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/

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.

Does the Bible Contradict Itself?

The short and direct answer to this question is, No… the Bible does not contradict itself.

But if the answer were so simple, then such a question wouldn’t gain much traction or keep making laps around the racetrack of theological and biblical discussion.

I might be worthwhile for the reader to take a moment to really think about the fact that Christians throughout history have not been complete idiots (well, at least not all of them). The point is: intelligent and careful readers have searched the Scriptures far more than you or I, and these men and women have not been so quick to throw the Bible out on the basis of unresolved contradictions.

Furthermore, non-Christian and critical intellectuals (and those who like to regurgitate their ideas and phrases) have been making this accusation against the Bible for at least the last 200 years. But Christians too have written many books and articles in order to candidly deal with the supposed contradictions (HERE is a great example).

The reader is charged with the responsibility of thinking carefully through the matter before walking away with a half-baked answer to suit his or her preconceived notions about the validity and trustworthiness of the Bible.

This subject is dear to my heart as a pastor, and it came up again as I was preparing to preach through Exodus 9. God’s fifth plague or strike against Egypt (beginning in verse 1) and God’s seventh plague or strike (beginning in verse 13) seem to contradict one another. They both refer to “livestock” in a way that seems impossible to harmonize. However, I’d like to argue that there are at least a few options for the reader to resolve this apparent contradiction without accusing the Bible of error.

In the fifth plague, we’re told “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Exodus 9:6), but a short time later (thirteen verses to be exact) we read about Moses warning the Egyptians to “get [their] livestock… into safe shelter” in order to avoid the falling hail (Ex. 9:19).

“And the next day the Lord did this thing. All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one of the livestock of the people of Israel died” (emphais added).

Exodus 9:6

Moses said, “Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them” (emphasis added).

Exodus 9:19

So the question is, if “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Ex. 9:6), then where did all this other Egyptian “livestock” come from (Ex. 9:19)?

This is the kind of question Bible-believing Christians need to be prepared to engage with, and Bible-believing Christians need to be prepared to give some kind of an answer.

Christians believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God (at least those who are grounded in historic Christiantiy do). We do not believe there are any contradictions in the Bible. We believe the Bible (in so far as the text of Scripture is compiled translated faithfully) is an utterly truthful and consistent compilation of God’s trustworthy words.

So, what do Christians do with this apparent contradiction? Well, first, we don’t melt in fear… and we don’t run away.

We must first acknowledge that there are some passages in the Bible that do appear (at least at first glance) to contradict other passages. It is no surprise that someone antagonistic to the Bible would point to several Bible-passages and accuse the Bible of contradiction.

But, second, we must also remember that the Bible is fully capable of enduring skepticism. Bible critics are not new, though the modern ones often fancy themselves as more sophisticated than those who have come before. 

Marcion was a man born before the Apostle John died, and Marcion accused the Old and New Testaments of contradicting one another. He invented a whole theological system around his flawed perspective of the Bible, and he was roundly rejected as a formal heretic at the first official Christian council.

See two helpful introductions to Marcion and his recurring ideas in modern Christianty HERE and HERE).

Bible-skeptics have been around as long as the Bible. Satan’s first attack on humans was an attack on the word of God. The ancient snake asked Eve in the garden, “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1). And we hear the devil’s hiss in the mouths of others throughout history as well as today.

Third, when dealing with an apparent contradiction in the Bible, we must recognize that any supposed error we see in the Bible springs from our own misunderstanding or ignorance (or maybe some mixture of both). 

Let’s think about the apparent contradiction in front of us here.

Did “all the livestock” in Egypt die from some kind of disease (Exodus 9:6)? And, if so, where did the “livestock” in Egypt come from that died later from falling hail (Ex. 9:19-21, 25)?

One possible explanation is that the Egyptians kept some of their livestock “in the field” or “in the pasture” and the rest they kept in stalls or closer to their homes. A careful reading of Exodus 9:3 does allow for a specific “plague upon [the] livestock that are in the field.”

We might say the livestock that didn’t die from this fifth plague upon Egypt were those which were not out in the field, and these were the livestock later threatened by the seventh plague.

Another possible explanation is to understand the word “All” in Exodus 9:6 to refer to “all kinds of livestock” and not “each and every one of the livestock.” As a matter of fact, this is exactly how verse 2 seems to present it.

“behold, the hand of the Lord will fall with a very severe plague upon your livestock that are in the field, the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks” (emphasis added).

Exodus 9:2

From this perspective, one might paraphrase verse 6 by saying, “Death came to every kind of grazing animal in Egypt, but not a single cow died among the people of Israel.”

Still another possible explanation is to understand the language in the popular sense and not the absolute. In other words, “The quantity of livestock left in Egypt was nothing in comparison to what was there before.”

These are three possible explanations, and maybe you can see others.

I should note that I am heavily indebted to Philip Ryken for his consideration of this text and these options.

The point is: The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. And any apparent contradiction can be explained (usually pretty easily) if we will take time to think about it.

The practical application of this answer is that the reader must address the greater issue of what to do with the God of the Bible. Because the Bible truthfully and consistently reveals God as He is, the reader is responsible to seek God there.

My Pastoral Prayer List

When my church gathers, we always pray.

As senior pastor, I understand that it is my responsibility to lead church member in prayer and to teach church members how to pray. I lead and teach in several ways, but one of the methods I have used for a while now is rotating through a list of topics for prayer.

If I am the one praying a prayer of supplication, I jot down several bulletpoints beforehand to guide my prayer, including a selection of topics from my prayer list. I use this list to keep me from praying the same things every time and to keep me from forgetting many things I ought to be praying for.

The list provides me with a variety of good and important topics, and rotating through the list ensures that I’ll hit on many of them over the course of a fairly brief period of time.

If I ask someone else to pray a prayer of supplication, I choose one or more topics from this prayer list and assign the topic(s) to the person. These people enjoy the same benefits as I do, and I am teaching them about what kinds of things they should be praying for by assigning them prayer topics.

This practice keeps our public prayers from becoming a laundry list of physical ailments or an opportunity for subtle gossip, and it also teaches our whole congregation how to pray and what to pray about.

My own pastoral prayer list is a compilation of topics I’ve borrowed from other pastors or added for myself. I cannot take any credit for creativity and insight you might find in this list, but I do take great comfort in the fact that I haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel.

Feel free to use this entire template or any portion of it to your own benefit or that of your church family.

General Topics for Churches and Communities

  • Pray for the regular preaching of God’s word.
  • Pray for elders/pastors and deacons.
  • Pray for husbands to bless their wives, and parents to bless the children in their charge.
  • Pray for those who are having a hard time integrating into the church family (making new connections).
  • Pray for widows and widowers in our church.
  • Pray for salvation for our parents, our siblings, our children, and our grandchildren.
  • Pray for us to live lives of both justice and mercy.
  • Pray for our younger members to regularly reach out to our older members to check on them.
  • Pray for those with prolonged chronic sickness.
  • Pray for those who are fainthearted and discouraged.
  • Pray for politicians and civil servants.
  • Pray for families and single members to build good relationships.
  • Pray for God to convict and draw to Himself those who are lost in immorality.
  • Pray for God to knit us together as a church family, despite our differences in age, life experience, and preferences.
  • Pray for us to rejoice in God’s work in other churches, and to speak of His work among us only with the deepest humility.
  • Pray for persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.
  • Pray and thank God for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim 2:1-2).
  • Pray about a point from the morning sermon.
  • Pray for intentional and growing discipling efforts among members.
  • Pray for evangelistic efforts (gospel conversations) with family, friends, and/or neighbors.
  • Pray for freedom from bondage to sinful thoughts, words, and/or deeds (greed, pride, anger, lust, idolatry, lethargy).
  • Pray for more godly men to take personal responsibility for the shepherding care of fellow church members.
  • Pray for our retired members.
  • Pray for us to have boldness in gospel conversations and conversions as a result
  • Pray for our children and teens.

Church Membership among My Own Church

  • Pray that people would see relationships in the local church as part of what it means to be a Christian.
  • Pray that people would understand the need to make their relationships here transparent, to ask and answer careful, loving questions.
  • Pray that people would expect conversations with other church members often to be deep, and often theological in nature.
  • Pray that people would think it important to encourage each other with Scripture.
  • Pray that people would see part of being a Christian as being a provider, and not a consumer.
  • Pray that people don’t see service in the local church as being primarily about meeting their own felt needs by utilizing their giftedness but about bringing God glory.
  • Pray that people would not see it as unusual when their lives become increasingly centered around the local church.
  • Pray that people would see it as unusual when a member’s life seems to keep church on the periphery.
  • Pray that people would see hospitality as an important part of being a Christian.
  • Pray that church members would be humble and quick to rejoice when we talk about other churches and their members.

Discipling among My Own Church

  • Pray that our congregation would care well for our youth, particularly, our teens, working to build discipling relationships with teenagers and coming alongside parents in the building up of their sons’ and daughters’ faith.  
  • Pray that our teenagers would be open to, and even seek out, discipling relationships with young adults in the church.  
  • Pray that parents of teenagers in the church would wisely and purposefully encourage and choose discipling relationships for their sons and daughters with members of our church.  
  • Pray that our church would be faithful in its members’ purposeful investment in the lives of teenagers inside the church.   
  • Pray that many of our members would make the discipleship of teenagers in our church one of their primary ministries

Financial Faithfulness among My Own Church

  • Pray that more of our members would give, and more would be able to give more.
  • Pray that we would be overwhelmed by how much Christ has given us.
  • Pray that we would give cheerfully, not out of guilt or obligation.
  • Pray that we would be wise in how much we decide to give.
  • Pray that we would give regularly, deliberately and proportionately.
  • Pray that we would gladly part with what our world values in order to take hold of what God values.
  • Pray that our church would be wise in how it stewards our gifts.
  • Pray that our giving would show God to be good, delightful, and generous.
  • Pray that God would bring to fruit the hopes that we have for every line in our church’s current budget.

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

What is a Membership Covenant?

A membership covenant is simply a summary of the agreement between church members. Historically, membership covenants were quite common among Protestant churches, including Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans. And many churches still use them today.

As a matter of fact, all local churches have some kind of membership covenant… even those churches who don’t have a formal status of “church member.” Written or unwritten, formal or informal, there is always some sort of basic agreement made between those gathered in the name of Christ for the purpose of public worship and edification.

Gathering in agreement and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is fundamental to the definition of what it means to be a Christian church.

That said, many churches publish a formal membership covenant. The purposes behind such a thing are manifold, but a simple and straightforward reason to have a formal membership covenant is so that members will know what is expected of them and what they should expect of one another.

One can read the whole New Testament, searching for every “one another” command, and thus summarize the biblical obligations and privileges of church membership, but it sure is easier and clearer if we can all agree on a basic set of promises that aim at representing the essence of such things.

Membership covenants of various lengths and content have been published over the years, but I am particularly fond of one authored by J. Newton Brown. Brown’s covenant was published by the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay) in 1853, and it was printed within the 1956 Baptist Hymnal because of how widely it was being used among Baptist Churches in America.

As with all membership covenants, one has to decide what to include and what to exclude. Truth be told, I think Brown’s covenant seeks to bind the conscience in ways that the Scripture does not, so I do not endorse it entirely. But there are many features that commend it.

As early as November of 1940 (though probably earlier), when First Baptist Church of Diana, TX (the church I pastor), was still called James Baptist Church, Brown’s membership covenant was formally embraced as the standing summary of members’ obligations and privileges.

The words below are a duplicate of that early Southern Baptist covenant (odd spelling included), which was adopted by those early members of FBC Diana.

Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and on profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, we do now in the presence of God, angels, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.

We engage therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this Church in knowledge, holiness, and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrines; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the Church, and the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations. 

We also engage to maintain family and secret devotions; to religiously educate our children; to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances; to walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all tattling, back-biting, and excessive anger; to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage, and to be zealous in our efforts to advance the kingdom of our Saviour.

We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember each other in prayer; to aid each other in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy of speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the rules of our Saviour to secure it without delay.

We moreover engage that when we remove from this place we will, as soon as possible, unite with some other church, where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.

Whether your church has a formal membership covenant or not, it is the privilege and obligation of every Christian to seek out intentional, meaningful, and regulated relationships with other Christians. May God bless your efforts to love Christ and to love His people by giving yourself to such relationships within a local church nearby.

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.

5 Ways You Might be Showing that You’re Not Really a Christian

What are some signs that I’m not really a Christian?

Living in East Texas has both advantages and disadvantages. I enjoy the scenery of tall evergreens and starry night skies. I like driving through small and old town-squares; many out here are still quaint and active. I also enjoy the somewhat familiar culture of family values and traditional societal structures.

However, the vague sense of conservative values often passes as Christianity, and this is a tremendous disadvantage. Many people assume they are Christians because they “believe in Jesus” or “love God” or “put God first” in their lives. It seems most folks where I live don’t know that a person can “know” God and yet remain under God’s judgment and condemnation.

Romans 1:21 says that everyone, at least in some sense, “knows” God. The context of this verse indicates that the knowledge we all have of God is basic, but not salvific. In other words, it’s enough to know we should honor God and serve Him, but it’s not enough to know God as heavenly Father and gracious Savior.

According to Scripture, East Texans are not unique in their general knowledge of God. As a matter of fact, everyone knows something about God… that God is (or He exists), that He’s powerful, and that He’s just or moral or righteous. Knowing these things does not make someone a Christian… This knowledge is natural for all people everywhere.

What makes a person a Christian is their trust or belief in God as both King and Savior, particularly their love for and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But, as Romans 1:21 says, non-Christians with a knowledge of God show that they are not actually Christians by not “honoring” or “glorifying” God… and by not expressing “thankfulness” or “gratitude” toward God. 

This dishonor and ingratitude can show up in our lives in all sorts of ways, but here are 5 ways I think these are regularly displayed in my neck of the woods.

1. Non-Christians don’t want God to demand anything from them.

I see this all the time in people who claim to love God but have a tough time remembering the last time they gave up some genuine desire out of obedience to God’s command. It seems that many who claim to be Christians don’t realize that being a Christian means trading an old life for a new one… dying to self and living for Christ (Rom. 6:1-14).

Friend, if you resist the idea that God is in charge of your life and has the right to tell you what to do, then it is likely that you’re not a Christian.

2. Non-Christians don’t want to devote regular time to God.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to someone who claimed to “believe in God” and “love Jesus” and yet he or she gave no devoted time to God during the previous month (or year!). 

Did you read God’s word, the Bible? No… Did you go to church recently? No… Did you read a book about the Bible, Christianity, God, or Jesus recently? No… Do you live in any way differently than your non-Christian friends? Not really…

Friend, if you don’t devote regular time to God, then it is likely that you’re not a Christian.

3. Non-Christians don’t want to know anything more about God.

Most people who don’t read the Bible omit this practice because they don’t want to read it. They are not fascinated by the God they see inside that book. Most people who don’t go to church regularly are absent because they’d rather be somewhere else; they’d rather be doing something else.

Friend, if you don’t have any interest in being at church or reading the Bible, then it’s likely that you’re not a Christian.

4. Non-Christians don’t want to think much about their sin.

People who don’t think like Christians imagine that talking about their sin will only lead to greater feelings of shame and guilt. The assumption is: “The more we talk about how bad I am, the worse I’ll feel.”

But that’s not how Christians think at all! Christians know that Jesus saves sinners, and that sinners can find freedom from shame and even freedom from the power of sin when they confess sin and speak honestly about their ongoing failures.

Friend, if you don’t want to think about your sin and you avoid talking about your sin, then you might not actually be a Christian.

5. Non-Christians don’t cling to Jesus Christ like He’s really their only hope.

All but two of the people I’ve met in East Texas over the last 5 years have claimed to be Christians. And most of those with whom I’ve had some kind of gospel conversation have expressed hope in their good deeds or in God’s nebulous forgiveness. They imagine that they’ve lived well enough or that God must forgive them… because “God forgives!”

Friend, God doesn’t just forgive sinners. The Bible says God “will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7; Nah. 1:3). God’s “righteous judgment will be revealed” against all sinners (Rom. 2:5). God “will render each one according to his works… [and] for those who do not obey the truth… there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2:6-8).

Friend, Jesus Christ is our only hope of escaping the judgment we deserve! If you aren’t actually clinging to Christ like He’s your only hope in life and death, then you’re not a Christian.

Now, if you think you might not be a Christian, then please don’t hear me saying that you should try harder. I don’t intend to say that at all! What I am saying is that Christians live like Christians, and our lives should reflect what we truly believe (James 2:14-26; 1 Jn. 3:1-10).

If you think you might not be a Christian, then your best course of action is to seek to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. You can read more about the gospel HERE.

I also urge you to talk to a Christian about what it means to believe and follow Jesus. If you don’t know any true Christians, then call a pastor near you by looking up churches and contacting their offices. You can probably also contact a pastor via email or through a church’s website. I know my contact info is available at www.fbcdiana.org.

May God help non-Christians to become Christians. May God help Christians to live consistently with their profession of faith. And may God grant grace to any reader of this article.

Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.

Connect with Marc on Twitter or Facebook.