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Archive for September, 2012

A powerful plea from J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) for a return to meaningful pre-membership instruction to recall the “paper currency” back to a “gold standard.”  This extract comes from his work, What is Faith?

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At this point, a question may perhaps be asked. We have said that saving faith is acceptance of Christ, not merely in general, but as He is offered to us in the gospel. How much, then, of the gospel, it may be asked, does a man need to accept in order that he may be saved; what, to put it baldly, are the minimum doctrinal requirements in order that a man may be a Christian? That is a question which, in one form or another, I am often asked; but it is also a question which I have never answered, and which I have not the slightest intention of answering now. Indeed it is a question which I think no human being can answer. Who can presume to say for certain what is the condition of another man’s soul; who can presume to say whether the other man’s attitude toward Christ, which he can express but badly in words, is an attitude of saving faith or not? This is one of the things which must surely be left to God.

There is indeed a certain reason why it is natural to ask the question to which we have just referred; it is natural because of the existence of a visible Church. The visible Church should strive to receive, into a communion for prayer and fellowship and labor, as many as possible of those who are united to Christ in saving faith, and it should strive to exclude as many as possible of those who are not so united to Him. If it does not practise exclusion as well as inclusion, it will soon come to stand for nothing at all, but will be merged in the life of the world; it will soon become like salt that has lost its savour, fit only to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.

In order, therefore, that the purity of the Church may be preserved, a confession of faith in Christ must be required of all those who would become Church members. But what kind of confession must it be? I for my part think that it ought to be not merely a verbal confession, but a credible confession. One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as “I accept Christ as my personal Saviour,” without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean. As a consequence of this practice, hosts of persons are being received into the Church on the basis, as has been well said, of nothing more than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus, or else on the basis of a vague purpose of engaging in humanitarian work. One such person within the Church does more harm to the cause of Christ, I for my part believe, than ten such persons outside; and the whole practice ought to be radically changed. The truth is that the ecclesiastical currency in our day has been sadly debased; Church membership, as well as Church office, no longer means what it ought to mean. In view of such a situation, we ought, I think, to have reality at least; instead of comforting ourselves with columns of church statistics, we ought to face the facts; we ought to recall this paper currency and get back to a standard of gold.

To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarily by the ministers; the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. Those churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed.

After all, however, such inquiries into the state of the souls of men and women and children who desire to enter into the Church must be regarded as at the best very rough and altogether provisional. Certainly requirements for Church membership should be distinguished in the sharpest possible way from requirements for the ministry. The confusion of these two things in the ecclesiastical discussions of the past few years has resulted in great injustice to us who are called conservatives in the Church. We have been represented sometimes as though we were requiring an acceptance of the infallibility of Scripture or of the confession of faith of our Church from those who desire to become Church members, whereas in point of fact we have been requiring these things only from candidates for ordination. Surely there is a very important distinction here. Many persons — to take a secular example — can be admitted to an educational institution as students who yet are not qualified for a position in the faculty. Similarly many persons can be admitted to Church membership who yet ought not to be admitted to the ministry; they are qualified to learn, but not qualified to teach; they should not be allowed to stand forth as accredited teachers with the official endorsement of the Church. This analogy, it is true, does not by any means altogether hold: the Church is not, we think, merely an educational institution, but the visible representative in the world of the body of Christ; and its members are not merely seekers after God, but those who have already found; they are not merely interested in Christ, but are united to Christ by the regenerating act of the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, although the analogy does not fully hold, it does hold far enough to illustrate what we mean. There is a wide margin of difference between qualifications for Church membership and qualifications for office — especially the teaching office that we call the ministry. Many a man, with feeble, struggling belief, torn by many doubts, may be admitted into the fellowship of the Church and of the sacraments; it would be heartless to deprive him of the comfort which such fellowship affords; to such persons the Church freely extends its nurture to the end that they may be led into ever fuller knowledge and ever firmer faith. But to admit such persons to the ministry would be a crime against Christ’s little ones, who look to the ministry for an assured word as to the way by which they shall be saved. It is not, however, even such persons to whom chiefly we have reference when we advocate today a greater care in admitting men to the ministry. It is not men who are struggling with doubts and difficulties about the gospel to whose admission we chiefly object, but men who are perfectly satisfied with another gospel; it is not men of ill-assured faith, but men of assured unbelief.

Even with regard to Church membership, as distinguished from the ministry, there is, as we have seen, a limit beyond which exclusion must certainly be practised; not only a desire to enter the Church should be required but also some knowledge of what entering the Church means, not only a confession of faith but a reasonably credible confession. But the point that we are now making is that such requirements ought clearly to be recognized as provisional; they do not determine a man’s standing before God, but they only determine, with the best judgment that God has given to feeble and ignorant men, a man’s standing in the visible Church. That is one reason why we must refuse to answer, in any definite and formal way, the question as to the minimum doctrinal requirements that are necessary in order that a man may be a Christian.

There is, however, also another reason. The other reason is that the very asking of the question often betokens an unfortunate attitude with regard to Christian truth. For our part we have not much sympathy with the present widespread desire of finding some greatest common denominator which shall unite men of different Christian bodies; for such a greatest common denominator is often found to be very small indeed. Some men seem to devote most of their energies to the task of seeing just how little of Christian truth they can get along with. For our part, we regard it as a perilous business; we prefer, instead of seeing how little of Christian truth we can get along with, to see just how much of Christian truth we can obtain. We ought to search the Scriptures reverently and thoughtfully and pray God that he may lead us into an ever fuller understanding of the truth that can make us wise unto salvation. There is no virtue whatever in ignorance, but much virtue in a knowledge of what God has revealed.

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“Let there be no strife between us and you, for we are brethren (Gen. 13:7, 8): and is not the Canaanite and the Perizzite yet in the land?  O let it not be told in Gath, nor published in the streets of Ashkelon. Let it not be said, that there can be no unity in the Church without Prelacy.  Brethren I charge you by the roes and by the hinds of the field, that ye awake not nor stir up Jesus Christ till he please (Song. 2:7); for his rest is sweet and glorious with his well-beloved.  It shall be no grief of heart to you afterward, that you have pleased others as well as yourselves, and have stretched your principles for accommodation in church government, as well as in worship, and that for the Church’s peace and edification; and that the ears of our common enemies may tingle, when it shall be said, “The Churches of Christ in England have rest, and are edified, and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the joy of the Holy Ghost are multiplied (Act 9:31).”  Alas how shall our divisions and contentions hinder the preaching and learning of Christ, and the edifying one another in love!  Is Christ divided? says the apostle.  There is but one Christ, yea the head and the body make one Christ, so that you cannot divide the body without dividing Christ.  Is there so much as a seam in all Christ’s garment?  Is it not woven throughout from the top to the bottom? Will you have one half of Israel to follow Tibni, and another half to follow Omri?  O brethren, we shall be one in heaven, let us pack up differences in this place of our pilgrimage, the best way we can. Nay, we will not despair of unity in this world. Hath not God promised to give us one heart and one way (Jer. 32:39, Ezek. 11:19)? and that Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim, but they shall flee upon the shoulders of the Philistines toward the East, they shall spoil them of the East together (Isa. 11:13, 14)?  Has not the Mediator (whom the Father hears always) prayed that all his may be one?  Brethren, it is not impossible, pray for it, endeavor it, press hard toward the mark of accommodation. How much better is it that you be one with the other Reformed Churches, though somewhat straitened and bound up, than to be divided though at full liberty and elbow room? Better is a dry morsel and quietness therewith, than a house full of sacrifices with strife (Prov. 17:1).”

– George Gillespie (1613-1648)

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In the following quote, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) is urging that the Church of Scotland in his day stick to its parish principles, that is, attaching a church to a district, charging its minister to evangelize it, and giving preference to its residents in seating during the services.  A church should be a local, or a ‘territorial’ church.  It should not operate on the law of supply and demand, thus drawing any and all irrespective of residence.  When it does, as Chalmers here points out, it occasions the worst in those who are already religious, fostering a culture of religious fastidiousness – and church-hopping.

Without a territorial arrangement, the “population” of the parish “might still abide in a state of unmoved heathenism; and the chapel congregation, instead of being formed or recruited out of their families, will be drawn very much at the expense of previous congregations, from that class of the community whose habits of church-going are not only already established, but may be said to have been refined into fastidiousness; to whom change is luxury, and who, ever agog on the impulse of novelty, are, in fact, the deadliest adversaries of that territorial system, wherein the great strength of our establishment lies” (Collected Works 16:184).

Again, Chalmers exposes the commercialization of religion that has only grown from embryo to full monster.

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A masterful and balanced statement from William Young on the duty of self-examination before partaking of the Lord’s Supper:

“Self-examination, conducted according to the directions of Scripture, is a profitable exercise in preparation for the Lord’s Supper. The phantom of morbid introspection is the invention of that proud presumption that fails to distinguish between the precious and the vile. Surely on our American scene, the danger of unhealthy preoccupation with the abominations in our deceitful hearts, to the neglect of the remedy provided in the gospel, is very slight in comparison with the externalism and formality with which presumptuous sinners, puffed up with their imaginations of ‘blessed assurance,’ eat and drink damnation to themselves. Evangelical hypocrites are the natural product on the one hand of Arminian evangelism and on the other of Kuyperian Hyper-Covenantism, opposed to one another as these two errors are. A spurious assurance may arise either from confidence in a ‘decision for Christ’ made by the act of one’s ‘free will,’ or from the presumption that mistakes an external relation to the covenant of grace for a living relation to Christ, the only Mediator of the covenant. Such self-deception can be destroyed, and a well-grounded assurance of grace and salvation be established in the soul, only by way of serious and thorough self-examination.

“The critics of this wholesome exercise often misconstrue its purpose. Self-examination does not aim at the production of doubts and fears, leaving the troubled soul in a state of perpetual uncertainty as to its being in a state of grace. A faithful declaration of the demands of the law and of the deceitfulness of the human heart will, no doubt, give occasion for doubts and fears. But the truth is not the cause of the condition of the soul, arising from the suggestions of Satan and the weakness of the flesh. Self-examination as to whether one is in the faith is designed in fact to bring weak believers to the knowledge that Christ is in them and that they are not reprobates. To this end the Scripture has enumerated an abundance of marks of grace, especially those found in the First Epistle of John.

“In preparation for partaking of the Lord’s Supper, self-examination is in order both as to one’s state and as to one’s frame. If in applying the marks of grace, one finds that the great change has not taken place, then one’s first duty is to come to Christ to receive pardon and cleansing by His blood and only after that, to come to the table in obedience to the command, ‘This do in remembrance of me.’  If the happy result of self-examination is a well grounded assurance, then one may with confidence and thanksgiving enjoy a blessed communion with Christ and one’s fellow Christians. And weak believers may have to be reminded that the Savior’s gracious invitation is also a commandment, and that there is guilt in unworthy refusing as well as unworthy partaking. The assured believer is not called on to doubt as to the soundness of his faith, but may find comfort in seeing his title clear to mansions in the sky, only on the ground of the Redeemer’s merits. At the same time inquiry as to his frame leads him to see both the fruit of the Spirit and the sinful imperfection of his graces, and thus serves to foster spiritual growth in repentance, faith, hope, love, humility and every grace.”

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