Tuesday, 8 September 2009

"There was no man!"

I am a bit surprised when ministers say that getting ministerial colleagues to stay closer to the WCF was the way to reform the church.

My view was, and still is, that the church has to be reformed according to the Scriptures, the church's supreme standard, NOT any manmade document, no matter how good it might be. The 'rule of faith' requires this, does it not?

Ministers and elders are to submit conscience to no other authority than the Word of God, revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

I think you will agree with me when I say that the reason the church is in such a decadent condition is because she has departed from the truth, the Scriptures, the Word of God. There is no way that any Christian and Reformed church body can substitute anything for the supreme place the Scriptures ought to have, for anything else!

It is my conviction that our country, and indeed the whole world, is as they are today because of the state of the church. Society reflects accurately the spiritual condition of the church.

Yet there is no one to "stand in the gap," no one to bring the living Word of the living God to a faithless church and a perishing nation. Where are the true prophets of God who bring His message to the decadent church and nation? Is there no one who sees what is happening, or are there too many 'time servers' - as a former colleague of ours from the ... Presbytery described them? We are getting too many sermons, but precious few messages from God!

How often do we celebrate great men like Calvin and his true sons and successors, Baxter, the Wesley's, Whitefield, Edwards, Brainard, Chalmers, Ryle, yet we all tend to run a mile from doing what they did! We praise them for their sacrifice in the cause of God, but we will be sure to protect ourselves when it comes to standing for God and His truth.

What does it say about a church that encourages men, and women, who are liberals, ecumenists, modernisers, Arminians, and Gospel haters, to subscribe the WCF at the various milestones, yet it hounds out true evangelical reformed ministers, and no one cares a toss! As someone once famously said, "You cannot criticise what you are prepared to tolerate."

If we can stir one another up to greater faithfulness to the Lord and His Gospel, then there is hope for the reformation of His church. But if we insist on being "firm's men" to the core, then we care nothing for the well-being of Christ's body on earth, and she will never be reformed according to the Word of God, or transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

WCF now the Supreme Standard in the Presbyterian Church

It is with quite some dismay that I learned in conversation with a former ministerial colleague that the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) has now replaced Scripture as the supreme standard of that church, in effect if not on paper. Dismay, I say, but not surprise, because churches that claim to be "reformed" tend to move towards the hyper end of things while the truly reformed churches that followed Calvin and his worthy sons and successors maintained Scriptures supreme position within the churches.

It was claimed that insisting that ministers adhere to the WCF was easier and more productive of orthodoxy than desiring them to stay close to Scripture. I asked him if this new position was not a denial of the rule of faith, and a lowering of the supreme position that the Scriptures have always had within the Calvinistic churches. He disagreed that there was any change to the position of Scripture as the supreme standard of his denomination, but insisted that the WCF was less capable of spurious interpretation than were the Scriptures. I disagreed with him on this point.

If the WCF is so watertight when it comes to matters of orthodoxy, why then is it possible to be a fully fledged liberal and ecumenist within the church to subscribe that Confession as the confession of his/her faith? Indeed, why are there so many different interpretations on what the Scriptures really are, and their meaning, the identity of the Antichrist, on the issue of sacramental discipline, on the matter of what constitutes the Gospel, on inter-church relations and inter-faith activities, etc. These matters are important, yet within his church, the understanding and practices are diverse, a point that does not appear to be of any great concern to evangelical and reformed ministers within that denomination. Every elder, both teaching and ruling, subscribes the WCF as the confession of his, or her, faith, and accepts it as a true summary of what the Scriptures teach.

This departure from John Calvin's orthodoxy is inevitable when Scripture is deposed in practice from its supreme and authoritative position within any ecclesiastical body. Confidence in the final authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice is diminished, and recourse is had to man-made compilations that are more or less faithful to Scriptures own teaching.

Indeed, there is an argument that the compilers of the WCF had already succumbed to the high Calvinism of Owen et al as seen most clearly in its chapter on the Mediator. It is true, moreover, that there were ministers present who did not agree with the high orthodox stand of the majority, but were convinced that they too could subscribe this document in all good conscience.

When compared with Calvin's teaching on the atonement, WCF is very wide of the mark. Yet what other doctrine is of such great importance than that which sets out its understanding of Who the Mediator is, and What it was He came to do for the salvation of the world. The WCF is very faulty here, yet this minister would insist that evangelical and reformed ministers within his denomination adhere strictly to the confession's teaching that Christ died only and exclusively for the elect. This an informed preacher or elder could not possibly do!


Norwich Reformed Church
Little Children

The accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke of Jesus blessing the children rather suggests that the children—their number unspecified—were quite young. Luke alone indicates they were ‘infants’. In which case, they could hardly have ‘met’ Jesus consciously. That said, they felt the Saviour’s touch and embrace even if they were too young either to be aware of or to remember the encounter. Nonetheless, this important incident is given considerable significance by all three gospel writers (see Matt. 19: 13-15; Mk. 10: 13-16; Lk. 18: 15-17).

For all its brevity, John Calvin is surely correct to comment tenderly that ‘This story is very useful’. Indeed, ‘it teaches us that Christ does not receive only those who voluntarily come to Him of a holy desire and moved by faith, but also those who may not yet be old enough to realize how much they need His grace. These small children still have no understanding that they should seek His blessing. Yet when they are brought He receives them kindly and lovingly and consecrates them to His Father in a solemn ceremony of blessing’ (A Harmony of the Gospels).

Concentrating on Mark’s account (the fullest of the three), we note the deep desire of the parents to bring their offspring to Christ. Highly critical of the ungracious reaction of the disciples (for reasons not mentioned), the ‘greatly displeased’ Lord rebuked them, responding warmly to the devoted parents. Jesus then insisted on two things. First, little children are to be welcomed into God’s kingdom, however small (v. 14). Second, a childlike spirit is necessary for all who are saved whatever their age (v. 15).

Whatever reasons explain the disapproval of the disciples, they clearly thought it was ‘beneath Christ’s dignity to receive children’ (Calvin). Dr Philip Doddridge makes some equally tender and challenging observations on this passage:

(a) Christ’s regard [for the children] must have been exceedingly pleasing to the parents; but the memory of this condescension might make tender and lasting impressions on the children themselves.

(b) The sight must be very edifying and encouraging to other young persons who might happen to be present; not to say how instructive this gentleness may be to ministers, and how much their usefulness may, or might have been, promoted by a due regard to it.

(c) Our Lord might reasonably be the more displeased with his disciples for endeavouring to prevent their being brought, as He had so lately set a child among them, and insisted on the necessity of their being made conformable to it (see Matt. 18: 2-4) (The Family Expositor).

Doddridge also refers to an early tradition that ‘the celebrated Ignatius, afterwards [pastor] at Antioch, was one of [the] infants’ blessed by Jesus. It was also claimed that Ignatius—martyred at Rome by the Emperor Trajan in 107 AD—grew up to become a disciple of the Apostle John.

In the tender picture described in v. 16, three specific details should be noted. First, Jesus took the children up in His arms. Second, he put His hands on them, and Third, he ‘blessed them’. Was this a merely sentimental gesture or something of spiritual substance? Doddridge rightly comments that ‘the blessing’ was ‘a rite very early used’ among Jews. Calvin strongly states that ‘the laying on of hands was certainly no frivolous or empty symbol, nor did Christ pour forth His prayers into the empty air. But He could not solemnly present them to God without giving them purity’. In short, the whole incident had spiritual significance, however it might be understood, since it was performed by Christ Himself, the King of the kingdom!

Before we look at this episode in relation to Baptism, we should note the all-important consideration of God’s disposition towards children in general. On this matter, the Scriptures leave us in no doubt.

1. See Deuteronomy 1: 39.
(a) Clearly, the children of the rebellious Israelites were not penalised on account of their parents’ sin. They were too young to have knowledge of good and evil and, unlike their parents, would be permitted to enter the Promised Land. (b) The Promised Land which the children would inherit was typical of God’s eternal kingdom (see Hebrews 11: 13-16).

2. See 2 Samuel 12: 23. Since David believed in the reality of the heavenly afterlife, his words would make no sense if the dead child was not safe in heaven. Compare this with David’s despairing cry over his rebellious son Absalom’s death in 2 Samuel 18: 33. The Cushite’s report of Absalom's death offers no hope for the dead rebel (see v. 32).

3. See 2 Kings 4: 26. Concerning the dead child of the Shunammite woman, the mother affirmed - in answer to Gehazi’s question, “Is it well with the child?” - that ‘it is well’. The inference is obvious. In its dead condition, there was nothing to fear in respect of the child’s eternal welfare. Interestingly, no mention is made of the child’s circumcision, the sign of its Israelite status and gracious acceptance by God.

4. See Ezekiel 16: 21. During Israel’s wicked and idolatrous apostasy, children were sacrificed by fire to the ancient pagan Canaanite deity Moloch. God calls the sacrificed little ones ‘my children’. They were evidently safe with Him despite the sins of the parents.

5. See Jonah 4: 11. God showed particular compassion towards the little ones of wicked Nineveh. Significantly, God was ‘gracious and merciful..., slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness’ (v. 2) towards Gentile children. Being outside the covenant circumcised people of Israel was no barrier to their salvation.

6. See Jeremiah 31: 15-17 and Matthew 2: 18. There is every reason to believe that the children killed by Herod’s men were as eternally safe as those sacrificed to Moloch (see #4 above). We may surely say of such victims that ‘the children shall come back’, as Jeremiah was careful to say (see Jer. 31: 17). Notwithstanding the parents’ grief, their children’s position was not hopeless however horrific their death was.

In view of this Old Testament background, the loving view of little children expressed by our Lord Jesus Christ is beautifully consistent with the Old Testament - as one would expect! They are eternally safe in the Saviour’s loving arms.

Both Calvin and Doddridge link the blessing of the children to the sacrament of baptism (despite the fact that these and other Reformed theologians were opposed to the notion of ‘baptismal regeneration’). Were they right to do so? Furthermore, it is proper then to ask that, if Christ did something of spiritual significance to the children, why did He not baptize them also? We may further ask why Jesus did not baptize adults when He invited them to come to Him (see Matt. 11: 28)?

The simple answer to both questions is that Christian baptism was only instituted after Christ’s resurrection, in the ‘Great Commission’ (see Matt. 28: 18-20). Thus the baptism of infants has an honourable and biblical basis, in view of all we have considered. Without believing in any superstitious magic in the water of baptism, or some ‘priestly power’ in pastors, children may receive the sign of covenant blessing however eventually the renewal of God’s Holy Spirit ‘hidden within them increases and shines forth openly’ (Calvin). Since the blessing bestowed by Christ must relate to the gospel gifts of forgiveness of sin, divine adoption and spiritual renewal, the sign of gospel grace must not be withheld from children brought by their parents to our Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, it must always be emphasised that no one should trust in their baptism, but in Christ alone. The blessing signified by baptism must be an ever-present reality in our lives. The blessing is meaningless if real piety (faith, obedience, Bible reading, prayer and resisting temptation) is not evident. Only if these realities exist may we be sure that we are ‘in God’s kingdom’.

In conclusion, it is interesting to recall that, on the basis of the Old Testament background cited above, the strong opponent of infant baptism—C. H. Spurgeon—rightly (in my view) taught that all children dying in infancy are saved. While Spurgeon thought that this evidence had nothing to do with baptism, others have thought differently. Interestingly, in his Commenting and Commentaries, Spurgeon commends the works of covenant paedobaptists, including Doddridge, but pre-eminently Matthew Henry first and John Calvin second! Let Matthew Henry bring our study to a close. His words speak for themselves:

I cannot but take occasion to express my gratitude to God for my infant baptism; not only as it was an early admission into the visible body of Christ, but as it furnished my pious parents with a good argument (and I trust, through grace a prevailing argument) for an early dedication of my own self to God in my childhood. If God has wrought any good work upon my soul, I desire, with humble thankfulness, to acknowledge the moral influence of my infant baptism upon it.
Dr Alan C. Clifford


"When men forsake truth to advance themselves, they are asking for
disappointment" - Wm Gurnell, The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 2,
Edinburgh 1655, 1988:44.

Application to:
Personal life, Home, Work, Politics, Church.