2018 PCA General Assembly

Dear Church Family,
 
My family and I will be travelling next week to the 46th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in Atlanta, GA. This is the highest church court of our denomination. Over one thousand delegates (pastors and elders) will gather for worship and to conduct the business of the church. We hear reports about the work of the various agencies of our denomination, debate and vote concerning matters of the church, and set general policy and procedures for the greater church. There are also informal times of fellowship, catching up with old friends, and making new ones.
 
For most members of the church who have never attended General Assembly, a regional presbytery meeting, or even a session meeting at the local church level, it is sometimes difficult to follow or understand what takes place in these meeting. For those who would like to learn more and get a glimpse of what goes at these church courts, here are some links to items that may be of interest:
 
Docket – this is a six-page document with the scheduled events and business of the General Assembly.
 
Overtures – this is a list of the thirty-nine overtures that have been sent up to the General Assembly. Overtures can come from individuals, sessions, or presbyteries; they are a kind of petition, requesting the General Assembly to discuss and vote on a particular matter (e.g., a change to the constitutional documents of our church).
 
Worship Schedule – There will be three worship services during the General Assembly, one each on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
 
Live Streaming & Video Archives – There will be live-streaming video of all the business sessions and worship services of the General Assembly. Soon after each session, those videos will be archived at this site, as well. Even if you’re not able to watch while it happens, I recommend viewing the worship services and parts of the business sessions of the archived video just to get a sense of what General Assembly is like.
 
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
 
Please pray for our family as we travel, and for this meeting of the highest court of our denomination.
 
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Two Origins of Temptation

Dear Church Family,

In the passage for our sermon this coming Sunday (1 Corinthians 10:13-22), our faithful God gives us a wonderful promise to guard and protect us from temptation in our pursuit of holiness:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

 

On Sunday, we’ll talk a little bit about the two different kinds of temptation that we, as believers, must war against. One is external to us, in which the world and the devil seek to lead us into sin. The other is internal, the lusts of our own flesh. Both the external and internal temptations work in concert to wage war against the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:1-3).

We’ll talk more about the very practical ways in which the Lord limits our temptations, strengthens us, and provides us with the means to grow in grace on Sunday. For now, though – and in preparation for our sermon on Sunday – I recommend a recent article that helpfully explains these two kinds of temptations: “Identifying Our Identity” by Jared Nelson.

In the article, the author explains how a misunderstanding, or even a denial of these two kinds of temptations (external and internal), is being promoted in some Christian circles today with very deleterious effects.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: The Threat of Legalism and Antinomianism

Dear Church Family,

Over the last several week, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:

Preaching: What is the Gospel?
Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3
Preaching: The Same Message No Matter the Text?
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 3
Preaching: Depravity, a virtue to be embraced? Part 1
Preaching: Depravity, a virtue to be embraced? Part 2

Introduction

Today, at long last, we come to the final topic of this series on preaching: the threat of legalism and antinomianism. I use the word “threat” because preachers must always be on guard against both of these dangers.

The Relationship Between Legalism and Antinomianism

Before we talk about that, however, let’s first try and define these terms. Legalism – which is perhaps our default nature as fallen creatures – is the belief that a person can in any way earn favor with God through obedience to the moral law (that is, the Ten Commandments). Antinomianism is defined by James Thornwell as “a system of doctrine which naturally leads to licentiousness of life. Those who deny that the law of God is the measure of duty, or that personal holiness should be sought by Christians, are those alone who can properly be charged with Antinomian principles.”

At first glance, legalism and antinomianism might seem to be opposite to one another. After all, a legalist clings to the law of God in a misguided effort to merit salvation while an antinomian eschews the law of God as the way of righteousness in a misguided desire to live as he pleases. On the surface, then, legalism and antinomianism seem to be distinct and opposite problems, but they are not.

Usually what happens is something like this: a believer is raised in the context where the moral and ethical demands of Scripture are emphasized and taught apart from the context of God’s redeeming grace. And so this person comes to believe that God requires certain behaviors in order to be made acceptable to Him and receive His blessing. Since the fall, man’s default view is legalistic; so this kind of teaching comports well with our natural inclinations.

The believer who is reared in such a context may remain a legalist; however, when he is exposed to (and embraces) the proper teaching concerning the extravagance of God’s grace to us in Christ, he often becomes an antinomian, believing that God’s grace does away with the law. The turn from a legalist to an antinomian is an easy and natural one to make because in both instances God’s law is viewed as the enemy; and, in both views, God’s law is viewed as separate and distinct from God, Himself.

So, while legalism and antinomianism may seem opposites of one another, “legalism and antinomianism are, in fact, nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb” (Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 84). Here, I’m quoting from – and indebted to Sinclair Ferguson. Years ago, I ran across some audio recordings online in which Dr. Ferguson explained the history and relevance of “the Marrow controversy,” a theological controversy in the Scottish Presbyterian church in the 18th century. The audio recordings of that three-part lecture series are still available online here.

More recently, Ferguson has written a book – based on the content of those lectures – called, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. Concerning this idea that legalism and antinomianism are nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb, Ferguson shows how both arise from a distorted view of God and His law:

Within the matrix of legalism at root is the manifestation of a restricted heart disposition toward God, viewing him through a lens of negative law that obscures the broader context of the Father’s character of holy love. This is a fatal sickness. Paradoxically, it is this same view of God, and the separation of his person from his law, that also lies at the root of antinomianism. The bottom line in both of these -isms is identical. That is why the gospel remedy of them is one and the same. (The Whole Christ, 85).

 

You see, both legalism and antinomianism fail to see that both law and gospel are expressions of God’s grace:

The Relevance in Preaching

So, how does this relate to preaching? Well, as I said at the beginning, preachers must always be on guard against these twin dangers of legalism and antinomianism. In fact, one of the greatest dangers for preachers is to over-react to one of these dangers and thereby fall into the other. You see, on the one hand, out of a fear of being labeled a legalist, a preacher can be tempted to never preach the imperatives or commands of God’s Word. On the other hand, out of a fear of being labeled an antinomian, a preacher can be tempted to never give assurances in the grace of the gospel.

However, the law is not contrary to the grace of the gospel, but sweetly complies with it (WCF 19:7). Therefore, the preacher must learn to put away the fear of false labels and trust the Holy Spirit to work as he seeks to preach the whole counsel of God. As Herman Bavinck writes, the law must be proclaimed in the context of the gospel:

The law, after all, is an expression of God’s being. As a human being Christ was naturally subject to law for his own sake. Before the fall the law was inscribed on Adam’s heart. In the case of the believer, it is again engraved on the tables of his heart by the Holy Spirit; and in heaven all its inhabitants will conduct themselves in accordance with the law of the Lord. The gospel is temporary; the law is everlasting and precisely that which is restored by the gospel. Freedom from the law, therefore, does not mean that Christians no longer have anything to do with that law, but that the law can no longer demand anything from them as a condition for salvation and can no longer judge and condemn them. For the rest they delight in the law in their inmost being [Rom. 7:22] and meditate on it day and night [Ps. 1:2]. For that reason that law must always be proclaimed in the church in the context of the gospel. Both law and gospel, the whole Word, the full counsel of God, are the content of preaching. Accordingly, among the Reformed the law occupies a much larger place in the doctrine of gratitude than in that of misery. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 454-455)

 

Or, as a former seminary professor of mine, Mike Glodo, once wrote:

While it’s true what Lloyd-Jones said – ‘If your preaching of the gospel...does not provoke the charge...of antinomianism, you're not preaching the gospel…’ – it's also true that if you’re not accused of being a legalist or moralist, you’re probably not preaching the gospel.

 

Conclusion

Here’s the main point – and really the bottom line of this entire series on preaching: those who are called to preach the gospel must have faith in the power and purposes of God’s Word by preaching the main point of the text before them; and those who hear must trust the Holy Spirit to convince and convert sinners, and build them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation through the preaching of the Word (WSC 89).

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: Depravity, a virtue to be embraced? Part 2

Dear Church Family,

In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:

Preaching: What is the Gospel?
Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3
Preaching: The Same Message No Matter the Text?
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 3
Preaching: Depravity, a virtue to be embraced? Part 1

Introduction

Last week, we sought to define the term “depravity” and we examined how the Bible teaches that believers are no longer totally depraved. This week, we will continue to examine some more examples of how this erroneous view concerning the continuation of depravity in the Christian is alive and well today.

Evidence of the Problem

Many believers fail to see the glorious benefits of the new birth, and how faith in the Lord Jesus Christ does away with both the punishment and the power of sin in our lives. We are not only forgiven; we are also able to now resist sin and live righteously (Titus 2:11-14).

There are other evidences, however, of how the erroneous teaching that depravity is a virtue to be embraced is alive and well. For instance, I have heard believers pray things like, “O Lord, forgive us – for we increase our depravity every day.” Believers sin every day in thought, word, and deed, but if you’re increasing your depravity every day, you might want to examine your heart and life and see if you have true faith!

Or, the most pervasive evidence of this faulty understanding of “depravity as a virtue to be embraced” is in the general call for believers to pursue sanctification by embracing their depravity – sometimes termed “brokenness.” In this line of thinking, Peter’s three-fold denial of the Lord Jesus (Luke 22:54-62) becomes a paradigm not only for every believer’s conversion experience, but also of every believer’s daily sanctificational experience. Understood this way, the only way to grow in Christ is by focusing and dwelling upon what a miserable sinner one is.

Not only is this practically dangerous in that it inevitably stunts the growth of believers, but it is biblically untenable. Instead of embracing – or even focusing on his sin and failures – the Apostle Paul acknowledges his own weakness, but is not satisfied to wallow in the mire of his sinful condition: “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). And, his focus is not on who he was in his own sin, but on who he presently is in Christ Jesus: “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3).

There’s a world of difference between acknowledging one’s sin and weakness and embracing one’s sin and weakness. David J. Bosch writes in his book on a theology of missions A Spirituality of the Road (p 77):

When we realize that Christians are weak, we usually react in one of two ways. I use my weakness as an excuse or I reject it and demand strength. If I use weakness as an excuse I am not to blame for what is happening. God has caused me to be as weak as I am, therefore He is to be blamed if things go wrong. In fact, arguing this way, our weakness does not only become an excuse but a virtue. We are grateful for being weak because this relieves us of our responsibility; we may relax with a clear conscience.

 

Linked to the call to continually embrace one’s brokenness as a means toward sanctification is the refusal to ever compliment or recognize a person for their goodness or good work. In fact, if weakness and depravity are virtues to be embraced, rather than conditions which God remedies by the power of His Holy Spirit, then people are actually to be praised for their weakness and self-awareness of their own depravity. If depravity is a virtue to be embraced, then one could never say of a man, “He is to be honored for the work that he has done for the furtherance of the gospel” (actually, this is a paraphrase of what Paul said of Epaphroditus, Philippians 2:29-30). Instead, according to this view, one ought to only praise men for their worthlessness! Or, at least praise men for their awareness of their own worthlessness.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then keep your eyes open for this sort of “wormology.” It’s out there, I promise. Listen to how people talk about how to progress and grow in the Christian life. Listen to how people talk about others and what is virtuous. I once attended a gathering of Reformed pastors and elders in which every speaker and preacher was introduced the same way, “The best thing about Joe is that he understands what a great, big, fat sinner he is.” Well, OK. Good for Joe. But is that really the best thing that we can say about him?

In the early 1940s, in The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis wrote the following:

If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.

 

Thinking about how the positive virtue of Love has been replaced by the negative virtue of Unselfishness, causes me to think about how for many Christians the “pursuit of righteousness” has been replaced by the “denial of self-righteousness.” The New Testament has a lot to say about the denial of self-righteousness, but not about the denial of self-righteousness as an end in itself. We are told to deny or turn from our own self-righteousness and trust in Christ (Galatians 2:16); and nearly every description of what we shall find, if we do examine the Scriptures, contains an appeal to the desires of our new natures and the Holy Spirit within us.

For example, in his letter to the church in Galatia, even as the Apostle Paul condemns works-righteousness and the false notion of obtaining salvation by works of the law, his main exhortations at the end of the letter in chapter 6 are an appeal to sow to the Spirit:

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary (Galatians 6:8-9)

 

But, here’s another thing that strikes me as I think about the above quote from C.S. Lewis: there are Christians today who have so embraced depravity as a virtue that they would deny one of Lewis’ main premises. They would deny that there even exist twenty “good men” whom one could ask such questions about virtue. They would argue that having a category of people whom one labeled “great Christians of old” would be inappropriate, prideful idolatry, or at best, humanism.

I remember having a discussion with a leader from another church about a church discipline issue and whether or not a particular action was right or wrong, his dismissive conclusion to our disagreement was this, “Look, all I know is that I’m 100% wrong all the time, you’re 100% wrong all the time, and God is 100% right all the time.” Need I even probe why this line of thinking is illogical, inappropriate, self-refuting, and can only lead to apathy?

Let me conclude this essay with a quote from outside the Reformed tradition from a man who also recognizes the dangers of embracing depravity as a virtue – though he uses slightly different terms. As he points out, one of the dangers of this line of thinking that we have been discussing is that it actually leads to the place that it so desperately wants to avoid: prideful self-aggrandizement. Commenting on the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, in his book The Divine Conspiracy (p 103), Dallas Willard writes:

If all we need to be blessed in the kingdom of the heavens is to be humble-minded through recognizing our spiritual poverty, then let’s just do that and we’ve got bliss cornered. We escape the humiliation of spiritual incompetence because, strange to say, we have managed to turn it into spiritual attainment just by acknowledging it. And we escape the embarrassment of receiving pure mercy, for our humble recognition makes blessedness somehow appropriate. We have egg on our face perhaps, but at least we know it – and then can wear it defiantly, even proudly, like a badge of virtue.

 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch