of the year 5781. Modern Jews differ some with each other on exactly how to count the date.[1]

Interestingly, the Jewish year comes from a 4th century Jewish mathematician named Hillel, who calculated what he believed was the original date of creation, based on genealogies and other dates from the Old Testament. In fact, every calendar I could find from any culture was directly tied to one religion or another… It seems that humanity is – at its core – inevitably religious.

Not only is the annual calendar deeply rooted in religious observance, so too is the weekly calendar. So far as I can tell, there are only a few cultures in the history of humanity that did not observe a seven-day week. Fascinatingly, one of those cultures was ancient Egypt. They observed a ten-day week, and that’s almost certainly what the people of Israel would have been doing when they followed Moses out of their Egyptian captivity.

As with any ancient thing, there is some dispute about the exact origins of the seven-day week, for Israel or for anyone else.  Some argue that the Israelites borrowed the seven-day week from the Canaanites, who got it from the Babylonians, and (they say) the Hebrews transformed the seventh day of the week into a day that would suit their own religious practices.

As a matter of fact, if you do a Google search for “seven-day-week,” it will tell you that it originates from a Babylonian calendar, which was based on a calendar from the Sumerians, which itself dates back to around 2000 B.C. But the biblical view of the origin of the Sabbath (and of the seven-day week) for Israel is quite clear. Sabbath observance began when God commanded Israel to observe it, and with the Sabbath, at least for Israel, came the seven-day week.[2]

Incidentally, it seems to me that the seven-day week universally originates in God’s creative work. Adam and Eve were created on the “sixth day” of creation, and God “blessed” and “rested” on the “seventh day” (Genesis 1:26-2:3). Adam and Eve, learning God’s special blessing and rest on the seventh day, likely continued to practice something similar.

So, it is no surprise to me that the ancient historical record shows people groups from all over the world observing a seven-day week. They probably learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents (leading all the way back to Adam and Eve), and they didn’t need special revelation to learn about a seven-day week or a weekly day of rest.

At any rate, what we are encountering in the 10 Commandments is nothing short of remarkable. The Bible is telling us about the beginning of the Israelite nation, the formation of Israel’s religion (at least in its Mosaic-covenantal system), and even the origins of Israel’s weekly calendar.

Let’s take a look at the biblical text – the 10 Commandments – and then I’ll make a case that the fourth commandment – the Sabbath command – was always meant to point to ultimate rest in Jesus Christ. After I make that case, I’ll turn toward the Christian Lord’s Day, and I’ll offer some pastoral instruction on why and how Christians are to observe the Lord’s Day each Sunday.

EXODUS 20:1–17 (ESV)

1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 

3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 

4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. 

8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 

11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. 

12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 

13 “You shall not murder. 

14 “You shall not commit adultery. 

15 “You shall not steal. 

16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” 

WHAT IS THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT?

The fourth commandment begins in Exodus 20, verse 8: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, [or anyone else within Israel’s gates].”

But, the very first time the word “Sabbath” is mentioned in the Bible is Exodus 16. You might remember how God began to provide daily bread for His people – manna from the sky – to be gathered and eaten every day. But on the sixth day, God commanded His people to gather twice as much, so that they would not gather on the seventh day.

Instead of work, God indented His people to rest on the seventh day. God said,

“Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.”

Exodus 16:23

Indeed, the root word for Sabbath means rest… and this is a constant and a key aspect of the Sabbath throughout the Mosaic covenant.

After some people disobeyed God’s command, and went out to gather manna on the seventh day, Moses rebuked them, saying,

“The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.”

Exodus 16:29

Again, God’s command was that the Sabbath was a day of rest. The people of Israel were not to go out and work for their daily bread as on other days.

After that, the next time the Sabbath appears is in the 10 Commandments, and here it came with an example.

“For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

Exodus 20:11

Pairing the Sabbath command with God’s own rest on the seventh day of creation implies that both the Sabbath and the creation order itself (in some sense) point toward blessing and rest for God’s people.

In Exodus 23, God repeated and even emphasized the idea that the Sabbath was not just for the Israelites. It was also for the benefit of the foreigner and even the animals.

“Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.”

Exodus 23:12

Here, again, we see that the Sabbath was a day of “refreshing” and of “rest.” This time we also see the emphasis that Sabbath rest was for anyone and anything associated with Israel, both alien and animal.

In Exodus 31, when God concluded the giving of the law and the instructions for the tabernacle, He repeated the Sabbath command yet again. Here there is added force behind the command, and God also set the Sabbath apart as a sign of His covenant with Israel. God said,

“Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”

Exodus 31:12–17

So, again, the Sabbath was a day of “solemn rest” and “refreshing.” But here we see the added fact that God instituted this particular commandment as a sign “between [Him] and the people of Israel.” The sign of the Sabbath was to signify God’s “covenant” with Israel through Moses. And, anyone who didn’t keep or observe this sign of the Mosaic covenant was to be “put to death.” 

One last passage in Exodus gives us a bit more insight into this command, and that’s Exodus 35. Immediately after God finished giving Moses the commandments atop Mt. Sinai, the people of Israel formed an idol at the base of the mountain and started to worship it! You can read about that in chapter 32.

After that, Moses prayed for God’s mercy upon the people, and God graciously renewed His covenant through Moses with the people of Israel. That’s in chapters 33 and 34. And in Exodus 35, we’re told that Moses repeated God’s commands to the whole congregation of Israel (v1), but the one command explicitly recorded in the text is the fourth commandment – the Sabbath (v2). Here again, in this covenant renewal, God emphatically revealed the Sabbath command as a sign of His covenant with Israel.

I believe we can learn several things about the meaning of the fourth commandment from this summary (above) of the Sabbath passages in Exodus.

One, the fourth commandment was a command to rest, particularly from the work of everyday life.

Two, Sabbath rest was explicitly for the seventh day of the week, and it was for everyone (Jew and non-Jew alike) within Israel’s covenant community.

Three, the fourth commandment was a sign of the Mosaic covenant. It was a visible feature of God’s relationship with Israel.

Four, the Sabbath was to be kept or observed as a sign forever, or at least as long as the covenant itself was in effect.

Five, the fourth commandment, like God’s original work of creation, was meant to point forward to an anticipated and far greater rest in the future.

You can probably already see the uniqueness of the fourth commandment when compared with the other nine. In fact, I believe the Sabbath command serves as a kind of hinge point for the whole list.

The first set of commands are often called the “First Table” of the law because they pertain to our relationship with God. And the last six are often called the “Second Table” because they pertain to our relationship with other people. This fourth commandment seems to me to be in a category all its own. It is a sign which obviously points to something beyond itself and even beyond the other commandments.

Let’s turn our focus now to investigate this idea of “sign” more fully.

HOW IS THE SABBATH A SIGN?

We’ve already seen in Exodus that God has given this fourth commandment as a “sign” for His people. In fact, God gave the Sabbath as a “sign” of the Mosaic covenant in particular. But God attaching a “sign” to His a covenant is not new with Moses or Sinai.

In Genesis 9, God made a covenant with the whole world through Noah, and God gave the sign of a rainbow, demonstrating His universal promise not to destroy the world again with water (Genesis 9:12-17).

In Genesis 17, God made a covenant with Abraham and his “offspring,” and God gave the sign of circumcision to go along with it (Genesis 17:11). This sign symbolized the promise – an offspring who would bless the whole world – and also symbolized the necessary separation between God’s people and the world around.

In Exodus 20, with the Mosaic covenant between God and Israel, God gave the associated sign of the Sabbath. And the Sabbath signified God’s covenantal promises to Israel. More than that, it also pointed toward God’s ultimate promise of final rest for His people, something God had embedded in the very order of creation itself. As I said earlier, there’s something about the Sabbath and the order of creation that makes both of them imply God’s promises of blessings and rest.

Therefore, the question we must answer is: “What future rest did the Sabbath signal?”

The answer to this question is not too difficult to find in Scripture. The Bible as a whole clearly communicates the idea that “God’s rest” is ultimately provided in and through Jesus Christ. The New Testament picks up on this idea in several places, but let’s take a look at just a few.

The author of Hebrews, for example, says that there “remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9), and he urges his readers to “enter [God’s] rest” (v11) by “drawing near” to God through the way which Jesus Christ has prepared by His priestly sacrifice (v14-16).

Revelation 14 contrasts the final destinations of the cursed and the blessed, and the text keys in on rest or the lack thereof. Those under God’s wrath will be tormented forever, and “they [will] have no rest” (v11). But those who are blessed by God will “have rest from all their labors…” (v13).

Rest is a major theme throughout the Bible, and rest is a major theme of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But let me point to one more passage to demonstrate the specific connection of the Sabbath rest to that rest which is experienced in and through the New Covenant.

One very common question for early Christians, many of whom were Jewish, was, “What do we do with all of the Mosaic laws and holy days?”

In Colossians 2, especially verses 16 through 23, the Apostle Paul basically answered the question by saying that Christians may keep the laws and holy days if they wish. But the text is emphatic that Christians should only do so as an expression of love and gratitude toward Christ. Christians should never observe days or laws as an effort to earn or sustain a right standing before God.

On a side-but-related note, the New Testament also warns the Christians not to make legalistic demands on other believers who don’t share their same convictions about days or foods or social taboos (see Romans 14, the whole chapter).

Back in Colossians 2, we learn that all days are holy to those in the New Covenant. Christians are to live every day in love for and service to God. Christians don’t just worship in one location or on certain days of the week or month or year (see John 4). Christians live their whole lives to the glory and honor of God through Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:17), which is the essence of the third commandment!

As I said above, there is an explicit connection between the Sabbath rest and that which Jesus provides, and Colossians 2 shows us this connection. Additionally, Colossians 2 simultaneously links Sabbath observance with other obsolete aspects of the Mosaic covenant. The Scripture says,

“Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

Colossians 2:16-17

In other words, the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant – including dietary laws, various holy days and ceremonies, and even the Sabbath – were all shadowy guides, which were always intended to aim people toward Jesus. Since Jesus Christ has come, He has unveiled the New Covenant, and He is the “substance” to which those “shadows” and signs pointed. Therefore, the shadows (including the Sabbath) are no longer necessary.

Jesus obeyed every command God gave through Moses, Jesus did all of the work of an Old Covenant priest, and Jesus offered Himself as the once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin and disobedience. Now, in the New Covenant, all of God’s promises of blessing and favor and peace and rest have become accessible by grace through faith in Jesus.

I’m arguing that God’s Sabbath rest is available to anyone right now through the person and work of Jesus Christ! And, right there inside of the 10 Commandments, God gave Israel a picture of what God had always planned to give everyone who turns from sin and trusts in Jesus. God always planned to give real, true, and eternal rest in Christ.

Jesus Himself calls out to those who will listen,

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28–30

It is no coincidence that this call from Jesus, which is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, is followed by two short narratives where Jesus demonstrates His own superiority to the Sabbath. Jesus offers a far superior rest to that of the Mosaic Sabbath.

WHY & HOW DO WE OBSERVE THE LORD’S DAY?

I said at the outset of this essay that my main point was to argue that the Sabbath command was always meant to point to ultimate rest in Christ. And that’s what I’ve tried to present to you so far. But the second half of my main point was/is that we (Christians) observe the Lord’s Day in order to celebrate our rest in Christ now and to edify one another until He comes.

So, let me offer the following defense of the theses: Christians observe the Lord’s Day, not as a new Sabbath, but as a uniquely Christian day, in order to celebrate Christian rest and to edify one another.

First, a very brief historical overview. The New Testament shows us that Christians began gathering on the first day of the week almost immediately after Jesus was raised from the dead on that Resurrection Sunday morning. In Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, Scripture clearly names the “first day of the week” (Sunday) as a special time for Christian gathering, for communion, for discipling, for teaching, and for regular financial giving.

In the book of Revelation, John tells his readers that something happened to him “on the Lord’s day,” and he assumes that his readers will simply know what that day is (Revelation 1:10). This strongly implies that within the first generation of the earliest Christians, the first day of the week was already being referred to as the Lord’s Day.

In addition, many early Christians – especially those who were Jewish – observed both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. They didn’t initially see Sabbath observance as having any conflict with their Christian faith. But the universal Christian day of the week was clearly the Lord’s day (Sunday) and not the Sabbath (Saturday). Early Christians were allowed to observe the Sabbath if they wanted, but they were never obligated to do so.

It was about 300 years before Sunday was a day off of work in the Roman empire. So, gathering on the Lord’s Day was a far more costly commitment on the part of early Christians. And it clearly was not a Sabbath, since it wasn’t a day on which Christians rested from work. But, when the Roman emperor Constantine designated Christianity as a nationally recognized religion, he also made Sundays a national day of rest.

And this, more than anything else, seems to have been the initial step for Christians beginning to mix the Mosaic Sabbath with the Christian Lord’s Day. The mixture of these two distinct days appears to have continued during the Medieval period, and it was certainly hardened during the Protestant Reformation. This is evident by the fact that all of my favorite Protestant confessions and catechisms conflate the Sabbath with the Lord’s Day. But, with all due respect, this simply ought not be.

The Mosaic Sabbath day was and is the seventh day of the week (Saturday). It was a day of rest and the sign of the Mosaic covenant, which pointed toward Christ and ultimate rest in Him.

The Lord’s Day was and is the first day of the week (Sunday). It is a day of celebration and edification, and it’s a particular day on which Christians anticipate final rest in Christ.

In short, the two simply are not the same. Both New Testament and early Church history make this clear.

“Ok,” you might be thinking, “That’s all somewhat interesting, but what do we do with the Lord’s Day?”

Well, let me speak directly to the questions at hand.

Why do we observe the Lord’s Day?

Christians gather on the Lord’s Day (1) because that’s what Christians have been doing right from the beginning, (2) because the New Testament teaches us to gather regularly for the purposes of celebration and edification, and (3) because our Lord and Redeemer came back from death to life on a Sunday morning just like this one… and that’s a really big deal.

How do we observe the Lord’s Day?

Christians observe the Lord’s Day (1) by setting it aside for a particular focus on Christ and on His people, (2) by devoting time and effort to those things commanded in Scripture, and (3) by commemorating what Christ has done and eagerly anticipating what Christ will do.

Let me finish this essay by giving three practical pastoral examples of the kinds of things Christians might do, especially on Sundays, in order to observe the Lord’s Day.

First, Christians should make a special effort on Sundays to show “brotherly affection” and “honor” to their fellow church members (Romans 12:10). Christians should look and listen for needs to meet among their fellow church members. Christians should come to church with the aim to serve others, and they should go out of their way to make other church members feel loved. Of course, all of this can and should take place before, during, and after the Sunday service.

Second, Christians should make a special effort on Sundays to be “kind” and to “forgive one another” (Ephesians 4:32). Christians should confess their sins to one another. They should ask for forgiveness from those they may have wronged. And they should make time and effort to forgive those who have wronged them.

Third, Christians should make a special effort to normally be together with their church family on Sundays. All of the special efforts we might make on Sundays presuppose that we will regularly gather as a church family. Additionally, the Bible commands Christians to gather regularly for congregational worship, prayer, preaching, fellowship, and edification. 

So, Christians should gather regularly with their fellow church members for the purpose of “stirring” one another up toward “love and good works,” for “encouraging” one another in the Lord, and for urging one another to “hold fast” to our trust and hope in Christ until He comes to bring us final rest (Hebrews 10:23-25).

May God help us all to find our ultimate rest in Christ. May God help us eagerly anticipate the final rest to come for all those in Christ. And may God help us (as Christians) to observe the Lord’s Day with intentionality and with joy.

[1] See more info on the Jewish calendar here: https://www.jewfaq.org/calendar.htm

[2] See Dressler’s helpful summary in his essay contained in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, pages 22-24.

Why is the Bible divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament?

The first known division of the two biblical Testaments was by a theologian and pastor in the late 2nd century, named Melito of Sardis. Melito listed 38 of the same 39 books we have today, with the only exception being the book of Esther, which he may have counted as part of one of the other books he listed.[1]

At any rate, Melito didn’t call the Old Testament the Old Testament… Instead, he called it the “παλαια διαθήκη,” which is Greek for Old Covenant or Old Testament. But Greek is a precise language, and there are at least two words which might be translated as covenant. One is “διαθήκη” and the other is “συνθήκη.” 

Unless you’re interested in studying Greek, knowing or remembering these words isn’t that important, but the distinction between the two is important.

συνθήκη means something like contract or agreement, allowing for and even expecting equality among the participants.

διαθήκη conveys the idea of a final will or testament, emphasizing a unilateral or lop-sided contract, where there’s a great benefactor and a lesser beneficiary.

We know what a final will and testament is because many of us have had to deal with settling the estate of a deceased loved one. When the deceased leaves a will behind, it’s usually far easier to distribute his or her assets according to his or her wishes, which should be outlined in the will.

The will is a formal contract, but there is obviously one party whose doing all the giving and the others are simply the beneficiaries.

The concept of a final will and testament, then, conveys what seems to be the biblical reality of God’s covenant with man – God is infinitely greater, He’s the ultimate giver, and man is merely the beneficiary. And that’s why Melito wasn’t alone in noticing that the word testament (διαθήκη) fits the biblical relationship between God and man slightly better than the word covenant (συνθήκη).

About 500 years before Melito, and almost 300 years before the birth of Jesus, 70 translators got together to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (this is called the Septuagint), and they too used the word διαθήκη to translate the Hebrew word for covenant because they also knew that God and man are not equal parties.

And around 400 AD, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments (called the Latin Vulgate), followed the lead of those Greek translators. Jerome called the Old Testament the Vetus Testamentum.

Of course, all English translations have followed the Greek and Latin titles, and that’s why we call them the Old and New Testaments today, and not the Old and New Covenants, even though the English translations most frequently use the word covenant in the Scripture text itself.[2]

The division of the Bible into the Old and New Testaments is evidence that God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. A good question for the reader to ask is, “Which biblical covenant pertains to me?” I recommend that you read Hebrews chapter 9 in the Bible, and then talk about it over lunch or coffee with a good pastor or knowledgeable Christian friend.


[1] See Eusebius’s account of Melito’s list in point #14 of this article. Also, note that Nehemiah was counted along with Ezra (aka “Esdras”) and Lamentations was counted along with Jeremiahhttps://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.ix.xxvi.html#fnf_iii.ix.xxvi-p59.2

[2] https://standingonshoulders.wordpress.com/2009/05/31/where-did-the-term-old-testament-and-new-testament-come-from/

7 Reasons Local Churches Should Remove Non-Attending Members from Their Membership

On Sunday, July 26, 2020, the assembled congregation of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX, spent two hours discussing and voting on more than 400 absentee church members. This meeting came after our lengthy and overt attempts to reconnect with persistently non-attending church members. It was also the culmination of various conversations, teachings, and sermons on the topic of meaningful church membership as part of what it means to live as a Christian in the world.

We’ve been talking about church health and striving to become a healthier church for years, and this was a big step in that direction.

But let me put this qualifying statement right up front: You should absolutely NOT seek to remove non-attending members from your church roster if you haven’t done your due diligence beforehand. A “clean” roster is not the primary goal. We want to understand and practice meaningful membership as a church family, not just impose a ruling from on high.

As you and your church move toward greater health, and as meaningful church membership becomes more readily recognizable, then at some point you’ll be ready to take steps toward addressing your non-attending members. Removing absentee members from the roster will be hard, it will cost you relational credit, and it will require a lot of effort on the part of the pastors and members who understand the importance of doing such a thing. But anything truly worth doing in this world is going to be hard and costly.

Over the course of the last several months, in anticipation of the meeting we had among our church last Sunday, I heard some people raise objections to our planned action. I’d like to use these objections as a way to argue in favor of forging ahead, with the caveat above in mind. Here are seven objections and seven accompanying reasons why I believe local churches should remove non-attending members from their roster.

1. You’re kicking people out!

Both non-attending members and other people in the community are likely to percieve your action as a negative one. However, persistently non-attending members have already kicked themselves out. They have removed themselves from any meaningful relationships among the existing church family.

The local church who removes absentee members from the roster is merely acknowledging on paper what is already true in reality, and absentee members need to realize what they are doing to themselves. Therefore, local churches should remove non-attending members in order to help them understand that they have already effectively removed or excommunicated themselves.

2. We should ask them nicely, not give them ultimatums.

No one likes an ultimatum, since it essentially demands a decisive change. Ultimatums draw a clear line in the sand and force everyone to choose a side. But, at the end of the day, church membership is either going to be meaningful for your local church or it is not. And every local church is eventually going to have to draw the line and force the decision. Otherwise, “church member” will continue to be a meaningless status.

Furthermore, the demand for meaningful church membership should only come after reasonable attempts have been made to extend love and friendship. As I said above, every church should do the due diligence of teaching about membership, reaching out to those who are inactive, and initiating conversations among active members in order to ensure that everyone understands what is happening and why.

At some point, however, a decision has to be made. Therefore, local churches should remove non-attending members in order to reestablish the basic commitment of church membership – regular attendance.

3. Maybe they will start attending again later.

One of the main reasons people resist the idea of removing non-attending church members is that they hold onto the hope that absentee members will eventually return. But this wrongly assumes that removing someone from the membership roster necessarily bars that person from attending church services or prevents them from joining again in the future.

If your church is like mine, then anyone is welcome to attend most all of the services. Previous members who have been removed for non-attendance will be welcomed at regular church gatherings with open arms. And if they decide those removed members want to join again in the future, then we would gladly move in that direction… after, of course, we made it clear that attendance remains a basic expectation.

Local churches should remove non-attending members so that the expectation of regular attendance will be clear if-and-when those removed members ever do come back again.

4. Maybe they are attending another church.

If non-attending members are regularly attending another church, then that’s great! It’s far better that a professing Christian gather regularly with a local church than to flounder about in isolation from Christ’s visible body in the world. But a Christian should be a member of whatever church he or she is regularly attending. That’s the church family who will know him or her best, and the pastors he or she sees regularly will be far more capable of giving quality shepherding care.

Local churches should remove non-attending members so that they will feel compelled to join formally with the church they regularly attend.

5. They have been members here for so long.

Long-time church members can be a marvelous feature of a local church. Members who have been participating with the same church family for decades will often have a kind of relational capital that is hard to come by. These stalwarts of the church and of the community can sometimes personify the best among us.

But one of the main responsiblities older church members have is to give themselves to discipling efforts among younger members (Titus 2:1-10). Older members are responsible to provide examples of Christian virtue and endurance for those younger Christians who are coming up behind them.

Local churches should remove non-attending church members so that younger Christians will know that absentee Christianity is not something to emulate. 

6. These non-attending members are my family!

Many Christians in the Bible-Belt (the American south) have family members who once professed faith in Christ but do not live in any meaningful sense today as followers of Jesus. The difficulties and strains of family relationships can easily compound the seeming difficulty of having candid conversations about spiritual health and church membership with a family member.

But who should love your mom or dad, or your brother or sister, or your cousin, or your aunt or uncle, or your niece or nephew more than you? And who is better suited to address their inconsistent profession of faith in Christ than you are? If your family members says he or she loves Jesus, but lives like a non-Christian in the world, then you are the person who sees and knows this false dichotomy better than anyone else.

Local churches should remove non-attending members in order to make them understand that God doesn’t have any nieces or nephews or grandchildren. God only has children, which are those adopted into His family by virtue of their union with Christ. And the ordinary way such a union is visible in the world is by their ongoing union with other Christians in the context of the local church.

7. This will make them think Christians are judgmental and legalistic.

When Christians make unpopular judgments, the world is quick to accuse them of being judgmental. Moreover, Christians have often been legalistic, and that’s a shame. But, there is a vast difference between being judgmental and making proper judgments.

Christians must never judge superficially, on the basis of socio-economic class or race, for example. But Christ Himself commands Christians to judge one another in matters of morality and obligation. In Scripture, it is clear that “those inside the church” (i.e. professing Christians) are exaclty the ones Christians are to judge with greater severity and expecation when it comes to their morality (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

When Christians speak the truth in love, they will certainly open themselves up to being misunderstood, but this in no way relieves them of the duty to speak the truth and to make biblical judgments. Local churches should remove non-attending members so that those inside and those outside the church will have the practice of biblical judgment modeled for them in a public and obvious way.

In conclusion, non-attending members are not good for a local church. Allowing persitently non-attending members to remain on the church membership roster gives Christians and non-Christians alike the wrong idea about what it means to believe and follow Jesus Christ. Local churches should acknowldge “inactive church membership” as a problem to be solved or as a disease to be medicated or as a dysfunction to be rehabilitated.

Let me offer you (especially if you are a fellow pastor) a caution and an encouragement.

A caution: If you want to follow Christ in this world, as an individual or as an assembly of believers (i.e. a church), then you are going to face challenges and difficulties. The road to the celestial city has many off-ramps and enticing stops along the way. You’ll have good reasons to avoid obedience to Christ as you consider the commands of Scripture. But don’t be fooled. The allure of disobedience is a sham, and it will neither satisfy nor endure.

An encouragement: If you do follow in obedience to Christ in this world, even doing the hard things that very few seem to appreciate, then you will enjoy all of the benefits He’s promised you. Jesus Himself will be with you every step of the way (Matthew 28:18-20). Your efforts for righteousness and obedience will be rewarded (James 1:12; 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Peter 5:1-4). And, especially for those who lead as pastors, you’ll not be ashamed when you stand before the King to give an account (Hebrews 13:17).

May God help us to trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and may He help us to live in grateful obedience to Him. May He also grant us much fruit from our efforts to see healthier churches comprised of committed members.

Working for Healthier Churches in the Bible-belt: The “Letter Transfer”

Pastoring a church in the Bible belt has exposed me to some interesting cultural experiences. The Bible-belt is that swath of states across the southern US which are still home to many cultural Christians. Cultural Christians (those who are Christian only in a cultural sense) share several characteristics with biblical Christians (i.e. true Christians), but cultural Christianity consists of more simple routine and mindless tradition by comparison.

A biblical Christian will commonly seek to know and follow Christ according to Scripture, reading the Bible and striving to align with its teachings, even in the face of cultural opposition. But a cultural Christian will generally adhere to and promulgate the “Christian” traditions he or she has seen or heard from other professing Christians who share the same culture. For the biblical Christian the Bible is functional; its content is authoritative and prescriptive for beliefs and practices. For the cultural Christian the Bible is a sacred religious object, much more akin to a good luck charm than an authoritative text.

One cultural Christian tradition in the Bible-belt is an activity called “transferring your letter.” If you read a lot of church history, or if you’ve ever been involved in a Bible-belt church, then you may know exactly what I’m talking about. But if you don’t know what “transferring your letter” is all about, then allow me to briefly explain.

Many cultural Christians are members of local churches.

As a matter of fact, the Southern Baptist Convention may consist of at least twice as many cultural Christian church members as biblical ones, based on the most recent numbers. Most cultural Christians do not attend church very often (usually less than 3 times a year), but they still count their membership as something of value. And, for some strange reason, many Bible-belt churches are still glad to count these non-attending and non-functioning people as members.

Over time, Christians (biblical and cultural alike) will regularly want to stop being a member of one church and become a member of another. A Christian might move to a new town, he or she might want to help support a new church planting effort, or there might be another good reason for the switch. The most common reasons I’ve noticed in the Bible-belt for members wanting to leave one church for another is (1) to avoid dealing with some personal sin that may be exposed, (2) to protest some action of the old church’s leadership, or (3) an effort to gain in social standing with a new church’s members.

Frequently in the Bible-belt, when a church member wants to make that move, then he or she will request to “transfer” his or her membership “letter.” The “letter” is referring to his or her official membership, and to “transfer” the “letter” is to move his or her official membership from one church to another.

Historically, a “letter of commendation” was regularly given to church members who left a local church in good standing as they moved from one town or area to another.

The “letter” was intended as a kind of passport among like-minded churches. A new and unfamiliar church could basically know that the “letter-carrying” Christian moving into town had been a good church member elsewhere. The pastors and the members of the new church would be generally assured that he or she would likely be a good addition to their church.

Today, “transferring your letter” is more of a perfunctory act between churches who are merely shuffling members as though they are numbers on a score board.

Many churches still vote on whether or not to “approve” of a request for a “letter transfer,” but almost no church member could tell you why he or she would ever vote against such a request, and a request is almost never denied. Often, churches simply gain some and lose some, while they hope for a net increase over time.

Anecdotally, the vast majority of church members who request to “transfer a letter” today are unhealthy church members who deserve no such praise or approval. They have decided to leave their old church for some superficial (or even sinful) reason, and they quietly disappear until the old church office receives a request for a letter from some other church nearby.

Today’s “letters of commendation” often go to the least commendable among professing Christians in a community.

As a pastor, I have been observing this peculiar phenomenon among Bible-belt Christians for nearly eight years now. I believe the practice is grounded in good ecclesiology and historically worthwhile. But I also believe the practice has become a severe threat to the health of local churches and to the witness of the gospel.

While the practice may have been constructive in the past, I believe the current practice of “transferring letters” (over the last 20-50 years) is broken beyond repair. This practice has effectively devalued church membership, encouraged cultural Christianity (i.e. unbiblical or false Christianity), assured many hell-bound sinners that they have nothing to fear from God’s judgment, and usurped the role of careful pastoral consideration of those who desire to join a local church.

I believe the practice of “transferring membership letters” today makes local churches far less healthy, I believe it makes the gospel far less clear, and I believe it makes Christian discipleship far more difficult.

I urge local church pastors to stop receiving church members “by letter” of recommendation. Do the hard and necessary (and fruitful) work of getting to know people before you invite them to become new church members. Don’t rely on a “letter” to commend a stranger to your church family; get to know the stranger so that he or she will no longer be a stranger.

I urge church members to communicate directly with churches and pastors, instead of asking a new church to “request a letter” from your old church. Tell your current church members where you’re going, and tell them what church you plan to connect with when you get there. Tell your old pastor or pastors about your new church, and invite your new pastor(s) to contact the old one(s). The church and pastors you’re leaving behind will be glad to know you are being cared for by another good church, and your new church and pastors will be glad to hear about your past spiritual growth.

I urge church members to stop voting to approve the “transfer of a letter” for any member who is not leaving on commendable terms. If you are part of a church that votes on members coming in and going out, then it is your responsibility (as a church member) to participate in these votes conscientiously. If someone has been an uncharitable, divisive, selfish, and/or inactive member of your church, then he or she will likely be the same kind of member of the next church. Don’t tell a church they are getting a commendable new member when they are in fact dealing with a person who ought to be reproved instead of praised.

In short, I urge pastors and churches to treat church membership as a serious and meaningful relationship. The Bible describes what church membership is supposed to look like (1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Colossians 3:1-17; Hebrews 10:23-25), and it tells us that the ultimate goal is Christian maturity (Ephesians 4:15-16). The Bible commands Christians to love one another in real and substantial ways in the context of meaningful relationships (1 John 3:16-18), so that the whole world will see the authentic love of Christ on display (John 13:34-35).

May God help us, and may He bless our efforts to live faithfully as witnesses for Christ in this world.

What is Elder-led Congregationalism?

Elder-led congregationalism is an increasingly common polity (governing structure) among many Evangelical churches. Historically, this form of church polity was far more common, espeically among Baptist churches, but various factors contributed to its waning during the early and mid twentieth-century. Pragmatism (the unpropositional adoption of methods that work) and industry (an emphatic stress on efficiency and measurable success) became the tools of church growth, but many churches are discovering the inevitable down side of embracing such a short-sighted ministry philosophy.

What follows is a summary of what I believe is the biblical structure for leadership and membership among a local church. I believe the Bible speaks to the matter ever so much more than many church leaders and members might think. I also believe that applying biblical principles will always result in the greatest blessing from God – namely, growing Christians and Christ’s growing Kingdom – though God’s blessing may not always appear immediately or obviously in our dark and fallen world.

Defining our terms

Elders are pastors. Elders is the word most often used in the New Testament to refer to those qualified men who lead among a local church.

Congregationalism is the idea that the local church is not subject to outside governance (autonomous). Usually, the congregation bears at least some decision-making responsibility.

A congregation is the visible sum of those Christians who have agreed to unite on the basis of (1) a shared faith in and love for Jesus Christ, (2) a shared commitment to live as disciples or followers of Christ, and (3) a shared love and responsibility for one another.

Responsibility and Authority

As with any organization, the local church must operate on the basis of some understanding responsibility. Furthermore, responsibility necessarily comes with correlating authority – one can only be responsible for that which he or she has the authority or authorization to do.

In an elder-led congregational polity, the question is not which group is over the other, nor is it a matter of greater or lesser authority. In elder-led congregationalism, responsibility and authority are based on complementary biblical assignments summarized by distinct job descriptions.

The question is: Who is responsible for what?

Congregational Responsibilities

There are many tasks a church member might undertake, but these are the responsibilities Scripture lays squarely on the shoulders of every church member.

  • Attend the weekly Lord’s Day gathering (Heb. 10:24-25). Regular attendance is fundamental to church membership; it provides the context for fulfilling all other obligations.
  • Preserve the gospel (Matt. 16:13-19, cf. 18:15-20). Every church member is responsible to know the gospel and to know how what the gospel requires in the life of the church and of the individual Christian.
  • Participate in affirming gospel-believing disciples (Matt. 28:18-20, cf. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). Church members affirm new Christians by giving witness to their public profession of faith (baptism). Church members ongoingly affirm one another by regularly observing the Lord’s Supper together. 
  • Participate in Members’ Meetings (1 Cor. 1:5:4-5, cf. 2 Cor. 2:5-8). Church members decide who is in and who is out of the church by voting during members’ meetings. These decisions cannot be made by proxy, nor can they be made in isolation.
  • Disciple other church members (Matt. 28:18-20; Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 3:12-17). Basic Christianity involves building up other believers. 
  • Share the gospel with non-members (2 Cor. 5:17-21). Because Christians have received and believed the gospel, they are ambassadors for Christ in the world.
  • Follow the recognized leaders of the church (2 Tim. 1:13; Heb. 13:7, 17). Church members benefit from godly leadership and example, but they benefit most when they follow godly leaders and imitate godly examples.

Elder Responsibilities

As is the case with all church members, elders may do all sorts of tasks. But elders also have clear responsibilities spelled out in Scripture.

  • Elders bear all the same responsibilities as other church members (Acts 20:28-29). While elders do have additional responsibilities, elders are church members too.
  • Shepherd church members (Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Pet. 1:1-4). Good elders guide church members toward developing trust in Christ, toward spiritual health and growth, and toward faithfulness to the end.
  • Model godly character and teach sound doctrine publicly. Elders preach sermons and raise up other men to faithfully preach as well (1 Tim. 3:2, 4:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:2), they model Bible study and teaching through public forums and raise up other godly men to do the same (1 Tim. 3:2, 4:6-11; 2 Tim. 2:2), and they oversee every teaching outlet of the church (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:28).
  • Model godly character and teach sound doctrine privately. As noted above, elders are responsible to personally disciple and evangelize, just like other church members (Phil. 4:8-9; Col. 3:12-17). Additionally, elders are responsible to raise up godly men who will also be able to teach, shepherd, and lead among the church (2 Tim. 2:2).
  • Lead the church with care and wisdom. Elders lead with authority in an effort to keep watch over the souls under their shepherding care (Titus 2:15; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4), and they oversee or direct the affairs of the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:17).

Elder-led Congregationalism: A Description

Elder-led congregationalism best harmonizes the various and distinct responsibilities given to church members and to elders in the New Testament. Church members believe and study the gospel, take responsibility for one another, and share the gospel far and wide. Elders lead, both by instruction and by example, and elders equip church members. 

With Elder-led congregationalism, the whole church is the disciple-making organism Christ commissioned it to be. Moreover, because God has designed it so, we know that ordering ourselves and functioning in this way will lead to spiritual growth and health.

In an elder-led congregational polity, everyone has a job description, and there is no such thing as an “inactive” church member. Everyone bears responsibility for the health and unity of the church, and everyone enjoys the blessings of such things. 

Simultaneously, members’ meetings don’t get bogged down in the minutia of day-to-day administration, nor do church members become enticed toward distraction from their fundamental responsibilities.

A Personal Disclosure

The reader may be interested to know that these ideas have not been formed in isolation or a sterile classroom. I have been the senior pastor of a small and rural Southern Baptist church since August of 2014. I became pastor with most of my ecclesiological convictions already in place, but I have also benefitted greatly from the experiences of applying doctrinal convictions to everyday circumstances.

Additionally, I am thankful for those theologians and pastors who continue to write about ecclesiological issues, providing pastors like me with much food for thought. Jonathan Leeman has been an especially prolific writer on this subject, and my own article reflects the time I’ve spent chewing on his content elsewhere (such as this article on the office of church membership or this article on the benefits of biblical congregationalism).

I highly recommend the books, articles, conferences, and podcasts of 9Marks ministry. I don’t know of any other group that thinks, talks, and writes about ecclesiology with such interest, joy, and biblically-grounded arguments like the folks at 9Marks.org.

You can (and should) do Family Worship!

The Minter family (my family) has a history of some success, some failure, and several recommitments to a regular Family Worship time.

I (dad and husband) know the responsibility lays primarily upon me, and I admit that I have been far from perfect in leading my family in regular spiritual disciplines. But, over time, the efforts we’ve made to commit and recommit to a regular time of family Bible reading have been quite rewarding.

Right now, we’re on a pretty good streak of beginning our weekdays with a time of Bible reading, Scripture memorization, prayer, and singing. All of this takes about 30 minutes, and requires no preparation or planning.

We have been reading through the Bible (cover to cover), so we just pick up today where we left off yesterday. Sometimes we have more questions or discussion about the text, and sometimes chapters are longer or shorter, so we just read until we hit a good stopping place (usually 2-3 chapters).

For the last month or so, we’ve been working at memorizing Psalm 19. We concentrate on a verse or two for the whole week, and try to build on what we’re memorizing as we go. We read aloud, repeating the same small section 5-7 times, and then we try to recite as much as we can of the whole Psalm. Micah (our 13-year-old) is picking it up faster than Mom and me, but we are all doing pretty well.

After reading and reciting the BIble, we each pray. One of us prays a brief prayer of praise (praising God for something we read about in the text). One of us prays a brief prayer of confession (confessing sin, with an eye toward seeing how we fail to live up to what the Bible has called us to do or believe that very day). And one of us prays for 2-3 families on our church membership directory (which is tucked away in my Bible, so that we can systematically pray for each member over time).

Finally, we sing a song or two. Singing has only been part of our family worship time for about a year, but we have really grown to enjoy singing together. Recently (just a few days ago), we decided to sing a “hymn of the month.” We just pick a hymn we like, and we sing it every family worship time for the whole month, in hopes that we may have the song committed to heart and mind by the time we move on to the next one.

If you’ve never done anything like this, you might think this post is a kind of ringing my own bell, but I assure you it is not. As I said above, I am often ashamed to think of how many days I have failed to lead my family well. And there are times when I do lead us in Bible reading, but I do so with a cold heart (again to my shame).

No, this post is an off-the-cuff and simple invitation to anyone who is not currently making Bible reading, Scripture memorization, and prayer part of their daily parental or spousal activities.

You can do this! And you and your family will benefit greatly over time!

May God bless your efforts, and may He produce much fruit from the seeds you plant and water.

For an introduction to Family Worship and to see some helpful links and content, click What is Family Worship?

What is True Baptism?

When were you baptized?

Doesn’t that seem like a simple question?

And yet, in my pastoral experience, baptism is the second most complicated and emotionally charged experience I get to work through with new church members.

Fundamental but Potentially Perplexing

Baptism is one of the core identifying marks of a Christian. Jesus Christ gave His disciples (i.e. Christians) two ordinances (or sacraments) – baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or communion). These two signs serve as the Christ-instituted distinguishing marks of Christian discipleship (Matthew 26:26-29, 28:18-20; Luke 22:14-20).

But, who should be baptized? Some say only adult Christians. Some say professing believers at any age. Some say adult Christians and their infant children.

Where should someone be baptized? Many people have been baptized in a church baptistry, a formal place within a church building designated for performing baptisms. Many others have been baptized outdoors, in lakes, ponds, rivers, oceans, and even swimming pools. Still others were baptized in some creative way, using a livestock trough or another repurposed container.

Who should perform the baptism? Throughout history, most Christians were baptized by an officially recognized minister. Recently, it has become more common for non-commissioned Christians to perform baptisms, though this is still far from the norm.

Should anyone ever get “re-baptized”? Many Evangelicals – especially in the fading Bible-belt of southern America – testify to having been baptized multiple times. It is quite common for me (I pastor a rural church in East Texas) to hear someone describe their experiences of having been “baptized” once as a youngster and again at some later point in life, often as part of something they call “rededication.”

As I said, baptism can become a complicated matter when you’re talking with someone about their own experience and trying to square that with the teaching from Scripture. So, I won’t try to answer every possible question about baptism here. Instead, I’d like to offer what I think are four indispensable elements of biblical baptism.

Some Useful Information

The reader will be helped by checking to see if all four of these elements were present at their own experience of baptism. If so, then I believe it was probably a true, biblical, Christ-honoring baptism. If one or more of these elements are/were missing, then I advise the reader to bring the matter to the attention of his/her pastor(s) or elder(s). He/They will be very happy to talk and think through this with you.

Whether you believe your baptism was true or not, you would probably do well to write out a brief assessment of your baptism experience, confirming that each element was present, or noting what was missing. Such a thoughtful exercise would likely benefit the reader greatly.

The reader will also be helped by knowing that various churches and denominations disagree about how to best answer the question: What is true baptism? I am a Baptist with strong ecclesiological convictions, which are largely built upon what I believe the Bible teaches about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That said, I sincerely believe my description below is in submission to Scripture, which is the ultimate authority and arbiter of truth.

Let’s first look at the Bible’s teaching on baptism, and then I’ll base my four indispensable elements on what we learn from Scripture.

A Biblical Foundation

When Jesus commissioned His followers (i.e. Christians) to be His witnesses, from the time He ascended to the Father’s side until He returned at last, Jesus told them what to do. He told them to preach the message of the gospel and to make disciples of those who responded with faith and repentance. Those new disciples were to be baptized and catechized (they were to learn the teachings of Christ) by those who were already among the group. And Jesus’ disciples did what Jesus told them.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we read Jesus’ commissioning charge. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [or peoples], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).

Luke recorded a similar commission from Jesus, which must have been given soon after the other. At the beginning of Acts, Luke tells us what Jesus said right before He ascended to the right hand of the Father. Jesus said, “you will recieve power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Just then, Jesus was “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).

Then, the disciples waited. They waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit and for that moment when they would begin carrying out the mission Jesus had left for them. And the day of Pentecost came soon after.

The Apostle Peter stood out as the disciples’ representative when he preached the gospel to those gathered in Jerusalem on that day when the Holy Spirit came, giving the disciples boldness and power to bear witness to Christ.

Many heard Peter’s message, and some believed. Some in the crowd responded by saying, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). They were asking, “What must we do to become Christ’s disciples, beneficiaries of God’s grace in Christ?”

Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Repentance and belief are two sides of the same biblical coin (as demonstrated by verse 41, cited below), and Peter called sinners to respond with humility and hope in order to be saved from their sin and the due penalty thereof.

But Peter also exhorted them to “be baptized… in the name of Jesus Christ.” This was clearly the outward and public display of repentance and belief, which are less immediately observable.

We are told, “those who received [Peter’s] word [i.e. those who believed] were baptized, and there were added [to the small existing group of disciples] that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). And all the disciples, both the old and the new, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts. 2:42).

Thus the disciples activity and teaching demonstrate the apostolic and biblical understanding of what Jesus commissioned His disciples to do. The combination of these passage construct for us a solid foundation, upon which we may build a definition of true (i.e. biblical) baptism.

Four Indispensable Elements of Baptism

I am calling these elements of baptism indispensable because I believe that the removal of any of them will almost certainly indicate a redefinition of baptism, which would be a loss of biblical baptism. In other words, if one or more elements are missing in your “baptism” experience, it is very likely that whatever you did experience was not true baptism.

One, true baptism occurs after a person has been converted.

The biblical command to be baptized is only for those who are professing faith in Jesus Christ. Both in Jesus’ commission and in Peter’s exhortation, only “disciples” or “repenting and believing” ones are to be baptized. Such a one may turn out to be a false confessor later on in life, but strong efforts should be made to ensure that baptism is being offered only to those who at least appear to be believing the gospel and turning from sin.

My Presbyterian brethren and others may argue that the baptism command is also “for [the] children” of believers, since children are mentioned in the passage I cited above (Acts 2:39). However, the reader will note that it is “the promise” of salvation through Christ and not the command to “be baptized” that is extended to “your children” and also to “all who are far off” (Acts 2:39).

If anyone was “baptized” before they were converted, then such a “baptism” was not true.

Only a post-conversion baptism can be a true baptism.

Two, true baptism is performed in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the apex of God’s revelation and the focal point of the gospel.

The biblical observance of baptism necessarily associates the one being baptized (the baptizee) with Jesus Christ. This is not merely a verbal formula, contra the views of some in the Church of Christ, but a much fuller identification with the God of the Bible and the person by whom God offers salvation to sinners like us.

In Jesus’ commission, He says new disciples are to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). And Peter exhorts his hearers to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). The teaching of Scripture on the whole is that baptism is inextricably connected with the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) and the gospel of salvation through the work of Jesus Christ.

If someone was “baptized” in association with any non-Christian religion, any false gospel, or any message or group that denies an essential doctrine of historic Christianity, then such a “baptism” was not true.

Only a baptism associated with the biblical gospel, the biblical God, and the biblical Savior can be a true baptism.

Three, true baptism is experienced as a conscious act (both on the part of the one being baptized and on the part of those observing) of publicly confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

The biblical command to be baptized is necessarily connected with a conscious, public profession of faith and a conscious, public affirmation of that profession. Those who are being baptized are consciously and publicly making their belief in Christ known to watching world. And those who are observing and celebrating baptism are consciously and publicly affirming that the one being baptized is (so far as they can tell) one of them.

This element of true baptism leans into the reality that baptism cannot be observed alone. No one can (biblically) baptize him or herself. Baptism is something you do and something you have done to you, similtaneously. Furthermore, both the baptizee and the baptizer (as well as other observing Christians) must be conscious participants.

Biblically and historically, the normal context for true baptism is the local church. Only in recent years has this normative practice been neglected. The readiest way to demonstrate this is by the fact that most Evangelical churches still today have some new church members join by the act of baptism. In many churches, this is a holdover practice from a time now past, without much (if any) teaching or intentionality. New converts joining a church’s membership by being baptized was the common practice of most Evangelical churches.

If someone was “baptized” in hopes that he or she would eventually become a Christian, or if someone was “baptized” when he or she did not understand the basic meaning of baptism (as a public profession of Christian faith and discipleship), then such a “baptism” is not likely true.

Only a conscious Christian can be baptized as a public affirmation from at least one other conscious Christian.

Four, true baptism is performed by the use of water; normally a good bit of it.

The word βαπτιζω or baptidzō (translated “I baptize”), which serves as the root of all other New Testament words related to the act of baptism, carries with it the concept of cleansing, immersing, and washing. Furthermore, the descriptions we have of baptisms in the Bible (particularly the baptisms of Jesus and of the Ethiopian official) seem to indicate full immersion.

In addition to these initial points, the biblical imagery of being associated in or by baptism with Christ’s death and burial is only portrayed by submerging someone under water and then drawing them back out again (Romans 6:1-4). The imagery fails to be depicted by merely pouring water over a person or only partially dipping him or her into some water.

I believe baptism should be carried out by fully immersing the baptizee, but I am not arguing here that immersion itself is an indispensable element of true baptism, because I can easily imagine some circumstances when larger quantities of water may be inaccessible. In such a situation, I believe a true baptism may still occur, but it would be disordered.

If someone was “baptized” without water at all, then such a “baptism” is likely not true. If someone was baptized by some other method than full immersion, then it’s worth asking more questions.

The question of what constitutes a true baptism is probably not a great concern among most churchgoers, but it should be. Baptism is one of the clearest commands Jesus ever gave His disciples, and every Christian should eagerly want to obey their Savior and King.

I hope this article will be useful for the reader to assess his or her own experience. I strongly advise the reader to bring specific questions about personal experience to his or her pastor(s) or elder(s). The local church is designed by Christ to be the community in which we work through such things.

I also hope that many will experience true baptism, not simply to check off a ceremonial checkbox, but as a conscious act of obedience to Christ, in whom sinners become heirs of all the blessings of God.

What is a Calvinist?

John Calvin (1509-1564) was a French theologian and pastor who spent most of his ministry in Geneva, Switzerland. Calvin was a major influencer during the Protestant Reformation, preaching and teaching with the fervor of a man who seemed wholly-devoted to Christ.

Calvin preached and taught expositionally through the Bible, leaving behind many commentaries on the biblical text and other insightful books on Christian belief and practice. However, Calvin’s most notable work is known as “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” which is a magnificent theological treatise. Systematic theology texts are quite numerous today, but before Calvin such a thing was rare indeed.

Calvin’s writings create a bit of difficulty for anyone to answer my main question here – What is a Calvinist? – since his Institutes alone clearly demonstrate that Calvin’s theological system and contributions were both much more expansive than many Christians suppose today. However, I am going to avoid the worthwhile debate about who is and isn’t a real Calvinist.

Rather, I am going to focus my answer to the main question – What is a Calvinist? – on the popular or common perspective. Most people who claim to be Calvinists today are merely announcing their affirmation of the so-called Five Points of Calvinism, and many modern-day Calvinists don’t even affirm all five.

Ironically, Calvin never arranged or articulated a mere five points of doctrine. The five points popularly known as Calvinism today were not even a bulleted theological structure until after the Remonstrance (followers of Jocobus Arminius) made these points the focus of their opposition – 50 years after Calvin died. Even then, however, they were not arranged as the popluar acronym TULIP. That didn’t happen until at least 200 years later.

At the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), the Remonstrance petitioned the government for an allowance to hold their theological view (throughout history religion and government have been joined more often than not). A similar doctrinal position (called Semi-Pelagiansism) had already been condemned one thousand years earlier (in AD 431 at the Council of Ephesus and again in AD 529 at the Council of Orange), and the Remonstrance wanted to avoid the same designation.

But, alas, the Remonstrance were condemned as well. The Synod of Dort ended with a judgment against Arminianism, declaring it a heresy alongside Semi-Pelagianism. The synod produces several canons (or doctrinal affirmations), some of which became the origins of the so-called Five Points of Calvinism.

The Five Points of Calvinism are:

1) Total Depravity: Fallen humans, since Adam, are thoroughly affected by sin – their bodies, minds, and wills/desires; and unregenerate people are incapable of naturally doing anything genuinely good (Rom. 3:10-18).

2) Unconditional Election: God elects some sinners unto salvation, whereby they become beneficiaries of God’s blessings, not because of any condition in them, but according to the riches of God’s gracious grace and according to the purposes of His divine will (Eph. 1:3-6).

3) Limited Atonement: Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross is priceless, sufficient to cover all sin and all sinners, but Christ’s atoning work was intended and effectual only for those who believe and not for anyone else (Jn. 10:14-16).

4) Irresistable Grace: God alone causes sinners to be born again (regeneration is a monergistic act), through the proclamation of the gospel and powerful work of His Holy Spirit (God normally uses means). All who are born again possess new hearts with which they respond in loving affection for God, believing and repenting by His grace (Eph. 2:1-10).

5) Perseverence of the Saints: All sinners whom God has elected unto Himself, those for whom Christ has died, those God has made spiritually alive, will pursue personal holiness in this life and will persevere to the end (Rom. 8:28-39).

Calvinism – as anemically articulated in the five points above – has been the majority view among Protestants. Historically, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Anglicans have all affirmed these doctrines. Notable 21st-century theologians and pastors who affirm these doctrines include R.C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, and Mark Dever.

This brief article is only intended as a very simple introduction to this theological system. I suggest much further investigation for the interested Christian, and there are numerous books and articles that might be a help.

In my estimation, Wayne Grudem’s book, Systematic Theology, does a good job of explaining the various views of biblical salvation. This would be a great starting point for further study.

Whether you embrace this view or not, it is vital that all believers look to the Bible as the ultimate authority. It is also important that we humbly and graciously investigate the Bible alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ.