Archives For Theological Convictions

In the EFCA, we strongly affirm the infallibility, inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures.  We also affirm unequivocally the essentials of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ is grounded in the Scriptures, God’s Word, which is living and active. Consider what our commitment to this gospel means, according to God’s Word.

  • We are not ashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16).
  • We affirm the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16).
  • We testify to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24).
  • We affirm the gospel is of first importance (1 Cor. 15:1-3).
  • We live a life worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27).
  • We experience (and proclaim) the gospel in Word and power (1 Thess. 1:5).
  • We have been entrusted with the gospel (1 Thess. 2:4).

This unwavering commitment to God’s Word, the Scriptures, and God’s gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, also has significant implications in how we live life together with other believers. Grounded in the essentials of the gospel, we are willing and eager to partner with other like-minded and like-hearted believers, and grant liberty and charity on some of the non-essentials.

In the Free Church, this has been referred to as “the significance of silence.” What this means is that we will discuss and debate an issue, but we will not divide over it. We believe our unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ, both a doctrinal purity and a practical unity, enables us to live life together with others in the local church, and to partner with other gospel-committed ministries outside our local church and denomination (consider Ephesians). In fact, the gospel of Jesus Christ allows us not only to survive in such a setting, it enables and empowers us to thrive and flourish. And we believe this practical unity grounded in doctrinal purity manifests the gospel in practice which we preach and teach in doctrine. This is rightly referred to as evangelical unity.

The Spiritual Heritage Committee is working on a new book, Evangelical Unity, which will address these issues, and which will serve as a companion to the book that spells out our understanding of the essentials, Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America (2011). In the past, these two works were This We Believe: The Background and Exposition of the Doctrinal Statement of The Evangelical Free Church of America (1961) and The Significance of Silence (Vol. 2 Heritage Series) (1981).

There are historical precedents of those who have been committed to a similar gospel-centeredness in doctrine and practice. Richard Baxter (1615-1691), one of those from the past, delineates what Christian unity means, cf. Richard Baxter and William Orme, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, vol. 5 (London: James Duncan, 1830), 155.

Baxter writes “there must be an union among all churches and Christians in these following particulars.”

  1. They have all but one God.
  2. And one Head and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
  3. And one Sanctifier, the Holy Ghost.
  4. And one ultimate end and hope, even the fruition of God in heaven.
  5. And one Gospel to teach them the knowledge of Christ, and contain the promise of their salvation.
  6. And one kind of faith that is wrought hereby.
  7. And one and the same covenant (of which baptism is the seal) in which they are engaged to God.
  8. And the same instrumental founders of our faith, under Jesus Christ, even the prophets and apostles.
  9. And all members of the same universal body.
  10. And all have the same new nature and holy disposition, and the same holy affections, in loving God and holiness, and hating sin.
  11. They all own, as to the essential parts, the same law of God, as the rule of their faith and life, even the sacred canonical Scriptures.
  12. Every member hath a love to the whole, and to each other, especially to the more excellent and useful members; and an inclination to holy communion with each other.
  13. They have all a propensity to the same holy means and employment, as prayer, learning the Word of God, and doing good to others.

Some questions to ponder:

  • What would you add to the list? What would you delete? What would you edit?
  • Where do we come short in our understanding and in our living out of this unity – created by the gospel of Jesus Christ and expressed by our unity with others in Jesus Christ?

 

On January 19, 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was first published by Reformed scholars in Germany. This Catechism was written by Peter Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, and espouses a Reformed view of theology. Shortly after its publication, it was accepted by most of the Reformed churches in Europe. It was originally written “to prepare a catechism for instructing the youth and for guiding pastors and teachers.”

As a catechism, its structure is that of a question followed by an answer. It also includes Scripture references supporting the responses. It consists of 129 questions and answers, and soon after it was published, it was structured to be read in a year, and thus divided into 52 sections to reflect the 52 weeks of the year. In the sixteenth century, the National Synods of the Reformed Church adopted the Three Forms of Unity, which consisted of the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Canons of Dort (1618-1619).

Here is a brief introduction to the Catechism:

The Heidelberg Catechism was written in Heidelberg at the request of Elector Frederick III, ruler of the most influential German province, the Palatinate, from 1559 to 1576. This pious Christian prince commissioned Zacharius Ursinus, twenty-eight years of age and professor of theology at the Heidelberg University, and Caspar Olevianus, twenty-six years old and Frederick’s court preacher, to prepare a catechism for instructing the youth and for guiding pastors and teachers. Frederick obtained the advice and cooperation of the entire theological faculty in the preparation of the Catechism. The Heidelberg Catechism was adopted by a Synod in Heidelberg and published in German with a preface by Frederick III, dated January 19, 1563. A second and third German edition, each with some small additions, as well as a Latin translation were published in Heidelberg in the same year.

The Catechism was soon divided into fifty-two sections, so that a section of the Catechism could be explained to the churches each Sunday of the year. In The Netherlands this Heidelberg Catechism became generally and favorably known almost as soon as it came from the press, mainly through the efforts of Petrus Dathenus, who translated it into the Dutch language and added this translation to his Dutch rendering of the Genevan Psalter, which was published in 1566. In the same year, Peter Gabriel set the example of explaining this catechism to his congregation at Amsterdam in his Sunday afternoon sermons.

The National Synods of the sixteenth century adopted it as one of the Three Forms of Unity, requiring office-bearers to subscribe to it and ministers to explain it to the churches. These requirements were strongly emphasized by the great Synod of Dort in 1618-19. The Heidelberg Catechism has been translated into many languages and is the most influential and the most generally accepted of the several catechisms of Reformation times.  

The first two questions frame the whole Heidelberg Catechism, and are foundational for the whole of the Christian life. These two questions and answers are worthwhile to memorize.

1.Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own,[1] but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death,[2] to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.[3] He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.[5] He also preserves me in such a way[6] that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head;[7] indeed, all things must work together for my salvation.[8] Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life[9] and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.[10]

[1] I Cor. 6:19, 20 [2] Rom. 14:7-9. [3] I Cor. 3:23; Tit. 2:14. [4] I Pet. 1:18, 19; I John 1:7; 2:2. [5] John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:14, 15; I John 3:8. [6] John 6:39, 40; 10:27-30; II Thess. 3:3; I Pet. 1:5. [7] Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18. [8] Rom. 8:28. [9] Rom. 8:15, 16; II Cor. 1:21, 22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13, 14. [10] Rom. 8:14. 

2.Q. What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?

A. First, how great my sins and misery are;[1] second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery;[2] third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.[3]

[1] Rom. 3:9, 10; I John 1:10. [2] John 17:3; Acts 4:12; 10:43. [3] Matt. 5:16; Rom. 6:13; Eph. 5:8-10; I Pet. 2:9, 10.

I have used the Heidelberg Catechism as a supplement to my Bible reading. I have also used it with my family as part of our family worship/devotions. I commend it to you as well.

In our Free Church history, creeds have been formative, but also considered a concern. This relationship is summarized by one as follows:

Creeds can become formal, complex, and abstract. They can be almost illimitably expanded. They can be superimposed on Scripture. Properly handled, however, they facilitate public confession, form a succinct basis of teaching, safeguard pure doctrine, and constitute an appropriate focus for the church’s fellowship in faith.

The same could be said for the relationship with the Free Church and confessions. Although they are foundational, the concerns of their abuses have often resulted in their lack of use. At their best, they have been foundational and formative to Christians and the propagation of the Christian faith for centuries. If one does not use a catechism for spiritual formation, what is being used? It is not that young people and adults are not being formed and shaped. The concern is that what they are being formed and shaped by and to is not substantive biblical and theological truth.

At our upcoming Theology Conference, “Reformation, 500: Theology and Legacy,” one of our lectures will address The Reformation, Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms You can read more about the Conference, the speakers and the schedule here, and you can register here.

Our 2017 Theology Conference will be held February 1-3 on the campus of Trinity International University. The theme of the conference is Reformation 500: Theology and Legacy – The Gospel and the EFCA. In the introduction to the conference, we will focus on the EFCA’s roots in the Reformation and the Reformation’s legacy in the EFCA. You learn more about the Conference, the speakers and the schedule here, with registration here.

We are excited for this Theology Conference. Not only are we addressing the Reformation, a timely and important theme in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 Theses, but we have some of the foremost scholars addressing the various themes/topics of the Conference.

Our preconference will also be excellent, as we address, in a debate format, the important theme of “Genesis and the Age of the Earth: Does the Bible Speak Definitively on the Age of the Universe?” This will be followed by a time of focusing on the application of these matters in the context of a local church, providing guidance to pastors and leaders as they think about, navigate and lead through these discussions.

During the Conference we have also planned a gathering of young pastor-theologians, or those who have been engaged in vocational ministry for five years or less. During the lunch hour on Thursday, February 2, we will meet in the conference room in the Waybright Center.  If you fit this description, or if this would apply to someone with whom you serve in ministry, or someone you know, please either plan to attend or encourage that other person to attend.

My desire is to come alongside those engaged in the first years of pastoral ministry. Although there are many larger churches in America, most are smaller, which means many/most will begin pastoral ministry in a solo setting, or with possibly one or two other staff persons. This is also true in the EFCA in that almost 80% of our churches consist of 250 attendees or less. And in most of these instances, it is expected the person serving in the pastoral role has already figured out most biblical, theological and pastoral issues. However, this is inaccurate. They are, rather, engaged in working out the final step in their theological formation, that of pastoral theology, which consists of applying the truth of God’s Word to specific situations and the lives of people. Too often the assumption, inaccurate I may add, is that this step is either already done, or because other learning of the Bible has taken place, this happens naturally.

Recently I read the following from Mentoring Others, which was a statement made about a PCA church:

The members of the presbyteries know their theology fairly well, but when it comes to applying their theology in daily life, they desperately need help. It is one thing for us to teach systematic theology in intensive courses; it is another thing to help those who haven’t seen it modeled learn how to raise children, or how to live together in harmony, or how to resolve interpersonal conflicts.

This gets to the heart of pastoral theology. I consider this to be the final step in the process of moving from the Bible to theology. As one has written, Pastoral Theology

answers the question, How should humans respond to God’s revelation. Sometimes that is spelled out by Scripture itself; other times it builds on inferences of what Scripture says. PT practically applies the other four disciplines [exegesis, biblical theology, historical theology and systematic theology] – so much so that the other disciplines are in danger of being sterile and even dishonoring to God unless tied in some sense to the responses God rightly demands of us.

Too often, we demarcate between the more academic and the more churchly approach to the discipline of theology. The more academic and theological is for the academy and the more pragmatic and practical is for the church. This is profoundly wrong and hurtful to the church.

I also listened to an interview with Leith Anderson, NAE President, and Daniel Aleshire, Executive Director of The Association of Theological Schools: Trends in Theological Education. Something Aleshire said resonated with what I noted above and resonated with my sense of how many approach pastoral ministry, particularly those who have received formal theological training, either a Bible degree from a college or a MDiv degree from a seminary. They receive all the academic training focusing on the Bible, theology, Christian education, missiology, history, etc., with little pastoral theology. This is a bit overstated, but more often than not, accurate. And then when these students enter pastoral ministry, they encounter many pastoral matters regarding marriage, finances, counseling, addictions, infertility, gender dysphoria, etc. Because these are pastoral issues, too often these new pastors set aside or forget what they learned in seminary and they pursue a pragmatic, practical direction, as if the foundation they received in seminary has nothing to say to any of these matters. This increases the bifurcation, and it means pastors become more practically or pragmatically driven, rather than biblically and theologically driven. They ought to move from the foundation established in the Bible and theology to discern how that forms and shapes their pastoral response to these issues.

This is not to suggest students in Bible college or seminary are not involved or engaged in a local church ministry. The expected assumption is that they are. But there are vastly different expectations and requirements leading in that context in a pastoral, vocational capacity than it is to do so in a non-pastoral, not vocational capacity. It is important to note that I do not believe this is the seminary’s primary responsibility. It is the church’s responsibility. The church has all-too-often given over all of the pastoral training to the seminary, and the seminary has taken it, some by default and some by design. This leaves a huge gap in the learning and training provided by the Bible college or seminary, one which they are not designed to give. Therefore, we expect too much from the seminary, while the church abdicates our primary responsibility.

Here is my point. Because there are few helping young pastors to apply the biblical and theological foundation they have received to the pastoral issues of the day, i.e., to engage in the discipline of pastoral theology, the final discipline in moving from the Bible to theology, it is important for us in the EFCA to help those in the first five years of ministry do this very thing. These first five years are the years in which these questions and answers are given, one’s pastoral theology is forged and formed, which become the habits and disciplines of one’s pastoral practice, which, in turn, become formative for the duration of a person’s pastoral ministry over a lifetime.

If you are a young pastor-theologian or you have been in pastoral ministry for five years or less, please plan to attend this gathering.

As we begin a new year, we read and pray the words of Moses, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12, ESV). The key to what Moses writes is that we ask God to “teach us to number our days.” This addresses not only the brevity of life, that we are but a breath (cf. Ps. 39:5), but also the importance of using our days wisely (cf. Eph. 5:16). This requires that we “consider our ways,” to examine and reflect on our ways and days, so that we ensure we live life faithfully coram Deo, before the face of and in the presence of God.

The purpose we are to live with an awareness of our ways and days, is “that we may get a heart of wisdom” (ESV). Other translations state the same thing in the first half of the sentence, but they differ in the second half, seeking to capture the essence of God’s intent through Moses. Here, for example, are a few of the other translations, which shed further light on the purpose of this request, this prayer (emphasis mine): “that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (NASB); “that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (NIV); “so that we may grow in wisdom” (NLT).

Thus we pray we may “get,” “present,” “gain,” and “grow” in wisdom. What is this wisdom? It is reflective of God (Job 12:13), is given by God (Prov. 2:6), and consists of a right understanding of God, which results in a life lived accordingly under God. It is wisdom that only comes from above (Jms. 3:17). Ultimately, wisdom is identified with Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), and who is the source of all the Christian’s wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30). Wisdom is Christological.

Asking God to give insight, wisdom and discernment about life godliness and vocation is not dependent on the turn of the calendar to a new year, or the celebration of a birthday or anniversary, or some specific or particular day. That posture before God can and should happen on a regular basis, and God’s commands and leading ought to be begun when the Lord prompts. As has been stated, delayed obedience is disobedience. As believers who “live by the Spirit” and thus enabled to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25), we discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7b-8).

Paul David Tripp takes issue with making resolutions during the new year, but he does recommend making commitments, “rooted in the gospel” and which believers “have been empowered, and should be excited, to make”: Don’t Make Resolutions. Make Commitments

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. While I understand the desire for fresh starts and new beginnings, none of us has the power to reinvent ourselves simply because the calendar has flipped over to a new year. But since the gospel of Jesus Christ carries with it a message of fresh starts and new beginnings – because of the forgiving and transforming power of God’s grace – looking forward at the year to come does give us an opportunity to give ourselves anew to practical, daily-life commitments that are rooted in the gospel. Let me suggest seven commitments that all of us have been empowered, and should be excited, to make. . . . So, as the new year unfolds, don’t fool yourself with grandiose resolutions that none of us has the power to keep. Rather, celebrate the gospel of Jesus Christ and it’s huge catalog of graces. Re-commit yourself to living every day in light of what you have been given in and through your Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

However, in spite of these concerns, with which I concur, and grounded in and empowered by the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is a time/opportunity to ponder these sorts of spiritual matters in our lives. And as we do so, it is not something done on a whim, and neither is it something done in one’s own strength or power. That is why so many resolutions fail: they are not God-directed and not God-empowered.

Donald Whitney is one who has been very helpful in the areas of spiritual disciplines and the basics of the Christian faith. Here is one of his lists in which he asks some questions for us to ponder, which I have previously referenced: Consider Your Ways: 10 Questions to Ask in the New Year In another essay, Why You Probably Don’t Need a Quiet Time, Whitney addresses reasons (read excuses) why one does not have time to spend in the Word and in prayer. In response, he writes, “before you completely forsake your daily devotional time, you might consider a few things.” He then lists a number reasons for engaging in the spiritual disciplines, In conclusion, Whitney acknowledges some of the challenges we face as we engage in the spiritual disciplines, and that “significant changes in your life may indeed be needed. But think: How can less time with God be the answer?”

Karen, my wife, and I spent time discussing the questions listed by Whitney earlier this week. It was a fruitful time together. I pray it will bear fruit the rest of the year. I share them with you with a prayer you will press on faithfully in and with the Lord this year.

Here are a few questions as you seek before the face of God to number your days: More generally, what are the spiritual disciplines in which you need to continue? What are those in which you need to grow? What are those you need to begin? Regarding some of the basic spiritual disciplines, what is your Bible reading plan? What is your plan to commune with God in prayer, individually and corporately? What sin of the flesh needs to be put to death, and what fruit of the Spirit needs to be nourished?

We will all experience joys and sorrows in the year to come. We know some of them, but most we do not. However, we do know God who is immutable (unchangeable) in his “being, perfections, purposes and promises” and we can and will trust him.

Whitney concludes, “So let’s evaluate our lives, make plans and goals, and live this new year with biblical diligence, remembering that, ‘The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage’ (Proverbs 21:5). But in all things let’s also remember our dependence on our King who said, ‘Apart from Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).”

 

As the calendar turned this year, I was reminded of President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. By signing this Proclamation, the legal status of more than three-million slaves in the Confederate states in the south (those states which seceded from the American states during the Civil War, from 1861-1865), changed from slave to free. In conjunction with this historic signing, churches in the north held candlelight vigils honoring and commemorating this event.

Four brief matters to note.

First, a Presidential proclamation, an executive order, was issued to overturn an evil against human beings. As Christians, we recognize governments are put into place by God and are “God’s servant for your good,” that is the good of all, not a few. We are thankful when human laws reflect key truths about human dignity and worth revealed in God’s law.

Second, even though a law was signed stating these slaves were free, the immediate effect of this law did not result in the freedom for all these slaves. We also know that even if a law is in effect, as important as that is, it does not mean a person will be looked at or treated equally, as a fellow image-bearer of God. History is replete with examples of this, which continues to this day.

Third, the churches in the north set aside time, both purposefully and intentionally, to thank the Lord for the passing of this law, for they believed this human Presidential proclamation upheld God’s law about the worth and dignity, the equality of all, that all humanity is created in the imago Dei, and this ought to be upheld and celebrated. It is also true that churches ought to engage in vigils of sorrow and grief and repentance when God’s laws and commands are not reflected in human laws, and when the imago Dei is undermined or not acknowledged in the life of the other.

Fourth, and to move into the present day, the last couple of years have reflected increased racial tensions, indicating the issue is not ultimately the law. Rather, the problem is with the human heart. In a posture of prayer, trusting in the kind providence of God, may this be the year that the church of Jesus Christ reflects the reality of the new heavens and new earth in the realm of race relations, and may we in the EFCA, by his grace and for his glory, humbly and courageously, dependently on God and interdependently on one another, lead the way in our orthodoxy and our orthopraxy, in our belief and our behavior, in our teaching and our living.