Category Archives: What does “Gospel-centered” mean?

Baptism of children, part 5

When a young child in a Reformed church desires baptism, you can have more confidence it is prompted by the Holy Spirit than in any other type of church. The main reason is because of the Reformed tradition’s emphasis on the right preaching of the gospel every Sunday.

I have heard so many testimonies of people who got baptized early in life, but when they got older they finally understood the gospel, and then got baptized for real. Because of that common “testimony,” it causes many good Christians to be hesitant to encourage their child if their child desires baptism.

But there’s a huge difference between a child in a Reformed church desiring baptism versus a child in a broadly, evangelical church desiring baptism. That main difference is the gospel!!! It is totally possible to go to church for years in America, and never hear the gospel.

I’m in the middle of a Facebook debate with a few people about the need to trumpet the doctrine of sin. And these are professing Christians! If there are professing Christians who do not think the doctrine of sin is that important, you can be sure the gospel is not that clear to many professing Christians.

But it is so different in a Reformed church! Every sermon, every prayer, every song, every Communion– it’s all gospel-centered! Especially in preaching- every sermon in a Reformed church is supposed to show man how they have broken God’s Law, and how Jesus Christ solves that problem in His saving work. Every sermon is somehow showing how Jesus has fulfilled some promise of God to His people. Every sermon, children are hearing how Jesus is the only way to salvation. Every sermon they are being told “you are a sinner– here’s how you have sinned. Here’s what you deserve for that. But now here is who Jesus is. Here is what He has done! And now, repent and be baptized in response to that. Do you believe? Then repent and be baptized.”

They hear that in some way, shape, or form week by week, month by month. They see a minister of the gospel up front give that message, they hear the pleas, they can see the urgency in his face. On top of that, we know that preaching is precisely what the Holy Spirit uses to save (Romans 10.13-17)! Is it any wonder that a child hearing Reformed preaching on a regular basis will desire baptism?

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Be careful distinguishing between primary and secondary issues

I am all for upholding distinctions within Christian theology between primary and secondary, and even tertiary issues. That kind of clear thinking leads to clear teaching and are great helps in sanctification.

However, I would caution you about making too much of the distinctions in our day. A secondary issue (and for that matter a tertiary issue, but for the rest of this post I will refer to anything that is not primary as secondary) becomes a primary issue if the real issue is submission to God’s Word. A secondary issue becomes a primary issue if the real issue is submission to God’s Word.

I will give you three examples to illustrate what I am talking about:

  • About 5 years ago our church began discussions about changing our leadership structure from single-elder to plural-elder leadership. It caused lots of conflict. Many people left over the issue. I tried the whole time to say “church polity is a secondary issue.” And because I was clear about that, a member asked me, “if it is secondary, and if it is causing people to leave, why not drop it?” My answer: It would be one thing to be patient and have more discussions, but if God’s Word says we should have plural elders, we do what God says. You do not “drop” anything that God says. Yes, I might be wrong in my interpretation, but let God sort that out later; or let’s have more bible discussions about it to see what the Bible really says. But we do not have the option to ignore anything God says, just because an issue might be secondary in our minds.
  • I have known good Christians who have gone to churches with women pastors. Some of them have told me they do not really think the Bible allows women pastors, but these women are godly and close friends and there are all kinds of things to commend about these women. In their minds, women in ministry is a secondary issue, not something to divide over. My response: women in ministry is secondary to the gospel. But Lordship of Christ is not! And if Jesus says “women should not be pastors” then you submit to Jesus. Case closed.
  • My wife was once asked to work at an Arminian school. They told her “you can teach anything you want as long as you don’t teach ‘once saved, always saved.'” So she respectfully declined. Why? Because we believe God wants us to preach the gospel in such a way that the believer understands Christ’s finished work secures them for all eternity. Can someone be saved without believing in eternal security? Yes. John Wesley is in heaven! But if I think God says to preach the gospel one way, and I deliberately preach it another way, all of a sudden, my submission to the Lordship of Christ is called into question.

So uphold the centrality of the gospel of our Lord Jesus– the crucified, dead, buried, and risen Savior, the one in Whom all who trust in Him will be saved. Uphold the centrality of the Trinity– one God, three Persons; the Father who plans, the Son who accomplishes, and the Spirit who applies redemption. Uphold the primary doctrines as primary. And then submit to the God of those doctrines in all things primary and secondary (Matthew 28.20).

What does it mean to be Reformed? part 5

This should be the last post in this series. First, to be Reformed means you are Protestant. Second, it means you are Calvinist. Third, you are Covenantal. Fourth, remember the Reformation was a reformation of the Church. To be truly Reformed, you must be in a Reformed local church.

I have met and heard of many Christians who identify themselves as “Reformed” yet find themselves happy in a non-Reformed church. To not care about the reformation of the local church is so anti-Reformed, I am afraid it is simply another form of radical individualism that has taken modern evangelicalism by storm.

So what makes a church “Reformed”? Glad you asked:

  1. It is at least a church whose leadership teaches from the perspective of the Reformed traditions: Protestant, Calvinist, Covenantal- if the pulpit is not going in this direction, the church never will.
  2. It is a church with the right preaching of the Word- the Catholic Church believes the church created the bible. The Reformers believed that God’s Word creates the church (1 Peter 1.23). Paul believed the gospel keeps the church persevering (1 Cor 15.1-2). This is how the pulpit drives the church’s direction.
  3. It is a church with the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper- after God creates His people through the gospel invisibly, baptism creates the church visibly. Then the Lord’s Supper marks them off continually.
  4. It is a church with a robust practice of church membership- this is really the flip side of number 3, but in our day so necessary to specify. Church membership simply answers the question, “who is the church?” Unless everyone knows the answer to that, evangelism and conversion will be seriously undercut.

We have a good number of members at our church that would never identify themselves as “Reformed.” But if they believe everything I am preaching, the older lady at my church who never heard of John Calvin is more Reformed than the 25-year old 5-Point Calvinist at the seeker church down the road. May God make that church down the road Reformed for His glory, and may all Reformed churches be always reforming.

What does it mean to be “Reformed”? part 4

First, it means you are unashamedly Protestant. Second, it means you are unashamedly Calvinist. Third, I propose to you, it means you have a Covenantal understanding of history.

This one is mostly a historical argument. Covenant Theology is articulated in much of the Reformed Confessions from the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly the Westminster Confessions, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, and, not to mention, the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith. I encourage you to read those confessions, search the Scriptures to see if what they are saying is true, and see if you are not a Covenant theologian on some level.

I would also argue this is a logical necessity if you consider yourself a Calvinist. There is a lot more that could be said, but I would just point out three major elements of covenant theology, and ask a few questions to help you discern whether or not you are a Covenant theologian.

  1. Covenant Theology makes the gospel Trinitarian- The Father, Son, and Spirit are all distinct Persons working for the salvation of sinners, and all working in total unity with each other for the salvation of sinners. Do you believe God decreed all of history from all eternity (Isaiah 46.8-10)? And if you do, do you belive that decree is unitarian, or Trinitarian? If you say “Trinitarian,” then I say you believe in the Covenant of Redemption.
  2. Covenant Theology says God’s covenants frame all of the bible and all of history- from that one Covenant of Redemption flows all of the Bible. Do you believe any promises or warnings from God in the Bible fall outside of the Covenant of Redemption? Forget ‘continuity and discontinuity’; do you believe the Bible is united or divided? If you think the Bible is a unit, then I say you believe in the one Covenant of Grace.
  3. Covenant Theology says God has chosen to save and sanctify and bless one people from Genesis to Revelation- within the one Covenant of Grace, there is a people that the Father gives to the Son. Not two peoples. Not two plans. Not two blessings. Not a replacement of one people with another. One people that the Son laid His life down for (Ephesians 5.2). Do you believe the Bride of Christ is made up of Jews and Gentiles? If you do, then look at all of God’s promises in the Bible to His elect Bride, and I think you will find you have a Reformed view of the people of God.

I do not think Dispensationalists are heretics in the false teaching sense, at all. But I do think the classic and normative views of Dispensationalism are not Reformed at best, and are taking the focus off of Christ and His love for His Bride at worst. They can say they are gospel-centered, but when the “hope” of a Jew lay outside of the blessings for all peoples, tribes, nations, and languages– even a 1000 years of non-gospel blessings in the view of many– it no longer keeps the gospel at the center of the story.

Is “Annihilationism” bad?

Annihilationism is the teaching that Hell does not last forever, that eventually unbelievers are annihilated, rather than suffering eternal conscious torment. Is this a bad teaching?

Of course it is. For at least four reasons:

  1. It is unbiblical- John 5.29 says there is a “resurrection of life” and a “resurrection of judgment.” Everyone knows that for the resurrection of life to be eternal it is only congruent that the resurrection of judgment is eternal. Annihilationism undermines the plain reading of texts like these, which ultimately undermines the authority of Scripture. You might not realize the damage undermining texts like these does until it is too late.
  2. It minimizes the holiness of God- People reject the eternality of hell because it seems unloving to them. But that fails to recognize that even one sin against an infinitely holy God is an infinitely horrible sin. The forever-ness of hell matches the holiness of God.
  3. It minimizes the goodness of God- God has been so patient with mankind. Adam broke God’s Law despite a perfect situation. Cain killed Abel. Everyone rebelled at Babel. Israel worshiped the golden calf before Moses even got down from the mountain. David killed Uriah. Years and years God was patient with Israel. God even sent His Son into the world to save sinners. But everyone rejected Him. He never sinned, yet all hated Him, and nailed Him to the cross. But God still created the church, and sent the gospel to the ends of the earth. And yet people still think God is too unloving. “Jesus is the only way to salvation” is so narrow-minded. “Homosexuality is a sin” is so bigoted. America is killing babies. And yet God has not flooded the earth or wiped out mankind in any way. He’s patient. He’s merciful. The gospel continues to go forth. And yet when people continue to reject God, you still think eternal hell is unjust?
  4. It minimizes the cross- Hell goes on forever because no one can fully repay the offense of their sin. Only Jesus satisfied God’s wrath fully on the cross (Romans 3.26). Only Jesus could absorb the full anger of God and satisfy divine justice. In that way, Jesus has experienced more wrath than all those in the Lake of Fire will ever experience combined.

I know some great Christians have believed in Annihilation, but that is no reason to be ok with wrong doctrine, especially one that gets closer to the heart of the gospel than almost anyone realizes.

“Free grace” vs “Cheap grace”

There are some who call themselves “free grace” Christians, who believe that repentance is not necessary to be saved. They believe if we call people to repent we are preaching works-righteousness. They are not against repentance, just against it being part of the gospel call.

I believe John MacArthur’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus, has already settled this issue. But I still know of some who hold to “free grace” theology. And I say, they are stealing that phrase. They do not preach free grace, but rather cheap grace.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of free grace. Jesus paid it all! So for those who trust in Him, salvation is absolutely free. But the kicker: Jesus even paid to purchase faith for His elect people (Romans 5.5-6: Jesus died while we were weak, so that the Holy Spirit could be poured into our hearts). In other words, Jesus paid it all! It was costly for Christ, but His death makes all of salvation completely free for believers. And because we know He paid it all, we can have God-ordained confidence to call all people to repent, and God’s elect WILL repent in faith. No doubt. 100%. Because Jesus paid for all of it!

The modern “free grace” movement cheapens the grace of God by saying Jesus paid for less than He actually paid for. They think the grace of God in salvation is not as expensive, so to speak (i..e. “No way God would require acts of repentance in His people, that’s too much!”).

Another thing that is actually happening is they think we are saying salvation is dependent on repentance. No! Salvation is dependent on the absolute sovereign mercy of God and the absolute complete work of Christ and the absolute mysterious work of the Spirit!

If what the “free grace” people are saying is that salvation is dependent on faith, then no one will be saved. Can you really depend on any human being to believe (John 6.44)?

The only way salvation comes is if it truly comes for FREE, through the sovereign, miraculous, gracious work of God Himself. And if God really does 100% of the work of salvation, then no need to sell God short by calling His people to anything but faith-filled repentance. Don’t cheapen the grace of God. Make it sound as valuable as the Bible does.

The evil of the category of “mental illness”

I have many reasons why I generally disagree with the category of mental illness. I will just share one: it is a horror that people would put other people into some “lesser” category. Two examples of how you might unwittingly do this:

  1. Suppose someone says they suffer from “post-traumatic stress disorder.” You have heard of others who have struggled with that. You have seen the harmful effects of it. You have never suffered the kind of trauma they have experienced. So instead of seeing them as a fellow sinner made in God’s image, in need of God’s grace just like you, and instead of moving into their life to know them and love them and try to understand their experiences, you decide you are not gifted enough to minister to them. So you never really get to know them the way you might with someone who has no “label.” Or at the very least, you will wait to get to know them until they are “cured.”
  2. Suppose you know someone with Down Syndrome. You have internal compassion for them and their family, but you figure you can never have a regular conversation with that person. So you don’t even try. Maybe they visit your church, but you don’t even introduce yourself–maybe even unwittingly you ignore them because “regular” people have more to offer the church, more money to give, more ways they can serve. So instead of seeing them as a fellow sinner made in God’s image, in need of God’s grace just like you, and instead of moving into their life to know them and love them and try to understand their experiences, you decide you are not gifted enough to minister to them. They have “special needs” that you could never meet.

I pray the Lord help us see same-ness before we ever see differences. Every single human being has the exact same level of need for the gospel.