Category Archives: Sacramentology

Martin Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses, part 2/3

Tension rises between Martin and his father. Luther takes his monastic vows, and is loyal to the Augustinian order until his excommunication from the church of Rome. Ordained after a couple of years, and faced with conducting his first Mass, he expresses inordinate fear at the thought of the presence of God as he performs what he believed would be the miracle of transubstantiation.He rises through the ranks due to exemplary dedication. He is rewarded by being appointed to take a pilgrimage to Rome. This trip proves seriously disillusioning for Luther, as he witnesses many corruptions among the clergy there. He also sees the faithful coming to Rome and being taken advantage of by the hierarchy. Other accounts corroborate Luther’s claims of the rampant corruption in Rome, so although his account is written after his excommunication, his account is not entirely to be discounted. Among Luther’s concerns was that when the laity seek to do penance, their spiritual concerns should not be met with a sort of spiritual-monetary transaction. Sin is serious, Luther believed, and the Church ought to treat it as such.

A few years later he earns his doctorate, and is invited to be a professor of theology at a new university in Wittenberg, a small town in northeast Germany, quite out of the way of the more influential centers across the German provinces. Luther becomes quite a popular figure, and some time into this new phase of Luther’s life, the scandalous abuse of indulgences reaches Wittenberg. While they were not allowed to be sold in Wittenberg by the local prince, Wittenbergers crossed the river to purchase indulgences from the charismatic indulgence preacher, Johann Tetzel, who marketed them in an excessively crass way which even Catholic authorities today admit were not based in any teaching or practice commended by the Church of the day.

Luther’s response was to post ninety-five theses to organize a formal debate among scholars on the power and efficacy of indulgences. Written in Latin, Luther posted his theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, 1517. Luther’s theology has not at this point changed, and his theses were no revolutionary stance, although he does make some valuable statements that reflect the teaching of Scripture and are rooted in sound logic.


Distinctions Regarding Sanctification in the Household Principle

Robert Mossotti, OPC Licentiate

Robert Mossotti, OPC Licentiate

OPC Licentiate Robert Mossotti explores a distinction between the holiness of the children of a believing parent and the way an unbelieving spouse is sanctified by a believing spouse. These remarks conclude his lesson delivered on August 31, 2014 at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church. Subscribe to Robert’s SermonAudio page for more worthwhile teaching and preaching.

Read part 1

Read part 2

Read part 3

Let’s not forget that in Hebrews 6, there are some who are in the visible church who actually enjoy many spiritual benefits including tasting the heavenly gift, and the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come, and sharing in the Holy Spirit. But not, as we have discussed in a previous lesson, sharing in the Spirit’s work of regeneration, but in other very real, but lesser, blessings of the Holy Spirit, blessings which our Confession calls “common operations of the Spirit” in chapter 10, paragraph 4.

There is one other text that I would like to examine briefly. These are broad brush strokes, these may not even be the best arguments for why we baptize infant children of believers, but I think that they’re fairly good ones: the continuity of the one covenant of grace, the unalterability of covenants once they’re ratified in Abraham, and all the things we’ve gone through so far in this lesson.

Let’s go to 1 Corinthians chapter 7.

For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy (1 Corinthians 7:14 ESV).

In the Greek text of this verse, the children of a believer, whether it’s mother or father, are called saints in the Greek. They are called “holy ones,” that’s what “saints” means. Now, this is a noun, it’s not an adjective, like it appears in the text here in English. It’s not a description of them as an adjective, it is a statement that they are a noun, they are saints; they are holy ones.

Let’s go to chapter 1 and verse 2 of this epistle.

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV)

It’s not as obvious in the English, here, but in the Greek it is the same noun. It’s not a verb, it’s not an adjective, it’s a noun, they’re being called saints, holy ones. So, let’s go back to chapter 7. The thing is, that although the children seem to be called by the same noun as other members of the visible church, and that is the point that I want to make, nevertheless, it says something odd about the unbelieving spouse as well, doesn’t it? It would seem to create a problem for my thesis because you can’t say that an unbeliever is a member of the church, and it says that he is being sanctified by the believing wife, or vice versa, and the children are called holy ones. That creates an apparent problem, I’m trying to say with this text that children are members of the church just like the ones Paul addresses at the beginning of the epistle, so there is some difficulty there. But I think the explanation is to be found in the grammar. The children, like the visible church members in chapter 1 verse 2 are declared to be saints, holy ones. That is not what happens, here, with the unbelieving spouse. They are not called saints, they are not called holy ones, it’s says with a passive verb, they “are sanctified.” It is a different idea; it’s slight, I admit, but it is a distinction that Paul actually puts in there. He doesn’t say, “the children are saints, and the unbelieving parents are saints, too.” He doesn’t say that the children “are sanctified,” in the Greek, the way the unbelieving parent is sanctified. He makes a distinction. He calls the children “saints” the way he calls all of them saints at the beginning, and with the unbelieving parent, he says that they “are sanctified,” and I think the explanation for this distinction in the grammar is this idea of being sanctified by virtue of being in proximity to something holy.

Let’s go to Matthew 23:17-19.

You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? (Matthew 23:17-19 ESV)

The gold was sanctified, not because of what it is, but because of its proximity to something else.

Now let’s go to Exodus 30:29

You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy. Whatever touches them will become holy (Exodus 30:29 ESV).

You can see it much more clearly in the Septuagint and in the Hebrew text that it is the same idea of sanctifying, but it’s not that these things were holy in themselves, but whatever they touched was holy, so going back to 1 Cortinthians 7, the unbelieving spouse is made holy in that sense, by virtue of their proximity to the believing parent and the child, in their marital and parental relationship to holy ones, they are in a sense sanctified. I can’t do much better than that, I think, in explaining in what sense the unbelieving spouse can be sanctified. It’s not as if they are holy, “holy ones,” but they are sanctified, receiving holiness by the unbelieving spouse’s proximity to holy things.

One more note on the unbelieving spouse being described as being sanctified, if we were to take the time to go to Leviticus 27:28, especially in the Masoretic Hebrew text and the Septuagint, we would see that there is all kinds of sanctifying in the Scriptures. I don’t think this is the kind of sanctifying we’re talking about in Leviticus 27, where it is those that are set apart for God’s destruction are called holy as well, so I don’t mean the unbelieving spouse is sanctified in the sense that he is set apart for destruction. I only introduce this to make the point that in the Scriptures there is more than one meaning for “sanctifying.” It doesn’t always have the meaning of which we typically think.

So, what is the overall argument that I want to make from 1 Corinthians 7:14? It’s not ambitious. I don’t want to make too much out of my grammatical distinctions, but simply that children of believers are to be admitted as members of the visible church, and are to be granted the rite of admission to the same. I think surely the New Testament language stands at least for that. They are called saints just like anybody else in the church at Corinth.

I have said that Genesis 17 makes clear that the household principle is not simply the physical descendants of the believer that are to be included into the visible church. It’s a household principle, not so much a genetic line kind of principle. Now we in the United States of the 21st century don’t have slavery. So how would you apply that? We should keep in mind that they did have slavery in the first century as well as during the time of Abraham. So by the first century, where this principle of admission into the visible church by household would include slaves it is the same as saying that in the twenty-first century the household would not include slaves. Slavery is an historical accident of local, civil law. It’s something that the Bible does not confront head on, nor does it warrant it. That’s how we would apply it today. We would do the same thing, we would admit by households, but since households no longer include slaves we wouldn’t even consider that, but children would still be a part of that, according to Genesis 17.

Inclusion of Whole Households and Covenantal Continuity

Robert Mossotti

Robert Mossotti, OPC Licentiate

The following is part two of a series featuring OPC Licentiate Robert Mossotti’s August 31, 2014 Sunday School Lesson on Why Presbyterians Baptize Children of Believers, taught at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas. Read Part 1. Subscribe to Robert’s podcast at SermonAudio.


“And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him… Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him” (Genesis 17:18-19, 23).

In this passage, we see that Ishmael is commanded to be given the sign of the covenant, even though Abraham knows God’s covenant is actually with Isaac, and not with Ishmael. In other words, Ishmael is admitted into the visible church even though Abraham knows he’s not a member of the invisible church. He knows it—he’s told it by God. God’s covenant is really and truly with Isaac. But since Ishmael is in Abraham’s household, and under Abraham in God’s eyes, he, too is to receive the covenant sign. In other words, if the household principle that we see in Genesis 17 dictates that even definite reprobates like Ishmael are to receive the sign and be admitted into the visible church, then the household principle means that possible reprobates should be given the sign and admitted to the visible church. The greater includes the lesser, if you follow my meaning.

We don’t give children the sign of the covenant because we believe they are elect; we give them the sign of the covenant because that’s what we’re supposed to do, even when it is the case that, even by divine revelation God has told the parent, “My covenant is not with this boy. My covenant is with the boy that Sarah is actually going to have. Now give Ishmael the sign of the covenant.” Abraham knew that Ishmael would not be a member of the invisible church–he was not God’s chosen—Isaac was going to enjoy that position. God told him to circumcise Ishmael, and that’s because of this household principle: the believer is in charge of the household, the parent is a Christian, the parent is in the visible church, and the child is to be admitted into the visible church.

In Genesis 17, in verse 7, we see that the covenant of grace is established on these terms. It is between God and Abraham, and God and his seed after him for an everlasting covenant to be his God, and the God of his offspring. Now in verse 9 of Genesis 17, we can see that Abraham and his offspring are to keep this covenant. Think of Galatians 3:29 here: if we are in Christ, then we are Abraham’s offspring.

Now let’s look at verses 12 and 13 of this chapter.

He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

These verses reveal that the sign and seal of the covenant of grace was not contemplated by God as being only based on the principle of fleshly descent from Abraham, but on a different principle. It was not only the physical descendants of Abraham who were to receive the sign, it was his whole household. Abraham’s household had slaves and servants numbering in the hundreds (I direct you to Genesis 14:14 to see that). Because Abraham, the head of the household, was a believer, every member of Abraham’s household was to come into the visible church. In the covenant of grace, then, those who are under the authority of the believing head of a household are likewise to receive the sign and seal of the one covenant of grace, and verse 14 of this chapter says that if you don’t, then that person is to be cut off. The uncircumcised child is to be cut off from my people. He is a covenant breaker.

This is all established by divine appointment, so we maintain that only by divine appointment it may be altered, according to Galatians 3:15-17, which we read at the beginning. Nothing has changed with respect to this principle in the New Testament church, which is why the whole household was granted the sign and seal of the one covenant of grace during the days of the apostles. We see this same principle of household admission to the visible church. It is still in effect in the New Covenant administration of the one covenant of grace. The New Testament, therefore, does not need to be careful to point out that children are being baptized in order for us to baptize children. We must only be careful to point out that households are being taken into the New Testament church, which, indeed, the New Testament is careful to do in many instances. So the household principle of Genesis 17 is carried over into the New Covenant, and because it is, we believe it is appropriate to baptize the children of believers.

Regarding whether the New Testament explicitly mentions the baptism of infants, I would direct you to sermon Pastor Troutman preached on Joshua chapter 5. The grown men of the children of Israel who invaded Canaan all had to be circumcised as adults. That’s because their parents in the 40 years in the wilderness never circumcised them like they were supposed to. If we just looked at Joshua 5 and we did not look at prior revelation—Genesis 17—one would mistakenly assume that only adult males were to be circumcised because there is no explicit mention of children being circumcised in Joshua chapter 5. But one must look at the Abrahamic administration of the one covenant of grace to understand that children are to receive the sign, too. That’s why, as a matter of literary inclusion, if you will, the writers of the New Testament didn’t go out of their way to say that infants are being baptized as well because the explicit household principle comes into play and the rest is assumed. Because people who are coming into the church as the apostles preached the gospel are all adults, that’s what gets explicit mention in the same way that the adults that went into Canaan got explicit mention that they were receiving the sign of the covenant, and you would have to go prior to that, into earlier revelation, like we’re trying to do now, to establish that it’s children as well as adult males.

We’ve covered a lot of territory about the distinction between the visible and invisible church. We know from John 15 that even branches that are fruitless are for a time united to Christ externally only to be broken off later and cast into the fire, Jesus says, like the thorny and rocky ground in the parable of the sower, or like the bad fish in the parable of the dragnet, many reprobates are, in fact, in the visible church by profession, and, as we know from the Scriptures, by birth as well, and we have the explicit example of Ishmael and Esau. That’s important to keep in mind: baptism is not an assertion that this person is elect, it’s a rite of admission into the visible church, not the invisible church.

Visible Church Membership for Covenant Children

Robert Mossotti

Robert Mossotti, our summer intern at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas taught a Sunday School series on Ecclesiology. All of the lessons are available online here. They’re also available on Robert’s SermonAudio page here. My favorite lesson in the series was the following on the biblical case for infant baptism and the Reformed inclusion of the infant and unbelieving children of believers into church membership. The following is a transcript of his remarks, lightly edited at some points. I hope you find it as helpful and enlightening as we have. You can listen to this particular lesson online here. We begin with his introductory remarks regarding principles that govern our interpretation on this issue, and an exposition of Paul’s words regarding covenants from Galatians 3. The rest will follow in the coming days and weeks.

Why do Presbyterians baptize babies and count them as members of the visible church?

Let’s restate some principles first, before we get into some passages.

The visible covenant community is the visible church—Old Testament and New Testament—and what makes it visible are the sacraments. These place a mark on the church to identify it as belonging to the Lord. The sacraments mark God’s people off from the world. Another principle we have to keep in mind is that there is only one covenant of grace in Scripture. The covenant by which Abraham and the Old Testament church were saved is our covenant, too. By God’s grace, in the Scriptures we are all called children of Abraham through faith. There is no essential difference between the Old Covenant church and the New Covenant church. There are differences, but no essential differences. No differences as to substance, just form. The church is one across all the ages, because the covenant of grace is one. To embrace the one idea is to embrace the other. If you accept that there is one covenant of grace throughout Scripture by which we are all saved, then you have to accept that the church is one across both Old and New Testaments. We affirm this over against dispensationalism, which maintains an essential difference between Israel and the church. So the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant (the one at Mount Sinai mediated through Moses), and the New Covenant are all different  administrations of the one covenant of grace. In section 5 of chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Mosaic Covenant is called an administration of the covenant of grace. Alright, now that those principles have been stated, let’s go to Galatians 3.

The apostle Paul is going to give us in this passage a principle of covenant theology. A principle of Interpretation of Covenants, of Application of Covenants, the Nature of Covenants. Paul says not only biblical covenants, but all covenants. Let’s go to Galatians 3:15.

“To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void” (Galatians 3:15-17 ESV).

In verse 15, this idea of “ratified” in the ESV comes from the Greek word kuro’o, and Bauer-Danker, the premier Greek lexicon or dictionary defines it as “to confirm, to ratify, to validate or to make legally binding.” Although the covenant of grace goes all the way back to Eden, note that Paul is saying here that it was not ratified until Abraham. Now note that in verse 15, Paul begins with a general principle of covenants. Then, as he moves down through verses 16 and 17 he applies that general principle of covenants to the particular case of the Mosaic administration of the one covenant of grace—that’s what he means by the Law coming in. Paul says that once the covenant of grace was ratified at the time of Abraham, no modifications may be introduced even by later administrations of the covenant of grace, including the Mosaic administration.

So, it is because there is only one covenant of grace throughout Scripture that we Presbyterians apply the sign of admission into the visible church to the children of believers, for we are not free to change the way the covenant is administered. It is not because the Reformers didn’t sufficiently push off from Rome that we baptize babies, it is because of our covenant theology which we receive, we believe, from the Scriptures. It is also because the covenant of grace is one across the various administrations that we need not seek for proof of continuity between the Abrahamic administration and the New Covenant administration of the one covenant of grace. In fact, because of the underlying unity of the one covenant of grace across the ages, which cannot be altered once ratified, says Paul, that we actually would need to find evidence in the New Testament that God intends to change who it is who receives the rite of admission to the covenant community. Because of the underlying continuity of the one covenant of grace, it is discontinuities, and not continuities, between the Old Covenant and New Testament administrations, that need positive proofs from the New Testament. We don’t have to go to the New Testament and ask if there are specific cases where it says in explicit terms that babies were baptized. Because of the underlying unity of the one covenant of grace, you have to look for a command to no longer give the sign of the covenant of grace to the children of believers. The underlying unity drives the belief that we assume continuity unless there is evidence in the New Testament of discontinuity.

So the absence of explicit revelation in the New Testament on whether children are to be included in the visible church actually works in favor, not against, the inclusion of children in the visible church. Because of this principle of covenant administration, the default setting, says Paul, is covenantal continuity. But, in fact, we can find more evidence than just these principles of covenant theology that the children of believers are to be included in the visible church as members.

Pot Calls Kettle Black

John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and recent host of the controversial Strange Fire Conference, predicted in an interview with that what he calls the “Reformed Revival” will reverse itself in the next few years. He thinks this is so, because he sees so many of the younger generation who seem to be merely adding the doctrines of sovereign grace to their otherwise non-Reformed modes of operation like contemporary worship music, drinking beer, and Arminian forms of evangelism. He says in time, their Calvinist soteriology will fall by the way side because of the contradictory positions they hold.

Watch the video first, then read my comments below:

I find it ironic that this pastor should offer this critique of other pastors when he himself has added the five points of Calvinism to a non-Reformed view of eschatology. Reformed theology, after all, is not the home of Dispensational Premillennialism. Those who embrace total depravity, unconditional election, particular redemption, effectual calling and perseverance of the saints but reject the Covenantal theology in which these doctrines were developed, should think twice before criticizing others for selectively embracing popular elements of Reformed theology without embracing the whole system.

I also find it amusing that he should critique Calvinists for drinking beer. The enjoyment of alcoholic beverages in moderation is historically more Reformed than otherwise.

But I am in agreement with MacArthur that the five points of Calvinism isn’t enough. I would encourage him and members of the movement which a few years ago was called the Young, Restless and Reformed to take another look at the rest of Reformed theology. If it’s so right about the sovereignty of God in election, redemption and regeneration, what makes you think it’s so wrong about eschatology, church government and the sacraments?

Sermon Notes: Crossing the Jordan, Part 1

Sermon Notes Image

The following are notes from the sermon I heard yesterday, October 13, 2013 at Mid Cities Presbyterian Church. The sermon is called “Crossing the Jordan, Part 1,” and is based on Joshua 3:1-5. Rev. Joseph L. Troutman preached the sermon. Some of the material below is original to me, however.

1Then Joshua rose early in the morning and they set out from Shittim. And they came to the Jordan, he and all the people of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over. 2 At the end of three days the officers went through the camp 3 and commanded the people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. 4 Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.” 5 Then Joshua said to the people,“Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.”

The big idea of this sermon is that the gap between God and Man is caused by our sin, and is bridged only by Christ, who is God with us.

1. Follow Me (verses 1-3) they set out from Shittim. And they came to the Jordan The distance between Shittim and the Jordan River is about 12 miles. The trip took about a day.

and all the people of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over. Day 1:Their arrival, there for partial day; Day 2: “Lodged” all day; Day 3: There a partial day before crossing the river. Similar to the timing of Christ in the tomb–he wasn’t in the tomb for precisely 72 hours, but part of the first day, all of the second, and rose before sunup on day three.

Condition of the Jordan River, see verse 15: (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest) It was springtime, and the river was turbulent.

“As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.”

The ark of the covenant symbolized God’s presence. It was holy because God is holy. In the Bible, all visible signs of spiritual truths are so closely associated with the spiritual truth that it is identified as if it were the spiritual truth. In the Hebrew text of Joshua 3:17, the ark is not only called the ark of the covenant, but the covenant itself. This is why some mistake baptism as the thing that actually saves, and that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are actually transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ. The sign is called by the name of the reality, but the sign only points to the reality; the sign is not the reality. That’s why, in chapter 27, section 2 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, it reads:

There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.

In a sense, the ark was treated by the Israelites the way the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are treated by Bible-believing Christians today.

2. A Safe Distance (verse 4)

Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near it,

Two thousand cubits is about three thousand feet–over half a mile. This distance which the Israelites were to keep between themselves and the ark of the covenant symbolizes the distance between the holy God and sinful humanity. Although God was with his people, their sins still separate them from him; however, the Levites were graciously allowed to carry the ark, and thus the priesthood does its job of mediating between the holy God and sinners. They represent the people to God, and thus he is near his people while keeping a safe distance for the good of his people. This nearness of God with Man, while at the same time being separate from them is ultimately bridged in the person of Jesus, our Great High Priest.

3. Consecration (verse 5)

Then Joshua said to the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.”

The people must set themselves apart from unclean things, as well as from common things. God is holy, so they must be holy. God is clean and he is uncommon, therefore, so should the Israelites make this spiritual fact ceremonially visible in the same way the ark makes the presence of the Lord ceremonially visible. They were to wash their clothes and abstain from sex, as in Exodus chapter 19, which gives a good description of the way the people must consecrate themselves and keep a safe distance from Mount Sinai, and the severity of the consequences if they do not.

the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it.Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”

Similarly, Christians should see themselves as called out from the unclean and the common, to be God’s chosen possession.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

“…for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” Miracles are a sign of God’s power announcing that the observer is in the presence of God. Christ himself so far surpasses Old Testament miracles that if we are unaffected by the fact of his incarnation, righteousness, substitution for us on the cross, his resurrection and ascension to be enthroned on the right hand of God the Father, this speaks ill of our spiritual condition. Jesus, the God-Man bridges the gap between the holy God and sinful humanity, and consecrates those who repent and believe that they might draw near to God to serve and worship him.

An Ordinary Reformation

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Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Westminster Confession of Faith 5.3. God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.

Westminster Confession of Faith 18.3. This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.

If everything in the Christian life is “dynamic,” “epic,” “impactful,” “powerful,” and “extraordinary,” then the extraordinary becomes the expected norm, rather than the exception. It’s easy to see that with such high spiritual expectations, disillusionment is sure to follow. For this reason, I’d like to direct you to a series of episodes of the White Horse Inn called “Ordinary.” Along with concepts like “sovereignty,” and “predestination,” one of the unsung distinctive doctrines of Reformed theology is the way that God ordinarily works through ordinary means in our lives by His Word and sacraments. He reveals himself and his work of redemption to us in the Scriptures, grants to his chosen regeneration, faith, justification, repentance, sanctification, communion with him in grace and assurance. That he ordinarily does so through the “ordinary means of grace” (the Word read and preached, the sacraments and prayer), means that, indeed, in extraordinary circumstances, he is free to work by extraordinary means. The extraordinary nature of these means should be our first hint that this will not be what Christians should expect every Sunday during their so-called “worship experience.” Take some time to listen and be reformed to a liberatingly ordinary Christian spirituality.

Courage in the Ordinary

Ordinary Excellence

Extraordinary Gifts Through Ordinary Means

The God of the Ordinary

Heresy in the Headlines: Camping & Schuller

Strike Three and You’re Out

You may have heard that last week Harold Camping apologized for setting dates for the rapture. His bizarre application of civil engineer math geekiness to biblical hermeneutics misleads him to believe he could calculate the date of the rapture and the final judgment (See Robert Godfrey’s posts on Camping parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). Strike one was back in 1994—No rapture. Camping discovers his miscalculation, and revises his date to May 21, 2011, which is also to kick off five months of judgment apparently in the form of rolling earthquakes that were to begin at a certain time of day all around the globe. Perhaps you noticed the billboards in some parts of the country, but most of you will recall the media attention given to it in the weeks leading up to Camping’s second date. May 21, 2011 comes and goes: strike two! Upon this failure, he claims that the rapture really did happen, but it was a spiritual rapture, and that a spiritual judgment has begun which will culminate in the complete end of the world all at once on October 21, 2011. Nothing. Strike three and you’re out, Harold Camping! In the stressful aftermath of this publicly humiliating fiasco, which brought much grief, consternation, and in some parts of the world, persecution, Camping suffers a stroke, and he is removed from regular broadcasting on Family Radio. I don’t know if the strike was brought on by the stress of the events, but a stroke he suffered, nonetheless.

Now that he’s had time to recover, this past week, Camping posts a letter on the Family Radio website apologizing for his “sin” of setting dates (read the letter here). In some ways it is an impressive statement. I was particularly moved to see his state in no uncertain terms that those of us who harped on Jesus’ words that “no man will know the day or hour” were right, and that he was wrong:

…we now realize that those people who were calling our attention to the Bible’s statement that “of that day and hour knoweth no man” (Matthew 24:36 & Mark 13:32), were right in their understanding of those verses and Family Radio was wrong. Whether God will ever give us any indication of the date of His return is hidden in God’s divine plan.

But this candid concession and apology was not good enough for Dan Elmendorf, former Family Radio broadcaster and now founder of Redeemer Broadcasting. In his weekly program, “A Plain Answer,” Elmendorf reminds us that the sin of date-setting was the least of Camping’s doctrinal problems. Absent from Camping’s open letter is any expression of repentance for having called on Christians to leave organized churches in which the gospel is preached and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered under the oversight by elders with the authority of exercising church discipline on members whose lives are persistently refusing to conform to a biblical standard of holiness and obedience to Scripture. Apparently, Camping still believes, and would have his listeners believe, that “the church age has ended.” So, it’s not that Camping has repented of the more heretical nature of his controversial “ministry.” I recommend that you listen to Elmendorf’s program, the first segment of which addresses Camping’s “weak apology.” The host shares some insight and experience which you can’t get from the Associated Press stories.

The Schuller’s Take Their Ball and Leave

In another recent instance of heresy in the headlines, it is reported that the entire family of positive-thinking televangelist, Robert Schuller, are leaving Crystal Cathedral Ministries. The 85 year-old Schuller, having retired from weekly “ministry” in 2009, was succeeded by his daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman. According to the LA Times, Coleman announced this past Sunday that she will leave the Crystal Cathedral to start a new church citing a “hostile working environment” stemming from a growing divide between the Schuller family and the Crystal Cathedral’s board of directors. Robert Schuller and his wife applaud Coleman’s decision, but announce they will not be joining her at her new church, and that their plans for weekly worship are not yet finally decided. They will not, however, have any further public association with the work of the Crystal Cathedral and it’s broadcast The Hour of Power, started by Robert Schuller back in 1970. It seems that all positive (as opposed to “good”) things must come to an end. In my humble opinion, this end has been long overdue.


What To Do? Ten Days After Camping’s Failed Prediction

So it has been ten days since Harold Camping’s prediction failed to come to pass as “guaranteed” by himself, rather than the Bible (as he falsely claimed).  In the wake of this failure, many people around the world are left in various states of loss. For some, it is a loss of pets who were euthanized in preparation of last Saturday; for others, the loss of money; and for many more, the loss of pride in their teacher’s genius and their own “inside scoop” about the end of the world.

There are various ways people respond to anti-climactic events such as this one: some may (please grant it, Lord!) repent of their blasphemous repudiation that the institutional church is under Satan’s control (Matthew 12:31) and resubmit themselves to the ministry of the Word of the gospel preached and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper along with the oversight of biblically faithful elders who are watching out for the souls of those entrusted to their care (Hebrews 13:17). This is the ideal result, but may sadly be the minority report barring the grace and mercy of God, and the loving care of the Christians around them who come along side them to help in this matter. If you are a believer who reads Scripture and confesses the essential truths of the faith along with the rest of the universal church as expressed in the ancient catholic creeds and the historic Protestant confessions, please stand by ready to pray for and with these imperiled souls, graciously ready to assist those around you who were victimized by Camping’s false teachings. 

It has been reported, regrettably, that for others, deliverance didn’t come, but their own deaths, whether at their own hands, or the hands of others (don’t neglect to read these two previous links!). Responsibility for tragic unintended consequences such as these have been denied by Harold Camping, who minimizes his role (listen to his callous responses from last week’s press conference). 

Whatever the circumstances in the lives of Camping’s followers, it would behoove all of the surviving ones to take a half an hour and give a thoughtful listen to Redeemer Broadcasting’s recent episode of A Plain Answer, entitled, “One Week After Harold Camping’s May 21 Date.” Those of you who ought to be watching for opportunities to minister to Camping’s bewildered followers will also be equipped by it. If nothing else, encourage them to stop listening to Family Radio altogether and seek the greener pastures of Redeemer Broadcasting. This page will explain why

Reformed Concept of the Means of Grace

The final question of the April 27, 2011 episode of the Office Hours podcast by Westminster Seminary California, “Ask the Profs,” provided a good summary of the Reformed concept of the means of grace. Precisely at the 22 minute mark, the question was raised by a listener and the helpful answer was provided by Dr. John Fesko. Below I have appropriated some of his summary with a little of my own reflection on the topic in light of the teaching of Scripture.

“Means of grace” was originally a medieval Roman Catholic technical term for the sacraments, teaching that they are the means by which we receive the grace of God. Baptism was the means by which the infused righteousness of Christ was received, and the Lord’s Supper was the means by which the physical body and blood of Christ were received for eternal life.

The Reformers reformed the doctrines, but retained the terminology. First, they emphasized the centrality and priority of the Word of God preached by which God’s grace was received by those who believe, and condemnation received by those who do not believe. The sacraments were likewise means which confirm the grace received by those who believe the Word or condemnation by those who do not believe.

Contrary to Romanism, Reformed theology teaches justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ which is receied by faith alone; thus baptism does not convey the grace by merely submitting to the rite regardless of the recipient’s spiritual condition. Furthermore, Reformed theology agrees with Rome that Christ is present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, but they disagree on how he is present–Reformed theology teaches that Christ is present via the Holy Spirit, not physically. Thus the efficacy of both sacraments is the work of the Spirit, and not the magical work of a human priest. The benefits of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross are given by the gracious work of the Spirit alone and received by faith alone.

It is interesting to note that Scripture clearly presents the dual truth that grace is received by the believer in the sacramental means of grace, while condemnation is received by the unbeliever who presumes to participate in the sacraments. Consider the following passages:

One may legitimately argue against the use of this passage, due to its questionable manuscript evidence, nevertheless Mark 16:16 emphasizes the necessity of faith for the efficacy of baptism: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” This shows how the believer who is baptized receives the grace by faith, but the one who is baptized but never finally comes to faith in Christ will be condemned.

First Corinthians 10:16 shows the blessings received by those who believe the Word and partake in faith in terms of communion or participation in the body and blood of Christ: “the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The following chapter then shows how condemnation is received by those who partake of the Supper unworthily: “Whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27).

Thus we see that the Reformed concept of the means of grace is centered around the centrality of the Word of God preached and received through faith alone by the grace of God the Holy Spirit alone. This grace is signified and sealed to the one who believes in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but condmenation comes to the one who does not believe, even if he is baptized or partakes of the Lord’s Supper.

A Review of Dr. John Fesko’s Lecture on Word, Water and Spirit, part 3

Read parts 1 and 2.

In Part II of Dr. John Fesko’s book, Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (2010, Reformation Heritage Books), he, in 3 chapters deals with the Biblical data related to baptism as “New Creation” (chapter 8), “Covenant Judgment” (9) and as “Eschatalogical Judgment” (10). The following is my summary of his remarks on this material at the Christ Reformed Church Friday Night Author’s Forum in Anaheim, California last Friday, January 21, 2011.

When you look at New Testament texts that teach about baptism, not merely the occurrences of the event, but which present the theology behind the event, the passages tend to point back to Old Testament passages and concepts. In 1Peter 3, the apostle shows the correspondence between the flood and baptism:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.(1 Peter 3:18-22).

Elsewhere, the apostle Paul mentions the Israelites were baptized while crossing the Red Sea.

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-5).

Notice that not only did the adults of the nation of Israel cross the sea and so become baptized into Moses, but so did the entire households of those adults, which necessarily includes any and all infants that were present at the time. Even the cloud, we learn, typifies the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 10, says Dr. Fesko (see Isaiah 63:10-14).

Colossians 2:11-12 has been the field of a pitched battle between credobaptists and paedobaptists:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:11-12).

Critical of the paedobaptist appeal to such a correspondence between circumcision and baptism based on this text, some Baptists argue that circumcision is a physical, national rite–the “Jewish passport,” if you will–whereas baptism is entirely spiritual. To this, Fesko responds by pointing out that water of baptism is physical. Old Testament circumcision had spiritual connotations as well as baptism. For example, in Deuteronomy 10:16, the Israelites are commanded to circumcise their hearts. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Later, we find that in chapter 30, this command becomes a promise, when Moses proclaims that the LORD will circumcise their hearts. “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). Paul in Romans 2:28-29 says the true Jew has had his heart circumcised.

“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God (Romans 2:28-29).

Thus Fesko describes the spiritual referent of circumcision.

But why was the act of circumcision chosen to serve as the sign of the covenant in the first place? Remember the first gospel promise in Genesis 3:15?

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel” (Genesis 3:15 NASB).

It is the seed of the woman who will bruise the serpent’s head. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, it is the seed of Abraham who will be “cut off.” The prophets applies the terminology of circumcision to the cross of Christ. Consider Isaiah’s great 53rd chapter alludes to circumcision in the sacrificial death of the Servant of the LORD: “By oppression and judgment he was taken away;       and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” (Isaiah 53:8)

In Genesis 17, those who are circumcised are included in the covenant, and those who are not are said to be “cut off” from covenantal relationship with the LORD.

He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:12-14).

Finally, the sex of the recipient of circumcision was significant in its allusion to the fact that the Seed of Abraham to come, who would be cut off for his people, would be a male—the Lord Jesus Christ. These are some of the reasons that the act of circumcision is the appropriate sign of the Covenant of Grace. Therefore it makes sense that when we go to the New Testament, we find in Colossians 2 that when Paul makes reference to the “circumcision of Christ,” it is to his crucifixion, when Christ was cut off for his people, that he refers.

But why is it, then, that circumcision is replaced as the sign of the Covenant of Grace by a rite such as water baptism? What is it about the application of water that so well fulfills in the New Testament the significance of Old Testament circumcision? In the opening of the Gospels, John the Baptist announces:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).

Did John simply pull this ceremony out of thin air? Did he appropriate the immersion ceremonies of the Qumran community with whom he is considered to have possibly resided for a time? Was he simply applying Jewish proselyte baptism to repentant Jews? In the case of Jewish proselyte baptism, Dr. Fesko’s research seemed to indicate that, in fact, this baptism may have been devised only sometime after Christians began baptizing in the name of Jesus, and it may have been that they did so in imitation of Christian baptism. Instead, Dr. Fesko affirms that the true point of origin of John’s baptism is found in the Old Testament itself.

Joel refers to an outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28); again, the Genesis flood corresponds to baptism in Peter (1 Peter 3:18-22); Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple features water flowing out from underneath it which makes fruitful everything it touches (Ezekiel 47:1-12); in Isaiah, the Spirit is poured out, making the desert bloom like the garden of Eden (Isaiah 51:3; cf. 35:5-7). John, then, would have concluded from passages like these that the Messiah would come and would baptize his people in the Spirit. Therefore, now, under the New Covenant, we baptize young and old, male and female to testify to the fact that the Christ has come and fulfilled circumcision by being cut off for his people and he has baptized his people in the Spirit.

For the most part, baptism is presented as a blessing, but what about the baptized who apostatize? Is baptism somehow neutralized, or rendered ineffective? Dr. Fesko declares that there are no neutral encounters with the living God, according to the Word of God. You do not enter God’s presence and leave unchanged. The professing believer, and his household, receives the visible sign of the baptism of the Spirit either to their blessing or to their cursing. When Christ was crucified between two thieves, was the thief who asked him to remember him the only one affected by his encounter with the Son of God? No, the other thief, who mocked Christ, went to his doom. Scripture identifies Christ either as the Rock on which the believing fall upon, or he is the Rock which crushes those on whom it falls (Matthew 21:44). Thus, the revelation of Christ is double-edged.

Ministers often fear that when they see no tangible results to their preaching in terms of conversion, that perhaps the preaching of the Word is an ineffective enterprise. But the faithful minister who sees no results isn’t a failure, for the unresponsive will be judged.  Just as the Old Testament prophets preached with no prospect of positive response. Isaiah was called to preach a message of judgment. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 says that ministers are either the fragrance of life to some, and the fragrance of death to others. Consider the warnings for unworthy reception of the Lord’s Supper—Paul indicated that for this reason, some were sick and dead among the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). Likewise, water baptism is either the water of new creation, or it is the water of judgment. Again, during the flood, those sealed in the ark were saved through the waters (1 Peter 3:20), while those outside of the ark were lost in judgment. Similarly, the Israelites in the exodus were saved through their Red Sea baptism, while their Egyptian pursuers were drowned (Exodus 14:26-29).

Subjecting the New Testament doctrine of baptism to the classical Protestant hermeneutic of the analogy of faith, by interpreting unclear passages in light of the clear parallel passages, demonstrates how it corresponds in many of its particulars to circumcision. I find it especially helpful to see how the connection between the two is found ultimately in the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Great Seed of Abraham has been cut off from the covenant for the transgressions of his people, and he now baptizes his redeemed with cleansing influence of the Holy Spirit, but false professors who receive the sign of the Spirit’s cleansing will instead be burned with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:11b-12).

A Review of Dr. John Fesko’s Lecture on Word, Water and Spirit, part 2

In an attempt to explain why he wrote such an extensive presentation of the development of the doctrine of baptism in Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, Dr. John Fesko paints a picture of a pair of believers who begin discussing their differences on a given theological issue, and the lively conversation lasts a number of hours. When a third party approaches and asks what they’ve been talking about, they are faced with the daunting task of rehearsing the entire track of the conversation. On a broader scale, just such a conversation has been going on, not just for a few hours, but for nearly two thousand years. Getting his readers caught up on this conversation was Dr. Fesko’s goal for the historical-theological section of his book, which makes up roughly half of the book. This is intended to help the reader see that what the Roman Catholic believes about baptism differs from what the Reformed Protestant believes and teaches, and also the differences between Reformed and Lutheran, as well as Anabaptist and Baptist.

In Part I: “The History of the Doctrine,” Dr. Fesko covers early church witnesses such as Augustine and what the medieval church thought about Augustine’s doctrine of baptism. There is also a presentation of medieval theologians such as Bonaventure, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas. The bulk of the historical section covers Reformation views, with a chapter on the view of Luther and the later Lutherans. He also brings us through the developments of figures like John Calvin and Ursinus, with the contributions of the venerable Three Forms of Unity. His description of this development progresses on from the writers between the time of the Reformation and the production of the Westminster Confession of Faith, through the later development of the London Baptist Confession. Sketching the history up to the present day, theologians such as  Moltmann and Karl Barth are treated.

Dr. Fesko introduces the Roman Catholic teaching that baptism literally cleanses the recipient of sin, introducing what is known as the “created grace” of God into him. He explains that uncreated grace is the Holy Spirit’s incommunicable power; created grace is created by God and infused into the recipient at baptism. This is said to then create a “habit,” the newly formed ability to do good works.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Fesko describes how that the Anabaptists in Zurich, Switzerland developed the unintended consequences of Ulrich Zwingli’s doctrine of baptism. Zwingli did accept the term sacrament, but he emphasized the term’s patristic-era usage as an oath taken by a Roman soldier who swears loyalty to his commanding officer. From this, he concluded that baptism was no more than one’s pledge of allegiance to the Lord. While Zwingli did include more nuance than this in his own teaching, the first Anabaptists reduced his argument and developed a doctrine that  featured exclusively this oath-taking emphasis. For the Anabaptists, baptism became no more than the believer’s pledge of fidelity to the Lord. In this view, there was no grace attached at all to the rite.

Thus, whereas the Roman Catholic formulates an undue admixture of grace and the water of baptism, the Anabaptist radically separates the water of baptism from almost any reference to the grace of God, making it merely a believer’s pledge and in no way God’s pledge. Insofar as modern Baptists generally tend to appear to hold a view that appears to broadly coincide with this Anabaptistic kind of emphasis, Dr. Fesko assures his Baptist friends that he understands that they teach what man is doing in baptism, but he would ask them what they believe that God is dong in baptism, if anything. Why water? Why not some other substance? Or, why not some other ceremony? Even Charles Ryrie, he indicates, suggested a non-water ceremony would be just as acceptable. Maybe this could be a viable option, if baptism is all about what the believer is doing, but the historical Reformed tradition calls baptism a sign and a seal. It signifies Christ, not a thing or a substance, but Christ himself. Dr. Fesko says that what he likes about the historical Reformed view is that it reflects the ancient view that baptism is the visible Word: that which is heard in preaching is seen, felt and tasted in the sacraments—baptism, no less than the Lord’s Supper—making them what some have called “the double preaching of the Word.” In this regard, the sacrament is dependant upon the presence of the Word preached for its efficacy. The Word preached may stand alone and retain its efficacy apart from the sacrament, but the sacrament has no efficacy apart from the Word preached and so cannot stand alone.

According to Dr. Fesko, contemporary theologians are trying to run as far away from tradition as fast as they possibly can. They’ll claim that previous ages engaged too much in bad philosophy, and simply desired to defend “the traditional view.” But to these innovators, Dr. Fesko says our generation was not the first to open the Bible. For example, the middle ages are maligned as always and only engaged in extra-biblical, or even unbiblical philosophical speculation. But consider, for example, the case of Aquinas, who, before he taught theology, was first required to teach exegesis, and wrote a number of Biblical commentaries. This does not mean we must uncritically accept everything he wrote, but it at least indicates that medieval theologians were not utterly disengaged from the text of Scripture, and many of their writings do contain Scripturally-based insights from which the church in all ages can benefit.

Next time, we’ll review Dr. Fesko’s description of Part II: Biblical-Theological Survey of the Doctrine.

Read part 1

A Review of Dr. John Fesko’s Lecture on Word, Water and Spirit, part 1

On Friday, January 21st, 2011, Dr. John Fesko, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California, was the featured speaker at Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California, pastored by Dr. Kim Riddlebarger. He was invited to speak on his comprehensive new book, Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (© 2010 by J. V. Fesko, published by Reformation Heritage Books). The link to Dr. Fesko’s lecture may be downloaded from this post at the Riddleblog. First, Dr. Fesko describes the background to his book, then he summarizes respectively the history of the doctrine of infant baptism (paedobaptim–Part I of his book), the Biblical-Theological Survey of the Doctrine (Part II), and finally he briefly describes Part III: Systematic-Theological Construction of the Doctrine. This first in a series of posts will review Dr. Fesko’s discussion of the background to his writing of the book.

The background, we learn, is ultimately connected to his upbringing. As an infant, Dr. Fesko was baptized in the mainline denomination of the Presbyterian Church (USA). His parents apparently held nominal ties to this Reformed heritage, and the Fesko family wound up attending a number of churches over the years, landing among the Baptists in the end. While in college, Dr. Fesko listened to R. C. Sproul tapes on his Walkman, which lead him to realize that he was more Reformed than he was Baptist, and so he resolved to examine the outstanding Reformed doctrines he’d yet to deal with to be sure they were true–issues like infant baptism, so that, were he to minister in a Reformed church one day, he would not have to “hold his breath” as he administered the sacrament.

After seminary, while attending the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Dr. Fesko read a book by Paul Jewett which he says is called, A Case Against Infant Baptism, which inadvertently impressed upon him the indispensability of covenant theology and laid the groundwork to his finally embracing paedobaptism. In searching the web for this title, however, I was unsuccessful in tracking it down, but found instead a book by the same author called Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace: An Appraisal of the Argument That As Infants Were Once Circumcised, So They Should Now Be Baptized, which apparently argues for the practice. Unfortunately, Dr. Fesko has a little trouble with recall on this and another title below, but, we can afford to forgive him this minor oversight. I share a marginally similar experience to the one Dr. Fesko describes, in my own examination of the issues related to the biblical doctrine of baptism. Over the past several years since my transition to theologically Reformed convictions, including the truth of infant baptism, I would periodically revisit the case for the Baptist view of believer’s baptism (credobaptism). Each time, after re-exposing my newfound paedobaptistic persuasion to the critique of the Baptist doctrine, I would come away with new reasons to believe that Scripture in fact does command and exemplify infant baptism, although not in a manner that satisfies the Baptistic hermeneutic (method of interpretation) which emphasizes as central the differences between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, rather than their points of continuity.

The Reformed covenantal hermeneutic emphasizes how the nature, promises and signs of the Covenant of Grace outweigh the various administrative changes between the Mosaic and New Covenants. Big-picture issues like these bring into sharper relief the seemingly unclear Biblical testimony to infant baptism. In other words, with all due respect to my Baptist friends, when it comes to the Mosaic and New Covenant administrations of the overarching Covenant of Grace, they seem unable to see the whole covenantal forest for the New Covenant trees.

The second element in the background to Dr. Fesko’s writing of Word, Water and Spirit comes from his ministerial environment in the South. He says, “if you cannot throw a rock in the Bible without hitting a covenant,  in the South, you cannot throw a rock without hitting a Baptist church.” Many Baptists, who, in the providence of God, come to embrace Reformed theology and appreciate so much about the doctrine and practice of a Reformed Presbyterian church will hold out on the Reformed practice of infant baptism. In his ministry to such believers in his congregation, Dr. Fesko tried to provide comprehensive evidence to help his converted Baptist congregants understand and believe in infant baptism, and the degree to which he would prepare such material for their benefit also facilitated his desire to publish on the subject of the Biblical and historical case for infant baptism.

Dr. Fesko was also interested in making sure his congregants understood the Biblical doctrine of baptism as a whole, not just the aspect of it that related to its administration to the infant children of believers. He observes that there is a troubling trend toward church growth by downplaying more objectionable doctrines, like paedobaptism. He desired not only to help people understand infant baptism, he wants them to understand what a sacrament is, what Biblical covenants are, and even the true nature of God’s grace itself. Many struggle to understand what grace is. I, too, struggled to understand the classical definition of grace as “unmerited favor” until I was introduced to the Reformed doctrines of grace. Once I came to grips with the fact that a sinner is unwilling to believe because as one who is dead in sin, he cannot (“Total Depravity”); that God’s election of him is not conditioned on God’s foreknowing or foreseeing that he would receive Christ (“Sovereign Election”); that the atonement of Christ for the elect in particular is properly understood in terms of his mercy, rather than his resentfully seeing such an act as inherently unjust of God’s part (“Particular Redemption”); that when the Holy Spirit enables a sinner who was dead in sin to believe and to willingly embrace Christ as his own crucified and risen Lord (“Effectual Calling”); and that God will not only prevent me from “losing my salvation,” but will graciously preserve me in such a way that I will, by his grace, persevere in my faith in him (“Perseverance of the Saints”–for more biblical testimony on these doctrines of grace, see the link in my Featured Sites widget in the sidebar), then and only then did it make sense to me how it is that grace is God’s favor for me which I in no way earned. It is in this way that God’s grace is truly unmerited favor. Just as Reformed theology helps one truly understand the nature of grace, so does Reformed covenant theology as a whole help the believer understand the Bible’s full teaching on the significance, proper candidates and proper attitude toward the mode of baptism.

God’s progressive revelation of his redemption of the elect in Christ was something Dr. Fesko often found insufficiently treated in the typical book or essay promoting the Reformed doctrine of baptism. Why is redemptive history important in relation to baptism? It helps us to better understand the nature of circumcision and baptism, the connection between the two, and why the sign of the Covenant of Grace is changed from the former to the latter with the transition from the Mosaic to the New Covenant at the first advent of Christ. Dr. Fesko finds that Reformed presentations of infant baptism often focus more on the New Testament in defense of infant baptism, and not quite enough on the Old Testament revelation of the subject. He would remind his readers that as important as the New Testament witness to infant baptism is, Christians ought not to build their doctrines on only half of the Bible, but on the entirety of the Scriptures. Too many do not realize that indeed the doctrine of baptism is, in fact, found in the Old Testament. Pierre Marcel’s book, Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (actually, Marcel wrote Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism), which was possibly re-titled Infant Baptism (again, we’re apparently relying on Dr. Fesko’s memory), writes, for example, that for Karl Barth, the Old Testament matters little when it comes to most doctrines, with the possible exception of the doctrine of the atonement.

Dr. Fesko finds that theological journals provide perhaps some of the most helpful information on any doctrinal question, baptism among them. He therefore desired the readers of Word, Water and Spirit, who ordinarily have no access to such information, to benefit from such journals and show them where they can go to learn more on the subject of baptism. This was another compelling reason for him to write the book.

In the next post, we’ll follow Dr. Fesko’s summary of the historical-theological section of the book, which makes up roughly half of its contents.

Objections to Wine Use Answered

The following is an excerpt from Keith A. Mathison’s book, Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, copyright 2002, P&R Publishing.

Because the substitution of grape juice for wine in the Lord’s Supper has now become the standard practice in many American evangelical churches, many theologians within those communions have found it necessary to justify the change. In this section, we shall address some of the specific objections offered by representative theologians, as well as some other potential objections to the use of wine.

The prominent Baptist theologian A. H. Strong expresses a common objection made by those who have substituted grape juice for wine. He writes, “Although the wine which Jesus poured out was doubtless the ordinary fermented juice of the grape, there is nothing in the symbolism of the ordinance which forbids the use of unfermented juice of the grape,–obedience to the command ‘This do in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19) requires only that we should use the ‘fruit of the vine.’ ” (Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1970), 960.) Several points may be raised in response to this argument. First, it should be noted that Strong himself admits that wine was “doubtless” the drink that Jesus used. Second, if we are required to use the “fruit of the vine,” we are required to use wine because, in the context of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, fruit of the vine was a synonym for wine.

Another Baptist theologian, William W. Stevens, presents a similar line of argument in his book Doctrines of the Christian Religion:

The bread used by Jesus was doubtless the unleavened bread of
the Passover meal, as the wine he used was doubtless the fermented
juice of the grape. But this does not mean that we must
of necessity use unleavened bread, nor does it mean that we cannot
use the unfermented juice of the grape. Unleavened bread
is what Jesus had at hand, and his phrase “fruit of the vine” in
Matthew 26:29 would include unfermented juice as well. The
bread and the cup are symbolical only. To insist on literalism
would be tantamount to legalism (William W. Stevens,
Doctrines of the Christian Religion (Nashville: Broadman, 1967), 344.)

Here again we observe that the author in question admits that it is “doubtless” that Jesus himself used wine instead of grape juice. If this is admitted to be the case, the real question is why the author would even desire to change it in the first place. Stevens is simply incorrect when he asserts that the phrase “fruit of the vine” in the context of Matthew 26:29 would include unfermented grape juice as well as wine. In the context of the Passover meal, the phrase “fruit of the vine” was a liturgical term used as a synonym for wine. Finally, the comparison that Stevens makes between leavened and unleavened bread and wine and grape juice overlooks one big difference between the two. Leavened bread is still bread, but grape juice is not wine.

The most influential evangelical Baptist theologian today is Millard Erickson. Like Strong and Stevens before him, he too attempts to justify the substitution of grape juice for wine:

What elements we decide to use in celebrating the Lord’s Supper
will depend, at least in part, upon whether our chief concern is
to duplicate the original conditions as closely as possible or to
capture the symbolism of the sacrament . . . . With respect to
the cup, duplication of the original event would call for wine. . . .
If, on the other hand, representation of the blood of Christ is the
primary consideration, then grape juice will suffice equally well . . . .
Suitability to convey the meaning, not similarity to the original
circumstances, is what is important as far as the elements are
concerned (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids:
Baker, 1985), 1125.)

This argument raises a number of important objections that must be noted. First, we are not arguing for duplication, but for obedience. If bread and wine were the elements that Christ ordained to be used, then we have no more right to change them than we have to use something instead of water in baptism. Second, the argument of Erickson (and of Strong and Stevens) changes when the subject is baptism. When discussing baptism, Baptists such as Erickson typically argue from the example of Christ. They insist that early baptism was administered only by means of immersion (This is a questionable assertion, but arguments about the meaning and mode of baptism are beyond the scope of this book. For a concise presentation of the arguments against the view that immersion was or is the only proper mode of baptism, see Jay Adams, The Meaning and Mode of Baptism (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1992).) They argue that we must duplicate the baptismal mode that Jesus used. Yet in the case of the Lord’s Supper, they say that only the most basic symbolism need be preserved. But if basic symbolism is all that matters, then it would not matter whether Jesus and the apostles baptized only by means of immersion. Sprinkling and pouring would be acceptable because those modes of baptism convey the meaning of cleansing and purification just as well as immersion.

The dispensationalist Charles Ryrie takes a slightly different approach in his argument for the use of grape juice in the Lord’s Supper:

The Scriptures do not use the word “wine” in connection with
the Supper, only “the cup” or “the fruit of the vine.” Of course
it was juice from the grape, but whether fermented or not is not
stated . . . . For the sake of converted alcoholics or even to forestall
anyone beginning to drink, unfermented juice is preferable in light
of today’s worldwide problem with alcohol (Charles C. Ryrie,
Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor, 1986), 425.)

There are a number of problems with Ryrie’s argument. First, the word wine does not need to be used when the phrase fruit of the vine is itself a Jewish liturgical term for wine. Second, Ryrie’s argument leave the impression that Jesus may have used grape juice. Since the Lord’s Supper was instituted during a normal Pasover meal in which wine was unquestionably used, such a suggestion is very misleading. As the Baptist theologians Strong and Stevens admit, there is not doubt that Jesus was using wine.

The argument that we should use grape juice instead of wine for the sake of converted alcoholics and because of today’s worldwide alcohol problem simply doesn’t follow. Drunkenness was as much of a problem in biblical times as it is today. Otherwise, why would there be so many biblical condemnations of this sin? Yet, in spite of the fact that drunkenness was a problem even in the first century, Jesus did not hesitate to institute the Lord’s Supper using wine. In addition, the apostle Paul encountered drunkenness in the observance of the Lord’s Supper at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:21). Aside from the fact that it would have been impossibel for the Corinthian Christians to get drunk if they were using grape juice, as some suggest they were, we must observe that Paul did not correct this abuse by advocating the nonuse of wine. Instead, he called for the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper. If alcoholism is a real problem today, it was a real problem in Jesus’ day. Human physiology has not changed drastically in two thousand years. But in spite of the fact that drunkenness was a problen, and in spite of the fact that human beings face the same kinds of temptations, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with the elements of bread and wine. To suggest that the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper contributes to sinful behavior is to condemn Jesus himself.

The Pentecostal theologian J. Rodman Williams provides another faulty argument against the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper:

In the three synoptic accounts of the Lord’s Supper
the content of the cup is called “the fruit of the vine”
(Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18). This doubtless
was wine; however, since wine is not directly mentioned
in any of these accounts, it is irrelevant to insist
(as some do) that wine must be used. Grape juice
equally comes from “fruit of the vine”
(J. Rodman Williams, Revewal Theology
(GrandRapids: Zondervan, 1992), 3:261, n. 178.)

This argument is similar to those made by Strong, Stevens, and Erickson. Unlike their arguments, however, it contains an obvious self-contradiction. Williams says that all three accounts of the Lord’s Supper call the content of the cup “the fruit of the vine.” Then he says that “the fruit of the vine” mentioned in these accounts was doubtlessly wine. Then he contradicts himself by saying that wine is not directly mentioned in any of these accounts. If “the fruit of the vine” is directly mentioned in all three accounts, then wine is directly mentioned in all three accounts. The specific word wine need not be used, so long as an acknowledged synonym for wine is used. It is not irrelevant, therefore, to argue that wine should be used in the Lord’s Supper.

While it is not irrelevant to argue that wine should be used, it is entirely irrelevant to point out, as Williams does, that grape juice comes from the fruit of the vine and is therefore also permissible. Many fruits and berries grow on vines. If Williams’ argument is valid, why limit ourselves to the juice of grapes? Williams himself does not reject the use of wine simply because he believes grape juice also falls under the biblical meaning of the phrase the fruit of the vine. This is evident when we see his suggestion that beverages such as milk and tea are also permissible (Ibid.). Milk and tea most certainly do not come from “the fruit of the vine.” Williams’ entire argument simply ignores the special Jewish liturgical usage of the phrase fruit of the vine. In the context of the Passover meal, the phrase meant “wine,” not any fruit that happened to grow on vines or the juice that could be derived from those fruits. To argue in the manner that Williams argues is to ignore the historical and grammatical context of Jesus’ words.

Not one of the theologians we have cited presents a cogent argument for the rejection of wine and the substitution of grape juice in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. The most that these authors have attempted to prove is that the use of wine is an indifferent matter, but the manner in which they have made this argument would work equally as well against the use of water in baptism. All but one of these authors readily admit that Jesus himself used wine at the first Lord’s Supper, yet their arguments assume that the church can reject its use without providing any biblical reason for doing so.

There are other arguments against the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper that these theologians do not pursue in any detail. For example, some argue that we should not use wine in the Lord’s Supper because any use of alcohol is a sin. As we have seen, this was one of the fundamental arguments of the temperance movement. But it is not based on a shred of biblical or historical evidence. More importantly, it directly contradicts the explicit teaching of the Bible. According to Scripture, wine is a good gift of God to be used in moderation. The abuse of this good gift, like the abuse of any gift from God, is condemned as sin, but the use of wine itself is not condemned as sin anywhere in Scripture.

Another argument against the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper is based on the idea that there are potential alcoholics who would be hurt by this practice. Those who make this argument say that some people are born with a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism. If they were to drink even a small amount of wine at the Lord’s Supper, it could lead them to become alcoholics. This argument, like the previous one, rests upon faulty presuppositions. In the first place, God has revealed in his Word that drunkenness is a sin, a moral and ethical failure, not a physiological or genetic defect. It is an act of disobedience to God.

Ironically, those evangelicals who use this argument have adopted some of the basic assumptions of liberal theology by taking something that God calls “sin” and implying that it is a “disease.” This removes the responsibility for the sin from the person involved. Secondly, this argument implies that Jesus did something wrong when he instituted the Lord’s Supper with wine. If there are people with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism now, there were people with the same disposition at the time of Jesus. Yet Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana and used wine at the first Lord’s Supper. Then he commanded that this sacrament be celebrated until he returns. If there is a genetic predisposition to alcoholism that is triggered by the use of even the smallest amount of wine, then Jesus is responsible for turning many people during the last two thousand years into alcoholics.

Other arguments against the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper are based on passages like Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 6:17, and 1 Thessalonians 5:22, where Christians are told to be separate from the world and to abstain from any appearance of evil. The use of such passages as an argument against the use of wine is based on the faulty premise that the use of alcohol is worldly or evil. If this were true, Jesus himself would be guilty of acting in a worldly manner. Jesus drank wine. He made wine. He gave wine to others. Any one of these activities would be labeled sinful by many modern American churches. But they are not sinful. To abstain from all appearance of evil means to abstain from every form and appearance of real sin, not the activity labeled “sin” by modern-day legalists. In any case, it is simply impossible to suggest that a sacrament of the church instituted by Christ himself has the appearance of evil.

Some argue that while wine is used regularly in many cultures, it should not be used in ours because in our culture the use of alcoholic beverages carries different connotations. Therefore, Christians who desire to maintain a credible witness to our culture should not use wine in the Lord’s Supper. However, our obedience to Christ cannot be compromised in order to conform the church to the standards of our culture. The culture is to be conformed to Christ, not the other way around. The problem at the heart of this argument can be readily seen if we examine its effect on areas not related to the Lord’s Supper. In our culture, for example, homosexuality has gradually become more and more acceptable. In order to “maintain a credible witness” to this culture, many Christian churches now ordain homosexuals to the ministry. In addition, many churches refuse to declare what the word of God says about this sin. Is this a credible witness to our culture?

The fact that many in our culture abuse God’s good gifts does not mean that the church must abstain from those things altogether. The church’s response should be to demonstrate the right use of God’s gifts. God’s good gift of sex is abused everywhere in our culture today. The church’s response should not be celibacy. The church maintains a credible witness to the culture by demonstrating the rightful use of that gift within the context of marriage. God’s gift of wine is everywhere abused by drunkards. The church maintains a credible witness by thankfully accepting this gift from God and using it moderately in the way that God intended it to be used. It does not glorify God to abstain from every gift of his that is abused by unbelievers in the culture around us. This would be impossible anyway, since unbelievers abuse everything that God has given us.

A final argument that has been made against the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper is based on the “weaker brother” principle found in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. According to this argument, it may be technically permissible to use wine, but since many Christians believe it to be a sin, we should abstain from using it in the Lord’s Supper lest we offend these “weaker brethren.” Several observations are in order. In the first place, Paul himself says in these passages that eating meat and drinking wine in and of themselves are indifferent matters (cf. Rom. 14:14, 20). They are sinful only when done in a specific religious context, namely idol worship. Second, if these passages imply that we should permanently abstain from drinking wine, they would equally imply that we should permanently abstain from eating meat (cf. Rom. 14:21). Yet very few strict prohibitionists are also vegetarians.

The primary teaching of these passages is that we should put love for our brothers in Christ ahead of any concern for our “rights.” However, the elders of the church have a responsibility to help “weaker brothers” grow to maturity. They are not to allow “weaker brothers” to remain weak indefinitely. Most importantly for our purposes, it must be observed that nothing in these passages has any bearing on the observance of the Lord’s Supper. However else these passages are used, they cannot be used to negate or change the sacraments instituted by Christ. Even if every other use of alcohol is voluntarily given up for the sake of weak consciences, the church cannot allow this argument to be used as an excuse to change the Lord’s Supper.


Because of the irrefutable fact that wine was used by Jesus in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and because the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper was an undisputed practice for the first 1,800 years of the church’s existence, a heavy burden of proof rests upon those who have substituted grape juice for wine. After reviewing some of the most commonly heard objections to the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper, we are forced to conclude that this burden of proof has not been met. In fact, there has never even been an attempt to meet this burden of proof in many of the churches that have made this change. There is simply no legitimate reason for replacing wine with grape juice in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

The Rejection of Wine

If the entire church used wine in the observance of the Lord’s Supper for 1,800 years without any controversy or disagreement, what caused the change that is so prevalent in American churches today (Much of this section is taken from my “Protestant Transubstantiation,” IIIM Magazine Online 3, no. 4 (January 22-28, 2001))? The historical origin of the modern American evangelical practice of substituting grape juice for wine can be traced directly to the nineteenth-century temperance movement (Cf. Horton, “At Least Weekly,” 168. For a concise summary of the movement, see Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1975), 2:1269-70.). This movement, which arose in reaction to the widespread abuse of alcohol, ultimately came to the conclusion that the solution to abuse is not right use, but nonuse. Proponents of “temperance” ultimately concluded that any use of alcohol was evil.

While the movement talked about temperance, its ultimate goal was the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages. The American Temperance Society was organized in 1826, and by the 1850’s thirteen states had outlawed the sale of alcohol. Significantly, many of the leaders and members of the movement were Christian clergy and laity. Of course, the idea that alcohol is inherently evil had an impact on the practice of the Lord’s Supper in American churches. The logic of the movement was widely used to reinterpret Scripture. If the use of alcohol is sinful, and if Jesus never sinned, then Jesus could not have used an alcoholic beverage such as wine in the Lord’s Supper. He must have used some other beverage, and it was argued that grape juice is also the “fruit of the vine.” Gradually, churches that had adopted the temperance gospel changed the elements of the sacrament and substituted grape juice for wine.

The history of the temperance movement and Prohibition is fascinating, but it is beyond the scope of this work to trace it in any detail. Suffice it to say that the temperance movement was a moral, political, and cultural failure. The movement failed culturally because it shared one of the flawed presuppositions of Christian liberalism. It placed the responsibility for sin in an external object rather than in the human heart. Getting rid of alcohol did not and could not get rid of sin and evil in the heart of man. The movement failed morally because it allowed itself to be deceived into setting up a higher standard of righteousness than the word of God. By prohibiting what God allowed, the movement fell into self-righteous legalism. The movement’s only lasting “success” is found in those churches that used its logic as the basis for replacing wine with grape juice in the Lord’s Supper.

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