Category Archives: Covenant Theology

Faith, Kingdom, Children, Church, etc

Is “keeping the law” the same as sinless, perfect obedience?

Obviously not, but here is what is true:

  1. Everyone sins.
  2. God must punish sin.
  3. Sin is a failure to obey God’s will.

A fourth point could be added to this: Sometimes God’s revealed will is referred to as God’s law.

But if we strike through the “sometimes” we can come to this elegant and false conclusion: It is impossible for anyone to claim to have kept God’s law.

But it is hardly honors God’s law to insist on such a point. For the Law also says:

Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.
(Genesis 26:5 ESV)

And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”
(1 Kings 3:14 ESV)

Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called upon his name.
They called to the LORD, and he answered them.
In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them;
they kept his testimonies
and the statute that he gave them.
(Psalm 99:6-7 ESV)

I am a sojourner on the earth;
hide not your commandments from me!
My soul is consumed with longing
for your rules at all times.
You rebuke the insolent, accursed ones,
who wander from your commandments.
Take away from me scorn and contempt,
for I have kept your testimonies.
Even though princes sit plotting against me,
your servant will meditate on your statutes.
Your testimonies are my delight;
they are my counselors.
(Psalm 119:19-24 ESV)

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.
(Luke 1:5-6 ESV)

So the position of the Bible is that the Law of God can be kept by believers who sin. It does not demand sinless perfection as a condition for being right with God.

This only makes sense since the Law of God commands all people to trust in Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life.

Of course, it is still the case that God must punish sin. God cannot simply overlook it. God can only forgive our sins because Jesus suffered and died. God can only regard us as righteous or just if we are included in the justification Jesus received at his resurrection (1 Timothy 3.16). Justice “will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:24-25 ESV). The three propositions listed above are indeed at the heart of the Bible’s teachings as well as of Protestant teaching.

But the insistence on the terminology of “God’s law” needs more attention.

All this become highly important in interpreting Romans or Galatians. For example, consider Galatians 3.10:

For all who rely on  are of the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them (Galatians 3:10 ESV, corrected).

There are current debates about what this means and why some people are under a curse. I’m not going to contribute to that debate, except to point out that those arguing for the common and traditional idea that Paul is claiming that people are cursed because no one can perfectly keep the Law need to admit to the problems with that argument. How could Paul claim and convince people who knew the Scriptures that this was how the Law was supposed to function?

There may be ways to substantiate the traditional view, but what I have seen thus far makes me think that people don’t want to really admit the difficulties with the view. Nor do they seem willing to acknowledge that other views could be compatible with the three points listed above. One must either insist that the law demands perfect obedience as a condition of acceptance with God or must claim that God is soft on sin. This simply is not a reasonable dilemma.

Here is an essay that, while not addressing the interpretation of 3.10 specifically, provides a good framework for looking at the message of Galatians.

RELATED: Who has kept the Law?

A Scripture Reading and a Brief Exposition, and then a Baptism

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Exodus 10:7-11 Then Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh. And he said to them, “Go, serve the LORD your God. But which ones are to go?” Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old. We will go with our sons and daughters and with our flocks and herds, for we must hold a feast to the LORD.” But he said to them, “The LORD be with you, if ever I let you and your little ones go! Look, you have some evil purpose in mind. No! Go, the men among you, and serve the LORD, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh’s presence.


1 Corinthians 10.1-4 For I do not want you to be unaware, 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.

1 Corinthians 12.12-26 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.


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Charles Hodge, keeping the Presbyterian Church true to the Reformed and Christian Faith, despite overwhelming opposition


Charles Hodge

It is very plain that our remarks, in our number of July last, in favor of the validity of Romish baptism, have not met the approbation of a large portion of our brethren. This, though a matter of regret, is not a matter of surprise. The large majority of the last Assembly by which the resolution pronouncing such baptism null and void was carried, as well as other indications of the public mind in the church, made it plain from the beginning that we should be for the present, at least, and probably for some years, in a small minority on this question. Our confidence, however, in the correctness of our position, has not been shaken. That confidence rests partly on the conviction we cannot help feeling of the soundness of the arguments on which our conclusion rests; and partly on the fact that those arguments have satisfied the minds of the vast majority of the people of God from the Reformation to the present time. We have, however, waited, with minds we hope open to the conviction, to hear what was to be said on the opposite side. The religious papers early announced that full replies to our arguments would speedily appear. Providential circumstances, it seems, have prevented, until recently, the accomplishment of their purposes thus early announced. All that we have seen in the shape of argument on the subject, are two numbers of a series of articles now in the course of publication in the Watchman and Observer, of Richmond, and the essays of Theophilus, in the Presbyterian. Our respect for the writer in the Watchman, and for the thoroughness and ability which distinguish his opening numbers, imposes on us the duty of silence as to the main point in dispute, until the series of articles is completed. It will then be time enough to decide whether the discussion can with profit be further continued in our pages. We are also as yet without any light from Theophilus. After writing ten weeks he is but approaching the subject. he closes the tenth number with saying: “We are now prepared to begin the argument.” All that precedes, therefore, is not properly, in his judgment, of the nature of argument; though doubtless regarded as pertinent to the discussion. Under these circumstances it is obvious that the way is not open for us to attempt to justify our position. We gave the definition of baptism contained in our standards–and then endeavored to show that Romish baptism falls within that definition. Neither or these points has, as yet, been seriously assailed. This is what the writer in theWatchman and Observer proposes to do, and we respectfully wait to hear what he has to say. In the meantime the topic discussed by Theophilus in his eleventh and twelfth numbers, is so important in itself and so intimately connected with this whole subject, that we have determined to devote a few pages to the consideration of the question, Whether the church of Rome is still a portion of the visible church of Christ?

Those taking the negative of this question, have every advantage of an adventitious kind in their favor. They have no need of definitions, or distinctions, or of affirming in one sense and denying in another. The round, plump, intelligible no, answers all their purposes. They make no demand upon the discrimination, or the candor of the public. They deal in what is called plain common sense, repudiating all metaphysical niceties. They have in this respect the same advantages that the ultra temperance man and the abolitionist possess. The former disembarasses himself of all need of distinctions and qualifications by affirming that the use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage is sinful; not sometimes right and sometimes wrong, according to circumstances, which implies the necessity of determining what those circumstances are which give character to the act. He takes the common sense view of the case; and asserts that a practice which produces all the drunkenness that is in the world, and all the vice and misery which flow from drunkenness, is a sinful practice. He therefore hoots at those who beg him to discriminate between the what is wrong in itself and universally, and what is wrong only in certain circumstances; and cries them down as the friends of publicans and sinners. The abolitionist is still more summary. Slavery is a heinous crime; it degrades human beings into things; it forbids marriages; it destroys domestic relations; it separates parents and children, husbands and wives; it legalizes what God forbids, and forbids what God enjoins; it keeps its victims in ignorance even of the gospel; it denies labor its wages, subject the persons, the virtue, and the happiness of many to the caprice of one; it involves the violation of all social rights and duties, and therefore is the greatest of social crimes. It is as much as any man’s character for sense, honesty or religion is worth, to insist that a distinction must here be made; that we must discriminate between slavery and its separable adjuncts; between the relationship itself and the abuse of it; between the possession of power and the unjust exercise of it. Let any man in some portions of our country, in England, in Scotland, or Ireland, attempt to make such distinctions, and see with what an outburst of indignation he will be overwhelmed. It is just so in the present case. Rome is antichrist, the mystical Babylon, the scarlet woman, the mother of harlots, drunk with the blood of the saints. What room, asks Theophilus, is there for argument here? Is Babylon Zion? Is the synagogue of Satan the church of Christ, the scarlet woman the bride of the Lamb? Woe to the man who ventures to ask for definitions, and discrimination; or to suggest that possibly these antagonistic designations are not applied to the same subject, or to the same subject under the same aspect; that as of old the prophets denounced the Hebrew community under the figure of an adulterous woman, and almost in the same breath addresses them as the beloved of God, his chosen people, compared to the wife of one’s youth; so it may be here. The case is pronounced too plain for argument; the appeal is made at once to the feelings of the reader, and those who do not join in the cry are represented as advocates of popery, or at best very doubtful Protestants.

We do not mean to complain of anything of this kind we may have ourselves experienced. We gratefully acknowledge the general courtesy of Theophilus and the Christian spirit and gentlemanly bearing of the writer in the Watchman. Our object in these remarks is to call attention to the fact that there is very great danger of being carried away by the mere sound and appearance of argument in all such cases, and that while an easy triumph may be gained for the moment by taking things in the gross, and refusing the trouble of determining accurately the meaning of terms we use, yet that the evils which flow from this course are often serious and lasting. We have seen churches rent asunder by the anti-slavery agitation, when it is probable, if the different parties had calmly sat down to compare their views and define their terms, it would have been found they were substantially of the same mind.

It is neither by research nor argument the question whether Romanists are members of the visible church to be answered. It is a simple matter of definition and statement. All that can be done is first to determine what is meant by the word church; and secondly what is meant by Rome, church of Rome, Romanists, or whatever term is used, and then see whether the two agree, whether Rome falls within or without the definition of the church.

By a definition we do not mean a description including a specification of attributes which properly pertain to the thing defined; but an enumeration of its essential attributes and of none other. We may say that a Christian is a man who believes all that Christ taught, who obeys all that he commanded, and trusts all his promises. This, however, is a description of an ideal or perfect Christian. It is not a definition which is to guide our judgment, whether a particular individual is to be regarded and treated as a Christian. We may say that a church is a society in which the pure word of God is preached, the sacraments duly administered, and discipline properly exercised by legitimate officers. This, however, is a description of a pure and orderly church, and not an enumeration of the essential attributes of such a body. If we use that description as a definition, we must exclude all but orthodox Presbyterians from the pale of the church. The eastern churches, the church of England, the Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists would without exception be cut off. Every one of these classes of Christians fails, according to our standard, in some one or more of the above specifications. They are all defective either as to doctrine, or as to the sacraments, or as to the proper exercise of discipline, or as to the organs through which such discipline is exercised. This distinctions between a description and definition, between an enumeration of what belongs to a pure church, and what is necessary to the being of a church, is often disregarded. We think Theophilus overlooks it. He quotes largely from Turrettin as sustaining his views on this subject; whereas Turrettin is on precisely the opposite ground; affirming what Theophilus denies, and denying what Theophilus affirms. Turrettin expressly makes the distinctions between “a true church,” i.e., a church which conforms of the true standard of what a church ought to be, and a heretical, corrupt, and apostate church. True, in his use of the term, corresponds to orthodox or pure; not with real. A body, therefore, according to him may be a church, and yet not a true church. We adverted to this fact in our former article, and referred so distinctly to the statements of Turrettin that we are surprised to find Theophilus quoting from him as he does. “Since the church of Rome,” says Turrettin, “may be viewed under a twofold aspect, either in reference to the profession of Christianity and of the evangelical truths which she retains, or in reference to her subjection to the pope, and to her corruptions both in matters of faith and morals, we can speak of her in two different ways. under one aspect, we do not deny she retains some truth; under the other we deny that she is Christian and apostolical, and affirm her to be anti-christian and apostate. In one sense, we admit she may be still called a CHRISTIAN CHURCH. 1st. In reference to the people of God, or the elect, who are called to come out of her even at the time of her destruction, Rev. xviii. 4. 2d. In reference to external form, or certain elements of a dispersed church, the vestiges of which are still conspicuous, as well as regards the word of God and the preaching thereof, which she still retains, although corrupted, as the administration of the sacraments, especially baptism, which as to its substance is there retained in its integrity. 3d. In reference to the evangelical truths, as concerning the Trinity, Christ the mediator, God and man, by which she is distinguished from a congregation of pagans or infidels. But we deny that she can be properly and simply (i.e., without qualification) be called a true church, much less the only and the catholic church, as they would wish to have her called.”

In the next paragraph but one, he explains what he means by verity as affirmed of a church, when we say she is vera ecclesia. It includes “verity in faith,” or freedom from heresy; purity, or freedom from all superstition and idolatry; liberty in government, freedom from servitude and tyranny; sanctity of morals, as opposed to corruption of manners; and certainty and consolation, or freedom from doubt or diffidence.

Again, in answer to the objection that if Romanists have true baptism they must be a true church, as far as Christianity in the general is concerned, as opposed to a congregation of infidels; but not as it relates to pure Christianity, free from heretical errors; since true baptism may be found among heretics, who are not a true church.”–P. 151.

. It is very evident, therefore, that Rome, according to Turrettin, is to be viewed under two aspects; under the one she is a church, i.e., a body in which the people of God still are; which retains the word of God and the preaching of it, though corrupted, and the sacraments, especially baptism. Under the other aspect, i.e., as a papal body, she is not a church; i.e., her popery and all her corruptions are anti-christian and apostate. She is not therefore a true church, for a true church is free from heresy, from superstition, from oppressive regimen, from corruption of manners, and from doubt or diffidence. Whether Theophilus approves of these distinctions or not; whether he thinks that the English word true can be used in the latitude which Turrettin give the Latin wordversus, or not; still he ought to give the Geneva professor the benefit of his own statements and definitions; and not represent him as denying that the church of Rome is a church, when he denies that she is a truei.e., a pure church. Turrettin says that Romish baptism is valid. Theophilus says it is not. Both however agree that if Rome is in no sense a church, her baptism is in no case valid. It is obvious, therefore, that Turrettin admits her to be a church in the sense in which Theophilus denies it.

Professor Thornwell very correctly remarked, in his effective speech before the General Assembly, that it is very plain that though the Reformers denied Rome to be the true church, they admitted her to be in some sense a church. The fact is, they used the word true as Turrettin does, as implying conformity with the true mode or standard. They made a distinction between a description of a church including all the excellencies such a body ought to possess; and a definition including nothing but what is essential to the being of a church. It is to the danger of confounding between these two things, that the foregoing remarks are directed.

The real difficulty in the case, is that it is impossible to give any one definition of a church, except in the most general terms, which includes all the established uses of the word. Among Congregationalists a church is a number of persons giving credible evidence of regeneration, united by a covenant for the purpose of Christian worship and mutual watch and care. It is not to be denied that such a body is a church; it falls within the legitimate sense and wider definition of the term. This narrow sense has gradually diffused itself through our common modes of speech. We talk of man’s being admitted to the church, or excluded from it, meaning by the church the body of communicants, to the exclusion of the great body of the baptized. To those accustomed to this use of the term, no body larger than a single congregation can be a church, and none composed in great part of those who give no evidence and make no profession of regeneration. Men possessed with this idea of the church, and unable to get a wider conception of it, ask with confidence, can a corrupt, wicked, persecuting body be a church? Of course not. No such body falls within their definition of the church; and if they can prove that that definition of the church is the only proper one, there can be no further dispute about the matter. But the usus loquendi neither of the Bible nor of the English language is determined by Congregationalists. It is an undeniable fact that we speak and speak correctly of the Reformed Dutch church; of the Episcopal church, and of the Presbyterian church, without intending to affirm that the several bodies thus designated are composed of persons giving credible evidence of regeneration, and united by covenant for worship and discipline. It will not do therefore to conclude that the church of England or that of Scotland is no church, because it does not fall within the New England definition of a church.

When we turn to the Scriptures and to the common language of Christians, we do not find the word church used in senses which admit of being embraced under one definition. In other words, the essential attributes of the church, in the established sense of the term, are not its essential attributes in another equally authorized sense. Thus we are told that the church consists of the whole number of the elect who ever have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof. In this sense of the word, it is essential to the church that it consist of the elect only, and that it should include them all. That this definition is sustained by scriptural usage cannot be disputed. It is in this sense the church is the body of Christ, the fullness of him that filleth all in all. It is by the church, thus understood, God is to manifest to principalities and powers his manifold wisdom. This is the church which Christ loved, and for which he gave himself that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church. It would of course be absurd to contend that no society is a church which does not come under this definition.

Again the word is often used as equivalent with saints, believers, the true people of God, existing at any one time on earth, or in any one place. The word is used in this sense when Paul exhorts us to give no offence to the church, i.e., the people of God; and when he says he persecuted the church. In like manner, when we pray for the church, either in the whole world, or in a particular country, or city, we surely do not mean the Presbyterian, or Episcopal, or Methodist church, or any one organized body. We have in our mind the true people of God, scattered abroad it may be, existing in every Christian denomination. In this sense of the word it is essential to the church that it consist of true believers.

A third sense of the word is that in which it is used when we say the church consists of all those throughout the world who profess the true religion, together with their children. This is a legitimate established meaning of the term. In this view of the church, nothing is essential to it but the profession of the true religion; and in this sense every individual making that profession is a member, and every society composed of such individuals is a portion of the church or is included in it.

Theophilus expresses great surprise that we should venture the assertion that organization is not essential to the church. He ridicules the statement, and appeals to the language of the Psalmist when he bids us walk about Zion and tell the towers thereof, as sufficient refutation of it. By organization we meant, and it is very evident he means, external ordered union. We presume Theophilus himself will not maintain that in either of the three established senses of the word above state, organization is among its essential attributes. It is not enumerated in the definitions as given from our standards and from Scripture; nor is it necessarily included in the complex conception which we give the name church. When we conceive of the whole body of the elect, which have been or are to be gathered into one under Christ, it is not as an external organized body furnished with ministers and sacraments, but simply as the great body of the redeemed united to Christ and to each other by the indwelling of the Spirit. So too when we speak of the church as consisting of true believers, we do not conceive of them as an external organized body. We pray for no such body when we pray for the church of God throughout the world. The word is equivalent to the true Israel; Israel [according to Spirit–tr. from Greek] as distinguished from the Israel [according to flesh]. In like manner, when the word is used for all those throughout the world who profess the true religion; the idea of organization is of necessity excluded from that of the church. The visible church catholic is not an organized body on any but Romish principles. We are therefore surprised that Theophilus should be thrown off his balance, by a remark so obviously true, and of such constant recurrence in the writings of Protestants.

There is a fourth established meaning of the word church, which has more direct reference to the question before us. It often means an organized society professing the true religion, united for the purpose of worship and discipline, and subject to the same form of government and to some common tribunal. A multitude of controversies turn upon the correctness of this definition. It includes the following particulars. 1. A church is an organized society. It is thus distinguished from the casual or temporary assemblies of Christians, for the purpose of divine worship. 2. It must profess the true religion. By the true religion cannot be meant all the doctrines of the true religion, and nothing more or less. For then no human society would be a church unless perfect both in knowledge and faith. Nor can it mean all the clearly revealed and important doctrines of the Bible for then no man could ne a Christian and no body of men a church, which rejects or is ignorant of those doctrines. But it must mean the essential doctrines of the gospel, those doctrines without which no man can be saved. This is plain, because nothing can be essential, as far as truth is concerned, to a church, which is not essential to union with Christ. We are prohibited by our allegiance to the word of God from recognizing as a true Christian, any man who rejects any doctrine which the Scriptures declare to be essential to salvation; and we are bound by that allegiance not to refuse such recognition, on account of ignorance or error, to any man who professes what the Bible teaches is saving truth. It is absurd that we should make more truth essential to a visible church, than Christ has made essential to the church invisible and to salvation. This distinction between essential and unessential doctrines Protestants have always insisted upon, and Romanists and Anglicans as strenuously rejected. It is, however, so plainly recognized in Scripture, and so obviously necessary in practice, that those who reject it in terms in opposition to Protestants, are forced to admit it in reality. They make substantially the same distinction when they distinguish between matters of faith and matters of opinion, and between those truths which must be received with explicit faith i.e., known as well as believed) and those which may be received with implicit faith; i.e., received without knowledge, as a man who believes the Bible to be the word of God may be said to believe all it teaches, though it may contain many things of which he is ignorant. Romanists say that every doctrine on which the church has pronounced judgment as part of the revelation of God, is a matter of faith, and essential to the salvation of those to whom it is duly proposed. Anglicans say the same thing of those doctrines which are sustained by tradition. Here is virtually the same distinction between fundamental and other doctrines which Protestants make. The only difference is as to the criterion by which the one class is to be distinguished from the other. Romanists and Anglicans say that criterion is the judgment of the church; Protestants say it is the word of God. What the Bible declares to be essential to salvation, is essential: what it does not make absolutely necessary to be believed and professed, no man can rightfully declare to be absolutely necessary. And what is not essential to the true church, the spiritual body of Christ, or to salvation, cannot be essential to the visible church. This is really only saying that those whom Christ declares to be his people, we have no right to say are not his people. If any man thinks he has such a right, it would be well for him to take heed how he exercises it. By the true religion, therefore, which a society must profess in order to its being recognized as a church, must be meant those doctrines which are essential to salvation.

3. Such society must not only profess the true religion, but its object must be the worship of God and the exercise of discipline. A church is thus distinguished from a Bible, missionary, or any similar society of Christians.

4. To constitute it a church, i.e., externally one body, it must have the same form of government and be subject to the same common tribunal. The different classes of Presbyterians in this country, though professing the same doctrines and adopting the same form of government, are not all members of the same external church, because subject to different tribunals.

Now the question is, Is this a correct definition of a church? Does it omit anything that is essential? The only things which we can think of as likely to be urged as omissions, are the ministry and the sacraments. Few things in our July number seem to have given Theophilus more pain that our saying that the ministry is not essential to the church. With regard to this point, we would remark. 1. That we believe the ministry to be a divine institution. 2. That it was designed to be perpetual. 3. That it has been perpetuated. 4. That it is necessary to the edification and extension of the church. But we are very far from believing the popish doctrine that the ministry is essential to the being of a church, and that there is no church where there is no ministry. Officers are necessary to the well-being of a nation, and no nation can long exist without them. But a nation does not cease to exist when the king or president dies. The nation would continue though every civil officer was cut off in a night; and blessed be God, the church would still live, though all ministers should die or apostatize at once. We believe with Professor Thornwell, and with the real living church of God in all ages, that if the ministry fails, the church can make a ministry; or rather that Christ, who is in his church by the Spirit, would then, as he does now, by his divine call constitute men ministers. It strikes us as most extraordinary for a Presbyterian to say the ministry is essential to the church, and that it must enter into the definition; when our own book makes provision, first, for the organization of a church, and then for the election of its officers. A number of believers are constituted a church, and then, and not until they are a church, thy elect their elders and call a pastor. Every vacant church is a practical proof that the ministry does not enter into the definition of the church. Theophilus amuses himself at our expense for our venturing to say, “Bellarmine has the credit of being the first writer who thus corrupted the definition of the church,” that is, by introducing subjection to lawful pastors as part of that definition. We were well aware of the danger of asserting a negative. We knew that we had not read every writer before the time of Bellarmine, and that we could remember very little of the little we had read. We were, therefore, wise enough not to say that no man before the popish cardinal had perpetrated a like interpolation into the definition of the church, but contented ourselves with the safe remark that he has the credit of being the first who was guilty of that piece of priestcraft. That he has that credit among Protestants can hardly be disputed. Dean Sherlock says: “I know indeed of late the clergy have in a great measure monopolized the name of the church, whereas, in propriety of speech, they do not belong to the definition of a church,” any more than a shepherd to the definition of a flock, which is his illustration. “The learned Launoy,” he adds, “has produced texts of Scripture for this definition of the church, viz.: that it is the company of the faithful; and has proved by the testimony of the fathers in all ages, even down to the Council of Trent itself, that this was the received notion of the church, till it was altered by Canisius and Bellarmine,” the former “putting Christ’s vicar into the definition,” the later, subjection “to lawful pastors.” “Whereas,” continues the Dean, “before these men, neither pastor nor bishops, much less the Pope of Rome, were ever put into the general definition of a church” [1]. Very much the same complaint is uttered by Dr. Thomas Jackson, against “Bellarmine, Valentia, Stapleton, and some others,” for troubling the stream of God’s word as to the nature and definition of the church [2]. It surely does not become Presbyterians to exalt the clergy beyond the place assigned them by these strong Episcopalians, and make them essential to the being of the church, and of course an element in the definition of the term.

Very much the same remarks may be made in reference to the sacraments. We of course believe, 1 [sic] That the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are of divine appointment. 2. That they are of perpetual obligation. 3. That they are signs and seals of the covenant, and means of grace. 4. That the observance of them is a high duty and privilege, and consequently the neglect or want of them, a great sin or defect; but to make them essential to the church is to make them essential to salvation, which is contrary to Scripture. If baptism made a man a Christian, if it communicated a new nature which could be received in no other way, then indeed there could be no Christians and no church without baptism. But such is not the Protestant or scriptural doctrine of the sacraments. The Hebrew nation would not cease to be Hebrews, if they ceased to practice circumcision. They did not in fact cease to be the church, though they neglected that rite for the forty years they wandered in the wilderness, until there was not a circumcised man among them, save Caleb and Joshua. Yet far more is said of the duty and necessity of circumcision in the Old Testament than is said of baptism in the New. It is the doctrine of our church that baptism recognizes, but does not constitute membership in the church. Plain and important, therefore, as is the duty of administering and observing these ordinances, they are not to be exalted into a higher place than that assigned them in the word of God. Though the due celebration of the sacraments may very properly be enumerated, in one sense, among the signs of the church, we do not feel authorized or permitted by the authority of Scripture, to make such celebration essential to salvation or to the existence of the church. If any of our brethren should differ from us as to this point, it would not follow that they must reject the definition above given. For as the sacraments are a means and a mode of divine worship, the due celebration of them may be considered as included in that clause of the definition, which declares that a church is a society for the worship of God.

We revert therefore to the question, Is the definition given above correct? Is a church an organized society professing the true religion, united for the worship of God and the exercise of discipline, and subject to the same for of government and to common tribunal? It certainly has in its favor the common usus loquendi. When we speak of the church of England, of Scotland, the Free church, the Secession church, the Protestant Episcopal church; or when we speak of a single congregation as a church, as the church at Easton, or the first, second, or third Presbyterian church in Philadelphia; or if we take the term in the New England sense, as distinguished from parish or congregation, still all these cases fall under the definition. By the word church, in all such cases, we mean an organized society professing the true religion, united for the worship of God and the exercise of discipline, under the same form of government and under some common tribunal. That common tribunal in a Congregational church, is the brotherhood; in a Presbyterian church, the session; in the Presbyterian church in the United States, our General Assembly; in the Episcopal church, the general convention; in the Church of England, the reigning sovereign; in the Evangelical church of Prussia, the king. In all these cases it is subjection to some independent tribunal that gives unity to a church, in the light in which it is here contemplated.

2. This definition is substantially the one given in our standards. “A particular church consists of a number of professing Christians with their offspring, voluntarily associated together for divine worship and godly living agreeably to the Holy Scriptures; and submitting to a certain form of government [sic] [3]. “Professing Christians” is here used as equivalent to “those professing the true religion,” the form of expression adopted in the Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism. It is obvious that the definition suits all the cases mentioned above, applying equally well to a single congregation, and to a whole denomination united in one body.

3. This definition suits the use of the term as it occurs in many passages of Scripture. When we read of the church of Corinth, of Antioch, of Rome, the word is universally admitted to designate a number of persons professing the true religion, united for religious worship and discipline, under some common tribunal.

4. This definition is one to which the principles laid down on this subject in Scripture necessarily lead. The Scriptures teach that the faith in Christ makes a man a Christian; the profession of that faith makes him a professing Christian. The true, or invisible church consists of true believers; the visible church, of a society of such professors, united for church purposes and separated from other societies by subjection to some one tribunal. These seem to be plain scriptural principles. If any thing else or more than fain in Christ is absolutely necessary to union with him, and therefore to salvatien [sic]; then something more than faith is necessary to make a man a Christian, and something more than the profession of that faith to make him a professing Christian, and consequently some other sign of a visible church must be necessary than the profession of the true religion. But we do not see how consistently with the evangelical system of doctrine, and especially with the great doctrine that salvation is by faith, we can avoid the conclusion that all true believers are in the true church, and all professing believers are in the visible church. 5. Did time permit, or were it necessary, it could easily be proved that in all ages of the church, this idea of the church has been the prevailing one. We have already quoted the testimony of Sherlock against the Romanists in proof of this point, and it would be easy to fill volumes with quotations from ancient and modern writers to the same effect. “Church,” says Hooker in his Eccles. Polity, vol. ii, 17, “is a word which art hath devised thereby to sever and distinguish that society of men which professeth the true religion from the rest, which profess it not, whereupon, because, the only object which separateth ours from other religions, is Jesus Christ, in whom none but the church doth believe, and whom none but the church doth worship; we find that accordingly the apostles do everywhere distinguish hereby the church from infidels and Jews, accounting them which call upon the name of the Lord Jesus to be his church.” And again, B. 3, 1, “The visible church of Jesus Christ is one by outward profession of those things which supernaturally appertain to the essence of Christianity, and are necessarily required in every particular Christian man.” Barrow, in his Discourse on the Unity of the Church says, “It is evident that the church is one by consent in faith and opinion concerning all principal matters of opinion.” Bishop Taylor, in his Dissuasive against Popery, says, “The church (visible) is a company of men and women professing the saving doctrine of Jesus Christ.” This is but saying what Tertullian, Augustin, Jerome, Hilary, Chrysostom and the whole line of God’s people have said from the beginning.

6. Finally, we appeal in support of the essential element of the definition of a church given above, to the constant testimony of the Spirit. The Scriptures teach that the Spirit operates through the truth; that we have no right to expect his influence (as far as adults are concerned) where the truth is not known, and that where it is known, he never fails to give it more or less effect; that wherever the Spirit is, there is the church, since it is by receiving the spirit, men become members of the true church; and wherever the true or invisible church is, there is the church visible, because profession of faith; and, therefore, where these true believers are united in the profession of that truth by which they are saved, with a society or community–then such society is within the limits of the visible church, i.e., is a constituent portion of that body which embraces all those who profess the true religion. All we contend for is that the church is the body of Christ, that those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells are members of that body; and consequently that whenever we have evidence of the presence of the Spirit, there we have evidence of the presence of the church. And if these evidences occur in a society professing certain doctrines by which men are thus born unto God, it is God’s own testimony that such society is still a part of the visible church. It strikes us as one of the greatest absurdities of Ritualism, whether among Romanists or Anglicans, that it sets up a definition of the church, not at all commensurate with its actual and obvious extent. What more glaring absurdity can be uttered than that the Episcopal church in this country is here the only church, when nine tenths of the true religion of the country exists without its pale. It may be man’s church, but God’s church is much wider. Wherever, therefore, there is a society professing truth, by which men are actually born unto God, that society is within the definition of the church given in our standards, and if as a society, it is united under one tribunal for church purposes, it is itself a church.

The next step in the argument is, of course, the consideration of the question, whether the church of Rome comes within the definition, the correctness of which we have endeavored to establish? It was very common with the reformers and their successors to distinguish between the papacy, and the body of people professing Christianity under its dominion. When, by the church of Rome they meant the papacy, the denounced it as the mystical Babylon, and synagogue of Satan; when they meant by it the people, considered as a community professing the essential doctrines of the gospel, they admitted it to be a church. This distinction is natural and just, though it imposes the necessity of affirming and denying the same proposition. If by the church of Rome, you mean one thing, it is not a church; if you mean another, it is a church. People will not trouble themselves, however, with such distinctions, though they often unconsciously make them, and are forced to act upon them. Thus by the word England, we sometimes mean the country, sometimes the government, and sometimes the people. If we mean by it the government, we may say (in reference to some periods of its history), that it is unjust, cruel, persecuting, rapacious, opposed to Christ and his kingdom: when these things could not be said with truth of the people [4].

Though we regard the above distinction as sound, and though we can see no more real contradiction in saying Rome is a church, and is not a church, than in saying a man is mortal and yet immortal, spiritual yet carnal, a child of God yet sold under sin; yet as the distinction is not necessary for the sake either of truth or perspicuity, we do not intend to avail ourselves of it. All that we have to beg is, that brethren would not quote against us the sweeping declarations and denunciations of our Protestant fore-fathers against popery as the man of sin, antichrist, the mystical Babylon, and synagogue of Satan, as proof of our departure from the Protestant faith. In all those denunciations we could consistently join; just as our fathers, as Professor Thornwell acknowledges, while uttering those denunciations, still admitted Rome, in one sense, to be a church. Our present object is to enquire whether the church of Rome, taking the term as Bishop Sanderson says, Conjunctim pro toto aggregato, just as we take the term, church of England, falls within the definition of a church given above.

That it is an organized society, is of course plain; that it is united for the purpose of worship and discipline is no less so. That is, it is the professed ostensible object of the society, to teach and promote the Christian religion, to convert men to the faith, to edify believers, to celebrate the worship of God, and to exercise the power of the keys, i.e., the peculiar prerogatives of a church in matters of doctrine and discipline. This is the ostensible professed object of the society. That its rulers have left its true end out of view and perverted it into an engine of government and self-aggrandizement is true, and very wicked; but the same thing is true of almost all established churches. It has been palpably true of the church of England, and scarcely less obviously true of the church of Prussia, as well as the Greek church in Russia. When a church is perverted by its rulers into an engine of state, it does not cease to be a church, because it is by the church as such,i.e., as a society designed for the worship of God and the edification of his people, such rulers endeavor to secure their own secular ends.

The only point really open to debate is, whether the Romish church as a society professes the true religion. In reference to this point we would remark, 1st. That by true religion in this connection, has ever been understood, and from the nature of the case must be understood, the essential doctrines of the gospel. Men may enlarge or contract their list of such doctrines; but it involves a contradiction to say, that those who hold the essentials of the gospel, do not hold the gospel. This would be saying that the essence of a thing is not the thing itself, but something else. By the essential doctrines of the gospel we mean, and Protestants have been accustomed to mean, those doctrines which, in the language of Hooker, “are necessarily required in every particular Christian man.” The question, therefore, as correctly stated by Professor Thornwell, really is, Whether Rome as a society still teaches enough to save the soul? 2. Our second preliminary remark is, that in determining what are the essential doctrines of the gospel, we cannot consent to bow to any other authority than the word of God. We cannot with Romanists and Anglicans, on the one hand, consent to make the judgment of the church the criterion of decision on this subject; nor on the other, can we submit to the judgment of individuals or sects, some of which would close not the church only, but heaven itself, against all Presbyterians, others against all Calvinists, others against all Armenians, others against all who sing hymns. 3d. A third remark is, that we must distinguish between what is essential to the gospel, and what is essential for a particular individual to believe. The former is fixed, the other is a variable quantity. The gospel in its essential principles is now what it always was and always must be. But what is essential for a man to believe depends upon that man’s opportunities of knowledge. A poor Hottentot may get to Heaven though he knows nothing about, or should unintelligently reject many doctrines which it would argue an unsanctified heart in a man nurtured in the bosom of a pure church, even to question. 4. We must interpret language according to the usus loquendi of those who use it, and not according to our own usage. If a man defines justification so as to include sanctification, and says that justification is by works as well as faith, we must understand him accordingly. We may say a man is sanctified by love, hope, and other Christian graces and works; meaning that all these tend to promote his conformity to God; when we could not say, that he is justified, in our sense of the term, by these things.

It is then impossible to give any list of essential doctrines of the gospel, if so doing were to imply that all doctrines not included in such list might be safely rejected by men, no matter what their opportunities for knowledge might be. By essential doctrines we mean, as already stated, those which no man can be saved without believing. We shall not undertake the delicate task of giving a list of such doctrines, but content ourselves with remarking that the Scriptures adopt a twofold mode of statement on the subject. First, they give certain doctrines which, they declare, if any man believes he shall be saved. And secondly, they state certain doctrines which, if a man rejects, he shall be lost. These two modes of statement must be consistent, i.e., they cannot lead logically to contradictory conclusions, even though the Bible arranges under the one head some doctrines which it does not place in the other. One reason why more particulars are found under the latter head than the former, no doubt is, that the rejection of a doctrine implies a knowledge of it. And the rejection of a doctrine when known may be fatal, when the knowledge of it, as a distinct proposition, may not be essential to salvation. These essential doctrines therefore may be learned both from the affirmative and negative statements of the Bible. For example, it is said, whosoever believes in Christ shall be saved; whosoever believes that Jesus is the Son of God is born of God; whosoever believes and confesses that Christ is Lord, does it by the Holy Ghost; on the other hand, it is fatal to deny God, for he that cometh unto God must believe that he is the rewarder of those that diligently seek him. He who denies the Son, the same hath not the Father; he who denies sin, or that he is a sinner, the truth is not in him; he who rejects the sacrifice of Christ, has only a fearful looking for of judgment; he who seeks justification from the law has fallen from grace, and Christ shall profit him nothing; he who denies the resurrection of Christ, makes our preaching and our faith vain; he who denies holiness, and the obligation of holiness, has denied the faith and is worse than an infidel; so he who says that the resurrection is past already, has made shipwreck of the faith. The denial of these doctrines is said to forfeit salvation; but it does not follow that they must all be clearly known and intelligently received in order to salvation. It is a historical fact, as far as such a fact can be historically known, that men have been saved who knew nothing of the gospel but that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. The Scriptures do not warrant us in fixing the minimum of divine truth by which the Spirit may save the soul. We do know, however, that if any man believes that Jesus is the Son of God, he is born of God; that no true worshipper of Christ ever perishes. Paul sends his Christian salutations to all in every place, theirs and ours, who shall call upon the name of the Lord Jesus, their Lord and ours.

That Romanists as a society profess the true religion, meaning thereby the essential doctrines of the gospel, those doctrines which if truly believed will save the soul, is, as we think, plain. 1. Because they believe the Scriptures to be the word of God. 2. They direct that the Scriptures should be understood and received as they were understood by the Christian Fathers. 3. They receive the three general creeds of the church, the Apostle’s, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, or as these are summed up in the creed of Pius V. 4. They believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. In one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. And the third day rose again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. And they believe in one catholic apostolic church. They acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins, and look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

If this creed were submitted to any intelligent Christian without his knowing whence it came, could he hesitate to say that it was the creed of a Christian church? Could he deny that these are the very terms in which for ages the general faith of Christendom has been expressed? Could he, without renouncing the Bible, say that the sincere belief of these doctrines would not secure eternal life? Can any man take it upon himself in the sight of God, to assert there is not truth enough in the above summary to save the soul? If not, then a society professing that creed professes the true religion in the sense stated above. 5. We argue from the acknowledged fact that God has always had, still has, and is to have a people in that church until its final destruction; just as he had in the midst of corrupt and apostate Israel. We admit that Rome has grievously apostatized from the faith, the order and the worship of the church; that she has introduced a multitude of false doctrines, a corrupt and superstitious and even idolatrous worship, and a most oppressive and cruel government; but since as a society she still retains the profession of saving doctrines, and as in point of fact, by those doctrines men are born unto God and nurtured for heaven, we dare not deny that she is still a part of the visible church. We consider such a denial a direct contradiction of the Bible, and of the facts of God’s providence. It was within the limits of the church the great anti-christian power was to arise; it was in the church the man of sin was to exalt himself; and it was over the church he was to exercise his baneful and cruel power.

The most common and plausible objections to the admission that the church of Rome is still a part of the visible church are the following. First, it is said that she does not profess the true religion, because though she retains the forms or propositions in which the truth is stated, she vitiates them by her explanation. To which we answer, 1. That in her general creeds, adopted and professed by the people, no explanations are given. The doctrines are asserted in the general terms, just as they were presented and professed before the Romish apostasy. 2. That the explanations, as given by the Council of Trent, are as stated by Theophilus, designedly two-sided and ambiguous; so that while one class of Romanists take them in a sense consistent with their saving efficacy, others take them in a sense which destroys their value. It is notorious that the thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England are taken in a Calvinistic sense by one class of her theologians; in a semi-Pelagian sense by another class; and in a Romish sense by a third. 3. While we admit the truth of the objection as a fact, viz., that the dominant class of theologians do explain away most of the saving doctrines of her ancient creeds, yet we deny that this destroys the argument from the profession of those creeds, in proof that as a society she retains saving truth. Because it is the creeds and not the explanations, that constitute the profession of the people.

Secondly, it is objected that Rome Professes fundamental errors. To this we answer, 1. That we acknowledge that the teaching of many of her most authoritative authors is fatally erroneous. 2. That the decisions of the Council of Trent, as understood by one class of Romish theologians, are not less at variance with the truth; but not as they are in fact explained by another class of her doctors. 3. That these decisions and explanations are not incorporated into the creed professed by the people. 4. That the profession of fundamental error by a society retains with such error the essential truths of religion. The Jewish church at the time of Christ, by her officers, in the synagogues and in the sanhedrim [sic], and by all her great parties professed fundamental error justification by the law, for example; and yet retained its being as a church, in the bosom of which the elect of God still lived.

Thirdly, Rome is idolatrous, and therefore in no sense a church. To this we answer, 1. That the practice of the great body of the church of Rome is beyond doubt idolatrous. 2. That the avowed principles of the majority of her teachers are also justly liable to the same charge. 3. That the principles of another class of her doctors, who say they worship neither the images themselves, nor through them, but simply in the presence of them, are not idolatrous in the ordinary meaning of the term. 4. That it is not necessary that every man should be, in the fatal sense of that word, an idolater in order to remain in that church; otherwise there could be not true children of God within its pale. But the contrary is, as a fact, on all hands conceded. 5. We know that the Jewish church, though often overrun with idolatry, never ceased to exist.

Fourthly, it is objected that the people of God are commanded to come out of the church of Rome, which would not be the case were she still a part of the visible church. To this we answer, that the people of God are commanded to come out of every church which either professes error, or which imposes any terms of communion which hurt an enlightened conscience. The non-conformists in the time of Charles II, were bound to leave the church of England, and yet did not thereby assert that it was no longer a church.

Fifthly, it is said we give up too much to the papists if we admit Romanists to be in the church. To this we answer, Every false position is a weak position. The cause of truth. The cause of truth suffers in no way more than from identifying it with error, which is always done when its friends advocate it on false principles. When one says, we favor intemperance, unless we say that the use of intoxicating liquors is sinful; another, that we favor slavery, unless we say slaveholding is a sin; and a third, that we favor popery unless we say the church of Rome is no church, they all, as it seems to us, make the same mistake, and greatly injure the cause in which they are engaged. They dive the adversary an advantage over them, and they fail to enlist the strength of their own side. Men who are anxious to promote temperance, cannot join societies which avow principles which they believe to be untrue; and men who believe popery to be the greatest modern enemy of the gospel, cannot co-operate in measures of opposition to that growing evil, which are founded on the denial of what appear to be important scriptural principles. It is a great mistake to suppose popery is aided by admitting what truth it does include. What gives it its power, what constitutes its peculiarly dangerous character, is that it is not pure infidelity; it is not the entire rejection of the gospel, but truth surrounded with enticing and destructive error. Poison by itself is not so seductive, and therefore not so dangerous, as when mixed with food. We do not believe that those of our brethren from whom we are so unfortunate as to differ on this subject, have a deeper impression than we have either of the destructive character of the errors of popery, or of the danger to which religion and liberty are exposed from its progress. We believe it to be by far the most dangerous forms of delusion and error that has ever arisen in the Christian world, and all the more dangerous from its having arisen and established itself in the church, or temple of God.



1. See Preservative against Popery, vol. 1, tit. iii., ch. i., p. 36.

2. See treatise on the church, page 50, Goode’s edition.

3. Form of Government, ch. 2, sec. 4.

4. “The church of Rome,” says Bishop Sanderson, “may be considered, 1. Materialiter , as it is a church professing the faith of Christ, as we also do in the common points of agreement. 2.Formaliter , and in regard to what we call Popery, viz., the point of difference, whether concerning the doctrine or worship, wherein we charge her with having added to the substance of the faith her own inventions. 3. Conjunctim pro toto aggregato , taking both together. As in an unsound body, we may consider the body by itself; the disease by itself; and the body and the disease both together, as they make a diseased body.” Considered in the first sense, he says, it is a church; considered in the second sense or “formally , in regard of those points which are properly of popery, it has become a false and corrupt church; and is indeed an anti-Christian synagogue, and not a true Christian church taking truth in the second sense.” He had previously said: ” the word truth applied to any subject is taken either absolute or respective. Absolutely a thing is true, when it hath veritatem entis et essentia , with all those essential things which are requisite to the being and existence of it. Respectively , when over and above these essentials, it hath also such accidental conditions and qualities, as should make it perfect and commendably good. A thing may be true in the first sense, and yet not true in the second, but false. As a man may be a true man (animal rationale ) and yet a false knave.” Treatise on the Church, pp. 214 and 219.

On allegations about “the True Church” and allegations about historical succession

Recently, I’ve noticed people claiming that the Roman Catholic Church is the true Church due to claims about historical succession. Weirdly, often no actual attempt is made to demonstrate from history that such succession exists. Rather, the argument (though not admitted) is from necessity. We need one authoritative Church to be a source of certainty amid competing denominations and doctrines, therefore this one that makes such a claim must be this church, despite the problems in their actual historical documentation.

This sort of argument is weirdly Puritanish. Recall Richard Hooker’s conclusion regarding the puritan critics of the Anglican church, who insisted that a specific form of government for the Church had been explicitly given in Scripture. (I am convinced that Presbyterianism is the most consistent application of Scriptural principles to Church polity–as opposed to Hooker’s episcopal beliefs. But I do share Hookers amazement at some of the claims that are made on behalf of Presbyterian government.) The following is from Book 3, Chapter 11, section 21:

As for those marvellous discourses whereby they adventure to argue that God must needs have don the thing which they imagine was to be done; I must confess I have often wondered at their exceeding boldness herein. When the question is whether God have delivered in Scripture (as they affirm he hath) a complete, particular, immutable form of church polity, why take they that other both presumptuous and superfluous labour to prove he should have done it; there being no way in this case to prove the deed of God, saving only by producing that evidence wherein he hath done it? But if there be no such thing apparent upon record, they do as if one should demand a legacy by force and virtue of some written testament, wherein there being no such thing specified, he pleadeth that there it must needs by, and bringeth arguments from the love or goodwill which always the testator bore him; imagining, that these or the like proofs will convict a testament to have that in it which other men can no where by reading find. In matters which concern the actions of God, the most dutiful way on our part is to search what God hath done, and with meekness to admire that, rather than to dispute what he in congruity of reason ought to do. The ways which he hath whereby to do all things for the greatest good of his Church are more in number than we can search, other in nature than that we should presume to determine which of many should be the fittest for him to choose, till such time as we see he hath chosen of many some one; which one we then may boldly conclude to be the fittest, because he hath taken it before the rest. When we do otherwise, surely we exceed our bounds; who and where we are we forget; and therefore needful it is that our bride in such cases be controlled, and our disputes beaten back with those demands of the blessed Apostle, “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! Who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who was his counsellor?” (Rom 11.33-34)

The two cases are different in many ways, but both impulses seem to depend upon a demand for a kind of “perfection” that somehow must be true despite all evidence to the contrary.

Jesus left us with an actual church, not an ideal one. We need to be faithful and, in a certain sense, satisfied with what he has left us.

On patience with the Church

Sometimes, some things I teach, and that people whom I respect teach, are labeled “ecclesiocentrism.” Whether or not I own that label depends on what exactly it is supposed to entail. I can certainly imagine really bad ideas going by that label, so I don’t think it is a helpful generalization.

But it is true that Jesus established a church, with officers, boundaries, and/or structures, that is distinct from other institutions such as the civil magistrate (submerged in or masquerading as “the state” in most modern thinking) and the family.

(Again, this is a thoroughly modern way of looking at society/ies. At the time the church began as a distinct entity from Israel and/or Judaism, it was established as distinct from families (nuclear, to the extent that those mattered to anyone), clans, tribes, language groups, dynasties, and/or races, etc. The fact that we in the modern West think so simply as to only consider “State, Church, and Family,” is a gift of the Great Commission.)

And it is also true, in a way analogous to how Israel related to the other nations and the foreign empires, that the Church is called to be a source of life to the other institutions.

But it would be false, to infer from this that the Church is always the ideal institution at any or every point in history and in every place on earth. It is not.

Look at Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. One can find some fantastic affirmations about the Church. One also finds an actual church that is in doctrinal, ethical, and social chaos. It stinks.

Here is another example:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:1-7 ESV).

Here we have a model of Church behavior that could easily be romanticized. But if we look at the sequence of Peter’s statements as related to one another: then what is the Apostle saying about life in the Church:

He is saying that life in the Church is a source of anxiety. It is frustrating being an elder and it is frustrating being under elders. It doesn’t seem like the best thing in the world to humble oneself in either role. It is something you have to endure by faith. You have to trust that God cares for you and you have to turn to him in prayer about the constant worries caused by the others.

That’s the church.

Which is why, “ecclesiocentrism,” as it often is a form of utopianism, is a dangerous thing. And it is a much more widespread phenomenon than is often recognized. “Getting back to the New Testament Church” is often presented as some kind of return to an ideal community where harmony and peace abound.

But read the New Testament and stop encouraging unrealistic expectations in yourself and others. The church may be “central” and the “the New Testament” (which is a fictional construct, by the way, but I’m not sure how to single-handedly reform our language and concepts on this blog) may give us a pattern we need to imitate. But those truths need to be distinguished from such unreachable expectations. (These are similar to the expectations placed on marriage, that lead to divorce).

The Church’s covenant of faith

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
For your loyalty is like a morning cloud
And like the dew which goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them in pieces by the prophets;
I have slain them by the words of My mouth;
And the judgments on you are like the light that goes forth.
For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice,
And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant;
There they have dealt treacherously against Me.

via Hosea 6 NASB – The Response to Gods Rebuke Come let us – Bible Gateway.

This is one of the many lines of evidence that Israel (not conclusive of itself) that Israel was called as a “new Adam.” It is also an argument that God had made a covenant with Adam even though the word is not mentioned in Genesis 1-5.

But some would also claim that this proves that there was “some way” in which God’s covenant with Israel was a covenant “of works”–that is, a covenant requiring perfect obedience as a condition for a relationship with God.

This is impossible, of course. Israel was given forgiveness many times and in many ways. Such forgiveness was never promised to Adam in his original covenant. Also, Adam was a sinless righteous being whereas God’s covenant with Israel was based on a far different premise about their innocence (or lack there of) and nature.

Just to see how wrong it would be to read the requirement for perfect obedience into the “like Adam” comparison above, consider how Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second letter (Chapter 11):

1 I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me. 2 For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. 3 But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. 4 For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.

Now, granted, Adam is not mentioned by name. But Eve too was required to be faithful. And how is her faithfulness applicable to the Corinthians? They need to believe in the true Gospel and disbelieve false teachers just as Eve should have believed God’s promise and disbelieved the Serpent’s lies.

It is about faith.

Are all people God’s children?

31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. 38 I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”

39 They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus *said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. 40 But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. 41 You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. 43 Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. 46 Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? 47 He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.”

via John 8 NASB – The Adulterous Woman – But Jesus went – Bible Gateway.

So that settles it. Only believers are God’s children. Not every person is God’s child.

Except… Paul told the Athenian unbelievers that they themselves knew that they were all God’s children.

22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ 29 Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. 30 Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

Paul is referring to creation here. It it worth pointing out that, in Genesis 5.1-3, being a son and bearing an image of the father are related to one another:

1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. 2He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created.  3 When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.

Luke 3.38 explicitly tells us that Adam was God’s son, but we could infer it from Genesis 5.1-3 even it if he didn’t spell it out for us. In systematic theology, Christians have affirmed that even unbelievers are still made in God’s image, though the image is distorted. Wouldn’t this also require an affirmation that unbelievers are still God’s children in some sense?

Then there is the parable of the prodigal son. Notice how it is the son who believes he can no longer be anything but a servant to the man who was his father, and the father does seem to affirm that, for a time, the child’s status of sonship was gone:

17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ 20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

One other piece of data, from Matthew 21:

28 “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. 30 The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They *said, “The first.” Jesus *said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.

Now here is my question: if one of the sons was not really of son of the father, wouldn’t his disobedience be less serious and less sinful? Here, denying sonship would not mean condemnaton but, to a degree, exoneration.

Of course, there are also other passages that link up with John 8 (Ephesians 2 might apply in a similar way, for example). Some refer to Israel as distinctively God’s son, which would probably have something to do with the way Jesus spoke to his fellow countrymen in his parable of the two sons in Matthew 21.

So which is it?

I don’t see why we have to decide. Why would the Bible have to use the same language at all times and places to communicate. It seems to me that language and imagery communicate just fine without having a universal code in place for every image or metaphor.

This is how I see it:

  1. If you proclaim that God is the father of all people and that all people are His children in order to give unbelievers false hope that prevents them from repenting and calling on Jesus, or that discouraged Christians from evangelizing, then you are lying.
  2. If you proclaim that God is the father of all people and that all people are His children to give unbelievers hope that they will be received if they repent and believe, and to impress Christians with their obligation to evangelize, then you are telling the truth.
  3. If you proclaim that God is only the father of believers in order to discourage unbelievers from repenting and calling on Jesus, then you are lying.
  4. If you proclaim that God is only the father of believers to encourage unbelievers to come back and be adopted, and to encourage believers that God has save them, then you are telling the truth.


John Murray on Christian Baptism

Baptism is not an addendum to discipleship but that by which discipleship is consummated…Since discipleship is not consummated without baptism we must regard baptism as an indispensable mark of the church. The person who refuses baptism and declines the reproach of Christ, which it entails, cannot be received as a member of Christ’s body.

via Not an Addendum | Resurrectio et Vita.

Explaining Baptism to Hindus in the 19th Century


Things seen are temporal, says St Paul, but things unseen are eternal. Yet though our faith goes beyond sight, and the hope, which fastens our souls as an anchor amid storms, has its holding ground behind the veil of sense, it does not follow that in this temporal life things visible may not be pledges and symbols to us of what is to come. God, who shews His eternal power by the worlds which He upholds, shews also His life-giving purpose in His Son, and ever renews His work, not only by the Spirit which animates the Body, but by words and symbols of what was done of old. Thus the words of Scripture still express the motives which Apostles felt, and which we should feel. The prayers of ancient sufferers for the truth still waken in us a daring or a patience such as theirs. The washing with water, (which curiously resembles the religious bath spoken of among Hindus,) still represents to us the saving health of Christ, and the cleansing of His followers’ souls from stain. The pledge we give in this rite, either with our own lip or by that of others, is still the Christian vow of holiness; the promises, repeated in accompaniment, still pledge to us in a way the Divine faithfulness; and by coming, or bringing any one, to such a rite we both express our faith in Christ [Thus Baptism was anciently called “the sacrament of faith.”], and bind ourselves to whatever prayer or education on man’s part can make the Divine work effectual in the soul.

“You have asked me to explain the connection, briefly hinted at, between baptism and original sin. The idea, then, of Christianity is deliverance. Christ shews what kind of a Deliverer He is, by teaching us to pray, Deliver us from evil. The greatest evil is sin, which causes chiefly the entanglement and misery you deplore in the world. He who becomes subject to Christ is free from sin. We even say, with something of figure, that He is dead to sin and alive to God. Here then are two states, one of bondage to evil, and all that it involves, and the other a glorious deliverance from whatever debases or alienates our souls from the God of our health. But every such state has a beginning. If sin were only outward crime, we might say the bondage began in mature years. But if sin has root in some principle or shortcoming deeply ingrained in us, we have its capacity, or nature, so soon as we begin to be. Thus Man seems born from the womb like a wild ass’s colt. He brings with him into the world the seeds of a disease. He has tendencies in him, which, as natural forces, are capacities of good, but which require, like volcanic elements, to be bound down and subjected to the will which gives them limit for a good end. Thus nature, which, if left lawless, becomes the enemy of the Divine purpose, must be brought into the kingdom of God, and become an instrument of grace, its discords being thus blended into harmony. Such tendencies and such needs seem to begin with our beginning. Again, if our soul’s health were our own working, it might begin in mature life, or at any arbitrary term. But since it is the gift of God, and is also to be wakened with the concurrence of human instruments, its capacity may most fitly be said to begin when we are first commended to the grace of God, and born into His Church. Thus we think, a child new born partakes of Adam who fell, or of man who falls, and one baptised is a member of Christ, and an heir of His kingdom. We do not mean that the first is a murderer, like Cain, or the second a saint, like St John; but the one is in a way of being ruined, and the other in a way of being saved.

The same doctrine may be also stated variously. Those who lay hold most easily on things external, will lay stress on the natural birth, and on the religious rite; while those who see more with the eyes of the mind will think rather of a disease of the soul, and of the saving influences by which our Deliverer heals us from it. But if there is deliverance in a house, it may be said that the door delivers us. Thus the Mosaic law might be called (as by St Stephen) ‘the covenant of circumcision,’ and baptism, as the ritual admission into a better covenant of the grace of God, may be said (as by St Peter) to save the soul, or to wash away sins. Our righteousness, you will remember, is shewn in our Lord’s prayer to begin with the Divine forgiveness. Again, if a man accepts a gift, or becomes subject to some gracious Lord, he must not be ashamed of professing his acceptance or allegiance. Thus we count no man a Christian until he has enlisted himself by open baptism in the army of the cross of Christ. We do not doubt that whoever thus comes to God is in no wise cast out, but receives from Him every grace needful to his soul’s health. With our own people, indeed, where we have fair reason to hope for Christian education, we baptise little children; for Christ said, Suffer them to come unto me; and the mercy of God is like an overflowing cup, and outruns our answering capacity, or accompanies its least beginnings. But with strangers, and with all who have wandered far from God in any idolatry or darkness, we require knowledge of our faith, and signs of sincerity in it. For our service, as St Paul teaches us, is a service of the reason, or a worship of the mind. St Peter too declares, that the baptism which saves is ‘not the putting away of filth of flesh only, but the answer of a good conscience towards God.’ But whatever human being is thus rightly consigned to the grace of the Eternal Spirit in the body of Christ’s Church, we earnestly believe that the God of all comfort is both able and willing to serve him to the uttermost; and this belief is a sufficient answer to the charge of arbitrariness which was brought against us. For we do not proclaim as good news a remedy from the Healer of souls, and then say that it is a mockery to any one; but we make its powers of healing embrace every human soul, to which on man’s part it is rightly applied. It is true that the words healing, and deliverance, or redemption, imply a disease not less than the general sinfulness of our race; but there is no greater difficulty in this than in the existence of evil in the world, which you not only admit as fully as we do but even rather exaggerate.

“Baptism then is an expression of human faith, and a pledge of Divine faithfulness. It goes upon the idea that there is such a disease as human sinfulness, and embodies the promise of God to heal every one who comes to Him in the Spirit of His dear Son. As an external rite, it may be said to admit men only into the visible Church; but it is a symbol of something deeper, and admits into a fellowship of promises which concern the soul. Thus to our mingled being, with our necessities of sensuous apprehension, the rites which speak of Christ and dedicate us to His service, are what faith and the strong crying of the spirit are to our innermost man. They are not then unworthy instruments of Him who embodied His Word in man, that He might lift us into spiritual life. For in these things we see as it were again our Master, and while we give ourselves to Him are assured that He is given to us. Nor what God has joined in spirit and form can man rightly put asunder.

Onward! (from a sermon by Don Garlington)

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

via Philippians 3 –

Now he tells us that his method for obtaining the prize is straining forward. Actually he says two things. There is a negative and a positive.

The negative thing is that he forgets the past.

Do you find it easy to forget the past? Sometimes I find it very difficult to forget the past. Sometimes I find that the past gets in the way, that I can’t put it to rest, I just can’t let it be. I find myself mulling over the past, always bringing it up, dwelling upon aspects of it. Do you have that experience? The point here in the application is that nothing gets in the way of the future like the past. Of course Paul is speaking primarily of his non-Christian past, but there is such a thing as a Christian past as well. There is such a thing as ambition, such a thing as desire to do, to obtain, to be prominent among the brethren. You find the beginning of ministerial jealousy, for example, in that passage in Mark 10, where the sons of Thunder come forward to Jesus and say, “We want you to do whatever we ask of you.” Not a very big request, was it? Just whatever we want, we want you to do that for us. “What do you want,” he says, and they say “Well, we want to sit one at your right hand and one on your left. We want to call the shots. We want to be accountable and answerable only to you. We want to rule, we want to dominate. We want to be those who wield power. The power brokers in the church.  You see, that attitude can be a part of one’s Christian past.

To us Paul is a very famous character, history has made him such, but in his day he was far more infamous than he was famous. He was this little Jew and the Corinthians can say that “when he is with us his bodily presence is weak.” They despised his very person when they looked upon him. When Paul left that brilliant career as a Pharisee, in a sense he got more than he was bargaining for, because the door was opened to criticism. The door was open to obscurity. A life of self sacrifice, with very little reward to be found in this life. How such things might have drawn him down, how they might have discouraged him. How he might have taken his sight off the prize. But no, he says, “I forget the past,” and you and I must forget the past.

You and I must strain forward.

That is the positive aspect, straining forward, a very familiar athletic metaphor that you find in Paul in several places. Here is an illustration of that. If you have seen the film “Chariots of Fire,” you will know what I am talking about. We had a Seminary chapel speaker last year who, as a small lad in prison camp in China, knew Eric Liddel. Eric Liddel had a group of boys that he gathered around him. He would teach them the Bible and he would run with them as well. He could still run. Well in “Chariots of Fire, “(our speaker confirmed this as being as true story) Eric Liddel was running in a race one day and he got knocked down, he was tripped up. He could have stayed on the ground, but he didn’t. He got up and he ran like a wild animal and won the race. This is the kind of thing Paul is talking about. The past can knock us to the ground. The past can debilitate us. It can make us forget that there is a glorious future for the people of God. We must strain forward for the prize.

How is it with you? How is it with me?

We find ourselves running the race and do we find ourselves like the readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews, demonstrating the very body language of discouragement? Their shoulders drooping and their knees that were bent out, you can’t run a race bowed over like that. So how is it with us? Those of us who are perfect, do we long to be perfect? Those of us who have been made righteous in Christ, do we long to be finally and fully righteous in Christ? Paul says that if such is not our condition then God is going to let us know about that. He says, “Let those of us who are mature,” and again the word is perfect, “be thus minded, and if in anything you are otherwise minded God will reveal that to you also.”

How is God going to reveal it? He is going to reveal it by the way that truth intersects with providence. It is through the circumstances which are brought into our lives that we are forced to reflect upon truths which are very basic. If we find ourselves knocked down, if we find ourselves exhibiting the body language of discouragement, if we find ourselves dwelling on the past, if we find ourselves losing a grip on the knowledge of Christ and Paul implies in verse 16 that that can happen, he says, “Only let us be true to what we have attained.” We can attain to the knowledge of Christ, and yet it slips away from us because of the cares of the world, because of problems, because of whatever it may be. But if we find ourselves in that condition, we are going to be shaken up. God will reveal that to you also.

(Read the complete sermon here)