Good Shepherd EPC November Newsletter
A Heartless Faith
Reclaiming the Doxological Designs of the Reformation
By Dr. Kevin Hartley
The following article is designed to provoke within the reader an examination of the motives of his soul, as one of the offspring of the Reformation, who, amid the theological controversies, arguments, and propositions in our day, both in academia and without it, are careless in their endeavors (meaning absent a concern for the holy nature of God).
It is written to provoke our blushing and bemoaning, to bewail the rotten disposition of our souls, through an examination of the motives of those engaged in theological advance, debate, and publication. It is but an effort to provoke us to once more plead the wretched state of our vacant souls and cry to our sovereign Lord that He have mercy to enliven our souls as once He did so long ago.
An examination of modern theological pursuits in both academic and lay settings, of which this writer has been party to and participant in both, should discomfit the children of the Reformation, as there can be found but vagrant propositions and mindless theological controversies replete with little to no godly honor or profit. The efforts of academic and lay scholarship in this present age evinces we have hanged our harps upon the willows, not dissimilar to the days when Judah ceased her worship of God in Babylon.
Reformed theology has been in captivity so long that tears no longer stain the pages of her ramblings. In the innumerable publications and conferences of our day no harps can be heard strumming, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory (Is. 6.3), there are not doorposts shaking in our seminaries, there are no souls found weeping while reading our Systematic Theologies, and there are few moved beyond the excitation of the natural man in the endless writings found in our midst. There are but dry and dusty books and halls, evident of no life within or without or solemn halls.
Once, Reformed theologians bled their fingers dry out of awe and wonder of a God so glorious; their ink seemed to barely touch the page as they wrote with a godly fear of so weighty a task. They engaged in considering the study of God with unsettled souls fearful of so daunting a task. They could be heard shrinking at the thought of engaging in wonders so far from their feeble reach. They smeared the ink of their pages with felicitous tears of gratitude and praise.
Nearly extinct in our day is such a heartfelt study of God. Today, the pages written in theological endeavors are dry, cold and callous; they are full of spite and disdain, betraying a pompous and self-glorifying design not seen perhaps since the age of Scholasticism. There is a wasteland in Reformed Theology replete of godly affection and true religion in the scholarship and controversies of our day. Systematic
Theologies bleed nothing but the human spirit, treatises, journals, articles, and blogs, either champion their scholastic regimen, or are filled with merely vitriol and pompous posturing. The dry study of God so prevalent among the children of the Reformation in our day is so absent doxological form it is not only an offense to a holy God, but an unprofitable and vain endeavor for those embarking upon its path.
It should make the reader tremble to consider how the writings of the men of the Reformation are an indictment of the vacancy of the souls of today’s writers. One marvels how a truly godly soul is able to exegete God’s word without being struck with the fear and awe of the sovereign Lord’s majesty. How is it that men claiming that they love the sovereign grace of God never speak of Him in a glorifying manner?
How is it that anyone can speak of His salvation without a humble fear of a task so weighty that is far beyond the abilities of this mortal frame? It has become but as Isaiah once wrote of Israel, a time where., the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken (Is. 28: 13). As Isaiah would note of Israel in that day, so is it in our day; the task of theology has become but a crown of pride in our day.
As theologians and lay writers today have engaged in countless theological efforts they have left merely a barren wasteland of dry theological machinations’; they have forgetten that the exercise of theology must have no other design than to glorify God, to wit the reading soul is laid low in abject humility and brought to an excitation over the wonder of true grace.
Theology without doxology is but a futile endeavor; it leaves one ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth absent any improvement of the soul. True religion does not engage in such endeavors without the harp in hand; theology has no benefit without its proper intended use, so that both the writer and reader and brought to the wonder of true doxological musing.
The Reformation left us a heritage of doxological theology. One cannot read Calvin’s Institutes without being struck by his doxological design and useful conclusions for improving his reader in faith. Similarly, one cannot open a Puritan text without being struck by the strum of the harp that has been taken from the willow, heard as an undertone to their every word. Why then do the majority of Reformed publications today far too often leave the soul vacant and unimproved in godliness?
Why are our shelves full of innumerable books from these days that teach theology without a stirring of the reader’s godly affections? It can be likened to a bible study that teaches historical fact, memorization of verses, and theological import, but not the proper use of the text for the improvement of the soul. A biblical scholar can be made without faith, but what good is a biblical scholar without faith? What good is a theologian who writes absent the goal of God’s glory, not his?
Furthermore, what good is a theological book, article, blog or commentary, without the goal of God’s glory, our humility, and the improvement of the reader in faith and awe of God? One cannot read Matthew Henry’s Commentary without being struck by his every application of his conclusion to the improvement of the soul of his reader.
While the reader of a present day commentary has no stirring of true godly affections, no advance in true humility and wonder, they are far unlike the men of the Reformation who ever took pen in hand with a terror of the wonder of their subject. It is time the children of the Reformation learned how to truly conduct themselves as their forefathers.
If we are the offspring of the Reformation it is time we take the harp out of the willow in our endeavors. Let this reprove our souls, hearing Paul’s words to Timothy, Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do (1 Timothy 4: 1), as a check to our vain efforts that are unprofitable to the glory of God and improvement of godly souls. Let us heed Calvin’s words, when he wrote of this text from Timothy, saying:
"He judges of doctrine by the fruit; for everything that does not edify ought to be rejected, although it has no other fault; and everything that is of no avail but for raising contentions, ought to be doubly condemned. And such are all the subtle questions on which ambitious men exercise their faculties. Let us, therefore, remember, that all doctrines must be tried by this rule, that those which contribute to edification may be approved, and that those which give ground for unprofitable disputes may be rejected as unworthy of the Church of God (Calvin’s Commentaries).”
What then remains for the theologians and those they entertain in our day? It is far time for a new Reformation to begin, one that begins first in our heart and souls. It is one that must so strike us with an infirmity of the flesh that we dare not write or speak of our holy and sovereign God without a doxological breath. The endeavors of our theology should again begin from the precept of our debasement; we should crawl to our keyboards and pulpits as men that have been in the presence of an awful God.
We must learn to write with pages stained by the tears of true wonder and godly felicity, when ever making mention of so worthy a God as ours. Otherwise, what good is all our endeavoring; we will find that all our books, our conferences, our seminaries, and our churches, are nothing more than vain ramblings from senseless and inaffectionate souls that could speak of the God of heaven, but were those He never knew and those that never knew Him.
It is far time for the true children of the Reformation, that claim its heritage and doctrines, to plead with heaven’s King for a rekindling of true religious affections for their lifeless souls. It is time for Christian to tell Faithful of the one called Talkative travelling in our midst, saying,
“He is the son of one SAY-WELL; he dwelt in Prating-row, and he is known of all that are acquainted with him by the name of TALKATIVE in Prating-row; and notwithstanding his fine tongue, he is but a sorry fellow (Pilgrim’s Progress: John Bunyan).”
Care in Choosing a Church
The Marks of the Church
If you move to a new town, you have to find a new church. The search for a new church can be difficult and frustrating. If you pick up the Yellow Pages and look under “Church,” you are likely to confront a bewildering array of possibilities. Perhaps you already have some fairly definite ideas of what you want in a church. You may be looking for a good youth group or active senior citizens group. You may want a powerful preacher or a certain kind of music. You may be very loyal to one denomination or you may like to “shop around.”
What should you be looking for in choosing a new church? Your first concern should be that the church be a “true church.” You do not want to choose a church that is part of a sect or a cult. You do not want a church that still bears the name of church, but whose lampstand Christ has removed (Revelation 1–3).
How do you recognize a true church? This question was acute at the time of the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century basically argued that Christ preserved the true church through the work of the Pope, the bishop of Rome. The true church is easy to recognize because it is in fellowship with the Pope. Any church that does not submit to the Pope is a false church.
The Reformers did not accept Rome’s approach. They argued that the true church is not marked by submission to a supposedly infallible apostolic office—the Papacy—but by acceptance of apostolic truth. Luther declared that “the sole, uninterrupted, infallible mark of the church has always been the Word.” The true church is marked by submission to the Scriptures.
Anyone familiar with the Reformation knows the importance of the Bible in the formation of Protestantism. Against the claims of the medieval church that tradition, bishops, and councils were authoritative along with the Bible, the Reformers insisted that the Bible is the only absolute authority for Christians. The Bible must judge all traditions and church officers and assemblies. It is not surprising then that the Reformers taught that the centrality of the Word is the key mark of the true church. As one of the Reformation confessions put it, the true church is known “in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church” (Belgic Confession, Article 29).
This general recognition of the Word as the mark of the true church came to specific expression. Among the Reformed churches, eventually three marks were identified: faithful preaching of the Word, faithful administration of the sacraments, and faithful exercise of discipline.
In focusing on the marks of the church, the Reformers were not saying that all a good church needs to have are the marks of the church. They focused on the marks because the marks make the true church recognizable. The church of Christ has many more characteristics than the three marks. But these characteristics—we might mention prayer, fellowship, devotion—are not so easy to observe. The marks are important because they display the faithfulness of the church.
Faithful preaching was the first mark of the true church because preaching most directly brings God’s Word to His people. The Reformers stressed that God’s great means of speaking to His people was by preaching. Luther talked of the several forms that the Word takes. The first is the eternal Word, the second person of the Trinity. The second is the incarnate Word, Jesus. The third is the inscripturated Word, the Bible. The fourth is the “shouted Word,” the preaching. At the heart of Christian worship and life is the ministry of the Word in preaching. If preaching is not faithful, the life of the church cannot be faithful. It is an essential mark of the true church.
Calvin added that this first mark of the true church is not just faithful preaching of the Word. A man standing on a street corner may be faithfully declaring the Word, but there is no church. Calvin said that in a true church a further dimension of this mark is that the Word must also be faithfully heard and received.
Reformed worship is sometimes called a dialogue between God and His people—God speaks and His people respond. Calvin’s point is that if God speaks through the preaching of His Word and no one is listening and responding, then no church exists. But where the Word is faithfully preached and received, there the mark of the true church can be seen.
The second mark of the true church is the faithful administration of the sacraments. At first glance we might be tempted to think that this mark is really more a sixteenth-century concern than a contemporary one. The Reformation, after all, confronted the Roman church, which stressed the absolute centrality of its seven sacraments. Did the Reformers make the sacraments a mark of the church just to distinguish their teaching of two sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) from the sacraments of Rome?
The Reformers certainly had a more fundamental concern than just to separate themselves from Rome on the sacraments. They were convinced that the sacraments are a fifth form of the Word, the visible Word. That phrase—“the visible Word”—had originated with Augustine and Calvin in particular had repeated it.
The sacraments visibly display the very heart of the Gospel. Baptism shows that we are saved only by the washing away of sin in Jesus, and the Lord’s Supper shows that Christians live only through the body and blood of Christ offered as a sacrifice on the cross. These sacraments are an observable mark of the true church. In a true church the biblical sacraments are faithfully administered and received.
The third mark of the true church is discipline. The exercise of the discipline taught in Scripture demonstrates the church’s determination to pursue holy living before the Lord. If flagrant heresy or notorious unchristian behavior is tolerated in the church, how can that church be genuinely receiving the Word of God? Paul clearly insists that the church exercise such discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1–5, 13). Discipline is necessary in the church according to the Belgic Confession (Article 32) to preserve harmony, unity, and obedience. Where such discipline is missing, the church is not recognizable as a holy community.
The early Reformers such as John Calvin did not identify discipline as a mark of the church. Calvin certainly recognized the vital importance of discipline and even called it “the sinew of the church.” Perhaps he felt that discipline was too subjective to function well as a mark. How faithful must a church be in discipline to qualify as a true church? But later Reformers saw the mark of discipline as one way of testing Calvin’s concern that the Word not only be preached but be truly received. If a Christian community does not exercise and submit to discipline to some extent, then no true church exists.
Each of the three marks is an expression of the one great mark, the Word. Each mark expresses an aspect of the Word’s life and power in the church. The true church submits to the Word of God. As the church father Tertullian said, “They are true churches which hold to what they received from the apostles.”
By God’s appointment the church is a vital and necessary institution. Each Christian needs the fellowship and ministry of the church. But that spiritual need can only be met by a true church. Today the variety of churches in the Yellow Pages makes the marks of the church more important and useful than ever. The Reformation insight into the Word as the great mark of the church must still guide and direct us to true churches of Christ.
The Begic Confession: The True Church
(The Belgic Confession, written in 1561, owes its origin to the need for a clear and comprehensive statement of Reformed faith during the time of the Spanish inquisition in the Lowlands. Guido de Brès, its primary author, was pleading for understanding and toleration from King Philip II of Spain who was determined to root out all Protestant factions in his jurisdiction. Hence, this confession takes pains to point out the continuity of Reformed belief with that of the ancient Christian creeds, as well as to differentiate it from Catholic belief (on the one hand), and from Anabaptist teachings (on the other).
Belgic Confession, Article 29: The Marks of the True Church
Article 29: The Marks of the True Church
We believe that we ought to discern
diligently and very carefully,
by the Word of God,
what is the true church—
for all sects in the world today
claim for themselves the name of "the church."
We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites
who are mixed among the good in the church
and who nonetheless are not part of it,
even though they are physically there.
But we are speaking of distinguishing
the body and fellowship of the true church
from all sects that call themselves "the church."
The true church can be recognized
if it has the following marks:
The church engages in the pure preaching
of the gospel;
it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments
as Christ instituted them;
it practices church discipline
for correcting faults.
In short, it governs itself
according to the pure Word of God,
rejecting all things contrary to it
and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.
By these marks one can be assured
of recognizing the true church—
and no one ought to be separated from it.
As for those who can belong to the church,
we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians:
namely by faith,
and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness,
once they have received the one and only Savior,
They love the true God and their neighbors,
without turning to the right or left,
and they crucify the flesh and its works.
Though great weakness remains in them,
they fight against it
by the Spirit
all the days of their lives,
to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus,
in whom they have forgiveness of their sins,
through faith in him.
As for the false church,
it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances
than to the Word of God;
it does not want to subject itself
to the yoke of Christ;
it does not administer the sacraments
as Christ commanded in his Word;
it rather adds to them or subtracts from them
as it pleases;
it bases itself on humans,
more than on Jesus Christ;
it persecutes those
who live holy lives according to the Word of God
and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.
These two churches
are easy to recognize
and thus to distinguish
from each other.
Calvin on the True Church and Schism
The marks of the church and our application of them to judgment
Hence the form of the Church appears and stands forth conspicuous to our view. Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them," (Matth. 18: 20.)
But that we may have a clear summary of this subject, we must proceed by the following steps: -
The Church universal is the multitude collected out of all nations, who, though dispersed and far distant from each other, agree in one truth of divine doctrines and are bound together by the tie of a common religion. In this way it comprehends single churches, which exist in different towns and villages, according to the wants of human society, so that each of them justly obtains the name and authority of the Church; and also comprehends single individuals, who by a religious profession are accounted to belong to such churches, although they are in fact aliens from the Church, but have not been cut off by a public decision.
There is, however, a slight difference in the mode of judging of individuals and of churches. For it may happen in practice that those whom we deem not altogether worthy of the fellowship of believers, we yet ought to treat as brethren and regard as believers on account of the common consent of the Church in tolerating and bearing with them in the body of Christ. Such persons we do not approve by our suffrage as members of the Church, but we leave them the place which they hold among the people of God, until they are legitimately deprived of it.
With regard to the general body we must feel differently; if they have the ministry of the word, and honour the administration of the sacraments, they are undoubtedly entitled to be ranked with the Church, because it is certain that these things are not without a beneficial result. Thus we both maintain the Church universal in its unity, which malignant minds have always been eager to dissever, and deny not due authority to lawful assemblies distributed as circumstances require.
A church with these marks, however defective, is not to be forsaken: the sin of schism, the Marks and authority of the church
We have said that the symbols by which the Church is discerned are the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments, for these cannot any where exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God. I say not that wherever the word is preached fruit immediately appears; but that in every place where it is received, and has a fixed abode, it uniformly displays its efficacy.
Be this as it may, when the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard, and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time the face of the Church appears without deception or ambiguity; and no man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions, or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity, (see Chap. 2 sec. 1, 10, and Chap. 3. sec. 12.)
For such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his Church, that all who contumaciously alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion. So highly does he recommend her authority, that when it is violated he considers that his own authority is impaired.
For there is no small weight in the designation given to her, "the house of God," "the pillar and ground of the truth," (1 Tim. 3: 15.) By these words Paul intimates, that to prevent the truth from perishing in the world, the Church is its faithful guardian, because God has been pleased to preserve the pure preaching of his word by her instrumentality, and to exhibit himself to us as a parent while he feeds us with spiritual nourishment, and provides whatever is conducive to our salvation.
Moreover, no mean praise is conferred on the Church when she is said to have been chosen and set apart by Christ as his spouse, "not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing," (Eph. 5: 27,) as "his body, the fulness of him that fillets all in all," (Eph. 1: 23.)
Whence it follows, that revolt from the Church is denial of God and Christ. Wherefore there is the more necessity to beware of a dissent so iniquitous; for seeing by it we aim as far as in us lies at the destruction of God's truth, we deserve to be crushed by the full thunder of his anger. No crime can be imagined more atrocious than that of sacrilegiously and perfidiously violating the sacred marriage which the only begotten Son of God has condescended to contract with us.
Good Shepherd EPC Happenings
November 16 - A Welcome Back to Ajo dinner on Saturday at 4 PM.
November 23 - Memorial Service for Mike Bernard at 11 AM
November 27 - Thanksgiving Eve Service at 6 PM
December 22 - Christmas Candlelight service 6 PM
January 2020 - Annual Congere
Current Series and Studies
Sunday Morning Study at 9:30 AM - Ephesians
Sunday Worship Sermon Series - Isaiah
Wednesday Evening Study - Genesis
Current Service Project
We are helping two families in the congregation repair and replace their roofs, as well as looking to help the local tribe repair their facilities. Funds are being collected at the church facility.