The Truths of Which We Now Sing (1 Tim 3:16)

posted by R. Fowler White

The Apostle Paul wrote in First Timothy 3:16 (NASB95): By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. 

As we have entered another season of celebrating the incarnation of God the Son, we sing of that great mystery of godliness that, as expressed in the phrases of 1 Tim 3:16, has now been revealed in Christ. So let’s be clear: by mystery we don’t mean something esoteric or cryptic, but rather truth made known only by divine revelation. About this particular mystery there is said to be common consent in God’s confessing church. It is a mystery summarized here in six lyrical phrases from what was most probably an early Christian hymn, sung in three stanzas of two lines each. Let’s consider the truth revealed in each line.

We sing of the incarnation of Christ: He who was manifested in the flesh. According to the Apostle Paul, our song begins with the fact that that Child in the feeding trough was the pre-existent Son of the Father, God of God, God with God, who has permanently taken to Himself human nature, having become forever thereafter one Person with two natures, divine and human. Miraculously conceived and preserved from sin’s defilement by the Holy Spirit, His birth began His suffering. That suffering became hostility and insult; then betrayal, abandonment, scorn, rejection, condemnation; then torment, facing the terrors of death, feeling and bearing the weight of God’s wrath as a sacrifice for sin, enduring painful, shameful, cursed crucifixion. His death brought an end to the earthly phase of His manifestation in the flesh. Of His incarnation we sing in our song, because with it the historical accomplishment of our redemption began. But there is more to our song.

We sing of the vindication of Christ: He was vindicated [justified] by the Spirit. When He was manifested in the flesh, the Son became the servant who submitted Himself to God’s law and conquered Satan, sin, and death. He became the one Man whom God has justified by His works. Made alive by the Spirit, everything Jesus said and did was certified as faithful and true. We sing, then, of Christ vindicated, the only immortal and now glorified Man.

We sing of the appearances of Christ: He was seen by angels. Even heaven’s angels have beheld Him, resurrected and ascended in theophanic glory. Through the incarnate and vindicated Son of Man, humanity has been restored to the heavenly sanctuary, and the angelic host now assist Him to maintain heavenly Mt Zion’s accessibility and inviolability even as they assist all who will inherit salvation. To paraphrase what another has said, the angels sang at His birth, ministered to Him in His hour of temptation, guarded His tomb, testified to His resurrection, witnessed His ascension, and look forward to His return. Just so, we sing now of His appearances to angels.

We sing of the proclamation of Christ: He was proclaimed among the nations. As the NT teaches us, the Apostles were equipped and authorized for their gospel ministry by Christ. Once He was vindicated by the Spirit and seen by angels, we read of how they labored hard to tell the nations about the saving mission, the justifying grace, and the transforming mercy of the patient and powerful Christ. They did indeed tell the nations in their day of Christ—and the church built on the foundation of Christ continues to tell the nations of Him, so that, at last, people from all families on earth will join in praise to Christ who is God our King. Even so, we sing the everlasting song of Christ proclaimed among all nations.

We sing of the reception of Christ: He was believed on in the world. For over 2,000 years now Christ has been believed on in the world. The first eyewitnesses of His resurrection believed: Mary, Peter, John, even Thomas, among others. After the Twelve believed, then Pentecost came and thousands believed on that day. The evangelistic mission only expanded to reach even the imperial capital of Rome. We see a global, worldwide mission bringing a global, worldwide harvest of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, a harvest so great that no one can count its numbers. It is of this Christ—of Christ believed on in the world—whom we sing.

Lastly in our hymn, we sing of the ascension of Christ: He was taken up in glory. Raised from the dead in glory, Christ was taken up in glory into the highest invisible heavens. He is there at this very moment, crowned and enthroned, radiating majesty and splendor, preparing a place for all of us who believe, making intercession for us, answering all accusations against us, making sure that we have access with boldness to the throne of grace. From glory He came; to glory He has returned. And so of His ascension, His present coronation and reign, we sing.

These are among the truths of which we the church now do sing in this season of celebration. Singing of such things as incarnation, vindication, theophany, proclamation, reception, and ascension is outmoded for many today. Yet those who smear us who sing are full of balderdash and twaddle. We sing because we know ourselves to be sinners in the sight of God. We sing because we know ourselves to be justly deserving God’s displeasure. We sing because we know ourselves to be without hope except in God’s sovereign mercy. We sing because we have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners. We sing because we have received and are resting upon Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel.

Don’t sneer at us who sing. Join us in our confession and sing with us the truths that express the great mystery of godliness, once hidden now revealed in Christ: Christ manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

Are We Genteel or Maśkîlîm (Dan 12:3, 10)?

posted by R. Fowler White

“In an age enamored by soft words that lead to deception, we still have a duty to speak ‘truth’ to the deceived.”—Philip G. Bowersox, Smooth Words: Daniel’s Perspective on the Great Commission

The quote above from Philip G. Bowersox, pastor of Grace Bible Church in Oklahoma City, OK, is nothing if not a sobering call to duty for pastors and teachers. It’s a call to discern and to confront the reality of deception—no, the danger of deception—a threat that often goes undetected and unchecked as it creeps into our lives. This call to duty is made the more earnest when we ponder the unrelenting menace to which the Apostle John alerts us in his first letter. “Children,” he writes, “it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18 NASB95). Let those words sink in. They bring us up short, don’t they? John would have us understand that, living as we do after Christ’s ascension (as even his first readers did), we’re living in the last phase of history. Talk about a “wake up and smell the coffee” moment for us in God’s church.

As if the gist of John’s words is not arresting enough, we realize that he describes this final stage of history as an age in which antichrists and false prophets flourish (1 John 4:1). They, with their followers, promote beliefs and behaviors that are contrary to the faith handed down once for all to the saints (Jude 3). The details John provides demand our attention: the number of these deceivers is many (1 John 4:1), and they are already here (1 John 4:3). More than that, they are not just out there, in the world. No, John tells us that they went out from us after being with us in the church. In fact, it is not just that deceivers were once in the church: it is that they can be presently in the church just as it was the case at Thyatira (Rev 2:18-28). All told, the call to duty that Pastor Bowersox gives us echoes the context that John describes: because deceivers are present both outside and inside the church, we must speak truth to those who might be enamored with soft wordssmooth words—and led astray wherever deceivers appear.

Skeptical as we are, you and I might ask, how seriously should we take these threats? Despite warnings from Christ and His Apostles, there seem always to be some in Christ’s church who simply deny reality. You probably know some of these folks. They prefer the pablum of therapeutic to-do lists that (allegedly) get them personal peace, influence, or affluence instead of the solid food of instruction necessary for them to develop discernment and endurance. The result? In their willfully childish rejection of nourishing food for their growth in holiness, they leave their souls defenseless against the waves and winds brought in the smooth, soft words of deceivers who would lead them to apostasy.

Whether, then, we look within the church or outside of it, we in Christ’s church find good reason to prepare ourselves to speak truth. The Apostle Paul tells us how to prepare in Eph 4:12-16. Through the ministry of the word, we grow up into Christ; we attain the faith of an adult Christian (cf. 2 Tim 3:14-17). Why? The reasons are straightforward. Only those who stay true to the Scriptures and mature in the faith are able to speak truth to others (Eph 4:15). Only those who learn to distinguish truth from error, good from evil, right from wrong are able, in turn, to speak truth to the deceived.

Knowing these things, we’ll devote ourselves to discipleship in community to learn from and with others the historic doctrines and practices by which Christ has built His church (Rom 6:17-18; Eph 4:20-23). We’ll place ourselves in the care of the shepherds and teachers whom Christ gives us through his Spirit, those who are committed and gifted to train us in what to believe and how to behave according to the faith handed down to the saints. We’ll do these things because the discipleship we need to counter the smooth, soft words of deceivers won’t become ours by just any means. It is the church’s unique purpose to gather and grow the saints. So, we’ll covenant with others of like mind to learn the historic truths of the faith—not least, those of justification and sanctification as highlighted by Bowersox.

Are our congregations prepared to speak wise words of truth to any who might be led astray (cf. Dan 12:3, 10)? Bowersox’s book is a fine resource to help get us ready. Take it up and read it. Then, like Daniel, in this last hour of smooth, soft, deceptive words, you’ll have wise words to speak, and you’ll stand with others, firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by [our] opponents (Phil 1:27-28 ESV).

Toward A Catechism on Mortification

posted by R. Fowler White

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth. Colossians 3:5 (KJV)

For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. Romans 8:13 (KJV)

For most folks, that word mortify in the citations above is plainly just an antiquated term found in an antiquated Bible translation. That opinion, however, is more than a little naïve, showing only how afflicted we can be by the arrogance of the modern. The fact is, the more we study that word and concept in the context of the Bible and in the context of the church’s historic confessional and theological discussions, we realize that there is enduring benefit in recovering their usage. That is particularly true if we want to get a handle on the basics of the Bible’s teaching about the Christian life: after all, as indicated by the citations above, mortification is evidently fundamental to Paul’s conception of the believer’s new life. The continuing value of the term is also seen when we seek to understand and engage responsibly in the current debate over the meaning and relevance of mortification in the lives of men who aspire to occupy or already occupy the office of elder or deacon in Christ’s church.

It was precisely for the reasons just stated that the questions and answers below were drawn up. Oh, to be sure, the catechetical format might not appeal to everybody. The format is not so much the point, however; the content is. It aims to distill the insights on mortification from what is widely regarded in Reformed circles as the masterwork on that biblical doctrine by John Owen (1616-1683). No doubt improvements can be made; hence the word “Toward” in the title of this post. For the moment, however, let me mention that, in drawing up this catechism, great benefit came from consulting the annotated edition of Owen’s original work by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor, the modernized edition of it by William Gross, and the popularized summaries of Owen’s teaching found in the books of Sinclair Ferguson, Kris Lundgaard, and Jerry Bridges. Readers may also notice that an attempt was made to integrate, wherever possible, language and concepts related to mortification found in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Finally, let me express my gratitude to Reed DePace, teaching elder and pastor of First Presbyterian Church (PCA), Montgomery, AL, as well as contributor here at Green Baggins. His patient interaction with multiple drafts of this catechism was very valuable. Of course, responsibility for the final form of this document must be my own.

Overall, my aim in drafting this catechism for myself and for others has been to get a firmer grasp on the serious business that mortification is, together with a greater appreciation for just how central mortification is to our Christian lives. This project has certainly motivated me to heed Owen’s stark reminder: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” As a result, my prayer is that we’ll all buckle down and go on to mature in holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor 7:1; Col 3:5-14; 1 Pet 2:24; Heb 12:14; Col 1:9-11; 1 Thess. 3:13; cf. Phil 3:12-14; 1 John 3:1-3), to grow in the saving grace and knowledge of Christ (1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18), and to be transformed inwardly day by day (2 Cor 3:18; 4:16; Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23; Col 3:10).

Q. 1. What is mortification?
A. Mortification is both an initial and a progressive work of grace in believers by the Holy Spirit: the initial work of grace being that the Spirit unites believers to Christ in His death to sin, with the result that they are said to have been crucified with Christ and to have died to sin with Christ (Rom 6:3-7; Gal 2:20; 5:24; Phil 3:10b; Col 2:20; 3:3, 9); and the progressive work of grace being that the Spirit empowers believers to fulfill God’s command that through daily crucifixion they put to death the sin that remains in their mortal body, together with sin’s lusts and deeds (Rom 7:25; 8:13b; 13:14; 1 Cor 6:11; Gal 5:17-18, 22-25; Phil 2:12-13; Col 3:5; 2 Thess 1:11).

Q. 2. What specifically do we mean by the word “sin” when we speak of it as the target of mortification?
A. When we use the word “sin” for the target of mortification, we refer to sin and its lusts that remain in the mortal body of believers, corrupting their nature, defiling all the parts and faculties of soul and body, and inclining their mind, will, and affections habitually toward unholy thoughts, words, and deeds
(Gen 6:5; Jer 17:9; Rom 3:10-19; 5:6; 6:12-13; 7:5, 7-8, 17-18, 20, 23, 25; 8:7; Gal 5:17; Col 1:21; Titus 1:15).

Q. 3. What do we not mean when we speak of “mortifying sin”?
A. When we speak of “mortifying sin,” we do
not mean that sin is completely killed (i.e., eliminated or removed) in this life (Phil 3:12-13; cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27; 1 Tim 6:12, 19); nor that it is merely disguised in or diverted to a more socially acceptable or less discoverable expression (cf. Acts 8:23); nor that it is merely tamed, quieted, or only occasionally defeated (cf. Ps 78:32-37).

Q. 4. What do we mean when we speak of “mortifying sin”?
A. When we speak of “mortifying sin,” we mean habitually weakening sin, constantly fighting and contending against it, and realizing success over it, all through daily crucifixion.

Q. 5. What do we mean when we speak of “habitually weakening sin”?
A. When we speak of “habitually weakening sin,” we mean to say that, little by little, sin’s life, power, promptness, and eagerness are taken away,
with the result that it acts more seldomly and more faintly, cries out sparingly, and is hardly heard in the heart, and with the result that the habits of sin are not able to rise up in believers to incline them with the same intensity, seriousness, and frequency, nor to make them its slave as it did before their conversion (Rom 6:6; 1 Cor. 6:18-19; 2 Cor 4:16; cf. Jas 1:14-15).

Q 6. What do we mean when we speak of “constantly fighting and contending against sin”?
A. When we speak of “constantly fighting and contending against sin,” we mean to say that believers
recognize sin for what it is in the light of God’s wrath (Eph 2:3; 5:6; Col 3:6), recall the shame of past sin (Eph 2:1-2; 4:17-20; Col 3:7; Rom 6:21; Ezek 16:63), and learn the ways of sin’s success in their lives (Rom 7:15-25); and that believers also reckon with the reality that the Spirit has united them with Christ in His death to sin (Rom 6:2; Col 2:20; 3:3), and He empowers them to subject indwelling sin with its lusts and deeds to daily crucifixion (Rom 6:12-14; 7:21-25; 8:12-14; Gal 5:16-25; Col 3:5; Luke 9:23).

Q. 7. What do we mean when we speak of “realizing success over sin”?
A. When we speak of “realizing success over sin,” we mean to say that sin is no longer able habitually to keep believers from obeying God or to interrupt their peace with Him
(Rom 6:11-14, 19-22; 7:21–8:4; Gal 5:16).

Q. 8. Do believers have the power to fulfill God’s command that they mortify sin?
A. No, believers do not have the power in and of themselves to fulfill God’s command that they mortify sin
(Rom 7:18; Gal 5:17; cf. Rom 8:13).

Q. 9. Since believers lack the power in and of themselves to fulfill God’s command that they mortify sin, from whom do they obtain that power?
A. Only from Christ by the Holy Spirit and through faith do believers have the power to mortify sin
(Rom 8:13; Gal 5:16).

Q. 10. In what ways are believers empowered to mortify sin?
A. The ways in which believers are empowered to mortify sin include the following: by meditating on the grandeur of God’s glorious perfections
(John 17:24; 2 Cor 3:16-18; 4:6; Col 1:10-23; 1 Pet 1:14-21; 2:1-3) and earnestly seeking God for deliverance from their sin through Jesus Christ their Lord (Rom 7:24; Gal 5:17); by being convinced of their sin’s guilt, defilement, and corruption; truthfully diagnosing its severity (asking, e.g., if it is deep-rooted, long-indulged, often victorious, or only opposed to avoid shame or punishment) (cf. Isa 63:10; 2 Chron 36:15-16; 1 Cor 3:1-3; Eph 4:30; Heb 5:11-12; 6:1-3, 6); and being persuaded of the risks it poses to them (whether the risk is, e.g., that of being deceived, of being disciplined by God, of losing strength and peace, or of being exposed as unconverted) (Rom 7:14-25; Eph 4:17-24; 1 Pet 1:14; 4:2-6); by avoiding situations that incite sin and by dealing with sin when it first appears (1 Cor 6:18; 10:14; 1 Tim 6:3-11; 2 Tim 2:22; Jas 4:7); by considering the relationship between their sins and their natural temperament and being careful not to conclude too soon that the sin in them is really mortified; and by committing the considerations just mentioned to regular prayers of repentance and faith.

Q. 11. What benefits may believers enjoy through mortification?
A. The benefits that believers may enjoy through mortification include the following: that their
strength and peace—indeed, their power and comfort—in their life with God will be stirred up, increased, and built up through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of adoption (Col 1:10–11; Eph 3:16–19; Rom 7:4-6; Gal 5:16, 22-23, 25; Heb 6:11–12; Jude 20); that they will more and more die to sin as its power to produce unholy thoughts, words, and deeds in their lives is taken away (Rom 8:4, 13; Gal 5:16, 19-21); that they will more and more have power to fight and overcome sin (Rom 6:14; 1 John 5:4; Eph 4:15–16), to bear the fruit of the Spirit, and to grow in all saving graces (Ezek 36:25-27; Rom 6:11-23; 7:4, 6; 8:13b; 2 Cor 7:1; Gal 5:22-23; Col 3:8-14; 1 Pet 2:24); and that they will enjoy communion with Christ in His death to sin (Rom 6:2-4, 6, 14; 8:13; Gal 5:16, 25; Phil 3:10b; 2 Cor 1:5), the assurance of God’s love (Rom 5:5), peace of conscience (Rom 5:1), joy in the Spirit (Rom 14:17), and growth and perseverance in grace to the end of their lives (2 Pet 3:18Phil 1:6; 1 Pet 1:5).

“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” — John Owen

PASSING OVERTURE 15

Reed DePace, TE
Pastor, First Pres Montgomery, AL
August 29, 2022

A fellow PCA elder, a brother in Christ whom I am indeed grateful for, asked for my reaction to some arguments he was going to make before his session, urging them at their upcoming presbytery meeting to vote against Overture 15. In keeping with the best of biblical (i.e., presbyterian) practice, he asked for the reactions of someone he knows would most likely be opposed to his reasoning. (Well done, brother, well done.)

PCA presbyteries are now taking up this overture, with the first one to vote on it passing it (8/27/22, Central Carolina, 41-11-1). O15 is considered a long shot for receiving the two-thirds majority yes votes from our presbyteries. Accordingly, appreciating this brother’s integrity, and disagreeing with his reasoning for a “no” vote on O15, I thought I might edit my comments to him, and post them for consideration by others. My goal (as a faith-exercise of my calling as an officer in the PCA) is to see the Spirit use these admittedly imperfect arguments to persuade other PCA elders to support O15’s passage.

Here is O15, as passed by the PCA 49th GA (Birmingham Al, ’22):

“Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.”

I want to offer two arguments for why this overture should be passed:

1) It avoids the identity language equivocation trap, and

2) It provides a simple and straightforward way of applying the above reproach standard.

The Equivocation Trap

Almost all the arguments I’ve seen against O15 anchor themselves on a reason for the failure of overtures 23 and 37 from the previous GA (48th, St. Louis). The main argument against them (persuasive in about forty percent of our presbyteries) was that the language of identity was problematic. Particularly, they noted that the teaching elder exemplar in view (i.e., the “poster child” prompting these overtures, no denigration intended) maintains that in his use of identity language (e.g., a homosexual pastor, a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction as much as he did the first day he was saved) is nothing more than apologetic-ordered language intended to help in ministering to those struggling with the sins of same-sex attraction. The opponents to these overtures also noted that the TE in question also affirms his agreement with the biblical doctrine of new identity in Christ. The same arguments are being raised against passage of O15: such men are not identifying as homosexuals; instead they are identifying with those struggling with same-sex attraction.

Inside and Outside Definitions

I agree that the exemplar TE’s description of himself in terms of a believer who struggles with homosexuality fits both the inside and outside the PCA. He is able to do so not because he uses the same description inside that he does outside. Instead, he is able to do so because he uses the post-modern technique of equivocation. In the most egregious examples, this brother uses the same language inside and outside, qualifying his usage with descriptions fitted to each context’s own meaning of identity. This is equivocation. Using this technique, this brother can use self-descriptive language as a same-sex attracted pastor, in two diametrically opposed contexts, and affirm that he is consistent with the doctrine of both.

The Equivocation Trap

To push this a bit more, consider the self-description this brother offers in both contexts. His inside self-description as a homosexual pastor is more or less consistent with the Bible (as summarized in the Westminster Standards). The brother maintains he is merely “identifying” himself with besetting sins that he nevertheless biblically describes and seeks to biblically deal with.

In this brother’s outside self-identification, both in the context of his local PCA church ministry and his broader (at-large) ministry within the public sphere, he adopts the language AND the reasoning of the culture’s understanding of such identification. In this, the contemporary public realm, his identification is entirely infused with ontological (nature of being) considerations. When dinged by some of his fellow PCA officers for this blatantly anti-gospel identification, he switches from the outside explanation to the inside one. That is he equivocates, and the unprepared are snagged by the trap.

In short, he affirms that he is not identifying with his sin in such a way that it contradicts his affirmation of faith in Christ. Nevertheless, he affirms the culture’s understanding of identity, namely that such characteristics are of the essence of the person’s sense of self, characteristics that cannot be removed from the person without threatening the person’s very existence.

Avoid the Trap

This is the essence of the equivocation trap that, in hindsight, appears to have snagged GA48’s overtures 23 and 37. In simple terms, enough elders missed the descriptive identity equivocation such that they voted “no” on these overtures. They heard him affirm his belief in the biblical doctrine of ontological identity in Christ. But they missed that he also affirmed the (unbelieving) broader culture’s doctrine of ontological identity in one’s sins, a belief that is fundamentally an avowed, implacable, and unappeasable gospel-killing enemy. Being snagged in this trap led some to vote against overtures 23 and 37.

I suspect that some elders may again miss this equivocation trap. Reading GA49’s O15 as nothing more than a boiled down version of GA48’s overtures 23 and 37, they may vote “no” on O15. But, recognizing that equivocation is being used, we can avoid this trap, and vote in favor of O15.

The Above Reproach Standard

It seems to me that reckoning with the equivocation trap should be enough to persuade elders to vote for O15. Yet, there is even a better reason to pass O15. Remember that this year’s overtures committee tweaked the originating presbytery’s original language. Specifically, the OC replaced identity language with description language. While not knowing all the reasons behind this tweak, I grow increasingly persuaded that it is providentially fortuitous.

Description Broader the Identification

Many vocal opponents of O15 argue as if “identifies” is synonymous with “describes.” But that is simply not the case. To be sure, the description language encompasses the identity language. Yet the description language is broader, allowing further considerations to come into view. (A key one for me is the increasingly clear flaws in this brother’s understanding and practice of sanctification. See the recent book review of Still Time to Care, by our brothers in Ascension Presbytery: https://1ar.s3.amazonaws.com/2022/08/Ascension-2022-July-Report-of-AIC-Still-Time-to-Care.pdf).

Avoiding Measurement Weeds

Even more fundamentally, the description language in O15 pushes this whole question (if/when is a man with same-sex attraction qualified to hold office in Christ’s church?) back into the only clear biblical qualification assessment point, namely the question of whether/when such a man is above reproach. Debates over “what does identification really mean anyway?” push this question into the weeds where only worldly considerations apply. Even the otherwise helpful debates over the nature of same-sex desire and when it becomes an actionable sin are responded to with broader evangelical (re: Arminian, self-powered) measurement questions of when is same-sex attraction a problem: how much same-sex desire is allowable; how do we measure this: quantity of events, degree of intensity, frequency of presence, etc.?

The tweaked O15 description language denies all these measuring weeds. For men equipped with the keys to some of the most sacredly precious positions in the Kingdom of Christ, O15 simplifies the decision-making on our version of the broader homosexual clergy question. Is the man describing himself (present tense) as a homosexual, all equivocations aside? If so, as this means he is NOT above reproach, we can be sure that the Spirit has not called him to sacred office in the Church.

The Simple Self-Description

Think about this from the opposite perspective. Imagine you’re examining a man coming for ordination, or one seeking to transfer into your presbytery. In his paperwork submitted for the process, he notes issues of same-sex attraction in his life. Consider what we’d want to hear from him. We do not want some convoluted explanation that seems more wrapped up in the world’s ontological realities than in the gospel’s. This man needs to feed the sheep, correct the sheep, shelter the sheep, protect the sheep, and equip the sheep with the gospel weapons of spiritual warfare in an increasingly re-Sodomizing and Gomorrahizing land.

Instead of confusing language that compels us to spend time (years now) asking whether this is a problem or not, imagine that the brother offered simple and clear expressions describing himself and the remnants of his same-sex attraction in this manner: “No, I’m not a homosexual, nor am I describable by my former lusts to which I was enslaved. To be sure, the old man, who revelingly wallowed in those cesspools of the soul, is still zombie-like scratching at the coffin lid that Jesus has bolted him shut in. But no, I’m not a homosexual. I’m not rightly described by my former same-sex attraction lusts, if even only the lingering memory of them. I am a new man in Christ; the old is gone.”

I think we would all agree that it is this simple: a man needs to see and express that his same-sex attraction was properly descriptive of his former self, before regeneration. He now needs to see and express that his same-sex attraction is effectively dead, not as in not present, but so dormant that even the mildest and most infrequent of stirrings are met with a vigorous resort to Spirit-based mortification. This needs to be so much the man’s experience, that, knowing that unbelief always presents the equivocation trap, he wisely refuses to engage in the use of this technique.

Let’s Pass Overture 15

To be sure, the Enemy will continue to attack us, offering further equivocations that some of us may get tripped up by. But, at least at this point in the battle, until Christ’s already victory is realized once and for all, O15 makes it simple for us to make such judgment calls.

Fathers and brothers, let’s pass Overture 15.

Reed DePace, TE
Pastor, First Pres Montgomery, AL

More Than Meeting Our Connection

posted by R. Fowler White

The excesses of the Great Awakening appealed to those who lived for emotional highs. Arguably, that appeal has mutated and grown over generations into a degrading decline of the visible church. What do I mean?

It seems that lots of folks still look at church as a place to go to satisfy their desire for a weekly high, and we gravitate to speakers who get us or keep us inspired or motivated. Don’t get me wrong: inspiration and motivation are not bad, unless the inspiring and motivating content sounds like little more than a fix to get or stay high. What I mean is that it’s arguable that, especially since the 1960s, the fix being sought and offered has become linked with maintaining either or both of two emotional states. There’s the high of what has been called personal peace, an anxiety-free state in which “I’m ok” is combined with “It’ll all be ok.” But there’s also the high of what we could identify as constant outrage, an anger-stoked state in which “I’m ok but you’re not if we disagree on anything.” It seems useful, then, to listen to folks to learn why they come to our church gatherings, if and when they come at all. Do they come to recharge or alter their emotional state?

To be sure, not everyone gathers at our churches to satisfy these desires. There are certainly listeners and speakers who have determined to do something different. They’ve carefully chosen to make sure that the whole of their souls is engaged: that is, for our purposes, they’ve recognized the need to have their mind, affections, and will addressed. In fact, they’ve also been careful to see that the will and the affections are engaged through the mind. Whether hearers or speakers, they never bypass the mind; the whole soul is engaged.

Now, of course, we might ask, what is the effect of deliberately taking a detour around the mind? When we take a shortcut around the mind to appeal directly to the emotions and the will, what happens? Well, in a manner of speaking, the excesses of the Great Awakening happen. More specifically, that detour creates souls that are unhealthy and weak, unable to withstand winds of deception and error, even disabled from resisting waves of temptation. It’s like trying to get to adulthood by living only on pablum and baby formula instead of solid food. Maturing to adulthood requires a diet of solid food, so that we develop the capacities to recognize, desire, and choose what’s true, right, and good. Spiritual adulthood won’t happen any other way.

So, I ask myself, am I shaped by the conviction that I must (note: must) do something other than stay free of anxiety or stoked on anger, do something other than alter my emotional state? Do I have ears to hear speakers whom God uses to renew, transform, sanctify—dare I say, change—me by engaging my whole soul? Is my church seeking to placate, defend, or attract people who are seeking only to recharge or alter their emotional state? If we ask why our churches would do this, conceivably, it’s because they’ve slipped into conceiving of a local church as little more than a commercial enterprise. We can hear it in words like, “We’ve got to make sure that those in the pews are satisfied with the product we’re making available. After all, it’s the only way to achieve and maintain the critical mass of attendance and giving that’ll pay the bills and keep us open.” Arguably, such sentiments reveal that we’re still in the grip of, even addicted to, the excesses of the Great Awakening. “Church” has become degraded into a connection that sells folks a weekly fix, whether it gives them personal peace or stokes their outrage.

If our churches would gather and grow the saints, however, we have to do better, particularly in these evil days. Scripture offers a different vision of our church gatherings, doesn’t it? It’s more than meeting our churchly connection to get our weekly fix to sustain our anxiety-free or anger-stoked emotional state. Scripture offers a truly inspiring, motivating vision of renewal, growth, and edification. Converted as we are through hearing the elementary truths of the gospel, we gather to get our beliefs and behaviors in order according to the whole counsel of God. We gather to get transformed—even re-formed—with new habits of holiness, the better to know God and His will, to hear God’s gospel of forgiveness proclaimed, and to hear His law of love declared and applied to family, church, workplace, and society. Sign me up.

Taking Hell Seriously

posted by R. Fowler White

What does the Bible teach its readers about hell? It’s a very important topic, but it’s also a very uncomfortable topic. We may respond with fear. If we’re not Christians, we should respond with fear. But my prayer is that God will replace fear with faith in our Lord Jesus, God’s incarnate Son who saves sinners from hell. If we are Christians, let’s join together to praise God for Jesus who came from heaven to save us from hell.

So, let’s recall why it’s very important that we take seriously what the Bible says about hell. Why? Because the Bible is the revelation of God’s will to man; it’s the documented word of the only living and true God, the standard for what we’re to believe and how we’re to behave. Do we believe, then, what the Bible teaches about hell? We better, because what the Bible says, God says.

What, then, does the Bible mean when it speaks of hell? That is, what does God mean by hell? He means the punishments for sin in the life to come. He doesn’t mean the punishments for sin in this life, the miseries of suffering and death that we experience now because we’re sinners. No, He refers to the punishments for sin after we die, before we’re resurrected, and after we’re resurrected. If we know ourselves to be sinners, we must take seriously what God says about hell in the Bible. So, what does He say? Let’s summarize.

First, hell is a place more frightful than we can imagine. The Bible gives us many very graphic descriptions of hell. Each image, by itself, is terrifying enough, but the combination of images is even more horrifying than we can imagine. It’s a place of utter darkness (Jude 13), a place of outer darkness where weeping and gnashing of teeth are all that will be heard (Matt 8:12). It’s the lake that burns with fire and sulfur (Rev 21:8), a prison of eternal chains from which there is no hope of release (Jude 6), a fiery furnace of torment where the fire is not quenched, a place of misery where the worm does not die (Mark 9:28). The suffering in hell is beyond all comparison to the suffering experienced in this world. It’s a reality more frightful than any one of the Bible’s images for it. In other words, hell is worse than we can ever imagine.

Second, hell is a place where God is present. Yes, God is present in hell. We’re not to think of hell as a place from which God is absent. It’s not a place where sinners are forever separated from God. No, hell is a place where sinners are forever separated from God’s comforting presence. God is present in hell in His holy wrath and just punishment. The punishments of sin in the world to come will include everlasting separation from God’s comfort, but not from God’s wrath. The punishments there will be beyond the most grievous of suffering imaginable and will occur without interruption. So, don’t make the mistake of thinking that hell is a place from which God is absent. God is now and will be present in hell in His holy wrath and just punishment, and, as a result, hell is a place more frightful than we can imagine.

Third, hell is a place of God’s perfect justice. We’re not to think that hell is a place of “cruel and unusual” punishment. The only living and true God always does what is right. He always pays His creatures the wages that are due to them. He always rewards the obedient and punishes the disobedient. The punishments for sin in hell, then, are neither cruel nor unusual. No, they’re thoroughly just. As the place of God’s perfect justice against disobedience, then, hell is worse than we can ever imagine.

Fourth, hell is a place of eternal punishment. It’s not a place of temporary punishment. The torments of hell are everlasting. Suffering there will never come to an end. Some say that the miseries of hell do come to an end. They declare that unbelievers are annihilated, that they cease to exist. But Jesus teaches otherwise. In Matt 25:31-46, for example, Jesus teaches us about the Day of Judgment, that Day when He will appear as Judge of all the world. In His teaching, He speaks of two futures, one for the sheep, another for the goats. We should notice that, according to Jesus, both futures are eternal. The sheep will enter into life that is eternal. The goats will go away into punishment that is eternal. Clearly, the agonies of hell will last as long as the joys of heaven. Clearly, though heaven is a place of pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11), hell is a place of unremitting pain. Thus, as a place of God’s perfect justice and holy wrath, hell is a place more frightful than we can ever imagine.

Fifth, consider the person in the Bible who teaches us the most about hell. Who is that person? It’s not Moses or one of the OT prophets after him. It’s not Paul, Peter, or John. It’s none other than Jesus. It is He who teaches us that hell is a place of eternal punishment and perfect justice, a place where God is present in His holy wrath. The Bible tells us that Jesus will come again as our Judge on the last day. We do well, therefore, to listen to all that Jesus teaches about hell. And we do well to learn that it’s a place worse than we can ever imagine.

Does the truth about hell horrify us? Does it terrify us? If we know ourselves to be sinners, it should terrify and horrify us. This truth should cause us to seek a place to hide, a way of escape. The good news is that God Himself has provided the place for us to hide, the way of escape for us. That place to hide is in Jesus. That way of escape  is through Jesus. How can this be? Because our Lord Jesus Christ died as God’s substitute for sinners. God poured out His holy wrath on Jesus; He inflicted His just punishments on the body and soul of Jesus. Jesus, then, endured the anguish and agony, the terror and torment of hell for sinners. As a result, our Lord Jesus Christ satisfied the perfect justice and holy wrath of God against any and all sinners who will trust in Him alone.

Friends, hell is worse than anything we can imagine. But in Jesus we find the place to hide from hell. Through Jesus we find the way of escape from hell. It is He who saves us from hell. It is He who gives us the assurance of eternal life. We’re to trust in Christ Jesus alone. We must rest on the Lord Christ alone. Our only hope, our only boast is in Him, now and forever.

“The Life Everlasting: A People Glorified, A Promise to Keep”

posted by R. Fowler White

Having considered the place God prepares for the life everlasting of His people, we turn finally to consider the life everlasting as the church’s hope of glorification and as the promise that God will keep.

In our day, it comes as a shock to many that the God of the Bible has no plan to save everyone without exception. In fact, as the Divine Judge who is completely just, He is under no obligation to save any sinner. Yet, because the God of the Bible is a merciful Savior as well as a just Judge, He has made known to us that His plan is to save any and all who repent of their sins and trust in Christ as He is offered in the gospel. Indeed, He has purposed to save a remnant from all nations (Rev 5:9), a multitude of sinners that no human can number (7:9).

The Apostle John describes in a remarkable way that multitude who will go into the place of the life everlasting we described in our previous post. They are the thirsty to whom Christ gives the water of life: To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment (Rev 21:6). They are those who, formerly unclean, have washed their robes: Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates (Rev 22:14). They are those who conquer: The one who conquers—the one who perseveres in faith despite suffering or death—will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son (Rev 21:7). These are the heirs of God (Rom 8:17), the Bride, the Wife of Christ the Lamb (Rev 21:9). They stand in stark contrast to the people who will suffer the second death. John describes them as the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars (Rev 21:8). They are those outside, the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood (Rev 22:15). This dramatic and sobering disparity provokes us to ask, would we be among the people who will enter the place of the life everlasting? Then, examine yourself. Are you thirsty? Come and be satisfied by Christ who gives living water. Are you defiled? Come and be cleansed by the blood of Christ. Are you suffering or even dying? Come and receive from Christ that life which is without tears, death, mourning, crying, or pain (Rev 21:4).

Friends, the life everlasting that the historic church confesses is not just polite talk, is it? It is a promise that God will keep. His words, documented in Scripture, are true and trustworthy. Ponder the realities that His words hold out to all who embrace them: life will overcome death, good will conquer evil, light will dispel darkness, blessing will defeat curse! Since the beginning of history, because of God’s promise, sinners who have trusted Him have looked for these realities in that city where He dwells with His people, in that city of the world to come that is, at long last, secure and pure, beautiful and bountiful, and at rest. In other words, God has documented in Scripture that promise in which He offers us a hope like no other, a promise that is no mere soothing but empty word.

How can the Bible make such audacious claims? Because the Bible, as the documentation of God’s revealed will, makes known to us that the evils of sin and death are not eternal. Yes, they had a beginning, but because God is just, they will meet their end in the lake of fire. God is also merciful, in that He sent Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord, to be the only way to life for sinful and dying people who repent and believe in Him. How is it that only Christ can save? Because in His life He was entirely faithful where sinners are entirely unfaithful, and in His death He bore the punishment sinners justly deserve. In His resurrection, God the Father furnished proof that He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness through this same Jesus Christ, His only Son (Acts 17:31). Presently, then, while seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, Christ commands sinners everywhere to repent and trust in Him as their only hope of the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting (Acts 4:12; 16:31; 17:30).

Following Scripture and using the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the historic confession of the church has been I believe in … the life everlasting. In keeping with God’s revealed plan to save an innumerable company of sinners, faithful congregations of His church make known to us that He will give a final demonstration of the glory of His mercy and His justice on the Day of Judgment. On that last day, those who have looked away from themselves to receive and rest in Christ Jesus alone for their salvation will be raised to honor, their bodies conformed with Christ’s own glorious body (Phil 3:21), and ushered into everlasting life in the comforting presence of the Lord Himself (Rev 7:15-17; 21:3-4). Meanwhile, those who have not seen fit to acknowledge God (Rom 1:28) and have refused to obey the gospel of Jesus Christ will be raised to dishonor and cast into the lake of fire to endure everlasting torment in the wrathful presence of the Lord (John 5:29; Rev 21:8; 2 Pet 3:7, 13). So, again, we examine ourselves: would we live with God, forever enjoying Him, fully and finally freed from sin and death, in the splendor of a New Jerusalem on a new earth under new heavens? Then, adapting the words of Heb 10:23, let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.

“The Life Everlasting: A Place Prepared”

posted by R. Fowler White

What appeal, if any, does everlasting life hold for you? For us who confess I believe in … the life everlasting, those words are a reminder that this present fallen world is not all there is. Oh, yes, we already experience in our hearts and affections the beginning of eternal joy. Yet we know that the best is yet to come, and with an understated accommodation of language, we call it the life everlasting. For our better understanding of exactly what we confess in this twelfth article of the Apostles’ Creed, we divide our final installment on the Creed into two parts: the first under the heading “A Place Prepared,” and the second under the heading “A People Glorified, A Promise to Keep.” With our topic thus divided up, let’s consider the place prepared according to Article 12 of the Creed, I believe in … the life everlasting.

When we confess belief in the life everlasting, we speak of life in what Isaiah describes as new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17), in what Christ describes as His Father’s house with many dwelling places prepared by Him for His people (John 14:2-3), in what Peter, echoing Isaiah, describes as new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet 3:13). It’s life in what Scripture comprehensively describes as the world to come (cf. Heb 2:5), conceived as John presents it in Revelation 21–22. Carried away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, John was shown New Jerusalem in a garden setting from which the river of life-giving water flows down the mountain to all the new earth (21:10; 22:1-2). This is more than Paradise Regained: it is Paradise Glorified. It is Immanuel’s Land where God and man will live together in beauty and in bounty.

Still further, the life everlasting is life in the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18), life in a creation set free from bondage to decay (8:21). This is life in what OT prophets foresaw as creation so transformed that former deserts become thick with blossoms (Isa 35), that the earth becomes full of grain and fruit, milk and honey, oil and wine (Isa 4:2; 27:2-6; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13). It’s life where springs of water become a river so fountainous that it fills the seas (Zech 14:8), so satisfying that the city of God is glad (Ps 46:4), so refreshing that the salty become sweet (Ezek 47:8-9), so purifying that it washes away iniquity (Zech 13:1), so healing that it sustains the health of the nations (Ezek 47:12; Rev 21:1-2).

The life everlasting is life where God and man live together in security. It’s a life that exceeds what Moses foresaw on the day of Israel’s exodus: God’s people brought into the land, planted on the mountain of His possession, with the place for His dwelling prepared and the sanctuary established (Exod 15:13, 17). It’s the life that the Prophets foresaw, where the nations have hammered their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (Isa 2:4; Mic 5:10-11; Ps 46:10), and where their animals and plants, though diverse, are in harmony and balance (Isa 60:6-7, 13-14). It’s life in New Jerusalem, the city of peace whose gates will never be shut because all threats, natural and supernatural, will be no more.

The life everlasting is also life where God and man live together in purity. As the Apostle sees it, it’s life in Paradise forever fortified against all that is unclean, all that might defile, all that is evil. In other words, all who live there—both God and man—are holy and nothing profane, and thus the temple is no more. It’s a portrait that reminds us of what Moses taught us about the original Paradise, but better. We remember Eden, a garden-sanctuary surrounded by regions with precious stones and metals, a meeting place for God and man, lush with trees (the trees of knowledge and life in their midst) and brimming with the world’s life-giving waters that welled up and flowing from the garden to the four corners of the first earth (Gen 2:8-14). John gives us a word picture of the final Paradise. Life there will also be in a mountain-top city, having for its light the glory of God, a radiance like that of a very costly jewel. It’s life in a city that is four-square like the holy of holies (Rev 21:3), surrounded by gates and a wall made of every kind of precious stones and metals. Clearly, Christ, who brings His own out from this world, will yet bring them into a new world with Paradise Glorified, a new world with a mountain-top city in which God dwells with His people, at long last, secure, pure, beautiful, bountiful, and at rest.

The life everlasting that we confess in the Apostles’ Creed is, in part, life in a unique other-worldly place, a new, transfigured world to come, in which God and man are to live together forever. With such a panoramic vision before us, we cannot help but ponder the question: does the life everlasting hold for us the appeal that it should have?

We take up the second part of the Creed’s twelfth article in our final post of this series here.

“The Resurrection of the Body”

posted by R. Fowler White

Death raises questions to which most of us anxiously want answers. What exactly is death, and where did it come from? Will it ever end? Though the thought leaders in our day suppress the answers God has given to these questions, it remains the case that if we want answers from God about death, we have to take Scripture seriously. There we read that death has not always been part of human existence. It had a beginning. At creation God fashioned the first man Adam from the dust. By sin Adam failed to keep God’s commandments, and for judgment God returned Adam—and his posterity—to the dust. From then until now, the human race has been groaning for death’s defeat, aching for the body’s deliverance from death. Meanwhile, Article 11 of the Apostles’ Creed—I believe in … the resurrection of the body—faithfully points us to Scripture where we find answers about the future of the body and of death itself.

From Scripture we learn, first, that death comes to believers and unbelievers alike and that, at death, our bodies and souls are separated. Specifically, the immortal souls of believers and unbelievers go, respectively, to heaven or hell, but our mortal bodies return to dust where they are kept until the day of resurrection and judgment (Dan 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15;  Luke 16:23-24; Acts 1:25; Jude 6-7). From Scripture we also learn that the souls and bodies of believers and unbelievers will be reunited at the last day. When Christ returns, the bodies of the dead will be reunited with their souls and raised up by the power of Christ (Job 19:26; 1 Cor 15:51-53; 1 Thess 4:15-17; John 5:28-29; Rom 8:11). Believers’ bodies will be raised to honor, like Christ’s glorious body, and ushered into the new world to enjoy everlasting glory (1 Cor 15:21-23, 42-44; Phil 3:21). Unbeliever’s bodies will be raised to dishonor and cast into the lake of fire to suffer everlasting agony (John 5:27-29; Matt 25:33). Reading that souls and bodies will be reunited on the last day, we must be careful how we hear the confession I believe in … the resurrection of the body: do we hear encouragement or warning (Dan 12:2)?

In light of what’s been said above, someone might ask: just how certain can we be of the body’s resurrection? The Apostle tells us: because Christ’s body was raised, we can be certain that our bodies will be raised. Remember what Paul wrote: Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:20). In biblical terms, to be the firstfruits is to be the first sample from a full crop. That sample was seen as a sign of God’s pledge and of the people’s confidence that the rest of the harvest would follow. As the firstfruits, then, Christ is the first one to have been raised from the dead never to die again. As one commentator puts is, He is God’s down payment in guarantee of more to come, the assurance of a full harvest. Because Christ’s body was raised, then, we can be sure that our bodies will be raised.

There’s a second reason to be certain of the body’s resurrection: God’s blessed future for the human race requires it. Consider Paul’s words in 1 Cor 15:21-22: by a man came death; by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. … in Adam all die, … in Christ shall all be made alive. In the beginning, God announced the future of man: He blessed man to rule and fill the earth. But because the first man Adam failed to rule the beast that opposed God, God cursed Adam with death, and, ever since, the dead and dying children of Adam have been filling the earth. God’s future for the human race would not be frustrated, however. God promised a second man to succeed where the first man failed (Gen 3:15). As the Creed itself reminds us, God the eternal Son became that second man. In His life and death, God blessed Him to overcome sin, raising Him to resurrection life and making Him the one source of resurrection life for soul and body to all who obey His good news. You see, what Adam did does not have to affect our future. Anyone privileged to hear about Jesus should realize that He is the eternal Son who became the second man to gain victory over sin and death in order to give that same victory to all who entrust themselves to Him. United to Adam, our souls succumb to spiritual death, our bodies to physical death. United to Christ, our souls rise to new spiritual life, and our bodies to immortality. The resurrection of our bodies, then, is essential to God’s blessed future for the human race, a future belonging to all united to Christ by faith alone.

There’s a third reason to be certain of the body’s resurrection: unless our dead bodies are raised, we can’t enter the world to come. Ponder Paul’s point in 1 Cor 15:48-49. We have been like the first man Adam, with a body made for life in this present creation. Resurrection has to happen, then, so that we become like the second man Christ, with a body made for life in the new creation to come. Bodies made for this world won’t fit in the world to come (1 Cor 15:50, 53). That world will be God’s final and glorious kingdom. Neither the living nor the dead, in their present condition, can ever enter that kingdom. Our bodies must be changed to be adapted for immortal life in God’s everlasting kingdom.

What, then, is our confession about the future of the body and of death? In the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, we have God’s pledge that, as believers, our groans and aches over our mortality will end. Scripture tells us that our bodies will be delivered from death, never to die again, for death itself will die. Thus, following Scripture, we confess with the Creed: I believe in … the resurrection of the body.

We’ll meditate on Article 12 of the Creed in two installments, the first of which is here.

“I believe in … the forgiveness of sins”

posted by R. Fowler White

As we come to Article 10 of the Apostles’ Creed—I believe … in the forgiveness of sins, we’re still in what we take to be the third section of the Creed, where the focus is on the person and work of God the Holy Spirit. It might strike us as odd that the forgiveness of sins is placed in this section. After all, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumes that we will make our requests for pardon to our Heavenly Father (Matt 6:12). Meanwhile, the Apostle Paul tells us that it was Christ the Son who purchased forgiveness for us in His cross work (Eph 1:7). Nonetheless, we also remember that the Spirit’s ministry is to prove the world of sinners wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11). In God’s application of salvation to sinners, we can say that the Spirit makes the first move necessary for us to receive forgiveness. So, what is it that we confess when we declare, I believe in … the forgiveness of sins?

To unpack this article we’ll start with this question: do we share God’s view of sin? In Scripture, of course, God talks about sin and condemns it as failure to conform to His nature and moral law in our actions, attitudes, affections, and nature. In briefer terms, sin is failure to be or do as God requires. Sin is also described as a debt. In the Lord’s Prayer, the forgiveness of sins is the forgiveness of debts. We should know why our sins are debts. It’s because we owe God obedience; that is, we have a debt of obedience to Him, particularly when we disobey. Our disobedience, in truth, expresses hatred of and indifference to God and His requirements, quite the opposite of what we owe Him. Recognizing the reality of personal sin, then, is affirming that we aren’t what God requires us to be, and we don’t do what He requires us to do. In fact, we can’t be or do good as He requires (Eph 2:1-3; Rom 3:23; 5:18-19). Yet, as recently as 2020, almost two-thirds of people surveyed believe that most people are good by nature. Friends, if this survey is accurate, deception about human nature is rampant. The Apostle John is clear: If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. … If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar and His word is not in us (1 John 1:8, 10). The Apostle Paul is blunt: none is righteous, no, not one; … no one does good, not even one (Rom 3:10, 12). The point? Only by affirming God’s view of sin can we also rightly affirm the forgiveness of sins as we confess it in the Creed’s tenth article.

When, therefore, the God of the Bible is said to forgive sins, what does that statement mean? It means that God releases us from paying the debt we owe for our sins. It means that He does not count our sins against us (Rom 4:7-8), in that He declares our debt for breaking His law satisfied. On what basis does God forgive us? It is based on the fact that Christ has paid the debt we owe and could never repay. In saying our debt is paid, we’re not to think that forgiven sinners are like convicts who have paid their debt to society and are released from prison, but without the full rights of citizenship. No, forgiven sinners receive back the full rights of citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. God restores to friendship those who were once His enemies. He washes defiled sinners clean from all the unrighteousness of their sins. He does these things because He has seen to it that His justice is satisfied. Thus, He shows His kindness to wrongdoers who deserve only His wrath, and He renews the relationship that the offender’s sin had ruined. Yes, the God of the Bible is a forgiving God, and in Article 10 of the Creed, we bear witness to this astounding truth.

Remarkably, to bear witness to God’s forgiveness of sins is, at the same time, to bear witness to God’s justification of the ungodly. The God who forgives sinners is the God who justifies the ungodly. Thus, in the Creed’s tenth article, we do indeed confess justification by grace alone through faith alone. How so? As follows, in what has been called ‘the great exchange.’ Having transferred our sins to the Lamb of God (Isa 53:6) so that, as our substitute, the Lamb paid the penalty for our sins, God declared, “Penalty paid in full,” forgiving the debt we owed. Moreover, completing ‘the great exchange,’ God credited Christ’s righteousness to our account and accepted us as righteous (not merely as innocent) in Christ (2 Cor 5:21). It’s the same for us as it was for Abraham and David (Rom 4:3-6). God counted sinful Abraham to be righteous, though Abraham himself was not. He counted unfaithful David to be faithful, though David himself was not. God counted Abraham and David as having met His demands, though neither had done so. In effect, God the Son says of those like Abraham and David to God the Father, “She has done Us wrong, and she cannot make it right. He owes Us a debt, and he cannot repay it. Charge their wrongdoing to Me and their debt to My account, and then reckon My righteousness to their account.” Little wonder that the testimony of Abraham and David can be heard in words like these: I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness (Isa 61:10; cf. Ps 32:1-2).

Evidently, in our day, too many don’t share God’s view of sin. Instead, they insist that they’re good by nature and can earn God’s acceptance, having no need to seek from Him the forgiveness of sins. The truth is, however, that we sinners have a debt to God that we cannot pay. As such, our only hope is in God Himself, who graciously credits the full payment of debt to all who receive and rest on Christ alone. Wrapped in the robe of righteousness that He provides, we exult in our God, confessing as one, I believe … in the forgiveness of sins.

We consider the Creed’s eleventh article on the resurrection of the body here.

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