The Reformation Gave Us a Seat at the Table

Oct 29, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Next to justification, there was no issue more fiercely debated during the Reformation than the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Although the Reformers did not always agree among themselves as to the meaning of the Supper, they were unified in their opposition to the Roman Catholic notion of transubstantiation. Using categories from Aristotle, Catholic theologians taught that the substance of the bread and wine were changed, while the accidents remained the same. Thus the elements were transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ, but still retained the outer appearance of bread and wine.

According to Catholic teaching, when Jesus held up the bread and said “this is my body” he meant “this loaf of bread is my actual, real physical flesh.” The Reformers all agreed in deriding this view as nonsensical (the seventeenth century preacher John Tillotson was the first to speculate that there was a connection between the Latin phrase hoc est corpus meum [“this is my body”] and the magician’s formula hocus pocus). Protestants have argued that Jesus was employing a figure of speech in the Upper Room. Just as “I am the good Shepherd” did not mean Jesus tended little animals that go baa-baa, and “I am the gate” did not mean Jesus swung on hinges, and “whoever believes in me…out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” did not mean that the disciples would rupture a valve with H20, so “this is my body” did not mean “this loaf is my Aristotellian defined flesh and bone” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4).

Luther and his followers rejected transubstantiation, but they did not completely reject a real physical presence of Christ. In affirming consubstantiation, Lutherans have argued that though the bread remains real bread and the wine real wine, nevertheless the physical presence of Christ is there also, “in, with, and under” the elements.

A third view of the Lord’s Supper, called the memorial view, is often attributed to Ulrich Zwingli, though it’s not clear this captures the fullness of his thought. In this view, communion is simply a feast of remembrance. There is nothing mystical and no real presence to fuss about. The bread and wine remain plain old bread and wine. They serve as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, a memorial to his death for our sins.

The fourth view—and in my mind the correct view–is normally associated with John Calvin. Calvin believed the Supper was a feast of remembrance, but he believed it was a feast of communion too. He believed in a real presence, a real spiritual presence whereby we feast on Christ by faith and experience his presence through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, by faith, we “share in his true body and blood” (Q/A 79).

No one doubts that the Lord’s Supper is, at least in part, a memorial. We remember the Last Supper and remember Christ’s death (1 Cor. 11:23, 26). And as we remember his passion in the past, we proclaim his death until he comes again in the future. But the Lord’s Supper is more than mere mental cognition. 1 Corinthians 10:16 says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ?” When we drink the cup and eat the break, we participate in, and have fellowship with, the body and blood of Christ. We are joined to him and experience a deep, spiritual koinonia with him. We gain spiritual nourishment from him (John 6:53-57) and unite as believers around him (1 Cor. 10:17). Christ is truly present with us at the Table.

A Meal, Not a Sacrifice

As important as it is to understand the significance of the Lord’s Supper, it’s just as important that we understand it is a supper we are celebrating. The sacramental feast is a meal, not a sacrifice. The last sentence in the previous paragraph is essential, not only because of the first clause (about Christ’s presence), but also because of the last word. In celebrating Communion, we come to a table, not to an altar. Among all the critical rediscoveries during the Reformation, it is easy to overlook the importance of recovering the Lord’s Supper as a covenantal meal (not a re-presenting of Christ’s atoning death) with all the elements (bread and cup) distributed to every believer (no longer withholding the cup from the laity). The Lord’s Supper acts as a family table where we can enjoy fellowship with each other and with our Host, partaking of the rich feast of blessings purchased for us at the cross.

I fear that in too many churches the Lord’s Supper is either celebrated so infrequently as to be forgotten or celebrated with such thoughtless monotony that churchgoers endure it rather than enjoy it. The Lord’s Supper is meant to nourish and strengthen us. The Lord knows our faith is weak. That’s why he’s given us sacraments to see, taste, and touch. As surely as you can see the bread and cup, so surely does God love you through Christ. As surely as you chew the food and drain the drink, so surely has Christ died for you. Here at the Table the faith becomes sight. The simple bread and cup give assurance that Christ came for you, Christ died for you, Christ is coming again for you. Whenever we eat the bread and drink from the cup, we not only re-proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again (1 Cor. 11:26), we re-convince ourselves of God’s provision on the cross.

Don’t discount God’s preferred visual aids—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—and jump right to video, drama, and props to get people’s attention. What a mistake to think these “signs and seals” will be anywhere as effective as the ones instituted by Christ himself. Pastors who ignore the sacraments or never instruct the congregation to understanding and appreciate them are robbing God’s people of tremendous encouragement in their Christian walk. What a blessing to hear the gospel, and eat it too

Of course, this eating and drinking must be undertaken in faith for it to be effectual. The elements themselves do not save us. But when we eat and drink them in faith we can be assured that we receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. More than that, we get a picture of our union with Christ. As we eat the bread and drink the cup, we have communion with him, not by dragging Christ down from heaven, but by experiencing his presence through the Holy Spirit. Let us not come to the Lord’s Supper with drudgery and low expectations. If you shed a tear at the Table, let it not be out of boredom but out of gratitude and sheer wonder and delight. “While all our hearts and all our songs join to admire the feast, each of us cries, with thankful tongue, ‘Lord, why was I a guest?'”

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Choosing the Right Seminary

Oct 27, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Every single year, for the twelve years I’ve been the pastor at University Reformed Church, I’ve advised young men on where to go to seminary. They haven’t all been looking for the same things, and they haven’t all gone to the same place. But they all were looking for the school that would be right for them.

As a soon-to-be faculty member at Reformed Theological Seminary, I am always eager (and have been eager long before I had a formal relationship with them) for students to give RTS serious consideration. But the point of this post is not to tell anyone where to go to school. We are blessed in this country with many faithful, evangelical, Reformed (and reformed) seminaries that I readily give thanks for. I have friends at a number seminaries and have gladly sent out students to several of them. I can’t tell you what decision to make, but perhaps I can help you think through the right questions to ask.

Here are seven questions to ask before choosing a seminary.

1. What do I want to do with a seminary degree? I am a firm believer in the value of a seminary education. But I don’t encourage Christians to jump into seminary simply because they are eager to learn the Bible. It’s an expensive way to study the Scriptures if you don’t have a definite end goal in mind. So think to yourself, and talk to other people, and try to determine if you need seminary? If so, what for? To be a pastor? To be a missionary? For some other kind of vocational ministry? To go into the academy? What you are looking for will help determine where you go.

2. Is the seminary fully committed to the authority of the Bible at every level of the institution? I suppose in rare instances you could make a case for going to a mainline school if your end goal is to get a PhD and serve in a secular environment (although there are many evangelical schools whose degree would not hurt your chances of getting into the best doctoral programs). But in almost all cases, you will do much better to go to a school firmly rooted in the inerrancy of Scripture and the doctrines of the Reformation. This is not the time for testing out new theories, especially if you are studying to be a pastor. Find a school whose theology you trust, from top to bottom.

3. Have you thought about the tradition you want to be a part of? Seminary does not set your trajectory for life, but it will immerse you in a certain culture and tradition. Southern is a good seminary, so is Westminster, so is Trinity. But one will put you in the middle of SBC life, another into the Presbyterian and Reformed world, and another more broadly into evangelicalism (and the Evangelical Free Church). Think about where you’re from and where you want to end up. The people you train with in seminary may be your ministerial traveling companions for life.

4. What is the community like? No seminary aims for lousy community, but some schools are largely commuter campuses while others have a dorm atmosphere that feels like an extension of college. Do you want to share meals with other students in a cafeteria? Do you want to go to chapel regularly? Would you prefer married housing? Are you fine living off campus and driving in for class three or four or five days a week? Know what you’re looking for.

5. Who will be teaching you? It’s hard for seminaries to be much better (or much worse) than the faculty they employ. Think about whom you respect and want to be with for 3-5 years. Find out not just who the big name scholars are, but who actually teaches the classes and whether they are accessible to students. If you can, try to talk to current students and find out whether the famous faculty are effective classroom instructors. Good scholarship, good writing, and good teaching are three different gifts that don’t always reside in the same person. If you are training for pastoral ministry, you’ll want to see how many of the professors have real world experience in the nitty-gritty of local church life.

6. What courses will you be required to take? Seminary catalogs don’t always make for scintillating (or simple) reading, but it’s well worth the effort to try to make sense of each school’s basic requirements. The curricula can vary widely, both in total credit hours and in emphases. I would look for a school that is strong in the original languages, can teach exegesis, doesn’t skimp on systematic theology, and knows how to translate academic preparation into ministry readiness.

7. What are their graduates like? Granted, no seminary can be responsible for the way in which every student turns out. But on the whole, you should be able to get an excellent idea of how well a school will train you for ministry by looking at those it has already trained. Are they men of character? Are they biblically sharp and theologically sound? Are they doctrinally balanced? Are they good with people? Can they preach? Can you think of several graduates you’d gladly have on staff at your church? The proof is, as they say, in the pudding. Or, in the case of seminaries, in the pastors.

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Monday Morning Humor

Oct 26, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

I hope your Monday is off to a better start than this.

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A Theology of Worship

Oct 22, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

There is nothing more important in life than worship. We all worship something or someone. The only question is whether we will worship the right One in the right way. At University Reformed Church we want all of life to be worship to God (Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 10:31). He is worthy to receive glory and honor and power (Rev. 4:11). In particular, we want our worship services on Sunday to be pleasing to Him. We want our corporate worship on Sunday to inspire and instruct our all-of-life worship Monday through Saturday. To gather with God’s people on the Lord’s Day to worship at God’s throne under the authority of God’s word is our solemn duty and joyful privilege.

It is with that supreme goal in mind that our church holds to a number of values when it comes to corporate worship. The list below is far from comprehensive or complete. Rather, it is meant to provide a brief summary of the most important principles undergirding our theology and philosophy of worship. Please consult the numerous appendices to see many of these points spelled out in further detail.

1. Glory to God – Worship is ultimately for Him. He is the most important audience at every service. Corporate worship is meant to be an anticipation of the heavenly gathering of God’s people. The grand scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation are both present and future. We too should direct all our attention to the throne. We too should sing of Christ’s work. We too should be earnest and uncompromising in our devotion to God. Our weekly gatherings—whether small or large, beautiful or forgettable—are meant to be a sweet foretaste of the heavenly worship we will one day experience for ages unending.

2. Focused on the Gospel of Christ – The gospel—Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection— is what makes worship possible. The gospel is what we proclaim in worship. The gospel is what we sing in worship. The gospel is what calls a people together in worship, inspires a people to praise in worship, and sends a people out in a life of worship. Every Sunday is another opportunity to sing about the cross, glory in our Redeemer, and marvel at the good news that is Christ for us and in us. Jesus Christ is at the center of all biblical thinking about worship. He is the mediator between God and man. His substitutionary sacrifice on the cross is the propitiation for our sins. He is the procurer of salvation and blessing for the nations. He is the new temple in which and around which all true believers gather. Christ draws us to himself in worship and through him a new relationship with the Father is made possible. While our corporate worship is not specifically focused on unbelievers (as if they were the audience we need to please most), our focus on Christ means that we certainly want the gospel presented credibly and intelligently to non-Christians. We are privileged to have visitors every Sunday, some of whom are not converted. One of our prayers each week is that unbelievers would hear Christ’s call to faith and repentance, and that God would seek and save those who are lost.

3. Biblical – The whole service teaches God’s people, so everything—the prayers, the songs, the preaching—must be biblical. In corporate worship we read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible, and see the Bible in the sacraments. Every element in the service must be evaluated based on God’s revelation in the Scriptures: are we singing, saying, and hearing what is true? Because of this conviction, we also affirm that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself and so limited by his own revealed will” (WCF 21.1). This “regulative principle” should not be the source of endless conflict and idle speculation, but an opportunity for God’s people to find unity and freedom in worshiping God as he wants to be worshiped.

4. Edifying to God’s people – Corporate worship is set apart from all-of-life worship in its focus on edification. Because of this focus, there are many activities that are appropriate for the Christian in all of life that aren’t appropriate in a worship service. There are many art forms that can be practiced and performed to the glory of God which would nevertheless not be suitable for corporate worship. Paul’s principle in 1 Corinthians 14 is that corporate worship must strive for maximum shared intelligibility. This means, among other things, that the worship service will not only be Word-centered, but also full of words.

5. Emphasizing the ordinary means of grace – God can work in many ways, but he has committed to being with us and transforming us through certain “means of grace.” He communes with us through prayer, through the word, and through the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Our services emphasize these ordinary means whereby God promises to give us more grace. We come to worship to give God glory, but even more so to meet with him and receive a blessing from his hand (Num. 6:24-26). The central act in the worship service is the preaching of God’s word. We believe this is best accomplished through the careful, Spirit-filled exposition of Scripture. Normally, this means working verse by verse through a book of the Bible. No matter the approach, every sermon should flow manifestly from Scripture and proclaim the gospel of God. Through all this, we hope that every worshiper will want to cry out, “Surely the Lord is in this place” (Gen. 28:16).

6. Congregational Singing – Choosing the appropriate musical composition and lyrical content for corporate worship is a task which requires careful attention to musical principles and even closer attention to theological fidelity. We believe there are new songs to be sung to Jesus. We also believe there is a great heritage of church music that we should embrace. We have no problem projecting words on a screen. But we also believe in the abiding value of using and learning from a good hymnal. Our services use music from different genres and different centuries. We use a variety of instruments, everything from guitars and drums to the organ. In all this, the most important sound is that of the congregation singing.

7. Liturgical (Worn Lightly) – Almost every church has an order of service and a familiar pattern of doing things, which means almost every church has a liturgy. Even though we wear our liturgy lightly, we still want it to be rich, rooted, and biblical. Our service has four parts: praise, renewal, proclamation, response. We see this pattern in the covenant renewal ceremonies of Scripture and in various divine encounters. In Isaiah 6, for example, Isaiah comes before God and praises him; then he confesses sin and seeks renewal; God then speaks his word to Isaiah; and finally Isaiah responds with commitment to God. This is also a gospel pattern: we approach God in awe, we see our sin, we hear the good news, and we respond in faith and obedience. Our services do not look the same every week, but neither are we trying to invent something new every Sunday. Within these four “acts” (praise, renewal, proclamation, response) can be found basic liturgical elements like a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon, a long pastoral prayer, Scripture readings, and flexible forms used for Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

8. Reformed – The Church has been thinking about how to worship for centuries. We want to learn from our spiritual ancestors and build on their models. To that end, we are eager to employ the Ten Commandments, creeds, confessions, catechisms, responsive readings, and other forms that have been common in church history. We want our services to be comprised of more than an opening worship set, a sermon, and a closing song. As a PCA church, we resonate with the guidelines outlined in The Directory for the Worship of God (see the PCA BCO, Chapters 47-63). We want our worship to be winsomely—that is to say, not archaically or obnoxiously—Reformed, rooted in history and true to the Scriptures.

9. Prayerful – Our services include many different prayers. Often you will find a prayer of confession because we sin every week and need gospel mercy every week. We usually have a longer congregational prayer, which is an important time to pray for the needs of our church family and for the world. Other prayers are common too: a prayer of adoration at the beginning of the service, a prayer of illumination before the sermon, and a brief prayer after the sermon. We typically have a prayer service on the first Sunday evening of the month. It will be hard for God’s people to know that they must pray, or see that they can pray, or learn how to pray if prayer is not a significant part of what we do when we gather for worship.

10. Undistracting Excellence – In corporate worship, the focus should be on the gospel and the all-surpassing glory of Jesus Christ. If the guitars are out of tune, and the sound system screeches, and the preacher fumbles over his sentences, and those leading up front make everyone else feel a bit nervous, then our focus will be in the wrong place. Because doing things decently and in order is helpful to others and pleasing to God, we should seek to “do worship” with excellence (1 Corinthians 14:40). But it must be undistracting excellence (to borrow John Piper’s phrase). If the guitarist goes off on some fantastic riff, and the sound system includes sub-woofers under every seat, and the preacher waxes overly eloquent, and those leading up front make everyone else feel a bit like they are enjoying a performance, then our focus will be equally in the wrong place. The goal is to lead in such a way that we are neither so clumsy nor so clever that the glory of God is all but forgotten.

NOTE: You can find a longer version of this document on our church’s website. The full document is 25 pages and includes nine appendices which flesh out many of the specific points found above.

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What Is Love?

Oct 20, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

No one can hate you as much as they hated Christ.

No one will ever be mistreated as unfairly as was our Lord.

He was stricken, smitten and afflicted. He was despised and rejected by men—his own creatures. He was a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering, like one from whom me hide their faces. He was despised and we esteemed him not. When reviled, Jesus did not revile in return. He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. When he rode in on that donkey on Palm Sunday, he did so knowing that he would bear the punishment to bring us peace and that by his wounds we would be healed.

In other words, he showed his great love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

So we will not know what love is like unless we know Jesus.

The world will not know what love is truly like until it sees it in Christ. Everything else is a pale imitation, maybe even a deceptive imitation. Christ is our substitute and our example. And with Christ as our example, our command is this: we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. This is why love is so much more difficult than the bumper stickers make it out to be. It requires so much more than a general sentiment of good will. It is so much deeper and better than unconditional affirmation.

What does unconditional affirmation require of you by way of sacrifice? Nothing. All it requires is a wave of the hand–“Whatever you do, I’m fine. However you live, that’s fine.” The problem with unconditional affirmation is not that it is too lavishly loving, but that it is not nearly loving enough. When God tells us to love our brothers he means more than saying, “I’m okay. You’re okay. Whatever you do is fine and I don’t judge.” To really love your brother is to lay down your life for him. It requires you to die to yourself, which may mean a sacrifice of your time, a sacrifice of your reputation, and a sacrifice of your comfort. Unconditional affirmation only asks that you sacrifice your principles.

Love is harder than we think. Of course we love our kids and grandkids and those who treat us well. We love nice people. But Jesus says even the pagans do this. That’s not hard. People love people who love them. But will we keep on loving when it means bearing burdens we would rather not be bothered with? Will we love when the people we love do not love us in return? Will we lay down our lives for those who are unlovely, undeserving, ungrateful?

Isn’t that what Christ did for us? When we were unlovely and undeserving and ungrateful, Christ died for us. He loved us not because we were holy, but so that we might be holy. His love was self-sacrificing, sin-atoning, and life-transforming.

He loves us with a love that the world does not understand. And it is so much better than unconditional affirmation.

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Monday Morning Humor

Oct 19, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Having watched all three debates, I think that about every fourth or fifth question should be “And how will you pay for that?”

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Hymns We Should Sing More Often: O Word of God Incarnate

Oct 15, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

This is part of an intermittent series I’ve called “Hymns We Should Sing More Often.” The aim is to remind us (or introduce for the first time) excellent hymns that are probably not included in most church’s musical canon. A few hymns–like Holy, Holy, Holy or Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing—are familiar to many congregations and get sung in conferences and other large gatherings. Unfortunately, for a growing number of churches, there are no hymnals in the pews (or on the chairs), and consequently there is little opportunity to draw from the deep well of Christian hymnody. Most of the hymns in this series are not unfamiliar, just underutilized. I hope you will enjoy learning about these hymns as much as I have and enjoy singing them even more.


I am always looking for good songs that can lead us into the preaching of God’s word, and this hymn does the trick. O Word of God Incarnate works well as a prayer of illumination or a prelude to it. It fits well into Sunday morning liturgy immediately before the sermon because it centers its hearers on the light we receive from the incarnate Word of God in the form of the Bible. The written Word is a “lantern to our footsteps”, which “shines from age to age”; it is the “chart and compass” that guides us through the perils of life to Christ. When the hymn was first published in 1867, Proverbs 6:23 was listed as its subheading—“For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life.”

William How (1823-1897), the author of the hymn, was ordained in the Church of England in 1847. He later became bishop in east London and in time came to be known as the “poor man’s bishop” and the “children’s bishop” because of his work among the poor and destitute in London. He wrote around 60 hymns in his lifetime, many of which were for children. Among How’s more well known hymns is For All the Saints.

The music that we sing How’s words to is from a Felix Mendelssohn arrangement of a tune that dates back to at least 1593. Mendelssohn set the old tune to new words and inserted it in his oratorio Elijah as the quartet “Cast Thy Burdens upon the Lord.” Mendelssohn was an accomplished musician and one of the great composers in the classical/romantic period.

O Word of God incarnate, O Wisdom from on high,
O Truth unchanged, unchanging, O Light of our dark sky;
we praise thee for the radiance that from the hallowed page,
a lantern to our footsteps, shines on from age to age.

The church from her dear Master received the gift divine,
and still that light she lifteth o’er all the earth to shine.
It is the golden casket, where gems of truth are stored;
it is the heav’n drawn picture of Christ, the living Word.

It floateth like a banner before God’s host unfurled;
it shineth like a beacon above the darkling world.
It is the chart and compass that o’er life’s surging sea,
‘mid mists and rocks and quicksands, still guides, O Christ, to thee.

O make thy church, dear Savior, a lamp of purest gold,
to bear before the nations thy true light, as of old.
O teach thy wand’ring pilgrims by this their path to trace,
till, clouds and darkness ended, they see thee face to face.

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The Tolerance Jesus Will Not Tolerate

Oct 13, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Christians cannot be tolerant of all things because God is not tolerant of all things. We can respect differing opinions and try to understand them, but we cannot give our unqualified, unconditional affirmation to every belief and behavior. Because God doesn’t. We must love what God loves. That’s where Ephesus failed. But we must also hate what God hates. That’s where Thyatira failed.

Of the seven cities in Revelation, Thyatira is the least well known, the least impressive, and the least important. And yet, the letter is the longest of the seven. There was a lot going on at this church–some bad, some good.

Let’s start with the good. Verse 19, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance.” Ephesus was praised for its good deeds and strong work ethic. Thyatira is even better.  Is has the deeds that Ephesus had and the love that Ephesus lacked. The church at Thyatira was not without genuine virtue. It was a tight-knit bunch who loved, served, believed, and endured.

Maybe Thyatira was the kind of church you walked into and immediately felt like you belonged: “Great to meet you. Come, let me introduce you to my friends.  Here, I’ll show you how you can get plugged in, use your gifts, do ministry. We’re so glad you’re here.” It was a caring church, a sacrificial church, a loving church.

That was the good part. And the bad part? Its love could be undiscerning and blindly affirming. The big problem at Thyatira was tolerance. The folks at Thyatira tolerated false teaching and immoral behavior, two things God is fiercely intolerant of. Jesus says, “You’re loving in many ways, but your tolerance is not love. It’s unfaithfulness.”

The specific sin in Thyatira was the tolerance of Jezebel. That wasn’t the woman’s real name. But this false prophetess was acting like a Jezebel-leading people into adultery and idolatry. We don’t know if her influence was formal–she got up in front of people and told them these deceptive things–or if it was informal–taking place in conversations and by word of mouth. However it was happening, this woman in Thyatira was a spiritual danger, like her Old Testament namesake.

Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians. She worshiped Baal and Asherah and led her husband, Ahab, in the same. Jezebel is the one who plotted to kill innocent Naboth for his vineyard. She was called “that cursed woman” (2 Kings 9:34). As a punishment for her wickedness, she was eventually pushed out a window, trampled by horses, and eaten up by dogs. She was a bad lady. And she lead many Israelites down a bad path.

Jesus says to Thyatira, “You are allowing a woman like that to have sway over your people. Why do you tolerate her? Don’t affirm her. Don’t dialogue with her. Don’t wait and see what happens. Get rid of her. . . .or I will.” Apparently, by some means, the Lord had already warned her to repent, but she refused. And so now the Lord Jesus promises to throw her onto the sick bed and make her followers suffer as well, unless they repent. “I will strike your spiritual children dead,” says the Lord. Jesus isn’t messing around here. This isn’t a secondary issue. This is a serious sin worthy of death.

It was also an entrenched sin. There were a number of trade guilds in Thyatira. Suppose you belonged to the local BAT, the Bricklayers Association of Thyatira, and one night the guild got together for a feast. You’d be sitting around the table, ready to partake of this great celebration with your friends and colleagues, and the host would say something like, “We’re glad you could make it. What a happy occasion for the BAT. We have quite a feast prepared for you. But before we partake, we want to recognize the great god Zeus who watches over the bricklayers and has made this dinner possible. Zeus, you see his statue in the corner, we eat to you, in your honor, for your worship. Let’s dig in.”

What would you do in that situation? Stay or go? What would your participation signify before your fellow Christians, before the watching world, before God? Christians in the ancient world didn’t have to go searching for idolatry. It was woven into the fabric of their whole culture. To not participate in these pagan rituals was to stick out like a Yankees fan at Fenway Park. These feasts, with their idolatry and the sexual revelry which would often follow, were a normal part of life in the Greco-Roman world. To remove yourself from them could be socially and economically disastrous.

Which is why false teachers like this Jezebel in Thyatira or the Nicolaitans in Pergamum gained such a hearing. They made being a Christian a lot easier, much less costly, must less counter-cultural. But it was a compromised Christianity, and Jesus could not tolerate it. He was going to make an example of Thyatira to show all the churches that Jesus has eyes like fire, too pure to look on evil, and feet like burnished bronze, too holy to walk among wickedness. He wanted all the churches to know that he was the searcher of hearts and minds and he would repay evil for unrepentant evil.

The error of Jezebel was a serious sin, an entrenched sin, and a subtle sin. The people had probably been told that the “deep secrets” wouldn’t harm them. We don’t know exactly what it meant for the church to learn Satan’s so-called deep secrets. We don’t know if that’s what the false teachers called them or if that’s what Jesus is calling them. But what was going on was probably some kind of false teaching that devalued the material world. This Jezebel may have been saying, “The physical world doesn’t matter. It’s the spiritual realm that counts. So go ahead and participate in idol feasts and do whatever you want sexually. Those are material things. God doesn’t care about that.” Or she may have been saying, “Look, if you are truly spiritual, then your relationship with God will be strong enough to withstand the deep things of Satan. So go ahead. Participate in evil practices. You can handle it and you’ll probably even learn more about the enemy in the process.” Whatever it was that she was saying, it was a lie and it was leading people into sin. The church was more tolerant than Jesus, which is never a good idea.

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Monday Morning Humor

Oct 12, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

I think I’ve seen this episode. Several hundred times.

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Five Questions about Sanctification and Good Works: Do Good Works Merit Eternal Life?

Oct 09, 2015 | Kevin DeYoung

Throughout this week I have been walking through the five questions Francis Turretin tackles in his chapter on “Sanctification and Good Works” (Seventeenth Topic). Here are the five questions, slightly modified for ease of understanding:

  1. How does sanctification differ from justification?
  2. Can we fulfill the law absolutely in this life?
  3. Are good works necessary to salvation?
  4. Can justified believers do that which is truly good?
  5. Do good works merit eternal life?

Today we look at our final question: Do good works merit eternal life?

The first thing to notice about this fifth question is that it’s not the same as the third question. When we hear the two questions as identical, we are bound to answer at least one of them incorrectly. For while good works are necessary to salvation, they do not merit eternal life.

We’re not going to get into the weeds of Roman Catholic theology and talk about merit of congruity and merit of condignity (Turretin rejects both). Let’s stick with the bigger, more relevant question about good works meriting eternal life. Here again, we need to parse our terms carefully.

The word “merit” is used in two ways: either broadly and improperly; or strictly and properly. Strictly, it denotes that work to which a reward is due from justice on account of its intrinsic value and worth. But it is often used broadly for the consecution of any thing. In this sense, the verb “to merit” is often used by the fathers put for “to gain,” “to obtain,” “to attain.” (XVII.v.1)

This is a crucial distinction and one that relates directly to the conversation surrounding Piper’s foreword. Here’s what Turretin is saying in effect: “Look, we have to realize that people use these words in different ways. Technically, merit means someone or something is given its due. In this sense, good works, even of the justified believer, do not merit eternal life. On the other hand, people sometimes use ‘merit’ more loosely, as another way of indicating sequence. So if B follows A, or if A is a condition for B, some people say that A gains, obtains, attains, or even merits B. This is not the best way to describe things, but many people, like the church fathers, mean to communicate nothing more than that eternal life is connected to good works in a necessary chain of events.”

Here’s what Piper said in his foreword to Schreiner’s new book:

[T]his book is dealing with treasures of immeasurable importance. Infinity cannot be measured. And infinite things are at stake. As Tom Schreiner says, the book “tackles one of the fundamental questions of our human condition: how can a person be right with God?”

The stunning Christian answer is: sola fide—faith alone. But be sure you hear this carefully and precisely: He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God. In fact, one must already be in a right relationship with God by faith alone in order to meet the other conditions.

Given everything we know about Piper’s theology (including his passionate defense of a Reformation understanding of justification), and given the fact that he’s explicitly talking in these sentences about conditions and not merit, it is safe to assume that Piper is using “attain” with reference to a necessary sequence and does not mean to imply that there is an intrinsic worth in our good deeds that somehow makes heaven our due. Frankly, I would not use the language of “attaining heaven.” It is too easily misunderstood, and in the strictest sense comes too close to “merit.” Even “obtain” (which suggests getting or securing) would be better than “attain” (which suggests achieving or accomplishing). But I know what Piper means and agree with the point is he trying to make.

What does it mean for a good work to be meritorious in the strict sense? Turretin mentions five characteristics:

1. The work be “undue.” That is, we are not merely doing what we owe.

2. The work must be ours and not owing to the work of another.

3. The work must be absolutely perfect.

4. The work is equal to the payment made.

5. The payment or reward is owed us because of the intrinsic worth of the work. (XVII.v.6)

Clearly, our good works do not meet any of these requirements. Using a strict and proper understanding of “merit,” we must never conclude that our good works merit eternal life. For even our best works are (1) merely what we owe, (2) from God’s grace in us, (3) imperfect, (4) much less than the reward of eternal life, and (5) not worthy in and of themselves. Good works are necessary to salvation, but not in order to effect salvation or acquire it by right. The necessity is not of causality and efficiency (XVII.iii.3).

In short, while our good works are often praiseworthy in Scripture–pleasing to God and truly good–they do not win for us our heavenly reward. There is a true and necessary connection between good works and final glorification, but the connection is not one of merit.

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