Home Worship, April 19, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
Preparatory: Psalm 1
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Confession: Westminster Shorter Catechism 22-23
Q. 22. How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?
A. Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.
Q. 23. What offices doth Christ execute as our redeemer?
A. Christ, as our redeemer, executeth the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king, both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation.
whose glorious dwelling is in the heavens, even when the light of heaven is hidden by dark clouds.
Ever to you, Father Above, is our praise, honor, and thanksgiving.
From your hand comes every blessing.
Therefore, before your heavenly temple we offer our prayers of intercession.
giver of every good and perfect gift.
We pray for the Church, wherever she is gathered this Lord's Day.
Particularly we pray for our own congregation.
Grant that her witness may be sure, her teaching apt, her doctrine sound.
we pray for all peoples.
You are God over all.
The heavens are telling your glory, and your Word is heard to the end of the world.
Grant that the gospel of the risen Christ may be proclaimed this day to every people in every tongue.
Grant that in this comunity, those who have no peace, those who are alienated, those who are alone,
might find reconciliation, through the faithful witness of your people and the fellowship of your house.
we pray for our nation.
King above all gods.
You have been our strength, our rock, our fortress.
you have been the God of our forefathers, and still in you we trust.
Grant that our nation might be ever faithful to you, Great God our King.
God of all comfort.
We pray for those who suffer, for those who endure poverty, for those burdened by debt,
for the crippled, the sick, the troubled and tormented.
We pray for the entire world as it struggles with a pandemic, for all of the pain it is causing, physical, emotional, and economic. We pray that you allow it to pass quickly. Comfort all of us in this time when we may not be together, and bring us together again soon.
Our prayers we present in the name of Jesus, our Great High Priest, who has entered into the heavenly sanctuary to present our prayers before you. Amen.
Hymn: How Firm a Foundation
Theology is Everything
2 Timothy 3:14-16
Good morning, people of God. As we’ve gathered once again in our homes and not at the chapel together, I pray that God would even so give us a spirit of unity, a feeling of community, and a longing to be together again that results in true Christian fellowship, the kind of fellowship that we learned about in Philippians last winter. And we have had some encouraging news this week on the state of this disease, and I pray that continues to build, and that we will all be together very shortly. Let’s pray before turning to His Word this morning.
Heavenly Father, source of all Truth, we pray that as we open up your Holy Word this morning that the things we meditate on be pleasing to you, would reflect the truth, and bear fruit in our lives as we seek to live them to your glory. Send your Spirit now, to guide our hearts and minds as we consider the greatest things, the knowledge of you Father, your Son, and the Spirit. Ever and always for your glory, amen.
This morning we embark on a new, brief series that I’ve planned to take us through the first Sunday in June. At one point this spring I mentioned how lectio continua, or preaching straight through entire books is a long-standing hallmark of Reformed preaching, and how I was a big supporter of it, so you’ll have to forgive me, this series going to be a little out of character for me, since it is going to primarily be topical. We will spend most of our time unfolding scripture from the early chapters of Romans, but the series is going to be a “Brief Overview of Reformed Theology.” Reformed theology is a phrase that is bandied about quite a bit, but we don’t always know how to define it, what it’s all about. It’s also can be kind of a lightning rod—the word Reformed, in the literature or name of a church, signals to some of us that this church is worth looking at, but I know some people who have been taught to recoil at the word, to hold a skeptical posture toward it.
So what I hope to do in these next few weeks is to, through by looking at clear themes of scripture, particularly in the letters of Paul, to give us a much better handle on that word and what it means, and also what makes our confession, the Westminster Confession, a reformed document. And I think the positive and negative angles are both valuable—we need to know what it is, but also what it is not—so we will compare and contrast with some other theologies that exist in our world, comparing especially with the ones that are so common in our country and our culture today.
And we will begin that eight week journey this morning by turning in our bibles to the book of II Timothy. We will be looking specifically at chapter 3, verses 14 to 16, which you will find to be quite familiar. But to get better, important context, we will read the entirety of chapter 3, and the first five verses of chapter 4. And before we read it, I want to orient you to it a little, think about the whole message, if this was a letter to you, what is Paul pleading with you to do in this letter, what is he most concerned with? II Timothy, chapter 3, listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Here ends the reading of the Word, thanks be to God for bringing it to us.
Satire is designed to make us laugh, and it often does, but have you noticed how it can also be convicting? What a satirist often does is takes something true, something real, finds a little part of that reality that, when you step back from it, is really silly, or illogical, and then to satirize it they take that slightly illogical thing to an extreme, and that makes you reflect on that thing in the first place and often remind you to think. I know that I’ve mentioned a couple of times satirical articles from the writers of the Babylon Bee, but as I was preparing this message, there was a headline that was really on point with what we need to address in this passage today. The headline was “Study: 92% of Christians Get All of Their Theology from Bumper Stickers.” And it goes on to mention the “simplistic platitudes” that make up the “entire American Christian theological diet.” Things such as “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “God helps those who help themselves,” or “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” These are things I’m sure you’ve heard before. It’s a time for pause – do I really live my life by the simplistic “Christianish” platitudes? (And worse, ones that are clearly unbiblical?)
And then I recall someone, who will remain nameless, telling me about one of their children who was newly at seminary, and they were telling me about this seminary experience and how great it was, because this particular seminary wasn’t so hung up on doctrine. They weren’t trying to teach doctrine. I didn’t say it at the time, but I wanted to ask, if not Christian doctrine, then what? What is the purpose of it all if you are not handing down doctrine?
Theology, doctrine. These words get a bad rap in our society, and I know why. When you invoke the words of theology and doctrine, people immediately start thinking of people who are religious automatons, uncritically accepting whatever leaders tell them, not questioning it, and not worrying if it’s actually true. I would admit, if that were the case, as it is in some places, that indeed would be a bad thing.
But what is theology? What does the word actually mean? One of the last books that RC Sproul wrote before he died was “Everyone’s a Theologian,” and that is absolutely true. You have a theology, everyone does, even if you don’t like the word. Theology simply is the knowledge of God. And I would assert to you, is there any better knowledge, is there any knowledge that you learn in your life, that is more important to get right, than your knowledge of God? Is there? It is literally a life or death situation.
And Paul knew this, as he wrote a letter to his younger protégé, Timothy. He knew that the most important thing to relay to him, which was really the theme of the entire letter, not just Chapter 3, was that he needed to be vigilant, never give up any ground to false theology. Listen again to verses 5 through 7, after Paul delivers this chilling, convicting list of the things that people will be, that we all are, he knows we are weak sinners, so he warns Timothy that they will be, quote:
having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
Don’t be distracted that at that particular moment he mentions specifically weak women, because the danger is absolutely to each and every one of us. We are easily led astray by passions. And probably the most chilling there—always learning, but never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
So there are those who would say, “we don’t need doctrine!” or, “don’t hold me down with doctrine, I believe in the bible.” Well good, I’m glad you do, so did the so-called “reformers” who wrote these confessions.
As we start this journey into exploring the major points of Reformed Theology, let’s step back for a minute and remind ourselves what the reformers were doing. And that word is important, Luther and others were reformers, not revolutionaries. Luther didn’t discover something new in scripture, didn’t arrive at a new interpretation of it, suddenly in the early 16th century. No, he looked at scripture, not just parts but all of it together, and then looked at the doctrine, the practices, the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, and there were clearly logical inconsistencies between what the church was teaching, how the church was operating and how scripture describes what the church should teach and how it should operate. And that’s a complex process, because many of those principles, the themes of scripture, the teaching is drawn out over thousands of pages, and you need to interpret every passage in the light of every other passage.
And so Luther and others were not out to say I have a new, novel interpretation of scripture, they were attempting, as closely as they could, through reading scripture and applying reason, they were attempting to get as close as they could to the original church. To summarize the theology of the bible, the knowledge of God, as closely to how God describes it as possible. And so the hallmark of the reformers, the entire panoply of Protestant churches that resulted, was to use scripture, and only scripture, as the basis for our knowledge of God.
I say again, what kind of knowledge in your life is more important to get right than your knowledge of God! And where do we find knowledge of God? Well, I know of only two dependable sources—we usually refer to them as general and special revelation—the creation, that is the general revelation, and the Word of God, given to us in the scriptures, which we confess is the actual Word of God delivered to us through men over millennia. And the reformers all agreed on one point, which was in conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, that the Holy Scriptures were the only source of special revelation that they were going to accept. The Catholic Church said, and still says that there is also real truth to be found in the traditions of the church in addition to scripture. But the reformers could show that there were many traditions in the church that were demonstrably unbiblical, in conflict with scripture.
So putting that aside for a second, that point of departure with the Roman Catholic Church, all that is to say that the reformers like Luther and Calvin, and all of those who have come after them claiming the mantle of Reformed Theology, all of the Reformed Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms, they all are rooted in the controlling principle of sola scriptura. Scripture alone is the source of truth, of all knowledge of God, of all theology. When we find something in this massive document that is seemingly contradictory, or mysterious, or confusing, we turn to scripture to interpret scripture.
Now scripture is infallible, but man certainly is fallible, and our understanding of God, even through a centuries-long deep reading and prayerful analysis of scripture, our understanding of him, our theology will remain incomplete while we are here on earth, but the essence of the reformation approach to theology remains the same and continues. We constantly test scripture against scripture, and view every verse, every passage, as nearly as we can, in the light of the whole of scripture, as we often refer to it, the full counsel of God.
And here in Timothy, this is what we see Paul encouraging Timothy to do, and to stick to as he goes out to preach and to evangelize. He says to Timothy, in verse 14:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
But Paul doesn’t just leave him there, and say I hope you can remember all of those things, no, he tells him to constantly return to scripture, over and over again, because in matters of faith, it’s the only guide you need, it is sufficient:
All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Notice he uses such universal language here – all scripture, not just most of it. And what is it profitable for—all parts of your Christian walk: teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. And scripture, breathed out by God, is sufficient to make a believer complete, and equipped to serve their neighbor. This passage is the greatest defense of both the inspiration of scripture and also the sufficiency of scripture. We don’t need to look for new revelation, we don’t need to look for new prophets. We need the church, but to support us in our growth in faith, not as a source of new revelation or additional truth.
So that is big point #1 as we come to a study of Reformed Theology, that, as Paul says, scripture is absolutely the Word of God, and it is there, and only there—sola scriptura—that we will look for truth.
Now that is the point where Christians all over will stand up and say, “amen!” and “yes, scripture alone!” but we don’t always act on all of the implications of agreeing with that. Built into that confession, that it is in scripture alone we will look for absolute truth about God, is that we don’t get to pick and choose. Paul starts out II Timothy Chapter 4, following immediately after those quotable verses about scripture, he gives Timothy, and us, a charge, and it feels like a bit of a warning. Again, the beginning of chapter 4:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:
Serious words right there! I charge you, in the name of the Lord and judge of everything, who you will see when he comes back…. Paul adds serious weight to what he is about to say, in the context of the authority of scripture, he tells Timothy, verse 2:
2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
Be ready in and out of season. Preach the Word. There are some seasons and some contexts and some audiences that are going to love it when you preach the truth, and some seasons when you will face the firmest of resistance. This is an important truth for us right now. The truth found in the Word is a stumbling block, it is not something the world wants to hear. The world would rather be comforted in their sin, not confronted with it. And then Paul continues with something so applicable to all times, but certainly our own:
3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
The Word of God, and a theology built on it and only it is going to challenge you, even the Christian, the old man inside will cry out against the truth. I would rather have a teacher that affirms me, that says that my passions are the right ones. Tell me it’s OK to flaunt my wealth, because hey, we live in the richest nation ever. Tell me it’s fine to indulge my desires for the lusts of the flesh. Tell me that God is fine with my sin, that he loves me for who I am, even when I identify myself with my sin. Paul leaves no room for that, instead he tells Timothy
5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Stand firm, Christian. I said the implications of sola scriptura are tough. Why? Because the true theology is true regardless of what I think it is. Scripture is true whether I say it is or not. The truth it contains is not dependent on my opinion of it. And that means:
God is who he says he is whether we like it or not.
God is sovereign over what he says he is sovereign, no matter what we think is fair.
Our salvation is accomplished only in the way that he says it is, no matter how we feel about it.
What is morally good is only what God says it is, no matter what the culture says, no matter our desires.
What kind of worship is pleasing to God is only what he says it is, not a matter our opinion.
Now those statements can get sort of prickly, because there is a diversity of what people believe the bible says about such things, but I would encourage you to never let anyone make a claim to absolute truth in your presence unless it is predicated on scripture, because that is it. Stand on the foundation of scripture, and it alone, the only guide, the only standard, the only bar to measure everything by.
I’m reminded of the Luther at the Diet of Wurms, surely you remember. He was called up to testify as to his writings, specifically to recant of several doctrines that were in opposition to the Catholic Church, on pain of death. Standing before the assembly, the Diet, he said:
Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convinced of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God's Word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.
Luther stood, convicted to the core that the doctrines that he had laid out in his books were a faithful summary of the teaching of the whole scripture, he said, plainly, I cannot recant anything, unless you show me in scripture where I have erred, because it is the only standard by which I will measure it.
When people push back against doctrine, against confessions, against the sometimes lightning rod word “reformed,” remember that we agree with those people who claim the bible is ultimate, it is the only thing that is truly true, but creeds and confessions are hugely valuable for distilling the voluminous teachings of the scriptures into a summary document, or a map if you will, that collects weaves together all of the threads of scripture and expresses them in clear, concise, concrete language. And these confessions that we hold as heirs to the Reformation—the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, the Belgic Confession—they will never reach the authority of scripture, but they are true insofar as they faithfully summarize the teaching of scripture. They were carefully crafted by councils full of people who know the whole of the bible far better than I do, and they have been constantly tested against scripture (and only scripture) by faithful reformed people for nearly four hundred years.
That is not to say that we can or should trust them blindly—it is the job of every generation to test them in turn, but not against our own ideas, not against where the culture is blowing, not against our feelings, but against scripture itself.
So as we embark on these next few weeks of overview of this thing commonly called “Reformed Theology,” I want you to remember that it is not one man’s interpretation of Scripture, we don’t follow the views of a specific person, be they Luther, or Calvin, or Spurgeon, or Sproul. We do admit that God, through the years, by his grace and through his providence, we admit and celebrate that there are men and women that he has uniquely blessed with learning and understanding on theological matters. And for that, we are so thankful, and we do find people we can trust in their theology. But we are not followers of Calvin, we are not beholden to specific people.
We follow no man blindly, and we could never pretend that this group of people that we refer to as the “reformers” agreed as well. They disagreed on quite a few things. Being reformed is not following a person, but rather a process. And that’s why we say semper reformanda—reformed, and always reforming. We take everything, and we test it against scripture, constantly, a never-ending process.
Sola scriptura, let it always be our guide as we endeavor to get to know our God and our Savior better, not as we would want to know him, but as he would be known. Amen. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we are humbled by the fact that you are so great and we are so small, you are so holy, and we are so in need of your grace. We are humbled that you have condescended to us to give us you beautiful, Holy Word in the sacred scriptures. We pray that we never handle them lightly, but always with awe at the honor of reading words that you chose to reveal to us, lowly sinners. Thank you for making your Word known to us, but we know that unless you open our eyes and plant the truths deep in our hearts, we will not understand. Send your Spirit to us, teach us to know you more and more each day through your Holy Word. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.