Ideas and situations have changed so quickly over the last year that it might feel like you are trying to farm the wind. Tame the ocean.
We will never go back to the world we lived in 2019. The effort to turn back the clock is futile.
The only way to move forward is to hold onto the authority of God’s Word whether it is matters of sexuality, life, or worship. The only way to forge our way into the future is in simple obedience to Jesus and His Word.
If we scatter in this effort. If we turn on each other in this effort. If we fall asleep in this effort. All is lost.
There is nothing better to hold the line and step forward into the unknowns of the future in faith. As the Preacher in Jerusalem said “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecc. 12:13)
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. Isn’t that what God has required of you and me? (Micah 6:8).
The Lord gives you a feast in the fog. He gives you the ability to enjoy His gifts even as the clouds gather.
Hold the line. God will bring every deed into judgement. Whether good or evil. (Ecc. 12:14).
There is nothing better than to do your duty knowing that God has already accepted your works in Christ Jesus (Ecc. 9:7).
The phrase “Jesus Christ is Head of the Church” is a Biblical truth that is clearly stated in Colossians 1:18: “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” You will find this truth expounded upon and taught and applied in various parts of the inspired and authoritative Word of God: Eph 1:22, Eph. 5:23, Col. 2:10. The purpose of this short piece is to state the truth that Christ is Head of the Church with clarity in the public square and to define this truth among all other forms of authority in society.
This is why Christians have always been careful not to identify a political party with the kingdom of God. The Church is the vehicle of the kingdom of God. Not the Conservative or Liberal or New Democrat or Christian Heritage or People’s Party of Canada. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. He has chosen the humble means of the preaching and the sacraments to communicate His grace in this broken world. Matthew 16:18–19 “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The Church is not partisan, it is entirely a different organism, a different institution.
This is a truth emphasized and re-emphasized in Reformed confessions. We read in Article 31 of the Belgic Confession: “As for the ministers of the Word, they all have the same power and authority, no matter where they may be, since they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal bishop, and the only head of the church.” We read in Article 32: “they ought always to guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master, has ordained for us.” For those of my readers who are unaware of the Belgic Confession, it was written in the France/Netherlands region in the 1500s and is used as one of the three forms that unify Reformed Churches. You can find ithere.
The Church then is not partisan and the Church should not be equated with a political party. This of course, does not mean that they are being partisan when a particular political party takes it upon themselves to remove “every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship” as civil leaders acknowledge that Jesus is Lord (BC Art. 36). Those leaders are simply doing their Christian duty. There have been times throughout history that the Church has taken upon itself the need to discipline even leaders who have protected the Church. There have been times throughout history where the civil authority has had to wield the sword in situations where leaders in the church went rogue. The point here is this. The pastors and leaders of the Church must always remain objective and begin with the Word of God in her teaching, her preaching, and her discipline. The truth of God’s Word and the duty of His shepherds to preach the gospel and lead divine worship exists apart from partisan politics.
And so we must distinguish between partisan politics and politics more generally. The statement “Jesus is Head of the Church” is not a political statement. But it does have political ramifications. In other words, to make that statement and truly believe it, will have consequences within society at times. When the civil authority puts obstacles in the way of the preaching of the gospel and every aspect of divine worship, the Church still confesses that Christ alone is Head of the Church. And the confession of the Church is not unrelated to her actions. In fact, we confess our allegiance to Jesus Christ through our actions. Jesus Himself equated our love for Him with keeping His commandments (Jn. 14:15).
This is not a teaching that should be taught in antagonism towards the civil authority. Christians are called to pray for them and even give thanks for them so that we might lead a quiet life. Above all we should pray that they would come to a knowledge of the truth: the truth that there is a Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ (I Tim. 2:1-6). We are called to fear God and honor the Prime Minister. Whoever he may be. This is a teaching that is born of love as we teach all nations to observe all that He has commanded us (Matt. 28:20). Why? Because He has all authority (Matt. 28:18). The Church doesn’t have all authority. Jesus does. We are simply ambassadors of His kingdom that has entered onto the world scene. His Word is truth. It is this truth that all nations must come to know and confess. There really is no other way of salvation.
The example of the Apostle Paul in Thessalonika and Caesar’s Courts serves as an example. In Thessalonika the Apostle Paul simply taught that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God (Acts 17:1-10). But a mob realizes the ramifications of this teaching and so they come with a slanderous condemnation to the authorities that the Christians are turning the world upside down. The charge is that the Christians are trouble-makers and rabble-rousers and even traitorous in their teaching that there is another King: one Jesus. But Jesus Christ did not come to overthrow Caesar’s civil rule. He did come with a call. This call was that Caesar must take a knee before His throne. Even when Paul is in prison in Caesar’s courts, he shares this gospel of the crown rights of king Jesus (Phil 1). The one in chains is then the ambassador for King Jesus. His announcement is that there is another King, one Jesus and even Caesar must worship the Son of God whose kingdom is not of this world.
Christ is the Head of the Church. This is an axiomatic truth. It is an established rule or principle or a self-evident truth. It stands above the fray of politics and fog of our civic dialogue. It is a truth that must be stated in the public square. It is a reality that should be experienced by Christians of all stripes and positions in the Church in society. It is unequivocally not partisan. Regardless of your political party, you are called to confess that Jesus is Lord. Regardless of whether your last name is Singh or O’Toole or Bernier or Trudeau, there is no other Name under heaven and earth by which you can be saved. This is a statement that is born out of love because there is no other Mediator between God and man. The truth then is this: Christ alone is Head of the Church.
These are convulsive times. Last year in June, I wrote about the revolutions of 2020. As time proceeds it becomes more and more clear that we are living through times that will be marked down in the history books for good or ill (or both). Everything is off kilter. There are mysteries and meanderings to the last year that may never be understood.
I wrote last year that “the revolutions in our culture began with a revolution against God.” Since then I have found some of the works of Solzhenitsyn to be intriguing. Apparently it was a common thing during his day in Soviet Russia for the older generation to say that “all these things have happened because men have forgotten God.” This was his often repeated quote in his Templeton address: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
I was listening to an interview of Rev. Dr. Joe Boot with Founder’s Ministries the other day. Towards the end, Rev. Boot speaks about the worldview shift that is necessary in the Canadian Church today as we return to core Biblical doctrines like creational ordinances or norms and the Lordship of Christ. Gene Edward Veith also focuses on these creational ordinances in his latest book “Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture.” He addresses matters such as transgenderism in particular, but his book was published in a timely manner, right as scientism combined with technocracy began to stifle all of human life in an unprecedented way. We need to ask ourselves basic questions again about the image of God and how the entirety of Scripture forms and shapes our world and life view.
In revolutionary and convulsive times it is paramount to be anchored in these norms and truths of Scripture as culture shakes and morphs and transforms. Psalm 46 was a great comfort to Martin Luther during the Reformation and the uprisings of the early 1500s and it is a passage that can also provide great comfort for us today as well: “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah.” (Ps. 46:6-7) But like Martin Luther and the other Reformers of his time, we need to keep our eye on the ball, labouring hard in the Scriptures, pointing to Jesus.
It is during times like this that we must be reminded again and again of the grace and mercy and authority of Jesus Christ. If we have forgotten God, then we must remember Him again. I think of the startling recognition of this in Jeremiah 3:25 “Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us. For we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day, and we have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God.” For this, the Word of God must be opened with authority. For this, the cross of Jesus Christ must be made known. Not with lofty speech or wisdom. We preach a crucified and risen King.
And this really lies at the crux of everything. Charles Spurgeon once wrote: “I received some years ago orders from my Master to stand at the foot of the cross until He comes. He has not come yet, but I mean to stand there until He does.” After those long laments of Jeremiah and the cries of Hosea, Christ came bursting onto the world scene in the middle of all the world crises, with a message of the kingdom, with a call to repent and believe the gospel. The cross of Jesus Christ lies at the center of history for sinful men and women. It is this cross that the Apostle Paul made known in a culture similar to ours where he spoke to men and women who were former homosexuals, thieves, drunkards, but He wrote to them as those who had been cleansed by Jesus Christ and sanctified by the Spirit of God (I Cor. 6:9-11). The gospel really and truly is the power of God (Rom. 1:16-17).That is the joyful reality that shapes the communion of the saints, also as we gather to worship the living God from week to week.
In the mess of all the spasms of our societies and the shakings and collapse of our empires of dirt, God’s work of regeneration is far more powerful than the work of revolution. Revolution is normal to the rebellious heart of man. But God takes hearts that have not obeyed Him and makes them new through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Look at how the Lord deals with all those tools of revolution: “He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.” (Ps 46:9) And then He calls His people to be still in the storm and to remember that He is God. Why are men so anxious? Because men have forgotten God. What is the answer? A deep change of heart. Where must we go for this change of heart? To Jesus Christ.
In all the throes of a world that has rebelled against God and His Word, in a society where men and women have forgotten God, then Christians are called to glorify the Triune God and to lift high the cross of Jesus Christ before the eyes of a dying world. It is a message that might be scorned and mocked. You worship a King who went to a cross? You really believe that Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth? You really believe that Word of God is the final authority for all of life? Yes. Jesus is Lord. And the greatest manifestation that God is our very present help in time of trouble is in the cross and resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when the morning dawns.” (Ps. 46:4-5)
The future coming of Christ is the cause for Christian courage in whatever situation you find yourself in today. Often we think of the death and resurrection as the primary comfort of the Christian life and there is something central about that since that is where I am forgiven and that is where I rise to new life. But I think in particular of Q&A 52 in the Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the coming again of Christ to judge the living and the dead: “In all my sorrow and persecution I lift up my head.”
How do we continue to stand firm in the onslaught of darkness and evil, to stand firm in the truth of God’s Word, to stand firm in Christian love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control? Lift up your head and see the rider on a white horse. In all your sorrow look to see the Son of Man who stands among the golden lamp-stands and calls His Church to be faithful unto death. Look to the one who left the sacrament of bread and wine so that you can partake of His body and His blood and so be nourished for the spiritual warfare. Look to the one who pours out His blood for the washing away of sins. Look to the one who sends out messengers to preach the gospel to all nations and to witness to His power.
I lift up my head, knowing that He promised to be with His Church until the very end of the age (Matt. 28:16-20). I lift up my head, knowing that He pours out His Spirit, and that His Spirit moves like the wind. We don’t know which way the Spirit moves. I do know that the Spirit empowers, emboldens, convicts, encourages, helps, and brings men and women everywhere to believe in the Name of Jesus Christ.
I lift up my head, knowing that the posture of my Christian life is often one of repentance, but I also know that Jesus has forgiven me, and so I know that I can also stand tall in the Christian life, knowing that He is mine and I am His.
I lift up my head, knowing that I can live in the present, in a way that reflects the truth that I am made for another world, a better world, a better city, a heavenly kingdom. I can move outward and towards the other because the Spirit of Christ is in me and that means that I will look more and more like Christ, until one day I am resurrected and my body is made to be like Christ’s glorious body. And for that reason I can also taunt death and say “Oh death, where is your sting! Oh grave, where is your victory!”
I lift up my head, knowing that I can live for Christ and serve Him in this world, caring for my family and loving my enemy. I know that because of what Christ has done in my life and the way that He is renewing me through His Spirit, I can enjoy the good gifts that He has given me in this world, eating and drinking, all for His glory. He works that repentance in my life.
When you know Jesus Christ and live in Him, the comforts of the Christian life abound. When you know the comfort that comes at the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they multiply as you learn about the ascension, reign and return of Jesus Christ. As the gospel flows through the world like a mighty river, it must also bring about this deep sense of comfort that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. This comfort is also in the Psalms: “The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.” (Psalm 110:5-7)
Congregation of Jesus Christ. I want to begin with a song from a French Reformed Liturgy: “For you, little child, Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary. For you he uttered the cry, ‘It is finished!’ For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and there he intercedes — for you, little child, even though you do not know it. But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true. ‘We love him, because he first loved us.’”
So why would you baptize your children? I can think of many reasons not to that I have heard from Baptist brothers and sisters. Notice that we recognize Baptists as brothers and sisters when there is a love for Christ and His Word and because of what Christ has objectively signed and sealed to them in their baptism. But I can think of a couple questions of concern from our Christian family in other congregations. What if the children turn away from the Lord when they grow up? Shouldn’t they make a decision for themselves? Isn’t the covenant in the New Testament only applied to adults? Why do we see no explicit reference to baby baptism in the New Testament?
I will answer these questions from the Word of God as we look at the teaching of Q&A 74. The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism respond to similar questions at the time of the Reformation. Many Protestants ran so far away from the Roman Catholic Church that they also rejected infant baptism along with real errors. As with every other doctrine, you are called to go back to the Word of God and look at the teaching in the Holy Bible.
Hear the teaching of the Word of God, summarized under this theme: The children of believers should also be baptized.
As members in the congregation (Q&A 74a, Matt. 19:13-15)
As recipients of the promise (Q&A 74b, Acts 2:37-41, Gen. 17:9-14)
As marked by the covenant sign (Q&A 74b, Acts 2:37-41, Gen. 17:9-14)
As members of the congregation (Q&A 74a, Matt. 19:13-15)
We first read: “Infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation.” I will focus more on this concept of covenant in the 3rd point. For now, remember that God promised Abraham all the way back in Genesis 17:7 that He would make a covenant with Abraham and his children. This covenant is not cancelled in the New Testament. In fact. In Acts 2:38-39 the Apostle Peter applies the covenant promise to you and to your children. But what does it mean that infants are part of God’s congregation?
The congregation is a New Testament word that refers to the assembly of the believers in a given location. A congregation is simply those who are gathered together to worship God and to fellowship together as the Body of Christ. In Joel 2:15-16 when the prophet Joel calls on the people of God to gather for a solemn assembly, he includes the nursing infant in this assembly. When the Apostle Paul writes a letter to the congregation in Ephesus, he addresses the children along with the rest of the congregation in Ephesians 6:1. He does not address the children as unbelievers, but calls on them to obey their parents in the Lord. Your children receive the same comforts and warnings as you do. The entire congregation is called away from an inclination to unbelief towards a love and delight in the promises that are found in Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 19:13-15, a number of children are brought to Jesus. This is a passive verb. This means that these children did not necessarily come out of their own desire. They were brought. The disciples thought that Jesus should only hang out with and minister to adults. But Jesus commanded them to let the little children come. In other passages we read that Jesus rebuked the disciples. But what is His reason for letting them come? There is a recognition that even adults have much to learn from the faith of little children. Parents, you have much to learn from the faith of the little ones. I have much to learn as well. To separate the children from the congregation then is opposed to the witness of the Bible.
Children. This is a high privilege and honor for you. Jesus does not withhold His blessing and His love from you just because you haven’t gone through senior catechism class. Yes. You must keep on learning and growing. The Christian life is one of growth in heart, soul, mind, and strength as you strive to love God. When you come to church with your parents on Sunday, Jesus also comes to you in His love and with His blessing. He calls you to repent of your sins and to trust in Him for the forgiveness of your sins. You have a high privilege and standing within this congregation of the United Reformed Church of PEI.
And so we see that the children of believers should also be baptized:
As recipients of the promise (Q&A 74b, Acts 2:37-41, Gen. 17:7)
“Through Christ’s blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to adults.” What is this promise? In the Old Testament this promise is made with Abraham in Gen. 17:7: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” In the New Testament this promise is clearly revealed that God binds Himself to you His people in Jesus Christ. If you reject this promise there is punishment. If you receive this promise by faith in Jesus Christ, there is joy and peace. Jesus Himself is the source of life. He is the source of new life. Children, know that Jesus comes to you with this new life! You also must believe that this promise is truly yours!
You may know that excitement when your parents give you a gift on your birthday or at Christmas time. How much greater is the gift of the promise that you are given in your baptism! What an excellent gift to receive redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit. Faith is impossible in and of yourselves and so you need the Holy Spirit! What an excellent promise that even the tiny infant, the 3 year old girl, the 6 year old boy, the 27 year old pastor, the 50 year old mother, the 80 year old grandfather can know this free gift of grace at the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ! It is this joy in Christ and love for Christ that I desire to see as your pastor. There is no greater gift for any pastor or elder or parent than seeing that love for Jesus Christ. There is no other way to experience that than through the power of the Holy Spirit in your lives.
The Apostle Peter calls out to the crowds in Acts 2:37-41 to repent and be baptized. He follows this by saying that the promise is to you and to your children. There is no fundamental divide or change between the way that God works through families in the Old Testament as compared to the New Testament. No, there is no longer blood sacrifice, or the cutting away of the foreskin. Christ has put away the spiritual training wheels that you see in the Old Testament. The scaffolding has been pulled away. God continues to communicate the good news from generation to generation just as He continues to communicate this good news through the church to those who still remain outside the congregation, living in unbelief. The Church is always sharing the gospel with those outside and passing on the gospel to the next generation.
As marked by the covenant sign (Q&A 74b, Acts 2:37-41, Gen. 17:9-14)
“Therefore, by baptism, as sign of the covenant, they must be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers. This was done in the old covenant by circumcision, in place of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant.”
In the Old Testament, the male sons of believers would have their foreskins removed on the 8th day after birth as a sign of God’s covenant. In the New Testament, even though that practice may have continued in Jewish communities or for medical reasons, it is no longer required as a religious symbol. Instead, baptism is the sign and seal of those who had been incorporated into God’s covenant and congregation. This is why you see the command to be baptized. This is why the Apostle Paul replaces the sign of circumcision with the sign of baptism in Colossians 2.
Have you ever found it strange that when the Apostles went around preaching and teaching and someone believed, the entire family would then be baptized? While there are other examples, I am thinking in particular of the Philippian Jailer in Acts 16:25-40. A massive earthquake hits the prison, opening the cells. All the prisoners and Paul and Silas remain in the prison. When the jailer takes the sword to kill himself, Paul calls out to stop him. Paul and Silas are still in the prison cell waiting for him when he runs in, brings them out and asks what he must do to be saved. They respond and say: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” He teaches them and then baptizes the entire family. The Philippian Jailer believes and then God makes a covenant with his family. That sounds a lot like the history of Abraham, right? Abraham believes and then God makes a covenant with his entire family.
I have witnessed a number of family baptisms. It might be a mother and her children. It might be a husband and wife and their children. It might be a Christian couple who realize later in life that God’s covenant sign should also be applied to their children. Abraham believed and his children were circumcised. The Philippian Jailer believed and his family was baptized.
What if a child rejects the gospel later in life? Regardless of what position a congregation has on the baptism of infants, every church has members that walk away from the Lord and reject the promises that are signed and sealed in their baptism. Baptism comes with great warnings. Pastors must preach these warnings in baptism along with the comforts. These warnings accompany a call to return to the peace and joy that can be found in repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Congregation (and this address includes the little children), God teaches you by your baptism that the blood and Spirit of Christ wash away your sins just as water removes dirt from the body. God assures you by this divine pledge and sign that you are truly washed of your sins spiritually as your bodies are washed with water physically. You need both Christ’s blood and Spirit. You need Christ’s blood to be forgiven of your sins. You need the Holy Spirit to fight sin until you die and you go to be with the Lord. Look to Jesus Christ and His Spirit. This is where your baptism is pointing you.
You may run into someone who asks you why this congregation baptizes babies. You may wonder yourself. It can be good and healthy to analyze teachings and ask questions. There are three main reasons. (1) infants as well as their parents are part of God’s covenant and congregation; (2) they also receive the promise of the Christ’s blood and Spirit; (3) This was signed in the OT by circumcision and by baptism in the NT. I have always found Jesus’ love for the little children as such an exquisite expression of His love for me! He even takes the little children into His arms and blesses them. And so children remember this. Your baptism is a sign of God’s love for you in Jesus. Your baptism is a sign of God’s loving power. Even though you are so helpless, even though you are unable to deliver yourself, yet He can deliver you from your sins. You are called to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ. You might be able to imagine a discussion about civil authority. One person states that we must obey the civil authority and honor the king and that person may cite Romans 13 and I Peter 2. The next person tells you that you must obey God and not man and will cite Acts 5:29. One person may point to the fine that Jason and the brothers paid for the Apostle Paul in Acts 17. Another person will point out that the Apostle Paul himself fled from the authorities by night, John the Baptist rebuked Herod, the High Priest rebuked Uzziah, and Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all obeyed God against the king’s orders.
So who is right? Does the Bible hold contradictory commands? Often when we read through Scripture, we look at a text and we forget to consider the immediate context and the broader context of all of Scripture. In the original manuscripts of the Bible, there are no chapters and verses, which forces you to consider the overall argument that is being presented to you. I don’t plan to preach on the entire Bible in one sermon. I do want you to see that Romans 13 makes sense within and is not contradictory to other commands of Scripture.
I declare the Word of the Lord to you under this theme: there is no authority except from God.
In 1st century Rome (Rom. 13)
In 16th century Europe (BC Art 36)
In 21st century North America.
In 1st century Rome (Rom. 13)
I must begin with two points.
First, in Romans 13, the Apostle Paul is not specifically addressing democracy, tyranny, or monarchy. He is not addressing the Trump government, the Trudeau government, or the dictatorship in China. He does not have a specific political party in mind. The Apostle Paul’s first allegiance is to the Son of God, the son of King David, that is King Jesus (that is what we read about in Romans 1:1-5). His primary audience is a Christian community living in a world that is not Christian. Second, the Apostle Paul is addressing the matter of legal issues as they were arising among Christians. If you read 12:14-21 or 13:8-10, he is encouraging you to think about how you respond to injustice. Think about a contract that has been broken, for example. He does not forbid Christians from seeking justice. But he lays out ground rules for how to do that. He wants you to seek justice as Christians and not as rioters and rabble-rousers.
There are three matters that Paul addresses in Romans 13: (1) you; (2) God; (3) civil authority.
First he addresses Christian responsibility, you. If you read through vs. 14-21 of ch. 12, he calls you not to repay evil for evil, to show kindness to an enemy, to overcome evil with good. This passage begins with an emphasis on you. It begins with self-government under God. This is also emphasized throughout Romans 13:1-7. Look at vs. 3b: “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval.” Look at vs. 4b: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” Look at vs. 5: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” It is far better to endure wrong than to do wrong. If you join in on wrong-doing you may incur the wrath of the authority, but you will endure the wrath of God. He also promises in chapter 12:19 that if the approved authorities will not judge, then God Himself will one day judge. So the passage begins with this call to personal responsibility: do good.
Why do we do good? Well, because God is God. In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul addresses God’s authority over all authority. There is no authority on earth that we can consider without understanding God’s authority over all. You may know the famous quote from the Dutch Preacher and statesman Abraham Kuyper: ““There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” We just read in chapter 12, vs. 19, that you must not return evil for evil, because God will repay. God is God and you are not, so don’t play God. In fact, He has set court systems into place to respond to evil in the world. This is important. The court systems have been set in place by God. When the courts systems do wrong, they also are held accountable to God. You are still called to do good. When the court systems do not praise what is right, you are still called to do good.
What is the responsibility or role of the civil authority? God gives the civil authority the task to punish evil and reward good. God has ordained them, but He has also given them a specific task. You might even call it a narrow task. He has given the civil authority the sword to punish evil and reward good. Their duty is not to keep us safe or to take care of us. Their duty is to punish evil and reward good. What is important here is that they have a very specific task which is set within a very specific sphere of authority or responsibility. They do not have unlimited authority or authority with no boundaries at any time. Their authority stands under the authority of God Himself. They are called to act as servants of God, to respect Him.
How does this apply today? Look at the rioting throughout the States and in Toronto and Montreal over the death of George Floyd. A police officer acted unjustly in killing this man. Justice against this civil authority should have been pursued in the civil courts. Instead, large mobs returned evil for evil. They did this through the destruction of private property. In some cases, they killed people. The Apostle Paul knows the nature of sin. There is sin in the heart of the mob. There is sin in the Church. There is sin among civil authorities. He knows that Christians can also get caught up in the mobs of the day and join them in doing evil. And so you are called to take the appropriate routes of justice through the God-ordained means.
The Apostle Paul does not approve of the unjust use of authority. He does not call for blind submission to abusive authority. The Apostle Paul also calls for the submission of a wife to her husband (Eph. 5), he calls for the submission of members to their church authorities (Heb. 13), he calls for the submission of the Christian to the civil authority (Rom. 13). But no authority is absolute. Husbands do not have unfettered authority. Pastors do not have unfettered authority. Politicians do not have unfettered authority. There is no authority except that which is from God. That means you are set free to do what is right and good and noble and lovely, not using your freedom to mask evil, but fearing God and serving God in all things.
Let us turn to our reading from the Belgic Confession:
In 16th century Europe (BC Art 36)
Throughout history, Christians have struggled with how to live godly lives when the civil authority will punish them for doing good, when unjust authorities rise up and say that evil is good and that good is evil, when they enter into areas of life that do not belong to them. These are not easy answers. We live in a sinful world. Sin doesn’t make sense.
This is why this article of the Belgic Confession was written and edited and debated over. In the 1500s there was a group called the anabaptists who denied any civil authority whatsoever. Meanwhile the civil authorities were persecuting Reformed pastors and elders, by forbidding them to preach and teach and practice God’s Word. The Reformers did not want to deny that the authority had been ordained by God, but they knew that they had to obey Jesus Christ in their teaching and their practice as a church. These pastors and elders struggled in regions where oppressive governments ganged up with the Roman Catholic Church to attack them and restrict their activities. Many Dutch, Polish and French Christians fled to England where they were allowed to worship and shepherd their congregations with greater freedom. Their court systems would not defend what was good as the Apostle Paul teaches that they must in Romans 13. Many were forced to flee. Others were imprisoned. Others were killed.
Like Romans 13, the Belgic Confession focuses on three parties: (1) God; (2) you; (3) the courts.
Consider the sovereignty of God. God has ordained kings, princes, civil officers because of the depravity of the human race. God has placed the sword in the hands of the government. The goal is a society pleasing to God. The civil authority is placed in subjection to God’s Law.
Consider your responsibility: all must be subject, pay taxes, honor and respect, pray for them. But notice that there is an important clause that is in here: be subject in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word. In other words, do good, that is, good as defined by the Holy Bible.
And what about the civil courts? There have been some debates on this article over the last 500 years. These debates were not over the civil courts being given to little power or a narrow task, instead the article started off with too broad and too wide a mandate for the civil courts, giving them too much authority in the life of the Church. Their primary task is to punish evil and reward good. The glory of God is the goal of their work. It is also specifically stated that they should do this while completely refraining from every tendency to exercise absolute authority. Why is that added? The 1800s and 1900s saw the rise of a number of tyrants and Romans 13 teaches that there is no authority but from God.
Think about where both Romans 13 and the Belgic Confession directs your attention: to God. One reason that constitutions have bound western civil authorities is due to the influence of Romans 13 and the pattern of authority throughout Scripture. Secularism says that Christianity is one of many religions and this means that civil authority is ultimately a law in and of itself as society determines its own truth. The Holy Spirit says that there is no authority but from God and that all authority must stand under His truth. Husbands are not a law in and of themselves. Pastors and elders are not a law in and of themselves. Police officers and politicians are not a law in and of themselves. Jesus Christ is the one who has been given authority over all things.
In 21st Century North America
These are Biblical principles for how you can think about authority today. I am focusing on what Belgic Confession Article 36 focuses on: the sovereignty of God.
This is important. No human authority is absolute or unlimited. The authority of a father, a husband, a pastor, an elder, or a civil servant is not absolute or unlimited.
There is only One whose authority is absolute and unlimited. This is the One who had the authority to lay down His life for His people and take it up again. This is the One who before ascending into heaven blessed His people and said to them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20).
If He is the one with all authority, then all authority on earth flows from Him. The bureaucrats in the Roman Empire wouldn’t have agreed with the task and God-centered calling that the Apostle Paul laid out for the civil authority in Romans 13. They would have liked the part where Christians were called to submit, but not the part where they were held accountable to God. They thought that their authority flowed from the emperor. The Apostle Paul said that their authority flowed from God.
There is no authority but from God. When you look at the entirety of Scripture, you will see that God has ordained civil courts, church courts, parental courts, etc. You will see that at many times in history Christians have spoken out for the vulnerable. Paul calls a wife to submit to her husband, but both Jesus and Paul made provision for a wife to appeal to the church and/or civil courts against a truly abusive husband. Paul calls Christians to submit to their leaders, but church leaders began to realize that the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church was making statements and wielding authority that did not belong to them, and so they appealed to Acts 6 and I Tim 3 for a consistorial form of church government. Some might argue that the very idea of binding a king to a constitution arose from a Christian framework. Sin exists wherever people are. And so it is the aim to hold all forms of government accountable and transparent to God.
You might be punished by the civil authority for doing what is good. You might be told not to do what is good. As Christians, you are permitted to protest and appeal decisions made by the civil authority in respectful and honorable ways. The Apostle Paul made full use of the Roman court system in order to bring the gospel right to Caesar. He could have been set free in Jerusalem, but he chose instead to appeal to Caesar, and to use his rights as a Roman citizen. This is part of living as a Christian citizen. That is what the courts have been ordained by God for. Christians are not allowed to join riots and destroy private property or human life or reputations by taking the law into their own hands. If those who commit such evil are not judged in the present day, they will receive the wrath of God on the last day. Unless they repent. But you are called to obey God in all things and do good.
Consider the glorious authority of Jesus Christ. There is no authority but from God and He has set His Son to reign. Jesus is not a tyrant. He is a king who is exalted to be king by serving and laying down His life. God showed His love for You and me in that while we were still rebel sinners, He sent Christ to die for us. Even though we rose up and militated against God’s good order, and made our own lives and society a complete mess, Jesus laid down His life on a cross. He did this so that we might be set free from that life of rebellion and sorrow. The reason that it is such a delight to call Jesus King, is because He is Savior and He has come to save His people from their sins and from the power of sin and slavery. He gives this freely. It is a free gospel. A free gospel makes you free men and women. When the Son sets you free you will be free indeed. Amen.
Gavin Ortlund recently wrote a response to John Mac Arthur which I want to interact with here. Without directly defending John Mac Arthur’s decision, I want to interact with Gavin Ortlund’s criteria for arguing that Mac Arthur was showing undue definance to Caesar.
He shares his criteria for critiquing John Mac Arthur’s decision to open church: (1) the importance of worship (Hebrews 10:25); (2) love for neighbor (Mark 12:31); (3) obedience to government (Romans 13:1-7); (4) maintaining a good witness (Colossians 4:5-6). I will interact with each one and ask the questions that I hope everyone is asking during these times.
(1) It seems that most evangelical and orthodox Christians are agreed on the basic command that we should be at least gathering to worship. Only 600 out of 10s of thousands of COVID-cases have been contracted in church in the States. In my own province not a single case has been contracted in worship, and there have been no hospitalizations. So it is reasonable to say that we should at least be worshiping. I would ask Gavin if this is worth the divisions that the State has made in only allowing sections of certain congregations to come to worship, and if the limitation on the work of the office-bearers of the church is justified?
(2) Love for neighbour is essentially living in obedience to Christ to the second table of the Law, at least under Mark 12:31. It would be more effective to place the 5th and 6th commandments in this position. And I would argue also the 4th, 8th and 9th. This is a very hard question to answer. There are the hard questions related to the spread COVID which might lead to more hospitalizations (it could also lead to a weakening of the virus). We have seen some hospitalizations, but locally and at large, we have also seen an increase in addiction, in erratic behavior, a drift in church attendance, mental illness, etc. Many had to put medical issues on hold and they got worse. On the East Coast, we are facing an economic crisis for small businesses. As a pastor my primary concern is what the mixture of fear and isolation is doing not only to spiritual health but also to mental and physical health. Many counselors recognize this connection between mind, body, and soul. My question is: are we really loving our neighbour?
(3) Romans 13 speaks of obedience to the civil authority. But it also speaks of the limitations and mandate of the civil authority. Many churches believe that the civil authority has gone past the boundaries of its God given role, partly related to what I point out in the other points. So my question here would be: what are the limitations on the role of the civil authority? I am sure he would hold an abusive husband in his church accountable, how do we hold the civil courts accountable?
4)Christian witness. Christian witness is based on whether or not we are really loving our neighbour. I wonder when we started defining Christian witness by what people say and not by what really is loving our neighbour. Peter doesn’t tell Christians that there will be no slander, but that they should keep doing good even if there is slander: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (I Pet 2:12) Just because many are angry at the church doesn’t mean that many more are not waiting for the church to take leadership. Love is not affirmation, and so witness is not based on affirming the sins and idols of the day. We first must ask the question: am I really loving my neighbour? Love of neighbour, of course, includes honoring God-ordained authority and protecting life. So my question here is: are we really being a good witness? And what exactly is a good witness?
There are many more questions to bring to bear on this discussion. What is a Biblical theory of church and state? What role does subjective and changing scientific theory play in the the decisions and laws of the civil authority? What role does the Old Testament Law play in this? As some have pointed out, there are Laws concerning pandemics in the OT. But how does the love that Christ and the disciples for the sick play into this? How does our misunderstandings of OT law play into this? Scientism and secularism are both matters that the church must contend with in our post-Christian culture.
We need Biblical answers. Not easy answers.Gavin Ortlund remarked that he is not an epidemiologist. I am not either. I know that there are disagreements among epidemiologists. But if we are allowed to make statements concerning a pandemic from God’s Word, then we are also allowed to ask questions. And those questions might lead to new statements.
In analyzing our Christian witness in the 21st century, it is interesting to look back and to consider the charges that the early Christians faced in the Roman Empire.My aim is to show that Christian witness is defined not so much by how the world reacts but by the Word of God.
I quote from Everett Ferguson’s book “Church History”: “The Christian Apologists repeatedly responded to three other charges: atheism, cannibalism, and incest.” The charge of atheism came from their rejection of the Greek gods. The charge of cannibalism came from the language that surrounded the Lord’s Supper. The charge of incest likely came from the terminology of “brother” and “sister” that was used in the congregation. Of course, at root, the very act of Christian worship and refusal to burn incense to Caesar was taken as a refusal to show certain acts of loyalty that the empire demanded of “loyal” citizens. This was seen to be treason.
Comparisons between our present age and the 1st century easily get lost in subjectivity. These are different times. The 1st-3rd century was a pre-Christian era and we are living in a post-Christian era. So how shall we then live? Here are three things that existed in that era that we also need in our era.
There is a great need for Christian Apologists who understand the Word and understand the times.
There is a great need for Christian pastors who do not apologize for Christian language and Biblical terminology just because someone has misunderstood it. Rather pastors should avoid the feeling of being threatened and proceed to explain it patiently.
Christians should learn that obedience to Christ is their greatest witness. If obedience to Christ really is the best way to live, then they will be willing to take slander for it.
I call the century that we live in a post-Christian era, not because I think that Christianity is coming to an end, but because we are facing a cycle of unbelief in the West. There are many who have compromised on essential truths and practices. Those who have not compromised have been caught by a great fear.
So what then is Christian witness?
In Luke 24:48 Jesus told His disciples that they were witness of the events of His death and resurrection and the reality of repentance and forgiveness of sins in Him. In John 20, they met in secret for fear of the Jews, and Christ entered among them and told them not to fear. When the Spirit comes upon them, the witness of the church spreads, through obedience to Christ, in the preaching of the gospel and the worship of the church and acts of love and kindness.
I have always appreciated the reason that the Heidelberg Catechism gives for doing good works. Obviously it begins with a focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ and the salvation that He bought for us with His blood. It also focuses on the centrality of the work of the Holy Spirit. It concludes with these words: “and that by our godly walk of life we may win our neighbours for Christ.”
I believe that an elder or pastor must be above reproach (I Tim. 3:2). I believe that a good name is better than great riches (Prov. 22:1). I believe that our conduct in the world must be honorable (I Peter 2:12). I believe that if we suffer, it must not be for doing evil, but for doing right (I Peter 4:15-16). But that’s the point. If you do right, you will suffer. As the Puritan pastor, Cotton Mather once stated: “For the faithful, wars will never cease.”
As always, we should be patient and cheerful in our explanations of the truth. King David once asked about how a young man could keep his path straight. It is hard. Young men want respect. But he made a beeline back to the Word of God (Psalm 119:9). That is the only place where men will receive both the praise of God and men (and we must seek the praise of God first and foremost), once they have passed through the finished work of Jesus Christ and have found salvation in Him.
We can always put more work into our Christian witness, to refine our Christian witness. That is part of our sanctification, by which we grow in holiness. For that, the Holy Spirit gives the children of God hard heads and soft hearts. Soft hearts that love and are receptive to the Word of God. Hard heads that break the blows of those who will chastise them for clinging to the Word of God. It all begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ breaking into your life. That’s what it means to be a Christian witness.
My brother James, a pastor in Manitoba with the Canadian Reformed Churches, recently published a series of blog posts on frequent communion. The title of the series is “At Least Weekly.” The arguments are worth reading and considering:
Sometimes you just have to step back and process everything that is coming down the pipeline in the news.
There has been a lot of upheaval in North America since approximately March 15. First, the presence of COVID-19 sent the world spiraling into lockdown. In all this, the emergency act has not ended. Within the last 2-4 weeks rioters took to the streets over the death of George Floyd. These protests even spread to Canada, although they were less violent in Canada than in the States. In the meantime the Supreme Court in the States has re-defined gender, and the Canadian government is at work to pass legislation against conversion therapy which could lead to the imprisonment of parents whose children are confused on their gender. The latest aspect of this revolution that we are seeing is a call to defund the police.
This is nothing less than a revolution. I am surprised that it took me 3 months to realize this, but back in March, I did not realize that I was standing on the precipice of a revolution.My point here is to contrast the work of the church with these revolutionaries.
At root, revolution is the forceable overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of a new system. What we saw in March was the movement from a current system of government to one designed for emergencies. What we saw in April and May was that such a system of government can be perpetuated even when they accomplished their initial goal of “flattening the curve”. What we saw in June was the rage of the mobs as they seek to dismantle even more forms of authority.
I see the hand of the Lord in all of this. When Jesus rained down judgement on the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD, so that no stone was left standing, he was smashing the power of the false church. Read the book of Revelation. The beast is false government that is opposed to the Lordship of Christ. The whore is the false church that is opposed to the Lordship of Christ. This is not a call to despair. This is a call to hope. You and I are invited into the vision of the Apostle John who sees the Son of Man seated in the heavens. He is sovereign over all the affairs of men and is using them to bring His people to repentance and to bring unbelievers to faith in Him.
I am not saying that this is the end of time. It may be. This may also be the beginning of something new. What new opportunities will we find for faithfulness in this time of upheaval? Have we become lukewarm? Will we return to our first love? We look back at the Reformation and we scorn those who did not side with the Reformers. How could they when the gospel was so clear in the Reformers teaching? Well, they wanted to take the easy route, they didn’t want to pay the price. I don’t think a Reformer has ever walked by his own statue. We are not facing an old school martyrdom like in the times of Nero and Bloody Mary. But we are facing a public shaming if we do not follow along with the current state of things. Who wants to be tarred and feathered on social media? Step up to the platform.
We should not be surprised at revolution, or grow fearful, when we see the nations in uproar. John Calvin writes in his commentary on Isaiah 9:1-7: “We see that the mightiest governments of this world, as if they had been built on a slippery foundation, (Psalm 73:18,) are unexpectedly overturned and suddenly fall. How fickle and changeable all the kingdoms under heaven are, we learn from history and from daily examples. This government alone is unchangeable and eternal.” While we honor earthly authorities and pray for them, we recognize that while revolutions and upheavals shake the world, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is seated in the heavens.
I don’t have specific answers yet for exactly what the church must do in this current situation. Pastors and elders everywhere are in desperate need, not of worldly wisdom, but of the wisdom that comes from above (James 1:17). Pastors and elders everywhere are in desperate need for the wisdom and boldness and strength to gather the wandering sheep.Satan has the church at a point where the flock is divided, and the shepherds are at a loss for what to do, and wolves are gathering on the hills as the dusk descends on the West.
I do know is that the gathering of the church is the rallying point where the message of the gospel is ministered to the hearts of men and where men and women give honor to whom it is due. But it is also a rallying point for acts of love and kindness as Christians share their latest victories and encourage one another on to love and good works. There is a reason why the writer to the Hebrews encouraged this meeting (Heb. 10:24-25) even though the church was under fire. We must never separate the meeting from Christian acts of love and mercy. We cannot separate the meeting in Acts 2:42-47 from the love that was shown to widows in Acts 6. Worship is the rallying point where we come together to vow allegiance to Jesus Christ and then go out from that place of worship and rest to show this love and care towards the citizens of this earthly country.
We are not revolutionaries. We are living in a time where ungodly revolutionaries are overthrowing all semblance of order and godliness.The Church does not grow by revolution but by regeneration. Regeneration is that seed of new life that is planted in hearts that are spiritually dead. True obedience to Christ flows from that regeneration. The revolutions in our culture began with a revolution against God. That revolution began in the church when we revolted against the authority of Christ as He rules through His Word and Spirit. Rather than living by every word that comes from the mouth of God, the church has tampered with that Word in the name of contextualization and contemporary definitions of love. The only way to respond to that is to defend the flock from the divisions that she is facing and to call all men and women everywhere to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:8)