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Encouragement from the Bern Synod of 1532

July 4, 2013

Let’s face it, when it comes to church life, it is easy to get caught up in the numbers, even if we know better.  We get excited when we see a crowd in church and discouraged when there is only a small number at a given service.  Our forefathers in the faith experienced the same thing, and the Acts of the Bern Synod of 1532 serve as a helpful reminder that God’s work with an individual or with small number of people is greatly important and worthy of our investment:

Our gracious lords decreed in the Reformation that each minister should preach on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  We have sometimes excused ourselves on the ground that we cannot obtain hearers.  But it will be deemed good that each endeavor as much as possible to observe the aforesaid preaching days, even if there are no more than one or two hearers.  The Lord was not annoyed to speak with a single Samaritan woman at the fountain.  How should it be an annoyance to a servant of Christ to speak for the glory of His Lord, even to the least important person on earth?  God is no respecter of persons, and a believing soul is more precious to Him than all the world.  This speaking on work days might be done not from the pulpit, but below, and might adopt the simplest manner possible.  That we are so ready to leave off, demonstrates how very little the glory of God is consequence to us, or that we have more regard for the great multitude than for the little band and the upright hearts which it should ever be our concern to help.  At the same time, there are many brothers who are glad to preach on all the days.  We praise their diligence, for it is a sign of an excellent zeal.

– Acts of the Synod of Bern, Chapter 41, translated by R. Sherman Isbell, in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, Vol. 1, 1523-1552, compiled with introductions by James T. Dennison, Jr., (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 272.

Simplicity in Preaching

June 12, 2013

The Confederate soldier Sam Watkins recounted in his memoirs hearing one preacher “who was so ‘high larnt’ that I don’t think anyone understood him but the generals.  The colonels might every now and then have understood a word, and maybe a few of the captains and lieutenants, because Lieutenant Lansdown told me he understood every word the preacher said, and further informed me that it was none of your one-horse, old-fashioned country prayers that privates knew anything about, but was bang-up, first-rate, orthodox.”

Apparently, Lieutenant Lansdown shared the same conviction as one old lady who once went to hear Bishop J. C. Ryle preach and came away disappointed.  After the service she told a friend, “I never heard a Bishop.  I thought I’d hear something great.  He’s nowt.  He’s no Bishop.  I could understand every word.”

When Ryle heard what the lady had said, he said it was the greatest compliment ever paid to his preaching.  It comes as no surprise, then, that Ryle held in high esteem those men of the eighteenth century evangelical revival who, as he put it, “rightly concluded that the very first qualification to be aimed at in a sermon is to be understood.”  Ryle went on to say that these men “were not ashamed to crucify their style, and to sacrifice their reputation for learning.”

May the Lord of the harvest strengthen His laborers to preach the Gospel clearly, to edify His body and to proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus to the lost in sound speech which is beyond reproach.

“I do not think that a Christian is born for himself…”

June 3, 2013

John Hooper, the English Reformer and Bishop of Gloucester during the reign of Edward VI, was of the opinion that the Christian life is one that is to be lived in the worship of God and in the service of others.  He expressed this eloquently in a January 1546 letter to Henry Bullinger of Zurich, saying,

But being at length delivered by the goodness of God, for which I am solely indebted to him and to yourselves, nothing now remains for me in reference to the remainder of my life and my last hour, but to worship God with a pure heart, and know my defects while living in this body, since indeed the the tenure of life is deceitful, and every man is altogether as nothing; and to serve my godly brethren in Christ, and the ungodly for Christ: for I do not think that a Christian is born for himself, or that he ought to live to himself; but that, whatever he has or is, he ought altogether to ascribe, not to himself, but to refer it to God as the author, and regard every thing that he possesses as common to all, according as the necessities and wants of his brethren may require.  I am indeed ashamed beyond measure, that I have not performed these duties heretofore; but that like a brute beast, as the greater part of mankind are wont to do, I have been a slave to my own lusts: but is better to be wise late, than not at all.

– From Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation, 1537-1558, Parker Society, 1847 cited by George M. Ella in Henry Bullinger: Shepherd of the Churches, (Durham: Go Publications, 2007), 367.

The Most Interesting Chapter in Reformed Confessional Literature?

February 26, 2013

It is sometimes said that fact is stranger than fiction.  Many times this is indeed the case, not least of all in the study of historical theology.  We take too much for granted and miss the various perspectives of our forefathers in the faith (which could prove helpful) if we make our heros of the past into twenty-first century Evangelicals (or Reformed Evangelicals, if you prefer) who agree with us on everything, with the possible exceptions of baptism and church government. 

Heinrich Bullinger and the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith of 1566 provide an interesting case in point.  Thomas Cranmer expressed his confidence in the Zurich Reformer by saying that “nothing of Bullinger’s required to be read and examined previously.”  With the exception of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic was the most widely adopted Continental Reformed Confession.  Chapter Eleven of the Second Helvetic treats “Of Jesus Christ, Being True God and Man, and the Only Saviour of the World.”  In that chapter, the confession affirms that Jesus “was most purely conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of Mary, who was always a virgin, even as the history of the Gospel does declare.”  This chapter also condemns the idea “that before the day of judgment there shall be a golden age in the earth, and that the godly shall possess the kingdoms of the world, their wicked enemies being trodden under foot” (i.e., a literal millenium).  The chapter concludes with these words: 

“And, to speak many things in a few words, with a sincere heart we believe, and with liberty of speech we freely profess, whatsoever things are defined out of the Holy Scriptures, and comprehended in the creeds, and in the decrees of those four first and most excellent councils—held at Nicæa, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon—together with blessed Athanasius’s creed and all other creeds like to these, touching the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ; and we condemn all things contrary to the same.  And thus we retain the Christian, sound, and Catholic faith, whole and inviolable, knowing that nothing is contained in the aforesaid creeds which is not agreeable to the Word of God, and makes wholly for the sincere declaration of the faith.”

My guess is that most Evangelicals, Reformed or not, will find something in the statements above with which they disagree, be it about Mary, the millenium, or the ancient councils and creeds.  And that’s all right.  It teaches us the virtue of Christian charity.  It helps us to learn the truth spoken by Martin Bucer, that it is not given for all to see the same thing at the same time.  If we can learn to be charitable with our forefathers in the faith who were flesh and blood like us, maybe we can learn to be charitable with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are still alive and breathing air.  May God grant that we would “accept him who faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1).

– The text of the Second Helvetic was taken from 


Martin Luther King Not Always Popular, but Still Right

January 21, 2013

In commemoration of Martin Luther King Day, I recall my reflections from two years ago.  I had recently read David J. Garrow’s Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for a doctoral seminar on American Christianity.  That Pulitzer Prize winning book, clocking in at a voluminous 625 pages, was not always a pleasant read due mostly to the sobering historical subject matter.  Nevertheless, it is a fine argument for how King was able to organize the Civil Rights movement and initiate lasting social and religious changes that still define America to this day.

Why I Would Not Have Supported Martin Luther King Back in the Day

I’m not a racist, and I don’t think I ever would have been. I’m a conservative, Bible-believing Christian who values a civil and moral society. I think my values would have been much the same if I lived in King’s era. I know I’m a sinner saved by grace, but I like to think of myself as a good person. But reading about King’s life and work has humbled me because I know that my conservative morality would have likely given me moral and intellectual justification to oppose King’s movement had I seen it unfold before my own eyes.

There is just one problem… King was right.

As a Wise Man Once Said…

December 20, 2012


Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb


Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Alleluia, Alleluia
Earth to heav’n replies

Against Thoughtless and Wanton Criticism of Teaching

October 22, 2012

If I were to take a guess, I would venture to say that most of the people who read this blog have at some point or another been in what could be called the “cage stage.”  We might describe the said “cage stage” as consisting in a strong zeal for the purity of church practice and doctrine and accuracy in the exposition of Scripture that we hear taught in the church.  Such a zeal is not bad in itself, but when one is in the “stage,” this zeal often expresses itself in unhelpful and uncharitable ways.  I’ve found myself there before.  Have you?  Fortunately for us, Martin Bucer anticipated folks like us and other sinfully critical souls nearly five hundred years ago:

This is why Christians are first of all to ask the Lord with great earnestness to grant them faithful ministers, and to watch diligently in choosing them to see that they walk in accordance with their calling and serve faithfully; and when these ministers come to warn, punish, teach or exhort in the Lord’s name, not to dismiss it thoughtlessly and despise this ministry, as sadly many are wont to do today.  Such people are so kind as to object to and judge the sermons and all the church activities of their ministers, just as if they had been appointed to do so and the only reason for hearing sermons was so that they might in the most unfriendly way discuss, distort and run down what had been said in them, or anything else which had been done in the church.  In such people you do not observe any thought of approaching sermons in such a way that they might in some way be moved by what they have heard in them to acknowledge their sins more fully, or to commit themselves more wholeheartedly to Christ and seek more earnestly to improve their ways; all they do is to judge and criticize anything which is said which applies to them, or which in some way they consider not to fit in with their carnal impudence (and not Christian freedom).  And when they praise something in a sermon, it is generally because it applies to other people, whom they like to hear criticized; and they take from such sermons nothing beyond an excuse to run down those they do not like, and not so that they might warned or built up.

– Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, trans. by Peter Beale, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 196, (emphasis mine).

What Could Be More Excellent?

September 11, 2012

I would venture to say that the name of Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587) is not particularly well-known, but maybe it should be.  Along with Zacharius Ursinus, he was one of the principal authors of the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563.  Both men were still in their twenties at the time.  But even much before this, the heart of Olevianus had been stirred to learn and teach others about God:

When I was just a boy, I was certainly inflamed with the desire for learning and teaching others about God.  It seemed to be just a small event, but in reality it was significant.  I came upon the writing of a certain learned man in which he was exhorting the youth to what amounted to this very purpose.  There is nothing more excellent, he said, than to teach people about God, the creation of the human race, the fall into sin, reconciliation and restoration through the Son of God (the promised seed of the woman who will bruise the head of the serpent), etc.  What he was saying seemed to me altogether holy and godly, and by these words it pleased the Lord to ignite in me sparks of a fervent desire to learn and eventually teach others, either in the school or in the church.  In my mind’s eye I pictured groups of young people in the school and learners in the church.  What could be more excellent, I thought, than to have there before you not only young people but also gray-haired farmers, who, like you, have been banished from Paradise because of sin, and, like Adam, cultivate the earth – men revered for their old age and as fathers, and many women also, revered as mothers?  If the Lord wishes you to speak His Word to these people and to teach them about God, the creation and preservation of the world, the cunning of the serpent who tempted humanity, and the promised salvation through the seed of the woman, what could happen to you that would be more gratifying?  What more could God wish for?  With out knowledge of such things, people live more miserably than brute beasts.

[Caspar Olevianus, An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, 1576, translated by Lyle D. Bierma, Vol. 2, Classic Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2009), 6.]

A Kentucky Baptist take on J. C. Ryle

September 8, 2012

A few nights ago, I was perusing century-old articles from the Western Recorder, the official state denominational paper of Southern Baptists in Kentucky,  when I discovered a few gems regarding Bishop J. C. Ryle:

“One good Protestant is left among the Bishops of England who has not bowed the knee to the Baal of apism.  Dr. Ryle, the Bishop of Liverpool, refused to license a curate unless he would pledge himself not to hear confessions.”

Western Recorder, January 13, 1898

And again:

Bishop Ryle, of Liverpool, is one of the few low churchmen which a succession of high church prime ministers have left in England.  In a recent speech he said that the most painful symptom which marks the present age is the increasing indifference to all distinctive doctrines in every part of the land.
Western Recorder, January 27, 1898

A century ago, Baptist newspapers had a markedly different look than their modern-day counterparts.  Published weekly, The Western Recorder featured five columns per page with small text.  Doctrine and preaching received heavy emphasis and an entire page was regularly reserved for sermons from preaching stalwarts like Charles H. Spurgeon.  Such publications were often the sole source of religious news from around the world for Southern Baptists.  Kentucky’s Baptist paper, under the editorial leadership of T. T. Eaton, often spoke highly of the orthodox Christian champions from across the Atlantic.  Many paper subscribers surely found such examples of Christian charity a welcome change of pace from the livid denominational controversy that predominated most of the other pages of the paper in 1898!

The Heart of the Problem

August 30, 2012

If you were to take a survey with the question, “What is wrong with the church?”, I suppose you would receive a variety of answers.  Some would say it is the church’s lack of relevance, while others would point out its lack of depth.  Some would say it is a lack of expositional preaching, and others would trace it to what they view as an unhealthy church polity.  Historically speaking, people will try to trace the “problems” they encounter in the church today to a particular source.  The potential sources are innumerable and will vary according to one’s convictions and school of thought:  The Calvinism of Calvin, the Arminianism of Arminius, Pelagius’s doctrine of the will, Augustine’s understanding of grace, the Dispensationalism of Darby, the Liberalism of Schleiermacher, the theology of Aquinas, the “Neo-Evangelicalism” of Carl Henry, the “New Methods” of Finney, the seeds of church-state union under Constantine, etc.

How do we sort through all of this?  Who’s right?  Where is the real problem to be located?  To answer such a question, I would begin by directing the reader to an insightful paragraph in Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church:

Nor must we think the degeneracy of the church began with her union with the state.  Corruption and apostasy cannot attach to any one fact or personage, be he Constantine or Gregory I. or Gregory VII.  They are rooted in the natural heart of man.  They revealed themselves, at least in the germ, even in the apostolic age, and are by no means avoided, as the condition of America proves, by the separation of the two powers.  We have among ourselves almost all the errors and abuses of the old world, not collected indeed in any one communion, but distributed among our various denominations and sects.  The history of the church presents from the beginning a twofold development of good and of evil, an incessant antagonism of light and darkness, truth and falsehood, the mystery of godliness and the mystery of iniquity, Christianity and Antichrist.  According to the Lord’s parables of the net and of the tares among the wheat, we cannot expect a complete separation before the final judgment…

[Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, first published 1867, reprint (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 94-95.

To sum up, “Corruption and apostasy…are rooted in the natural heart of man.”  Therefore, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16).  May God help us to do just that.