The phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming) has been used so often as to make it a motto or slogan. People have used it to support a surprising array of theological and ecclesiastical programs and purposes. Scholars have traced its origins to a devotional book written by Jodocus van Lodenstein in 1674. Van Lodenstein, no doubt, had no intention of being a phrase-maker or sloganeer. What was his intention, and what did he mean by this phrase?

Van Lodenstein was a minister in the Reformed Church of the United Provinces in what we know today as the Netherlands. This church was born of decades of faithful preaching by ministers—many educated in Geneva—who risked their lives to carry the gospel, first into the French-speaking regions of the Low Countries, and later into the Dutch-speaking regions farther north. Some ministers were martyred for their faith, but they gathered a rich harvest of committed believers. Their message of the need for the reform of the church according to the Bible resonated with many who saw the corruptions of the old church.

Under the rulers Charles V and Philip II, the government of the Low Countries made every effort to suppress the Reformed religion, which was a large part of the reason for the Dutch revolt against their Spanish overlords. This revolt (1568-1648) became known as the Eighty Years’ War, giving birth to a new state in the northern part of the Low Countries. In this new state—the Dutch Republic, also known as the United Provinces—the Reformed Church was dominant, receiving government support and becoming the church of the majority of the population by the middle of the seventeenth century.

This church subscribed to the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and had an essentially presbyterian form of government. Interference from the Protestant civil authorities of the new state limited the freedom of the Reformed Church, particularly in matters of discipline. That interference, in part, led to a crisis in the church in the early seventeenth century with the rise of Arminianism. That crisis was addressed and settled at the great international synod held in the city of Dordrecht in 1618-19. The Canons of Dort prepared at this synod became another doctrinal authority in the life of the church.

Jodocus van Lodenstein was born into a prominent family in the city of Delft in 1620. He was educated by two of the most distinguished Reformed professors of the day: the scholastic and pietist theologian Gisbertus Voetius of Utrecht and the covenant theologian Johannes Cocceius of Franeker. While being personally friendly with both theologians, he was more influenced by Voetius. Voetius stressed both precise theology and Christian living. Van Lodenstein was called to serve as a pastor in Utrecht, where he ministered from 1653 until his death in 1677. As a pastor, he always encouraged the faithful to disciplined, vital Christianity.

Van Lodenstein was an inheritor of a body clearly and fully reformed according to the Reformed or Calvinistic interpretation of the Bible. The Calvinists often described their vision of the church in three categories: doctrine, worship, and church government. In all three of these areas, the Dutch Reformed Church was thoroughly Calvinistic, similar in most ways to Calvinistic churches throughout the rest of Europe.

No church’s life is ever static, however, and van Lodenstein certainly saw some changes in his lifetime. In doctrine, for example, Reformed theologians were developing a covenant theology that would give great insight into both the structure of the unfolding revelation of the Bible and the work of Christ. Most Reformed Christians have seen this as a real theological advance. Van Lodenstein also saw the increasing use of the organ in public worship in the Reformed churches in his time. He knew the debates as to whether this change was a reformation or a deformation in the worship of the church. Are these the kinds of changes that he had in mind when he wrote about a church reformed and always reforming?

The answer to this question is no. Van Lodenstein was not thinking about adjustments and improvements to the church’s doctrine, worship, and government. These matters of external reform had been absolutely necessary when the Reformers accomplished them in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But for Calvinists like van Lodenstein, they had been definitively accomplished and settled. He was not contemplating the value of relatively minor changes. He was not a man of later centuries who believed progress and change were necessary and good in and of themselves. He believed the Bible was clear on the foundations of doctrine, worship, and government, and that the Reformed churches had reformed these things correctly. In this sense, reform was a return to the teaching of the Bible. The Reformers had gotten these things right, and they were settled.

The great concern of ministers like van Lodenstein was not the externals of religion—as absolutely important as they are—but rather the internal side of religion. Van Lodenstein was a Reformed pietist and part of the Dutch Second Reformation. As such, his religious concerns were very similar to those of the English Puritans. They all believed that once the externals of religion had been carefully and faithfully reformed according to the Word of God, the great need was for ministers to lead people in the true religion of the heart. They saw the great danger of their day not as false doctrine or superstition or idolatry, but as formalism. The danger of formalism is that a church member could subscribe to true doctrine, participate in true worship in a biblically regulated church, and yet still not have true faith. As Jesus had warned against the Pharisees of His day, citing the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8).

The part of religion that always needs reforming is the human heart. It is vital religion and true faith that must be constantly cultivated. Formalism, indifferentism, and conformism must all be vigorously opposed by a faithful ministry.

Van Lodenstein and those who stood with him believed that the Canons of Dort presented a vision of true religion like their own. In the battle against Arminianism, one of the great issues had been the doctrine of regeneration. In sixteenth-century Reformed theology, theologians used regeneration as one of several synonyms for sanctification. So, for example, Article 24 of the Belgic Confession could state that we are regenerated by faith. But in the struggle against the Arminians, regeneration took on a more technical meaning, referring to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in planting the new life in the soul that is necessary for faith. This new use of regeneration explained how faith was a gift of God, not the work of human free will. But it also explained how Christians were, by the grace of God, able to live a new life, pursuing holiness. The Canons of Dort declared:

When God carries out this good pleasure in his chosen ones, or works true conversion in them, he not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.
This doctrine of regeneration was used, then, to stress the new principle of life in the Christian and the need for that new life to be lived out. The Christian needed to eschew formalism and live out his faith in the daily struggle against sin, finding rest and hope in the promises and Spirit of God.

So what did van Lodenstein mean by his famous phrase reformed and always reforming? Probably something like this: since we now have a church reformed in the externals of doctrine, worship, and government, let us always be working to ensure that our hearts and lives are being reformed by the Word and Spirit of God. Whatever other meanings may be made of this phrase, this original meaning is well worth pondering and preserving.


Dr. Robert Godfrey recently retired from WESTMINSTER SEMINARY CALIFORNIA as President. He has also been Professor of Church History, having written on the Reformation and the Synod of Dordt for his Ph. D. at Stanford University. This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.


by Jonathan Master; PLACE FOR TRUTH
March 21, 2017

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.[1]
This quote, contained in both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, has always struck me as particularly well-put. More than that, the truth it describes, known as the perspicuity (or clarity) of scripture is a great and enduring comfort.

But something struck me recently as I read through this statement again. While the clarity of scripture is a great comfort, it also presents an ideal that we often try to avoid emulating. What I mean is that this ideal of communicating clearly to both “learned and unlearned” is something we praise and embrace in the scriptures – and rightly so. But we often avoid it in our own contemporary discussions of the Bible and theology.

This avoidance takes at least two forms. The first and most obvious is the jargon-filled obscurantism which passes for academic theological publication today. This is not limited to theology, of course. For years, Dennis Dutton gave an annual award for the worst academic writing he’d encountered in the last twelve months. He called it, quite appropriately, the Bad Writing Contest. One of the shorter excerpts he gives is this: “If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalize’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”[2] That is worthy of a Bad Writing Award, though I have to admit I’ve waded through worse sentences in modern theological books. I don’t for a moment believe that the author knows what “enunciatory modality” really is; I certainly don’t, and I’m not sure I’m intended to.

But there is another, perhaps worse, type of theological writing and speaking, so different from the clarity of God’s word. It is the kind described by J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism. Machen describes the liberal preacher with these words:

It may well be doubted, however, whether the assertion ‘I believe that Jesus is God,’ or the like, on the lips of liberal preachers, is strictly truthful. The liberal preacher attaches indeed a real meaning to the words, and that meaning is very dear to his heart. He really does believe that ‘Jesus is God.’ But the trouble is that he attaches to the words a different meaning from that which is attached to them by the simple-minded person to whom he is speaking. He offends, therefore, against the fundamental principle of truthfulness in language. According to that fundamental principle, language is truthful, not when the meaning attached to the words by the speaker, but when the meaning intended to be produced in the mind of the particular person addressed, is in accordance with the facts. Thus the truthfulness of the assertion, ‘Jesus is God,’ depends upon the audience that is addressed. If the audience is composed of theologically trained persons, who will attach the same meaning to the word ‘God’ as that which the speaker attaches to it, then the language is truthful. But if the audience is composed of old-fashioned Christian, who have never attached anything but the old meaning to the word ‘God’ (the meaning which appears in the first verse of Genesis), then then language is untruthful. And in the latter case, not all the pious motives in the world will make the utterance right. Christian ethics do not abrogate common honesty; no possible desire of edifying the Church and of avoiding offense can excuse a lie.[3]

Daryl Hart summarizes Machen’s concern this way: “Machen parodied the liberal notion that each generation had to interpret the Bible or the creed according to its own time and place…According to Machen, the standard liberal response was, ‘Of course we accept the proposition that ‘the third day he arose from the dead’’ but because each generation has a right to interpret the creed in its own way, “we interpret that to mean, ‘the third day He did not rise again from the dead.’”[4]

Obscure technical jargon is one thing, but this is something entirely different. Here is the intentional use of language to say one thing to one group and to communicate something entirely different to another. In this case, these preachers and theologians actually used language to comfort and to fool – in other words, to pacify – the unlearned masses, knowing that the same language communicated something entirely different to their own peers. It was dangerous and deceitful.

But don’t we often do just the same thing? Our evangelical academics can’t afford to lose the support of the average person in the pew, yet they also crave the acceptance that comes with being perceived as being on the modern cutting edge.

And it is not just the scholars and false teachers who do this. Don’t we often parse our words very carefully when speaking to our non-Christian friends and co-workers? We want to avoid totally denying the teachings of the Bible, but also to phrase things in such a way so as to escape the sharp edge of counter-cultural offensiveness. There are topics and doctrines taught by Jesus Christ that we intentionally avoid by muddying the waters and changing the subject. We actively avoid clarity.

It is a comfort to remember that the Bible was written so that both learned and unlearned can understand its main teachings. The scriptures are not written to deceive or to trick us, nor are they intended to lead us away from a clear and honest understanding of their meaning. Thank God for this. And as you thank God for the clarity of his words, consider for a moment the lack of clarity which so characterizes our own.



[1] The Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) I:7 [emphasis mine]. Like much of the 1689 BCF, this was taken from the earlier Westminster Confession of Faith.
[2] This example, and many others can be obtained at http://denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm (accessed 2/5/2014).
[3] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002 reprint) p. 111-112.
[4] D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R 2003) p. 77.

Jonathan Master serves as professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. At this year’s US Ministers’ Conference (May 30 – June 01) he will be speaking on the theme of the Word of God in his two addresses, Living and Active, and Sharper Than A Two-Edged Sword.


Let’s Go Back to ‘Only Begotten’
Charles Lee Irons / November 23, 2016

The classical doctrine of the Trinity affirms that within the one, undivided being of God there are three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It also affirms that what distinguishes the three persons are their relations of origin: the Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The second point is referred to as the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. This doctrine has traditionally been grounded in a number of scriptural proof texts, one set of which is the five Johannine verses that, according to the Vulgate and the King James Version, affirm the Son is the “only begotten” Son of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9).

In recent times, however, many evangelical theologians have doubted whether the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is indeed taught in Scripture. A principal source of doubt has been the 20th-century scholarly consensus that the Greek word monogenēs does not mean “only begotten.” Scholars have argued that the compound Greek adjective is not derived from monos (“only”) + gennao (“beget”) but from monos (“only”) + genos (“kind”). Thus, they argue, the term shouldn’t be translated “only begotten” but “only one of his kind” or “unique.”[1] Reflecting the scholarly consensus, most modern English versions have adopted this new understanding and translate the five Johannine uses of monogenēs as “only” (CEV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, RSV) or “one and only” (HCSB/CSB, NIV, NLT). Only a few retain “only begotten” (NKJV, MEV, NASB).

This shift in the scholarly understanding of the term effectively removed a crucial scriptural underpinning for the doctrine that the Son is begotten of the Father. In theory, other proof texts could still be appealed to, but once this brick was removed, for some it seemed the whole wall was ready to fall.

In this article, I would like to offer a brief defense of the traditional translation “only begotten.”

Examining the Linguistic Data

First, a search of Thesaurus Linguae Graecae[2]—a comprehensive database of ancient, Koine, and medieval Greek—reveals that the word monogenēs is used most basically and frequently in contexts having to do with biological offspring. Its fundamental meaning is “only begotten” or “only child” in the sense of having no siblings. For example, Plato describes the primitive population of the mythical island of Atlantis as follows:

Thereon dwelt one of the natives originally sprung from the earth, Evenor by name, with his wife Leucippe; and they had for offspring an only begotten daughter, Cleito. (Critias 113d; LCL)

This biological usage can be seen in the instances of monogenēs in non-Christological contexts in the New Testament. Three times, Luke uses monogenēs to describe various “only begottens” whom Jesus healed: “the only son” of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:12); the “only daughter” of Jairus (Luke 8:42); and the demon-oppressed boy whose father pleaded, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child” (Luke 9:38 ESV).

It must be acknowledged that there are indeed instances where a translation such as “only,” “only one of its kind,” or “unique” is required by the context. For example, Clement calls the phoenix, a creature he thought really existed, “unique” (1 Clement 25:1). An ancient treatise describes trees that exist in “only one kind.” But these are uniformly metaphorical extensions of the basic meaning, “only begotten” or “only child.” Context determines which usage is in view, and the five Johannine uses are in the context of sonship, not botany.

Second, careful examination of the word list of Thesaurus Linguae Graecae reveals at least 145 other words based on the -genēs stem. Three examples will suffice: theogenēs (“born of God”), neogenēs (“newborn, newly produced”), and, my personal favorite, konchogenēs (“born from a shell”; picture the birth of Venus). Of these 145 words, fewer than a dozen have meanings involving the notion of genus or kind—for example, homogenēs (“of the same genus”) and heterogenēs (“of different kind”).

In addition, there are at least 58 Greek proper names built on the -genēs stem, like the common Diogenēs (“born of Zeus”).[3] Since these are names presumably given by parents to their children, we may assume they generally have some connection with the embodied reality of biological offspring, rather than the abstract notion of species or kind. The list of -genēs words and proper names continues to grow as we move forward into medieval (Byzantine) Greek. Taken together, this wealth of -genēs words constitutes critical data demonstrating that the -genēs stem strongly encodes notions of derivation, offspring, and begetting throughout the history of the Greek language.

But what about the etymological argument that the -genēs portion of monogenēs comes from genos (“kind”) rather than gennao (“beget”)? This argument collapses once it is recognized that both genos and gennao derive from a common Indo-European root, ǵenh (“beget, arise”).[4] This root produces a fair number of Greek words having to do with biological concepts of begetting, birth, and offspring. In fact, the word genos itself sometimes means “descendant” (Rev. 22:16). True, it can also mean “kind” in a scientific or classification sense where literal biological descent is not in view (e.g., “different kinds of languages” [1 Cor 14:10]). But the scientific or classification usage is a metaphorical extension of the literal biological sense, since the abstract concept of “kind” is modeled on the embodied biological experience of the similarities shared by offspring descended from a common parent.

One Objection

One common objection to the traditional translation has been the use of monogenēs in Hebrews 11:17:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son. (ESV)

Isaac wasn’t the only son of Abraham, since he had an older brother, Ishmael, from a different mother (Hagar). Therefore, the argument goes, the term doesn’t mean “only begotten” son but “unique” son.

But this objection fails to reckon with the inherent flexibility of language. It may not be literally true that Isaac is Abraham’s only son, but he can still be called “only begotten” to highlight the fact that he is Abraham’s sole heir. Ishmael has been rejected from the line of promise. Sarah told Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son, “for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). God agreed with Sarah and told Abraham to do as she said, “for through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (v. 12; quoted in Rom. 9:7; Heb. 11:18). As a result, it is “as if” Isaac is Abraham’s only begotten son. This “as if” usage of monogenēs is attested elsewhere in Greek literature.

Restoring the Brick

I continue to research the relevant Greek data, but it should be clear that a decent case can be made for rendering monogenēs as “only begotten” in the five Christological occurrences in the writings of John. To be sure, we mustn’t think the entire doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son stands or falls on this one word. After all, the word itself is silent on the question of eternal generation or begetting.

A number of other key proof texts and broader biblical-theological themes need to be brought to bear in order to fashion a robust case for the doctrine. Yet my research suggests we have good reason to restore one of the bricks in the wall of scriptural support for the belief that the Son is begotten of the Father, as the church fathers taught and as the church confesses in the Nicene Creed.

Author’s note: For a more detailed argument, see my contribution to the forthcoming book, Retrieving Eternal Generation, edited by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (2017).

[1] Dale Moody, “God’s Only Son: The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version,” Journal of Biblical Literature 72 (1953): 213–19; Richard N. Longenecker, “The One and Only Son,” in The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation, ed. Kenneth L. Barker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 119–26; Gerard Pendrick, “MONOGENES,” New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 587–600.

[2] This massive searchable repository operated by the University of California, Irvine, contains most Greek literary texts from the 8th/7th century BC to the fall of Constantinople in AD 1453.

[3] Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, vols. 1–5, ed. Peter M. Fraser et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987–2013).

[4] Robert Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 1.266, 272–73.


Charles Lee Irons (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) teaches New Testament at the California Graduate School of Theology in Garden Grove. He resides with his wife and three children in Los Angeles, California, and is a ruling elder of New Life Burbank (PCA)


Jesus and the Federal Budget?
by Adam Parker

One of the interesting aspects of Scripture is that it doesn’t tell us the precise way in which moral principles should be implemented in the civil sphere–even while it contains ironclad moral commands and lasting principles for the lives of God’s people. This makes sense for quite a number of reasons.

In the first place, it is important for us to note that the Old Testament was written in the context of a theocracy–a situation far distant from our own. Today, the theocratic nation of Israel is a matter of history and no longer in existence. The Westminster Confession of Faith even goes so far as to say that that “sundry judicial laws…expired together with the State of that people” (WCF 19.4).
The New Testament was written in the context of an underdog atmosphere where the ability of Christians to have any influence on the laws of Rome would have seemed laughably absurd. The New Testament doesn’t envision a scenario of cultural/political conquest for Christians, but instead assumes that the readers are powerless minorities who need to learn how to live as a minority in the face of opposition.

In spite of these realities, we continue to find ourselves in an environment where Christians of various stripes insist that the Bible gives us very specific commands for how the government should be run. One of the clearest examples of this at the moment is last week’s announcement that over 100 evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders made a joint statement challenging the proposed budget set forth by the Executive Branch of the U.S. government.

The letter, which is addressed to Paul Ryan, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, and Nancy Pelosi, states that America has a moral responsibility to not reduce its International Affairs Budget. One might wonder whether the Bible instructs governments as to how to set their budgets. According to the letter in question, it is found in Matthew 25, where Jesus says “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

These are words, of course, which Jesus directs to His disciples in which He is telling His people how to live in the world and to love other believers. These are words directed to the church of Jesus Christ, for sure. It’s hard to conceive of the disciples standing before Caesar and talking budget cuts. My suspicion is that they felt they had a more important message to share.

I am not suggesting that the United States government should or should not seek to assist the poor. However, as a pastor and a minister of the Gospel, I would be out of my depth to suggest what a wise or unwise use of the federal budget would be in this regard.

Some Christians are adamant that the federal government should have little to no budget. Some think that we should have a massive budget that protects every citizen–not only of the U.S., but also of the world. What troubles me most of all is the idea that we should baptize our political preferences and make them the law of the land. This happens all the time, but in this case it’s especially sanctimonious and troubling.

Consider the wording of the final paragraph:

“As followers of Christ, it is our moral responsibility to urge you to support and protect the International Affairs Budget, and avoid disproportionate cuts to these vital programs that ensure that our country continues to be the ‘shining city upon a hill,'”

The idea that the signers of the letter would accept the statement that the United States is “the ‘shining city upon a hill'” is not only disturbing, but another symptom of a Messianic complex that America is still, evidently, struggling to shrug off.

In Matthew 5:14 Jesus, speaking to his disciples, says “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Why does Jesus say that his people should do good works in this passage? Because, he says, so that “others…may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (5:16). In seeking to apply an imperative made to the church to the United States of America, we feed rather than lessen America’s messianic self-identification.

I am especially troubled that there are signatories of this letter within my own denomination (the PCA), but perhaps even more so that two of the signatories sign the letter, not as concerned citizens, but as the President of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the Vice President of Governmental Relations of the NAE, respectively. This is a lobbyist group that serves, among many others, the denomination of which I am a part. These are men presuming to speak on behalf of my church and other constituents.

I believe that we need to think long and hard about whether or not we want to be associated with a group that speaks on behalf of us while dictating foreign policy and budget to the government.
The answer to these problems, in part, is for Christians to have a modest assessment of the Bible’s teachings and how closely they really apply in the political realm. In the short-term, I wonder whether the PCA ought to even continue its association with the NAE.


Adam Parker is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America and the Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church in Pearl, MS. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson and the Associate Editor of Reformation 21.


The Holiness Instinct (and the Unexpected Temptation)
March 23, 2017 by Tim Challies
Though I didn’t know it when I began, this article would come to hang on a single moment, a single moment of temptation. On Saturday I found myself musing on personal holiness and the joyful reality that you can be far holier than you ever would have thought possible. On Sunday I began scribbling thoughts about the fact that God is able to transform you to such a degree that you develop entirely new instincts toward sin so that what was once alluring is now appalling. On Monday I had the unexpected opportunity to see if this was true.

God is wholly and relentlessly committed to our holiness. He is committed to our purity, to putting our sin to death. He is so committed to this that he will create within us a whole new relationship to sin, and even to our favorite pet sins. See, each of us enters the Christian life with sins that are so appealing, patterns of sin that are so deeply entrenched. We wonder if we can ever have freedom from these sins. We wonder if we will ever be able to resist these temptations, if we can ever see deep and lasting change.

As we grow in the Christian life we are challenged to fight such sin. The person who struggles with anger hears a sermon that teaches and applies “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). He sees his sin with new clarity, he calls out to God for help, and he goes toe-to-toe with the devil to put this sin to death. The person who skims a little off the top or takes it easy at work encounters these words in his personal devotions: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (4:28). He is cut to the heart, asks God for forgiveness, and searches God’s Word for what it says about a life of righteous honesty. The person who loves to gossip suddenly has these words come to mind during a time of corporate confession: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (4:29). She understands that God himself is challenging her and she repents and commits herself to speaking only what edifies and heals.

Over time these people find that the battle grows easier. A day comes when she realizes it has been weeks since she has gossiped, a day comes when he realizes it has been months since he has had an angry outburst. But it gets even better than that. One day she is faced with the temptation to gossip and her first instinct is to reject the opportunity and instead to speak words that give grace to those who hear. One day he is presented with a golden opportunity to enrich himself at someone else’s expense, and without even thinking about it, he turns away, choosing instead to do his work well and to give with generosity. Both understand that this is a profound evidence of God’s grace—he has given them entirely new instincts toward sin. Where their old instinct was to indulge, their new instinct is to refrain. Where their old instinct was toward sin, their new instinct is toward holiness. They now delight to do what is right in an area that was once the source of so much sin and so much temptation.

All of this was on my mind over the weekend. And then on Monday I went to search for something on Twitter. It was an innocent and well-intentioned search meant to help me find and respond to important information. But there at the top of the results, in high definition and impossible to miss, was a pornographic picture of a woman displaying what she offered and inviting me to just click for more. There was a time when that image would have been a sore temptation. There was a time when that image would have been an excuse for indulgence: “Satan tempted me and I barely stood a chance,” I could have said. But not this time. Within the smallest fraction of a second my heart, my eyes, my hand had reacted. My heart had said “no,” my eyes had turned away, and my hand had shut down the app. It was instantaneous. It was amazing. It was instinct. It was a gift of God, transforming and overwhelming a temptation of the devil. It was a moment to give thanks and praise to God. In this area, at least, God has transformed me. He has given me a new desire with a matching new instinct. And I give him the glory.


10 Ways God Works Suffering for Our Good by Tim Challies/INFORMING THE REFORMING
March 23, 2017 
It is a conviction meant to quiet our minds and encourage our hearts: In some way God has a hand in our suffering. Whatever circumstances we experience can no more arise without the hand of God than a saw can cut without the hand of the carpenter. Job in his suffering did not say, “The Lord gave and the devil took away,” but, “The Lord gave and the Lord took away.” Suffering never comes our way apart from the purpose and providence of God and for that reason, suffering is always significant, never meaningless. Here are some ways that God brings good from our suffering.

We can best see the ugly face of sin and the reality of spiritual childishness in the mirror of suffering.

1st.–Suffering is our preacher and teacher. It was Luther who said that he could never properly understand some of the Psalms until he endured suffering. A sick bed often teaches more than a sermon, and suffering first teaches us about our sin and sinfulness. Suffering also teaches us about ourselves, for in times of health and prosperity all seems to be well and we are both humble and grateful, but in suffering we come to see the ingratitude and rebellion of our hearts. We can best see the ugly face of sin and the reality of spiritual childishness in the mirror of suffering.

2nd.–Suffering is the means of making our hearts more upright. In times of prosperity our hearts are often divided, half pursuing God and half obsessed with the world. Our hearts can be like a compass needle that swings wildly between two poles. But in suffering God takes away the world so the heart will hold to him in full sincerity. Just as we heat a crooked rod to straighten it, God holds us over the fire of suffering to make us more upright. It is good that when sin has bent our souls away from God, he will use suffering to straighten them.

If Christ’s head was crowned with thorns, why do we think ours should only ever be crowned with roses?
3rd.–Suffering conforms us to Christ. There is meant to be symmetry and proportion between the model and the canvas, between Christ and his people. Suffering is like an artist’s pencil that draws Christ’s image upon us. If we want to be parts of Christ’s body, we must want to be like him, and his life was a series of sufferings, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). If Christ’s head was crowned with thorns, why do we think ours should only ever be crowned with roses? It is good to be like Christ, and conformity often comes through suffering.

4th.–Suffering destroys sin. There are loads of sin remaining in even the best heart and suffering serves to purge it, just like fire purifies gold. The fire of suffering purges away all spiritual impurities—pride, lust, covetousness, and a million more. It never harms the soul, but only ever leaves it more pure and more beautiful.

5th.–Suffering loosens our hearts from the world. If we want to remove a tree from the ground, we first need to loosen the earth from around its roots. Just like that, God digs away our earthly comforts to loosen our hearts from the world. It is God’s desire that our hearts hold to this world by only the smallest root, and suffering serves to shake away all attachments.

6th.–Suffering makes way for comfort. God tempers outward pain with inward peace. “Your sorrow shall be turned to joy” (John 16:20), promises Jesus. In suffering we see water turned into wine, bitter medicine being chased with choice desserts. Many believers can testify that in suffering they have had the sweetest experiences of joy and the closest sense of God’s nearness.

7th.–Suffering shows that God makes much of us. Job asked, “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him?” (Job 7:17). In suffering, God makes much of us in at least three ways. First, he condescends so low as to take notice of us at all. It shows our place in God’s world that he thinks us worthy to suffer. Second, suffering is a sign of sonship. “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7). Third, suffering makes God’s people more renowned in the world. Soldiers are never so admired as for their victories, and saints never more so for their sufferings. After all, isn’t Job the sufferer more renowned than Alexander the conqueror?

When God brings a flood of suffering upon us, it is then that we fly to the ark, Christ.
8th.–Suffering is a means to joy. Suffering brings joy by bringing us nearer to God. The full moon is the furthest from the sun and, likewise, many people in the full moon of prosperity are furthest from God. When God begins to remove our worldly comforts, it is then that we run to him and make peace with him. It was only when the prodigal was needy that he returned home to his father (Luke 15:13) and only when the dove could not find any rest that she flew to the ark. When God brings a flood of suffering upon us, it is then that we fly to the ark, Christ.

9th.–Suffering silences the wicked. Unbelievers love to claim that Christians serve God only out of self-interest. Therefore, God has his people suffer so they will shut the mouths of those who cast aspersions on them and their God. It shuts the blasphemers’ mouths to see Christians hold fast to their God in suffering, for as they do so they prove that they serve God first out of love.

10th.–Suffering makes way for glory. As ploughing prepares the earth for a crop, so suffering prepares and makes us fit for glory. The skilled artist knows that gold paint shows best against dark colors, and, similarly, God first lays the dark colors of suffering, then brushes on the golden color of glory. Suffering does not earn us glory, but it does prepare us for it.

In all these ways we see that suffering is not harmful to believers but beneficial. Thus we should train ourselves to look less at the evil of suffering and more at the good, to look less at the dark side of the cloud and more at the light. The worst that God ever does to his children is to drive them toward heaven, toward himself.


I love to plunder the Puritans! These ten points and much of the wording was drawn from Thomas Watson’s A Divine Cordial.


Southern Baptists – An Unregenerate Denomination by Tim Challies/INFORMING THE REFORMING
July 6, 2005
I remember my introduction to Southern Baptist churches. My parents had just moved down to Atlanta and were attending Charles Stanley’s church (First Baptist). I had listened to Stanley on the radio while driving to work over the past year and was eager to see this bustling church with 15,000 members. I was amazed at the size of the building and quite impressed by the size of the sanctuary. But as it began to fill I came to realize that it could not seat more than a couple of thousand people. I knew there were two services, but even with that number there would not be anywhere near to 15,000 people attending. My parents assured me this was typical. This was an odd concept to me. I had only ever been a part of Reformed churches where attendance was near 100% each Sunday. If a family or individual did not attend for any length of time, the elders would be sure to follow-up to find the reason. If the reason was not biblically sound, the church would begin the painful process of discipline. It was assumed and enforced that believers both need and want to be a part of their local church fellowship. Yet here I was at a huge church, a church that was the envy of many, that had only a fraction of the membership sitting in the seats on a Sunday morning.

It was only later that I learned this is typical for Southern Baptist churches. A few months ago I read Richard Belcher’s book A Journey in Purity, a theological novel in which the primary character, a young pastor, combats the problem of bloated membership rolls. He faces all sorts of pain and trials as he attempts to make membership in his church meaningful. As hard as it is to believe, the conflict he faced is drawn from real-world examples.

Jim Elliff has written an article which is sure to draw the ire of many Southern Baptists. I assume Jim is not concerned as I know this is not the first time he has done that. The article is entitled, “Southern Baptists, an Unregenerate Denomination.” Ouch. Elliff suggests churches should reexamine the way they introduce other pastors. How’s this for an introduction? “Here is Brother ______, pastor of a church of 15,000 members, 5500 of whom do not bother to come on a given Sunday morning, and 12,000 of whom do not come on Sunday evening. He is here to tell us about how to have a healthy, evangelistic church.” Ouch again.

Take a look at some of these statistics:

Out of the Southern Baptist’s 16,287,494 members, only 6,024,289, or 37%, on average, show up for their church’s primary worship meeting (usually Sunday morning). For an average church this means that if you have 200 in attendance on Sunday morning, you likely have 500-600 or even more on your roll.

In 1996, the last time the SBC kept these statistics, the number of Sunday evening attenders was equal to only 12.3% of the membership (in churches that had an evening meeting).
When all factors are considered, these figures suggest that nearly 90% of Southern Baptist church members appear to be little different from the “cultural Christians” who populate other mainline denominations.

In the Assembly of God’s 1990s “Decade of Harvest,” out of the 3.5 million supposedly converted, they showed a net gain of only 5 new attenders for every 100 recorded professions. SBC statistics are startlingly similar.

In one church Elliff preached at, which he considers quite typical, there were 7,000 on the active roll, but there were only 2000 in attendance on Sunday morning, and a mere 600-700 on Sunday evening. When you account for those attenders who are not members of this flagship church (i.e. guests and non-member children), you have about 1500 actual members coming in the morning and 500 or so in the evening out of 7,000 members.

Clearly, and this comes as no great surprise to those who are part of or are familiar with the Convention, there is something wrong here. Elliff suggests five steps to begin to combat the problem.

First, pastors must preach and teach on the subject of the unregenerate church member. People must be made aware that they can be in a church but be unsaved. They must be encouraged to examine themselves in a way that will show if they are sincere or sincerely deceived.

Second, pastors must address the issue of persistent sin among their members, including their sinful failure to attend the stated meetings of the church. This can only be done by reestablishing the forgotten practice of church discipline.

Third, churches should be more careful on the front end of church membership. Membership must only be extended to those who show evidence of conversion rather than to those who have merely walked down the aisle or ticked the appropriate box on a card.

Fourth, pastors must stop giving immediate verbal assurance to people who make professions of faith or who respond to their invitations. Assurance of salvation is a work of the Spirit, not a task for the pastor.

Fifth, finally, and most importantly, pastors must restore sound doctrine. Elliff points out, correctly, that revival is largely about the recovery of the true gospel. True conversion and true revival follows the recovery of the true and full gospel message.

Elliff points out one further interesting fact. In the 18th and 19th centuries, attendance at Baptist churches was often two or three times larger than membership. So a church with 200 members could expect to have 600 people attending in the 1790’s and over 400 in the 1830’s. Today a church with 200 members would expect fewer than 70 attenders (and only 20 in an evening service).

Elliff concludes in this way. “The next time someone asks how your church and your denomination are doing, tell the truth. Tell them that we have a new confidence in the inerrant Bible. Tell them that we have seminaries that promote orthodoxy, and new evangelistic fervor among the true believers. Tell them we have a lot to be excited about. But also tell them that when considered as a whole, most Southern Baptists need raising from the dead.” And truly the evidence indicates that this is the case. The SBC is a largely unregenerate denomination.

One observation I have made about Baptist churches is that there is an obsession with numbers. This is something I have not seen in Presbyterian or other Reformed churches. Baptists love to gather numbers and compare the size of their congregations. The pastors with the biggest churches seem to have the greatest influence among peers. This obsession with numbers cannot be healthy. Which army would you rather have? Gideon’s first army or his last? No church, and no denomination, should call itself healthy unless more people attend than are on the roll. Elliff says, “We would be closer to the revival we desire if we would admit our failure, humbly hang our heads, and seek to rectify this awful hindrance to God’s blessing. When we boast of how big we are, we are bragging about our shame.”

Amen. How many churches boast about their shame? How many pastors are respected for what they should be ashamed of?

The Southern Baptist churches have incredible potential. But there is such a rottenness in the churches that surely they are achieving only a tiny piece of this potential. Elliff’s five steps may be a great place for churches to begin shaking off their shame and to recover a biblical perspective on church membership.