John Calvin is renowned for his inflexible stance against the errors of Rome, the “Spirituals”, and others whose teachings compromised the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately many do not realize that while he so staunchly stood against errors from those who oppose the gospel, he also worked tremendously hard to establish and maintain peace and unity among the Reformed. He was a brilliant example of the peacemaker of Matt. 5:9.
For instance, a Synod was held at Berne in 1537 in order to establish unity among the German and Swiss Reformed churches concerning the Lord’s Supper. Zurich, Basel, Strasburg, Geneva, and Berne each sent representatives. Bucer, the Strasburg Reformer, had always been sympathetic to Luther’s view. He had been in attendance at one of Luther’s first public disputations and had held him in the highest esteem ever since. Megander, originally from Zurich, now representing Berne, was determined not to compromise Zwingle’s position in any way. Dissension prevailed until Calvin came forward. By recognizing the Biblical truth that each side was determined to uphold, he was able to set forth the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in a manner which upheld the true sentiments of each side without compromising with error.
Bucer had “pointed out that Zwingli and Luther had set out from two different points of view; Zwingli striving to keep as far away as possible from the Roman dogma of transubstantiation, and Luther endeavoring to maintain that there is nevertheless some kind of real presence in the bread.”[i]
Calvin was able, with this in mind, to formulate a doctrinal statement that did justice to the Biblical concerns of both parties without compromising Biblical truth. In summary he said, “The Spirit is the means by which we are partakers of Christ. That Spirit nourishes us with the flesh and the blood of the Lord, and thus quickens us for immortality. Christ offers this communion under the symbols of bread and wine to all those who celebrate the supper aright and in accordance with his institution.”[ii]
To this Bucer replied “I embrace as orthodox, this view of our excellent brothers Calvin, Farel, and Viret. I never held that Christ was locally present in the holy supper. He has a real finite body, and that body remains in the celestial glory. But in raising us by faith to heaven, the bread which we eat and the cup which we drink are for us the communication of his body and his blood.”[iii]
Thus, these eminent reformers established peace with one another in regard to this vital doctrine. They were not content to simply have each side adhere to a confessional statement that propounded the particular truths they esteemed most important. They strove to establish peace, unity and agreement. The Lord greatly blessed such efforts for the betterment of His church universal and the glory of His name.
Of course, the doctrine under dispute in ARBCA today is not the nature of the Lord’s Supper, but rather, the understanding of the phrase “without passions” in Chapter 2, Paragraph 1 of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. This is, of course an oversimplification, but we could fairly accurately describe the dispute like this. On the one side are those whose primary concern is to uphold the unchangeable character of God. They hold to what we could call the traditional understanding of the phrase “without passions”, which was undoubtedly the understanding of that phrase by those who authored our confession. (I happen to agree with this side, in my understanding of the issue.) On the other side of the controversy are those who fear that this classical understanding of these words is prone to give the impression that God is cold, distant, or mechanical. They do not reject the phrase “without passions” but define it somewhat differently than the authors of the confession did.[iv] They rightly point to men like Warfield and Hodge as examples of how they understand the phrase.
The Heart of the Issue?
It seems to me that what lies at the heart of this issue is our understanding of the fact that man, as he is an image bearer of God, is endowed with the faculties of mind, will and emotions. Those who are defending the traditional understanding of “without passions” are almost exclusively focusing on what man’s emotions do not reveal about God. Affections in man arise from the affects of things outside of himself. God, existing outside of time, cannot be affected by anything outside of Himself, therefore He has no affections. (And other similar, sound arguments) Those who are advocating a modified view of the phrase in question do not do so in an effort to make God more like man, but rather, in an effort to do justice to the role of the emotions of man in his image-bearing capacity.
I am a great distance from the inner workings of ARBCA and have no direct knowledge of the exact means by which they plan to deal with this issue. But it seems possible, if not likely, that something like this will happen: A position paper will be published that simply states the traditional understanding of the phrase “without passions” and demonstrates that the authors of the confession had this in mind when they penned the words. This paper will be voted on and approved. Any church that has an issue with this understanding will no longer be welcome in ARBCA. Thus unity of doctrine will be firmly established among the remaining churches. I think it would be a great shame if this is what actually takes place.
ARBCA Needs a Calvin
I am not saying that a position paper defending the traditional understanding of the phrase in question should not be drawn up, it should. But it should do more. As Calvin recognized and dealt with the concerns of both sides of the issue at Berne, so those who seek to defend the traditional understanding of “without passions” should go out of their way to recognize and address the legitimate concerns expressed by the other side. A careful doctrinal statement should be drawn up that not only demonstrates what the Bible teaches about God that prevents us from rightly ascribing affections to Him, but also palpably demonstrates the manner in which the emotions of man actually do reflect something of the character of God. It must be demonstrated that justice can be done to the anthropopathisms of Scripture without resorting to any sort of modified theism. If we really want unity in the sense that the great Reformers sought it, we must go out of our way to rightly address the issues on both sides.
We must recognize the real issue that brings about concern regarding the manner in which Divine impassibility is often taught. For example, after listening to a sermon or lecture that clearly demonstrates that affections cannot be rightly attributed to God, a child of God may walk away saying to himself, “OK, so God is love, but He has no affection for me.” This is hardly a comforting thought. But if we understand that even though the love of God toward us is not an affection, in that this love is not brought about by any affect we have had on God, as a Divine perfection, it is something far greater than any affection of love we have ever experienced. We also must be clear that the emotion of love that God endowed men with is actually in some sense revelatory of what God’s love is like. It is a reflection of what the Divine perfection of love is, a dim and imperfect reflection, but a reflection none the less.
When one demonstrates that the emotion of anger cannot rightly be attributed to God, but merely expresses His determination to rightly meet out justice against all sin, the impression that may easily be given is that this is something quite cold and mechanical. The problem with this is that when God speaks of His anger, He means to convey a truth that is easily lost in this definition. God’s “hot displeasure” that will manifest itself in the eternal flames of hell is anything but cold! The human emotion of anger is truly meant to give us some insight into the nature of God’s eternal, unchangeable disposition toward sin.
Surely we are correct to insist that it is beyond the bounds of propriety to speak of God experiencing the sensation of delight. But we ought also to admit that the emotion of delight that men experience is in some real sense revelatory of what the eternal disposition of the Father toward the Son is like. In this way we not only guard against the idea that God can be affected by something outside of Himself, but we also guard against the idea that this makes Him cold and mechanical.
We ought also to go beyond the Scriptural anthropopathisms that are easier to explain, such as God repenting or relenting. We need to deal with passages such as the command “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” in such a way that God is not left just telling us not to do something that we are entirely unable to do. Perhaps one could demonstrate that the feeling of grief a parent has when he is sinned against by a child he loves gives us some insight into God’s eternal and unchangeable disposition toward the remaining sin in His redeemed people.
We need to be as earnest to establish unity among Reformed Baptists as the Reformers were to establish unity among their churches. I am not certain that this can ever be achieved in this area, but I am certain that we can strive for it more earnestly than we have thus far. May the spirit of love and peace that was so manifest in Calvin and his fellow Reformers be manifest in us today.
His Throne is Forever and Ever!
[i] Merle d’Aubigne, J. H. History of the Reformation in the Time of Calvin The AGES Digital Library, Vol. 6, Book 11, p. 271
[iv] For example, as one proponent of the modified view in this debate has explained: “We take no exception to the 1689 LBCF in 2:1. We confess that God is without body, parts, or passions. We believe in divine impassibility. God has no internal (ad intra) fluctuation, passions, or changes in his nature of any sort. We believe that his divine affections are perfectly infinite and immutable (thus, they are also impassible). Our understanding of ‘divine emotivity’ resides in his external (ad extra) interactions with his world via the very covenant condescension described in the 1689 LBCF 7:1.”
I clearly recall a thread I followed a number of years ago on a Reformed Baptist discussion board. Someone posed a question to the group about whether or not there was anything he should do with regard to something he knew a female friend was planning. She was going to elope with her boyfriend without letting her parents know. This was a professing Christian young woman and he was concerned as to whether he should try to stop her, warn her parents, or something else. What I remember the most was the comment made by someone that made my jaw drop. He said something to the effect of: “She’s over 18, so she can make her own decisions and her parent’s knowledge or blessing is irrelevant.” I was dumbfounded that a mature Christian who taught at a well known seminary could make such a statement. Where in the Bible do we find any such notion? Where in Scripture do we find the idea that a woman leaves the protective care and authority of her father for any other reason than being given to a husband? I bring this up, not simply because it is shocking, but because it reveals just how much Christians can unwittingly imbibe from culture without realizing how unscriptural it may be.
I promised a follow up to my last post about dating/courtship in which I would flesh out some of the scriptural principles I believe must guide us through the difficult waters of courtship and dating in our day. As I stated from the beginning, I do not claim to have all the answers. I do not have a new scheme that will solve all our problems and ensure that our children will all end up with great marriages and live lives free from heartache. I will, however, lay out the principles I think we need to keep in mind regarding the issue, and discuss how I am attempting to navigate these waters with my children in light of them.
It is not good that man should be alone
At the completion of each day of creation God declared that it was good. It is not until verse 18 of chapter 2 that He describes something as not good. It was not good that man should be alone. God did not create man to live a solitary existence, he created a helper comparable to him. Even before falling into sin it was not good for man to be alone, how much more so today. If unfallen man needed a helper, how much more does fallen man? When Christian singles find themselves yearning for a godly spouse, it is a good thing which they desire.
We need to recognize this as a fact and live in light of it. We ought to direct our children to actively seek the Lord’s aid in finding a spouse. We should help them in any way we can. We should teach them early on, by scripture and by example, what kind of a spouse they should seek. We should also teach them what kind of a spouse they need to become, and help them to develop the character and attitudes that the Lord requires of them. We should pray with them and for them as they go about this difficult task. We need to teach our sons that they need a helper and teach our daughters that the Lord has a man who needs their help.
This being said, we must also teach them that no spouse will ever fulfill their desires. No spouse can ever fulfill all their needs. Only Christ can do that. They must seek Christ above all else. They must be fully satisfied in Him and Him alone. Disappointment , discontentment and frustration will be the inevitable outcome of a failure to understand this. Whatever spouse God provides for them will be a sinner, and they will experience first-hand how difficult life yoked to a sinful man or woman can be. Yes, a godly spouse will be an incredible blessing to them, but if they ever expect to gain from that person what they can truly find in God alone, the results will be devastating.
What about Celibacy?
The Bible does teach that the Lord sovereignly chooses to grant the gift of celibacy to some. We ought to teach our children this as well, but we need to recognize that this is the exception and not the rule. God may indeed reveal that one of our children is never going to marry, and His grace is sufficient to sustain them if this is the case. But how do we know? There are indeed many factors to take into account that I will not take the time to attempt to lay out. I do have a simple litmus test that can help though. It is a fact that ought to be recognized by all, that men and women typically struggle with lust in different ways. Men struggle with the lust of looking upon women, and women struggle with the lust of desiring to be looked at. If a young woman or man has not attained an unusual ability to mortify these particular lusts, I think it is a very strong sign that the Lord has not given them the gift of celibacy. I can’t proclaim this as dogma, but it seems like sound reasoning to me.
Make No Provision for the Flesh
God commands all Christians to “flee youthful lusts”(2 Tim. 2:22). The very description of these lusts as “youthful” makes it clear that they are particularly strong in young people, even though they do not disappear with age and must be mortified by all. Notice the verb as well. We are to flee from these lusts. We are not to toy with them, let alone indulge them. We find a parallel admonition in 1 Cor. 6:18, “Flee sexual immorality.” Again, the verb denotes the urgency. We are to flee from youthful lusts and sexual immorality as if they were a battalion of armed men or a bear robbed of her cubs! We are never to see how close we can come without stepping over the line. We are never to indulge in “just a little”. Parents must instill this in their children early on and repeatedly admonish them, for this is as exceedingly deceitful a sin as any.
This is why it is so important that young people be careful to make no provision for the flesh. They ought not to be placing themselves in positions in which it would be easy for them to give in to carnal lusts. Spending time alone with a member of the opposite sex in private ought to be avoided like the plague. A young woman should not be comfortable in such a situation, for she is indeed in great danger, whether she realizes it or not. Every man has lust within him. A Christian man is indeed striving to mortify that lust, but a woman has no way of looking into his heart to observe how successful he is. I am well aware that there are examples of Christian men and women who spent time alone in private and did not give in to such lusts. But there are myriads of examples of those who attempted to do so and failed miserably with dire results. We should never presume upon the grace of God when He has so clearly admonished us to make no provision for the flesh.
I once had a former youth pastor tell me about how devastated he was to find out that the majority of girls in his youth group were taking birth control pills. This was in a conservative PCA church! What were their parents thinking? While the fear of getting a girl pregnant is far from the main reason a man should flee fornication, it is indeed an obstacle that should not be removed.
I do not mean to say that an unmarried couple should never have private conversation. There are plenty of ways to be in private in one sense while still being in public in another sense. Dinner in a restaurant, being in a room alone while the door is open and others are in the house etc. But a single man living alone ought not to have a girl over for dinner without others present. I’m sure this seems restrictive and legalistic to many, but the Biblical admonitions I’ve cited, as well as many others throughout the word of God make this very wise counsel.
Guard Your Heart
While most will recognize that what I propose looks more like what is commonly known as courtship than dating, it is not dating per se that I have the biggest problem with. It is recreational dating. What I mean by recreational dating is a man and woman entering into a romantic relationship simply to enjoy the romance, with no commitment to each other except that they will continue as long as the relationship gives them pleasure. The Bible is perfectly clear that physical intimacy is to be confined to marriage, and that fornication, which I do not believe is confined to intercourse, is sin. But what is marriage? Is it merely a commitment to an exclusive physical relationship? Of course not. Marriage is a commitment of the heart as well as the body. A man or woman can commit adultery in many ways without ever committing the physical act. How devastating it would be for one to hear his/her spouse say “I love you” to someone else! It is my sincerest conviction that just as singles must be diligent to reserve their bodies for marriage they must also seek to reserve their hearts. This is why I oppose the practice that leads, multiple times in some cases, to “falling in love” with someone with no intention of ever marrying them.
I recognize that this idea will meet strong opposition from many quarters. I also realize that it will be far more difficult to work this out practically than it is to avoid fornication. And I’m not saying that a couple should attempt to somehow not fall in love until after the marriage ceremony. Hopefully setting forth some practical advice will help to clarify what I’m talking about.
A young man or woman should never date someone that they would never marry. The idea that it would be fun to date someone even though they have some character flaws or something else that makes them unsuitable as a possible spouse is unwise to say the least. A romance that cannot rightly end in marriage will end in heartache.
A young man ought to be careful not to lead a girl on. He may at first desire to get to know a young woman better because he recognizes her Christian character and finds her attractive. He may spend time with her in small groups etc. A mutual attraction ( and I mean that in a wholesome way) may begin to become obvious. In such cases a girl’s heart is very vulnerable. He should be careful to keep from giving her the impression that she means more to him than she actually does, and if it becomes clear to him that he does not see her as a potential spouse he should make it known in a gracious manner.
A young woman needs to guard her heart. As my wife said to me recently, a girl can fall in love with a guy on the first date. She needs to be diligent not to allow herself to do so. She needs to keep a close watch over her affections and be careful not to hand her heart to someone just because he has taken notice of her, even if he is a fine Christian man. I know this is easier said than done, but if she is successful, she will indeed save herself from much potential heartache.
I do believe there may be a good degree of affection of the heart between a couple by the time they are prepared to pursue marriage, and that it will grow stronger and stronger as their wedding day approaches. But they must both be diligent to practice restraint before there is any sort of commitment involved.
The Role of Fathers
1 Cor. 7, Prov. 7, Num. 30
The biblical role of a father is a great responsibility. He is not a pope over his family, for a pope is an unbiblical usurper of authority. He has a delegated authority, under God, to fulfill a multitude of duties for the good of those in his family. He must provide for them (1 Tim. 5:8). He must instruct them in godliness (Prov. 22:6, Eph. 6:4). He must lead by example as he directs his family to live as faithful servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The father has a peculiar role in regard to his daughters. His authority over them extends even to the overruling of vows unto the Lord (Num. 30:1-5). He has the authority to refuse to give her in marriage if he deems it wise (1 Cor. 7:36-38, Exod. 22:16,17). But this authority is not for his benefit, but for his daughter’s. He needs to teach her the dangers of adulterous men just as he is to teach his sons about the dangers of adulterous women (Prov. 7). He needs to teach her what manner of woman she should strive to become (Prov. 31). He needs to teach her to be modest and diligent (1 Tim. 2:9-11, Titus 2:5). He needs to teach her to be sweetly submissive under godly authority (Titus 2:5, Eph. 5:22, 1 Pet. 3:1-6) He must ensure her safety and guard her reputation to the best of his ability (1 Tim. 5:8, Prov. 22:1, Eccl. 7:1).
A father’s responsibilities toward his daughters a manifold, who is sufficient for such matters? It is only by God’s grace that any man can begin to fulfill his God given role. How sad it is to observe how much of this responsibility is neglected in our day. Every time I see an immodestly dressed young woman from a Christian family I ask myself “What is her father thinking?” Take responsibility, man! Guard your daughter’s good name and virtue, please. She needs you.
This is why, if a young man asks my daughter to go out on a date with him, she will direct him to speak with me. (Unless she has no interest, she is free and perfectly capable of saying “no” without my assistance.) Since I take my responsibilities seriously, I need to know what kind of man he is and what his intentions are. If he’s looking for a romance without commitment, he’s looking for “love” in the wrong place. However, if he makes every appearance of being a sound Christian who would like to get to know my daughter better, I will give him permission within certain parameters and guidelines. He needs to be willing to remain in the presence of others. I will suggest that if they go out for dinner or a movie etc. they will need to take along one or more of her siblings, or other godly friends who I know. He doesn’t, however need to be ready to marry her. I know that because of our current culture’s ideas, it may seem like the equivalent to asking me for her hand, but I will do my best to set him at ease and treat him with Christian dignity. I will also make it crystal clear, that if he willfully misuses her, physically or emotionally, he will have to deal with me, and it won’t be pretty. But as long as he conducts himself in an upright manner, he has nothing to fear. If he starts to have feelings for my daughter, I will expect him to speak to me about it, but I will do my best to keep this from being anything to be apprehensive about.
My sons must be diligent to mind the authority of the father over any girl they might become interested in. They will speak to him before any form of dating occurs if that is what her father expects. I am aware, however, that many fathers would be quite troubled by a young man who has never dated their daughter asking to speak to him first. They may jump to the conclusion that he is indeed asking for her hand. Such things need to be worked out with wisdom and care. In a culture as diverse as ours we cannot demand a cookie cutter solution. Regardless of her father’s attitude, they must keep all the above principles in mind and take great care not to misuse the young woman’s heart or reputation in any way.
Know Your Children
The Lord has graciously blessed my wife and I with eight wonderful children. It amazes me how much diversity there is among their individual personalities. Parents need to recognize the individual strengths and weaknesses, propensities and inclinations of each of them if we are to guide them well. I have one daughter who will be very difficult to woo. I am really looking forward to meeting the man who can gain her heart, for it is a strong city, fortified by walls. I have another daughter who I will need to watch much more closely. Not because of any moral deficiency or lack of virtue, but because she takes after her father and I believe will easily fall in love. Two of my sons have few female friends and one of them has many more female friends than male friends. Each of them need to be reminded of their responsibilities with regard to the affairs of the heart and guided or admonished with regard to their own unique personalities.
In my response to Mr. Umstattd’s article, I stressed the fact that when looking for the reason any marriage failed, we cannot come to the conclusion that the couple were simply not compatible. I also stressed the need to place Christian virtue as the primary trait to look for in a potential spouse. This may have given some the impression that I think there’s nothing more to the equation. I apologize if I lead anyone to that conclusion. There are many factors that need to be considered in the search for a godly spouse. However, I stand by my conviction that one need not date multiple people in order to recognize who it is they are supposed to marry.
I will reiterate that godly character and virtues are paramount. Young people should be looking for the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5) in the Christian singles of their acquaintance. A young man should be looking for a girl who is sweetly submissive to her father, for if she is not, she will not be a submissive wife. A young man who chafes under authority must be avoided as well. He is likely to either shirk his proper responsibilities as a husband and father, or show himself to be an abuser of his own authority, either of which will lead to a very unhappy marriage. Diligence is a virtue to be eagerly sought in a future husband or wife, for both roles require this grace in abundance. Such virtues are utterly lacking among a large portion of professing Christian young people, which will make the search difficult, but when you indeed recognize these graces in a potential spouse you will know you struck gold.
I must also apologize to any Arminian friends who were insulted by my reference to them in my previous post. I did not intend to set this doctrinal view on par with the sin of lying, that was not my intent. I simply wished to convey that a certain degree of doctrinal agreement is absolutely necessary in a Christian marriage. Of course there must be agreement on the essentials of the faith, that is a given. But it is also equally true that you will be very unlikely to ever find anyone who agrees with you on every jot and tittle. I believe it is of utmost importance that there is agreement on many major issues that genuine Christians disagree about. An Arminian and a Calvinist would end up with much strife, for such doctrines reach into every corner of life. A Cessationist and a continuationist would also face many difficulties. Agreement on issues like these, as well as doctrines like the Regulative Principle of worship or credobaptism vs. paedobaptism is important, though possibly not an insurmountable obstacle. Where would a couple with such differences worship together in unity? At the very least, the woman must be able to sweetly submit to her husband, and if her convictions are too strong to do this a marriage ought not to be pursued.
While I am unshakably convinced that the above two considerations ought to be foremost in the minds of those searching for a spouse, I am well aware that other things come into consideration as well. Some personalities just clash, even among genuine Christians with similar doctrinal convictions. What I want to make clear is that one can recognize such things without recreationally dating multiple people. Hobbies, interests, personality quirks and the like can all be discovered in a group atmosphere without entering into the dangerous practice of casual dating.
But Where Can We Look?
I conclude with the question that inevitably arises from a commitment to all I have just discussed. A large number of faithful Christian singles are in small churches in which they are the minority. They do not have a large pool of Christian singles with whom they are acquainted. Where are they to find their future spouse?
It is indeed possible that the Lord will bring a future spouse into the congregation to which they are joined, we ought not to rule out this possibility. But neither should we simply sit back and wait, for that may not be the means of God’s provision. In my previous post I mentioned Christian conferences. Building Tomorrow’s Church or a Reformed Baptist singles conference is a great place to meet other singles who share doctrinal convictions and demonstrate godly character. Other conferences, such as G3 are also excellent, though they are not specifically geared toward singles. My sons really enjoy these conferences, they are a great blessing in meeting new friends and feeding upon the word of God. Finding a potential spouse isn’t even the primary reason they attend. Many Christian couples have met each other while attending a Christian college. I mentioned the idea of visiting other faithful churches within driving distance. There may be a doctrinally sound church in your area that has a larger number of Christian singles. While I insist that leaving a faithful church for the sole purpose of finding a spouse is wrong, I don’t see anything wrong with attending Bible studies that most of these churches have for their singles. This may be a great idea for a godly young man. A man with strong doctrinal convictions and virtues would stick out in such an atmosphere and be quite attractive to a spiritually minded young woman who is tired of the shallow Christianity she sees in most professing Christian young men.
It is also difficult to know what to do once you’ve met someone who fits the biblical criteria for a potential spouse, but you don’t know them well enough to conclude that you may want to pursue a relationship with them. One idea is to plan some sort of activity with friends and invite them along. You can enjoy the company of friends and get to know them better as well as observing how they interact with others. This can actually be much more fruitful than asking them out on a date, since you have no romantic expectations or apprehensiveness that comes along with a “first date”.
As I stated from the beginning, I do not have all the answers to the difficult questions regarding dating/courtship. I do believe I have laid out some vital biblical principles that must be kept in mind as we guide and direct our children in their search for a godly spouse. It is my intention to leave the comments section open and hope others will provide other ideas that will be of assistance to others as well as myself. Please refrain from responses like, “Well, my spouse and I did such and such when we dated, and we have a strong marriage.”, if your purpose is to prove that some biblical principle can safely be ignored. There are happily married couples who followed biblical principles in courtship/dating, just as there are happily married couples who followed none. My wife and I were unbelievers and our relationship before marriage couldn’t have been much less biblical, but God has graciously given us an incredible marriage. That does not in any way lead me to believe that it isn’t important that my children take every biblical principle into consideration. What I’m interested in receiving, are ideas that will help us guide our children in following such principles while searching for a spouse.
In the introduction to his book Desiring God, Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Dr. John Piper warns his readers, “Beware of conjecture about what lies in the pages of this book!” because “Quick and superficial judgments will almost certainly be wrong.”[i] I believe I can honestly say that I am safe from any accusation of failing to heed this warning because it has been at least 12 years since I first read the book. The idea of “Christian Hedonism” as presented in this book has afforded me many hours of thoughtful contemplation as well as instigated numerous lively conversations. I’ve spent hours upon hours discussing the topic with those who love it as well as with those who find it objectionable. I just read the book again (much of it twice), and I think I can present a fair, thoughtful and gracious evaluation of “Christian Hedonism” as it is set forth in Desiring God.
I want to begin by stating emphatically that this book contains a lot of wonderful doctrine. Dr. Piper treats the subject of God’s sovereignty in a compelling and God-glorifying fashion. His explanation of God’s delight in Himself as the highest good is quite commendable. His love of Scripture comes forth throughout the volume, especially in the chapter specifically about the subject. The chapter on suffering is fantastic! There is so much good in this book that it really bothers me that I have to say negative things about it.
I’m not sure who it is who teaches that doing something good to make yourself happy is sinful, or that enjoying God is not a Biblical motive for obedience and worship. I certainly have never come across this idea anywhere in the Reformed and Puritan tradition to which my reading is generally limited. But Dr. Piper certainly, without any trace of doubt, demonstrates from Scripture that any such idea is completely unfounded and unbiblical. If he had simply set out to prove that seeking satisfaction in Christ, enjoying and delighting in God, and actively yearning for comfort in the Almighty are good and Biblical motives for obedience and worship and a necessary element of the Christian life, I think I could have recommended the book.
A Part for the Whole
In the opening of the book Dr. Piper famously alters the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. He changes the answer to the question “What is the chief end of man?” from “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever”[ii] to “To glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”[iii] In his immediate explanation for this change he makes the comment “Not that I care too much about the intention of seventeenth-century theologians.”[iv] Perhaps if he had concerned himself more with the intention of the catechism’s authors he would not have been so quick to change their answer. You see, the Puritans did not begin the catechism with a question regarding the purpose of man’s existence and then move on to something else, leaving it up to us to figure out how to fulfill that purpose. Please observe with me:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A. The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.
Q. 3. What do the scriptures principally teach?
A. The scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.[v]
You see clearly that they do not change the subject at all. 1. Man exists to glorify and enjoy God. 2. It is the Bible alone that teaches us how to glorify and enjoy God. 3. The principle teaching of the Bible instructs us in two areas: what we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man. The remainder of the catechism expounds what it is we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man. So the entirety of the catechism directs us how we are to glorify and enjoy God. How do we glorify God? We glorify God by believing everything He teaches us in His word, especially with regard to Himself and by willfully obeying every command He gives us. How do we enjoy God? We enjoy God by believing everything He teaches us in His word, especially with regard to Himself and by willfully obeying every command He gives us.
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all.” Ecclesiastes. 12:13
Before anyone objects that it is possible to believe what God says and do what He commands from improper motives that do not glorify God, please realize that the catechism sets forth what form of faith and obedience truly glorify God. It is made perfectly clear that a mere intellectual acknowledgement of the truth of Scripture is not God glorifying. A living, active and vibrant faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that results in a life lived in willing obedience to, and adoration of Him glorifies God. And no one, upon completion of a study of the catechism, could rightly conclude that begrudging compliance or obedience in order to earn favor with God are in any way fulfilling the duties God requires of us.
This is why so many of those who criticize “Christian Hedonism” accuse it of being reductionistic. The means by which men are to glorify God and enjoy Him forever are manifold. All 107 questions have direct reference to man’s chief end. But Dr. Piper has reduced those multiple means of glorifying God to one, enjoying Him. While he does not altogether neglect all the other God given means, I believe the exaltation of this one above all others necessarily results in the overlooking of many.
I by no means wish to take away from the fact that God is indeed glorified by our enjoyment of Him. In fact I would argue heartily that the statement “A chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever” is a thoroughly Biblical statement. If only he had changed two words instead of one….
The Means to the End
Dr. Piper is absolutely correct in his insistence that we must delight in God. He must be our treasure, our all in all. We need nothing but Him. We must seek all satisfaction and comfort in Him. We must desire God. This is the clear teaching of the Bible. It is also taught throughout the Reformed and Puritan tradition, as can be seen in the WSC and Heidelberg Catechism. I heartily agree with him. My problem arises with regard to the means he insists upon to achieve this end.
How, we may ask, are we to accomplish the goal of enjoying God? The thrust of the book as a whole seems to answer: “by determining that my primary reason for all that I do must be an active, conscious desire to find pleasure, satisfaction and comfort in God.” That really lies at the heart of “Christian Hedonism”. We are to live our lives with the primary goal of finding joy, satisfaction and comfort, but with the necessary qualification that this joy, satisfaction and comfort is to be found in God Himself, not merely in the gifts He bestows.
I have two major objections to this necessity of making the desire for pleasure in God the primary motivation for everything in the Christian life. First of all, while I agree with Dr. Piper, and the WSC that enjoyment in God is a good an proper motive for worship and obedience, I also recognize that in some aspects of the Christian life and in some situations that we as Christians find ourselves, it would not in any way be necessary to insist that a desire for pleasure in God should be our primary motivation.
Perhaps the clearest example from the Bible is found in Genesis 22:1-19. God commands Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering. We are not privy to all of Abraham’s thought processes as he contemplated this difficult command, but Hebrews 11 sheds light on the matter. Now for the sake of illustration, imagine the scene with me and contemplate how Abraham might have answered Isaac if, once tied to the altar, he asked his father “Dad, what are you doing?”
I think we can imagine, with Biblical insight, that with tears running down his cheeks, he might answer something like this: “Son, the Lord our God has commanded me to offer you up as a sacrifice unto Himself. You know I cannot do otherwise than what He commands. But listen, Son, you need not fear, only trust Him. You see, He who cannot lie has made me many promises that he will accomplish specifically through you. He will not fail to make good on His promises, so I conclude that He must be intending to raise you from the dead.” We recognize in this story that Abraham glorified God by the means that the WSC prescribes, by believing what God says and by doing what He commands, even in the most trying of circumstances.
Now attempt to imagine Abraham’s answer if he had been a Christian Hedonist. “Son, you know that I am a Christian Hedonist and seeking and finding happiness in God is the primary motivation for all that I do. Now God has commanded me to kill you, so my path to happiness requires that I do so…” Even with the further explanation of trusting that God would raise him from the dead, do you see the ridiculousness of the answer? It would be just as silly for Abraham to make such arguments to his own heart as it would be to pose such an explanation to his son.
Please remember, I am not saying that seeking satisfaction and happiness in God is not a legitimate motivation for worship and obedience! I am saying that we ought not to insist that it should always be our primary motive, because, quite frankly, there are situations in the Christian life in which it ought not be. I am also aware that we could go through some sort of mental algebra to show that at some level, satisfaction in God is still a motivating factor in such circumstances. My point is that it doesn’t need to be, and often shouldn’t be our primary motivation for what we do, and that doesn’t mean that we aren’t therefore glorifying God as we should.
When I need to discipline my children, what is my motivation? Is the fact that I love them and know that chastising them for disobedience is the best thing for their souls an allowable motive? (I am one that can honestly say that it often does hurt me more than it hurts them.) Is the fact that I have been commanded to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord enough? Is Proverbs 23:14, “You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell” a good enough motive? Is the best way to glorify God in the chastising of my children really to go through whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to spank them in order that I may find pleasure in God? Again, I know that at some level that is somehow in play, but to insist that it be foremost in my mind is in my opinion completely unnecessary.
Dr. Piper does not believe his teaching is at odds with the WSC, and he even states of the Heidelberg Catechism “The fact is, the entire catechism is structured the way Christian Hedonism would structure it.” But it is at this point that he is quite wrong. When answering the question, “How are we to enjoy God”, both catechisms could be accurately summarized with the words of the hymn “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Neither catechism has any notion that it is necessary to actively seek happiness and satisfaction in God as the primary motive for all we do in order to accomplish the goal of glorifying and enjoying Him.
The Delight of Duty
My second objection to this aspect of “Christian Hedonism” is the seeming failure to recognize duty as a legitimate and necessary means of both glorifying God and enjoying Him. Much effort is set forth in this book to warn against the danger of performing duties for the wrong reasons. Very little is spent in admonishment against the neglect of duties (the one notable exception being the duty to delight in God, of course). Nearly every time the term duty comes up it is in a negative light.
Again, seeking pleasure in God is a legitimate motive for obedience. The Bible presents us with a multitude of legitimate motives to obey God: love, gratitude, fear, as a response to mercy, in awe of God’s holiness, in order to fulfill the purpose of displaying God’s image aright, to name a few. But in Dr. Piper’s zeal to extol this motive, I fear an important truth may be obscured. We owe to God perfect, perpetual, willing obedience for the simple reason that He is God. If God tells me to do something, and I require any other reason than the mere fact that it is God who gave the command, it is sin and provocation on my part. God graciously gives us a multitude of further motives, but if the fact that God commanded it isn’t enough, we have an immense spiritual problem. A sad fact is that I have run into far too many “Christian Hedonists” who actually think that obeying God simply because He’s God is wrong. I wish Dr. Piper had been half as concerned about the tendency of fallen men to fail to recognize and fulfill their duties as he was to make sure they don’t perform their duty for the wrong reasons.
But here is the fact that Dr. Piper seems to miss. If we recognize our duty toward God and determine to fulfill it, if we willfully obey God’s commandments for any or all of the Biblical motives, the result is satisfaction in God. We do not need to make that satisfaction the primary reason for obedience. I believe every true Christian has felt the satisfaction that comes from obeying God simply because He is God. Not satisfaction in a job well done, NO! Satisfaction in God Himself: the satisfaction promised in John 14:21 “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”
I guess my point is two-fold. 1. Heartfelt, willful obedience results in happiness in Christ, whether we make that happiness the reason we obey or not. 2. Failure to obey results in a loss of happiness in Christ, even if we are attempting to make happiness in Christ the primary motive for everything we do. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Christian Hedonism rightly emphasizes the duty of delight, but woefully neglects the delight of duty.
The most frustrating aspect of the book when I first read it was what I will here refer to as equivocation. You see, Dr. Piper seems to have two distinct definitions for Christian Hedonism that he uses interchangeably without seeming to notice. He begins with what I will refer to as definition #1. Here a Christian Hedonist is someone who willfully determines to make the pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction in God their chief motive for life. An example of the use of the term by def. #1 is “Then I was converted to Christian Hedonism. In a matter of weeks I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him.”[vi] The definition I will refer to as def. #2 is anyone who recognizes God as their greatest good and actively seeks pleasure and satisfaction in Him. This definition is clearly in view in chapter 2 for instance which he entitled “Conversion, the Creation of a Christian Hedonist.” When he speaks of his becoming a Christian Hedonist he does not seem to be speaking of his original experience of being savingly joined to Christ by faith. But in his chapter on conversion, he points to the fact that in every true conversion there is a fervent seeking after God as our greatest good and declares it the creation of a Christian Hedonist.
As far as these definitions go, I would say that in the case of the first, the term is an accurate description of the philosophy, but the philosophy is unbiblical at points. In the case of definition #2 the term Christian Hedonism is not a very good description, but at least the philosophy it describes is Biblical. If a hedonist is someone who’s primary motivation is to find pleasure, then a Christian Hedonist would be a good description for someone who makes the pursuit of pleasure his primary motivation, but seeks that pleasure in God alone. But someone who delights in God, and recognizes that seeking pleasure and satisfaction in God is a Biblical motive is not therefore rightly called hedonistic, but does have a clear Biblical foundation for that way of life.
The problem is that in chapter after chapter Dr. Piper provides solid Biblical evidence for the definition #2 Christian Hedonist, but continues to press us to become definition #1 ChristianHedonists, for which I see no Biblical support.
Another frustrating aspect of the book is Dr. Piper’s repeated use of false dichotomies. He makes his argument for Christian Hedonism, and then defends it with an argument that assumes there are only two possibilities, and Christian Hedonism is the right one.
Consider this example:
Someone might object that in making the joy of worship an end in itself, we make God a means to our end rather than our being a means to His end. Thus, we seem to elevate ourselves above God. But consider this question: Which glorifies God more—that is, which reflects back to God more clearly the greatness of His glory—(1) a worship experience that comes to climax with joy in the wonder of God? Or (2) an experience that comes to climax in a noble attempt to free itself from rapture in order to make a contribution to the goal of God?
This is a subtle thing. We strive against God’s all-sufficient glory if we think we can become a means to His end without making joy in Him our end.[vii]
First notice the false dichotomy: either our worship culminates in climax of joy and wonder in God because we made joy in Him our end, or we seek to worship God with a strange desire to avoid satisfaction in Him. From where does the idea come that the only alternative to worshiping for the purpose of finding pleasure and satisfaction in God is to worship with the motive of not finding satisfaction? This is a non sequitur. But I find the final statement here to be the most difficult. “We strive against God’s all-sufficient glory if we think we can become a means to His end without making joy in Him our end.” If we come to worship our Savior simply because He is worthy of worship, with no conscious motivation of seeking joy in Him, we are not worshiping Him, but rather striving against His all-sufficient glory? This is a troubling statement indeed.
I believe this passage, along with his statement in the introduction are very problematic. There he said, “In a matter of weeks I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him.” (I understand how he could argue for the truthfulness of this statement. If all men always seek happiness, then to worship God while not seeking happiness in Him would necessitate the seeking of happiness in something else instead. But please read the statement again and consider the following.) There are countless motivations to worship the living God! Countless Biblical motivations: love, gratitude, fear, reverence, an irresistible response to even a glimpse of His magnificence, holiness or glory… Yet he can boldly proclaim without qualification “it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him.” These kinds of statements are unhelpful to say the least.
Another example occurs at the beginning of chapter 4, Love, the Labor of Christian Hedonism, where he states “the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. Or, to put it another way: If you aim to abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God.” Do you see the false dichotomy? Either the pursuit of pleasure is your motive, or you aim to abandon the pursuit of pleasure. Let me present another example from the Christian life where the pursuit of pleasure will not be the prime motivating factor, but love is. You find that a dear brother in Christ has fallen into serious sin. Your heart breaks as you recognize the destructive influence the sin is having upon him and you fear for the salvation of his eternal soul. You determine that you must confront him, in love and mercy and grace, but you must confront him. Your heart churns and aches, but your love for this dear friend constrains you to admonish him with all the grace and courage that you can prayerfully muster. Are you failing to love your brother and please God because the motive of finding pleasure and satisfaction in God is not your conscious motivation for your actions? Of course not. We could, again, go through the mental gymnastics necessary to find the connection that proves that at some point there is some aspect of our motivation that is indeed the pursuit of happiness, but is that in anyway helpful in this duty? Do I really need to rebuke my brother for the purpose of securing my own happiness? Again, I think this is just silly.
Consider another statement , this one from the epilogue, and test it in reference to the situation with the need to confront a brother in sin. “The pursuit of joy through mercy is what makes love real.”[viii] Is my love for my brother not real because I am not rebuking him in order to obtain joy through mercy? Of course I do go to my brother in the hope that he will repent and receive mercy! But that is not the same thing as insisting that my purpose for rebuking him must be the pursuit of joy.
Emotion in Place
The final feature of Christian Hedonism that we need to address is the great emphasis that it places on the emotional aspect of man. Perhaps the most widely known words of this book are found in the popular slogan “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him”.[ix] This idea sounds wonderfully spiritual, and I would agree that it expresses a truth, but it is my concern that it places undue emphasis on our emotions.
This slogan is tailor made for the conference Christianity that has embraced it. Thousands of zealous Calvinists gather together and worship the Living God through the faithful expositional preaching of the word of God. To those who embrace this slogan, this must be the very essence of glorifying God. Such worship is truly spiritually exhilarating, a mountaintop experience to which little can compare. I have nothing against such conferences, I see them as mighty evidence of the work of God. The problem is that our emotional makeup does not allow us to remain on the mountaintop. When our emotions inevitably enter a valley, the Christian Hedonist response is to put all effort into getting back to the mountaintop, for it is only there that God is rightly glorified.
Consider one of the attendees on the Thursday following an incredibly blessed T4G. The adversary has taken full advantage of the emotional low he knew would come. The demands of his vocation are pressed to unusual heights, his wife misunderstood something he said and is hurt and angry, his teenage daughter is giving him attitude and his toddler is sick. He is informed that a good friend from church has said hurtful things about him and he finds out that the person whose salvation he has been earnestly seeking has hardened himself to the gospel and is hanging out at strip joints. How ought this man go about striving to glorify God in such a situation, when outward circumstances oppress and tyrannize him? Is yearning for the mountaintop and praying earnestly to return to it really the best way to seek to glorify God now? Is it not patently obvious that the means by which he should strive to glorify God are the means laid out in the catechism? The best way to seek the glory of God is to determine to remain faithful regardless of outward circumstances and emotional turmoil. A constant determination to live a life of principled obedience, to conquer every temptation toward unbelief and remain lovingly obedient whether he feels like it or not. Just as Abraham glorified God in the most trying of circumstances so must he, by trusting and obeying his Lord and Savior.
I do not think we can overemphasize the danger of placing such importance upon emotions that all other faculties of the soul become subservient to them in the effort to reach the goal of pleasure, even if we are determined to find that pleasure in God alone. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9) When Dr. Piper writes “It is better to say that we pursue our joy in God than to simply say that we pursue God. For one can pursue God in ways that do not honor Him:”[x], it is as if he were blissfully unaware that one can just as easily seek to find joy in God and end up delighting in something else without realizing it. A quick glimpse at the charismatic movement makes this abundantly clear.
John Owen discusses the role of the mind in governing the other faculties of the soul in this way:
The ground of this efficacy of sin by deceit is taken from the faculty of the soul affected with it. Deceit properly affects the mind; it is the mind that is deceived. When sin attempts any other way of entrance into the soul, as by the affections, the mind, retaining its right and sovereignty, is able to give check and control unto it. But where the mind is tainted, the prevalency must be great; for the mind or understanding is the leading faculty of the soul, and what that fixes on, the will and affections rush after, being capable of no consideration but what that presents unto them. Hence it is, that though the entanglement of the affections unto sin be ofttimes most troublesome, yet the deceit of the mind is always most dangerous, and that because of the place that it possesseth in the soul as unto all its operations. Its office is to guide, direct, choose, and lead; and “if the light that is in us be darkness, how great is that darkness!”[xi] (emphasis mine)
Owen’s view is in stark contrast to Christian Hedonism, for to fully embrace Christian Hedonism is to surrender the mind’s sovereignty to the affections.[xii]
A Christian must be careful to govern his emotions and will by his mind, determining to keep them subservient to the word of God, because he recognizes the natural propensity for his emotions to rule over him. Christian Hedonism’s simultaneous exaltation of emotion and neglect of objective obedience is an extremely dangerous combination. It is my sincerest concern that allowing the emotions to reign in such a way will inevitably result in more heartache than satisfaction of soul.
I sincerely hope I have succeeded in my attempt to graciously and thoughtfully assess the book Desiring God and the notion of Christian Hedonism without misrepresenting them in any way. I assure you that any failure on my part was purely unintentional. Much of the book is wonderful. I was quite surprised at how much I benefitted from the chapter on Suffering, considering how much of the book I had disagreed with up until that point, but as I contemplated the matter it became quite obvious why. The desire and hope for joy and comfort and satisfaction in God that far surpasses our understanding is repeatedly set forth in Scripture as the means of sustaining the Christian in times of suffering. I hope no one has understood my position to be a denial of the Biblical truth that a significant part of man’s chief end is to enjoy God forever, because I would never deny such a glorious and blessed truth. I in no way deny that we ought to actively seek pleasure and satisfaction in the Almighty. I would not even represent my position as accusing Dr. Piper of overemphasizing the duty to delight in God. How could that ever be overemphasized?
If Dr. Piper had simply set out to defend the importance of enjoying God as a necessary element of the chief end of man, as the Puritans did, this would have been a much better book. However, his simultaneous insistence upon the need to consciously strive for that enjoyment, along with his neglect of many Biblical means for reaching it, forces me to the conclusion that Christian Hedonism is an unbalanced view of the Christian life and ought not to be followed.
The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever!
Let us all seek to glorify God by all Biblical means and let us enjoy Him forever by every Biblical means.
I’d like to complete this short series on delighting in God’s moral law with three further thoughts that should help spur us on and motivate us to imitate Paul and the Psalmist.
First, take a moment to contemplate what a day in your life would be like if everyone in the world perfectly obeyed God’s moral law. You could trust everything you read or heard. You could make every business transaction without fear of being ripped off. You could go wherever you wanted to without fear of harm from others. You could flip through the TV channels without seeing images that corrupt your mind. I think we can all agree that that would be one awesome day! Well, what kind of ridiculous hypocrites must we be to recognize the benefits of others keeping the law, yet refusing to do it ourselves?
Second, consider the foundation and nature of the moral law. It is the transcript of the character of God Himself.
Many years ago I was terribly disappointed to find that the administrator of one of my favorite websites had decided to leave the Reformed Baptist church he had been a part of. Part of his explanation for doing so was extremely disturbing to me. He told of how in his church they had studied the 10 commandments as they are expounded in the Westminster Larger Catechism, and how troubling that was to him. Anyone familiar with this section of the catechism will agree that it is extremely thorough. (In my opinion it is the finest concise exposition of the moral law in print.) But for this man, the exhaustive precision of what God requires was just too much. He told us that he thought to himself “Who could possibly do all this? Why even try?” I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, “What in the world is he going to do next time he comes across Matt. 5:48?”
Well, I have a much better use for this section of the catechism for you. Read through it again, examining the precision and exhaustive detail of the perfect obedience our Creator and Redeemer demands of us. But do that with two considerations in mind: 1. Ponder the fact that this is a description of exactly how our Lord Jesus Christ lived as he walk upon this earth. He perfectly kept every miniscule detail without the slightest deviation of any kind. Do you want to know what Christ is like? Study the moral law. 2. Consider the moral perfections described and realize that this perfection was not just something God came up with willy-nilly. This truly is the transcript of His character, to understand and love these commandments is to understand and love the author of these commandments. We all long to be more conformed to the image of our Lord and Savior. Conform yourself, inwardly and outwardly, to the demands of His moral law so that you will be more like Him.
And finally, I will conclude with what I believe ought to cause every believer to delight in God’s moral law. This has been the desire of my heart since the moment of my conversion. But unfortunately, the church has been so inundated by false teaching and fuzzy thinking about the law that it almost sounds like heresy to many. We delight in the moral law because it informs us how we can please the one who created and redeemed us!
Ralph Erskine put it this way:
A rigid matter was the law
Demanding brick, denying straw
But when with Gospel tongue it sings
It bids me fly, and gives me wings
For the unconverted man, the law is an unbearable burden. Making demands he can never fulfill, and providing absolutely no aid or consolation to anyone guilty of the slightest deviation from its requirements. But the gospel turns the law into something altogether different! Through the gospel, God takes the stony rebellious heart out of us and replaces it with a heart of flesh that seeks after God and yearns to please Him. The law then instructs us how we can show our gratitude and love for Him for whom we now live. Please allow me to make the necessary qualifications.
Unconverted man can do NOTHING to please God!
No one can do ANYTHING to earn God’s favor or salvation!
But neither of these truths contradicts the fact that Christians CAN and SHOULD live and behave in such a way that is pleasing to God! Paul Washer put it this way:
“[A lot of people] think that Christianity is you doing all the righteous things you hate and avoiding all the wicked things you love in order to go to Heaven. No, that’s a lost man with religion. A Christian is a person whose heart has been changed; they have new affections.” ~ Paul Washer, sermon, “Dating, Courtship, and Marriage.”
What are the new affections he speaks of? They are the love of Christ and the desire to please Him. But how do we go about accomplishing the desire to please Him? Is it that difficult to understand that one way to please someone is by doing what He tells you to do? It is Christ Himself who said “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” John 15:14.
Our obedience is utterly imperfect, it could never deserve God’s favor, but He looks upon our feeble efforts as a father watching a small child attempt to please him. He has cleansed the multitude impurities from our obedience with the blood of Christ and is truly pleased with it.
2 Corinthians 5:9 Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.
Colossians 1:10 that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;
Colossians 3:20 Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.
1 John 3:22 And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.
This is why every Christian should delight in the moral law of God. Every true Christian eagerly desires to please the One who redeemed him. The moral law teaches us how to accomplish the goal of living a life pleasing to Him.
Ever since my first exposure to the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God I have been fascinated by the subject of Compatibilism. God has decreed from eternity past whatsoever shall come to pass, including the actions of sinful men, yet men are still fully responsible for the sinfulness of their actions and God is in no way the author of sin. Meditating on this subject has brought me countless hours of fruitful contemplative reflection over the years.
By far the most substantive and thorough treatment of the subject I have ever had the pleasure of reading is a book that has been long out of print.
The Court of the Gentiles, Part IV, Book III, Wherein the Nature of Divine Predetermination is Fully Explicated and Demonstrated, both in the General, as also more Particularly, as to the Substrate Mater, or Entitative Act of Sin: with A Vindication of Calvinists and others from that Blasphemous Imputation of Making God the Author of Sin,
by Theophilus Gale, published in 1678. I believe Gale was a professor of Philosophy and a member of Thomas Goodwin’s church. (One day I would love to see a republication of this momentous work in contemporary English, Gale uses a lot of words that are no longer found in an unabridged dictionary.) Gale’s work is unique in that it is both philosophically sound and profoundly Biblical. The doctrine of Compatibilism is proved through Scripture, not philosophy. The doctrine is, quite simply, forced upon us if we hold to the conviction that all things in Scripture are necessarily true. Where Gale excels all others is in his ability to demonstrate that these truths can all be held together in a way that is indeed philosophically satisfying as well as faithful to the whole counsel of God. While I may have begun my study of the subject of Compatibilism as an intellectual pursuit, as I began to see it throughout the word of God it became much more than that. I now recognize this principle to be one of the most comforting truths revealed in Scripture.
A few years ago I had an opportunity to preach at Emmasdale Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia. When I asked Pastor Makashinyi if there was a subject he would like me to address, he told me that some in the church were fairly new to the Reformed faith, and that some basic teaching in that area would be helpful. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to share the Biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty (rightly described as Compatibilism), as it is presented in Scripture, in the hope that it might bring them the same comfort that it has afforded me in times of distress and trial. I did not enter into the philosophical realm, as this was a sermon, not a lecture. But I did my best to set forth the Biblical evidence and apply it to our lives.
I would simply ask that you might overlook my lack of eloquence in the hope that you may experience the same consolation to your soul that this doctrine has afforded me.
1 God has Decreed in Himself, from all Eternity, by the most wise and holy Counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things whatsoever come to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin, nor has fellowship with any therein, nor is violence offered to the will of the Creature, nor yet is the liberty, or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established, in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power, and faithfulness in accomplishing his Decree.—1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith
Resting in God’s Decrees (sermon outline)
Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
I. God’s Decree is whatever comes to pass.
Isaiah 14:24 The LORD of hosts has sworn, saying, “Surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, And as I have purposed, so it shall stand:
Isaiah 43:13 Indeed before the day was, I am He; And there is no one who can deliver out of My hand; I work, and who will reverse it?”
Isaiah 46:10 Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, “My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,’
Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, “What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, “He has no hands’?
Daniel 4:35 All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, “What have You done?”
Psalm 115:3 But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.
Psalm 135:6 Whatever the LORD pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places.
Ephesians 1:11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,
Hebrews 2:10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
Romans 11:36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.
II. Including the sinful actions of men.
Proverbs 16:4 The LORD has made all for Himself, Yes, even the wicked for the day of doom.
Acts 2:23 Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;
Acts 3:18 But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.
Acts 4:27 “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together 28to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.
III. This does nothing to eliminate the sinner’s guilt.
Isaiah 10:5-12 “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger And the staff in whose hand is My indignation. 6I will send him against an ungodly nation, And against the people of My wrath I will give him charge, To seize the spoil, to take the prey, And to tread them down like the mire of the streets. 7Yet he does not mean so, Nor does his heart think so; But it is in his heart to destroy, And cut off not a few nations. 8For he says, “Are not my princes altogether kings? 9Is not Calno like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad? Is not Samaria like Damascus? 10As my hand has found the kingdoms of the idols, Whose carved images excelled those of Jerusalem and Samaria, 11As I have done to Samaria and her idols, Shall I not do also to Jerusalem and her idols?”‘ 12Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Lord has performed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, that He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his haughty looks.”
2 Samuel 16:7-12 Also Shimei said thus when he cursed: “Come out! Come out! You bloodthirsty man, you rogue! 8 The LORD has brought upon you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the LORD has delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom your son. So now you are caught in your own evil, because you are a bloodthirsty man!” 9 Then Abishai the son of Zeruiah said to the king, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Please, let me go over and take off his head!” 10 But the king said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? So let him curse, because the LORD has said to him, ‘Curse David.’ Who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’” 11 And David said to Abishai and all his servants, “See how my son who came from my own body seeks my life. How much more now may this Benjamite? Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the LORD has ordered him. 12 It may be that the LORD will look on my affliction, and that the LORD will repay me with good for his cursing this day.”
2 Samuel 19:19 Now Shimei the son of Gera fell down before the king when he had crossed the Jordan. 19 Then he said to the king, “Do not let my lord impute iniquity to me, or remember what wrong your servant did on the day that my lord the king left Jerusalem, that the king should take it to heart.
1 Kings 2:8-9 “And see, you have with you Shimei the son of Gera, a Benjamite from Bahurim, who cursed me with a malicious curse in the day when I went to Mahanaim. But he came down to meet me at the Jordan, and I swore to him by the LORD, saying, ‘I will not put you to death with the sword.’ 9 Now therefore, do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man and know what you ought to do to him; but bring his gray hair down to the grave with blood.”
IV. This does not make God the Author of Sin!
1 John 1:5 This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.
Genesis 50:20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.
Job 1:6-22 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. 7 And the LORD said to Satan, “From where do you come?” So Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.” 8 Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” 9 So Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” 12 And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.” So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.
13 Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house; 14 and a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, 15 when the Sabeans raided them and took them away—indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 16 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 17 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 18 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said: “ Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there.
The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.” 22 In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.
Job 2:9-10 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity (evil)?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
V. This should be one of our greatest comforts.
Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
(How God used an Arminian Bible college to make me a Calvinist)
My wife and I were converted in a conservative Southern Baptist church in Sioux Falls, SD. Growing up, I had attended United Methodist and Evangelical Covenant churches where the preaching was very bland and easy-believism was the norm. This SBC church was the first place I had ever heard sound expository preaching, and in my extreme naivety I assumed that all Baptist churches were like this one, standing firmly on the inerrancy of Scripture, preaching boldly against sin and faithfully proclaiming the gospel. So when I “surrendered to preach” I enrolled in the local Baptist college which had a 3-3 program with the North American Baptist seminary in town. It only took a few weeks on campus to realize that all Baptists are not conservative and this college was no place to train for the ministry. So I spent quite a bit of time researching for the most conservative Southern Baptist Bible college I could find. My search led me to Florida Baptist Bible College in Graceville, FL.
Fav Point Calvinist!
Moving from South Dakota to the Florida panhandle in January was awesome! It was -18 degrees when we left and in the 60’s when we arrived. The day after we moved into the on-campus married housing I was enjoying the balmy weather and chatting with my new neighbor in our shared front lawn, when a senior student stopped to say hello. He had just “made the loop”, visiting all the Southern Baptist seminaries in order to decide which one to attend for his post-graduate studies. At some point in the conversation he said to my neighbor, “You’ll never believe what they got for a president at Southern. –a FIVE point Calvinist!” :O (He was referring to Dr. Mohler of course.) I had never heard the term before, so after the senior had driven away I asked my neighbor, “What is a five point Calvinist?” He didn’t know exactly how to define it, and he seemed somewhat neutral on the subject, but he made it quite clear that most students looked at it as a very bad thing.
A few days later we were having dinner with another new student and his wife. When the fact that I liked Spurgeon came up in the conversation I was told “Oh, you must be a Calvinist.” To which I had to reply, “I don’t know what a Calvinist is.” My friend was still in the discovery phase, but his explanation was enough to peak my interest. I was very busy with all the various duties required in the first semester of a new college, a new job and family (at that time we had 2 children), but I knew this was an issue I wanted to learn more about.
I joined the Theology Club, hoping to engage in some additional “iron sharpening” and fellowship. This hope, unfortunately, was very short lived. We had only one meeting that I can recall. At that meeting the decision was made to host a debate: Calvinism vs. Arminianism. I was pretty excited, thinking this would be of great benefit to my understanding of these matters. Within a couple of days my excitement was turned to dismay. The college had forbidden us from having a debate on the topic! Their suggestion for a better topic of debate: abortion. I was completely dumbfounded! The theology club isn’t allowed to debate a theological issue? What in the world is there to debate about murdering babies? What a joke! Needless to say, the Theology Club simply disbanded. By this time I had two friends who shared my conservative views, and we spent most of our spare time talking about theology.
Finally, a Definition
It seemed like a day could not pass without hearing something in class or on campus about Calvinism, “five pointers”, or something of that nature. I remember quite clearly when I finally found out what “five point Calvinism” actually was. I was up late, (about 1:30 am as I recall) working on a paper, when I had to look up a term in my “Dictionary of Theological Terms”. As I was putting the book down, it suddenly struck me, maybe the term “five point Calvinist” is in here. Well sure enough it was! Under the heading “Five points of Calvinism” I found the TULIP definition as expressed in the words of J.I. Packer. I eagerly dove in, wondering what monstrous doctrine I was about to uncover.
I began to read:
Total Depravity… well that’s clearly Biblical, all men are born dead in trespasses and sins, why would anyone have a problem with that?
Unconditional Election… Why would anyone disagree with this either? If all men are completely unable to choose God what else could be the case? And besides, “We love Him because He first loved us.”
Limited Atonement… Well that’s clearly wrong, 1 John 2:2 He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.
Irresistible Grace… Of course, God’s grace cannot fail to accomplish His purpose.
Perseverance of the Saints… Well Duh. How could anyone ever have eternal life temporarily?
Ok, ok, what is going on here? Why is everybody so worked up about “five point Calvinism”? Four of the five points are as plain as the nose on my face. I remember waking my wife up and reading each point to her and asking “This is Biblical isn’t it? What’s wrong with that? Am I missing something?” My wife didn’t appreciate my enthusiasm, but she agreed with me that four of the five points were obviously Biblical. What a realization, I was a four point Calvinist before I even knew what the word Calvinism meant. Funny how serious Bible reading and expository preaching can bring that about, isn’t it?
Arminian Antics and Strawmen
My friends and I became convinced that someone at the college was coaching chapel speakers, asking them to deride Calvinism whenever possible. I distinctly recall one speaker, when he came across the term elect in his text, giving a completely irrelevant explanation of its meaning and concluding with the declaration: “And that’s the only place election appears in the Bible!” We looked at each other in disbelief. Did he know he was speaking at a Bible college, to people who have Bibles?
Perhaps the funniest incident regarding Calvinism that I can remember was in my Christian Education class. The instructor had for some reason brought up a question about what you as a parent should do if your daughter stays out a couple hours past curfew. Immediately a voice from the other side of the room piped out, “If you’re a fav point Calvinist, she wuz sposed to come home late!” Of course this was met with abundant laughter.
But this anti-Calvinist atmosphere did do one thing for me and my friends. It drove us into the library. Oh the library, sigh… What a wonderful, peaceful, glorious place. There we devoured everything Calvinistic we could find. A.W. Pink, Ian Murray, Charles Spurgeon and John McArthur were the most helpful to me at first, and J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness gave me a taste for the puritans, and we all know what a treasure trove can be found there!
The Fifth Point
But even though many of the arguments I came across in defense of limited atonement seemed logical, I could not be convinced, not in the slightest. 1 John 2:2 was always ringing in my ears every time the subject came up. I prayed for understanding & spent much time in meditation over that verse. I then decided to do all the research I could and delve as deeply as possible into the meaning of that verse. I had my Complete Word Study New Testament by Spiros Zodhiates, and I was determined to get to the bottom of every word and phrase. Then suddenly, something amazing occurred to me. It was as though God just switched a light on in the dark room that I had been groping around in. Wait a minute, if that verse means what I thought it meant, then there can’t be anyone in hell! If Christ has propitiated God’s wrath toward every individual who ever lived or will live, then no one can ever suffer under God’s wrath. Scripture is clear that all who die outside of Christ will suffer eternally under the wrath of God. Well what do you know, I’m a five point Calvinist!
I left FBTC after only one semester, it was much more conservative than Sioux Falls College, but it was still far too liberal for me. I think I’ll always have fond memories of my time there, for it was the beginning of my “cage stage” of Calvinism. I wasn’t yet what I now consider reformed, but I was indeed a “Fav Point Calvinist”!
A presentation of the parity or equality of elders in the New Testament
The Practice of the Parity of the Eldership
Pastor Dave Chanski
Poh Boon Sing argues that holding to parity of authority among the elders produces the effect of “undermining the Christian ministry.” However, it is the view that ratchets the authority of some elders up by a notch over other elders that tends to devalue the office of elder and thus to undermine the authority of the church’s leadership. This occurs in at least two ways.
First, to assert that one class of elders has supremacy or priority of authority in the rule of the church necessarily lessens the authority of the other class of elders. This has the effect of diminishing all authority in the church, since Christ has seen fit to entrust the “execution of power or duty” to the elders of the church. We have seen that the Scriptures teach that all elders have equal authority in the church. They are Christ’s appointed rulers in His church. To grant primacy of authority to one class of elders over another requires either the extra-scriptural concentration of authority in the one class or an anti-Scriptural dilution of the authority of the other. If those who hold to such a view are not endeavoring to turn “pastors” into despots, they must concede that they are watering down the authority of “ruling elders”. This is a serious enough problem in itself, especially in a day and age when the world despises authority in almost any form and when the church of Christ is itself rushing to capitulate to the dictates of the world. The problem becomes especially acute when a church at any given time is without any fully supported preaching elders. Once again, we will do well to heed the admonition of John Owen:
Their authority, also in the whole rule of the church, is every way the same with that of the other sort of elders; and they are to act in the execution of it with equal respect and regard from the church. And this institution is abused when either unmeet persons are called to this office, or those that are called do not attend unto their duty with diligence, or do act only in it by the guidance of the teaching officers, without a sense of their own authority, or due respect from the church.
Second, the unscriptural view of the inherent superiority of one class of elders and the inherent inferiority of another leads to another pitfall, the watering down of qualifications for the office of elder. Even if it is maintained with Owen that both “pastors” and “ruling elders” hold the same office and that the scriptural qualifications are therefore identical, the departure from Owen regarding relative authority will inevitably lead to a two-tiered approach to the qualifications for office. To dilute the qualifications for one class of elders in the church is to dilute the qualifications for the eldership as a whole. Such dilution of standards jeopardizes the credibility of the church’s government in the eyes of the church and world and, more seriously, puts souls at risk, particularly those of unqualified men who are placed in office (1 Tim. 3:7). On the other hand, we know of no scriptural means more calculated to uphold the integrity of the Christian ministry and to secure the esteem of the people for church leaders than the maintenance of scriptural standards for the office of elder.
We cannot pretend that upholding scriptural standards for elders will safeguard the church from sin and incompetence in the eldership—even apostolic churches had their Diotrephes. However, care at this point is a primary means of keeping men of Diotrephes’ persuasion and tendency out of the Christian ministry. Further, taking such care to insure that all the elders in a church meet the Bible’s qualifications for office gives greater grounds for confidence that the men comprising the eldership will be able to effectively work together in a calling that requires the flesh-withering labor of mutual submission, mutual trust, and real cooperation.
Another problem is likely to develop if we depart from the biblical norm of plurality. Failure to appreciate that a plurality of elders in each church is the scriptural ideal can produce laxness regarding a church’s desire and efforts to achieve this norm. Remember that Benjamin Keach saw neither scriptural warrant nor practical necessity for any other than preaching elders in the church. Dr. Poh similarly fails to appreciate the importance of pursuing the scriptural ideal at this point when he writes:
The principle of ‘plurality’ is being bandied about as a new form of ‘shibboleth’. In the face of these new problems, it would not be wise to stress ‘plurality’. No, it might not even be right to do so.
This sentiment is far from that of the Puritan Congregationalists of New England, who wrote in their Reforming Synod in 1679:
It is requisite that utmost endeavours should be used, in order unto a full supply of officers in the churches, according to Christ’s institution. The defect of these churches, on this account, is very lamentable, there being in most of the churches only one teaching officer for the burden of the whole congregation to lye upon. The Lord Christ would not have instituted pastors, teachers, ruling-elders (nor the apostles have ordained elders in every church-Acts 14.23; Titus 1.5,) if he had not seen there was need of them for the good of his people; and therefore for men to think they can do well enough without them, is both to break the second commandment, and to reflect upon the wisdom of Christ, as if he did appoint unnecessary officers in his church.
Owen himself argued in no uncertain terms that the Bible’s norm of a plurality should be the desire of every church for practical as well as theological reasons. He wrote, “It is difficult, if not impossible, on a supposition of one elder only in a church, to preserve the rule of the church from being prelatical or popular.” In other words, to neglect the scriptural norm of plurality is to implicitly invite either the perils of the prelatical system of Owen’s day or the absence of any genuine church government, such as exists in the congregationalism of our own day. Owen further argued that “The nature of the work whereunto they are called requires that, in every church consisting of any considerable number of members, there should be more elders than one.” His point is that the preservation of the life of godliness in both pastor and people, their maximum edification, and the good order of the church of Christ are all best served by a plurality of elders, not by single elder rule. He wrote, “That all these things can be attended unto and discharged in a due manner in any church, by one elder, is for them only to suppose who know nothing of them.” For good and weighty reasons, Owen held strong convictions regarding the importance of plurality. We do well to emulate him in this.
Another defect of any view which disallows or undermines parity of authority among elders is that it permits and promotes a carnal view of the ministry. Any such view is rooted in unbelief. Knowing the human heart and the track record of men—who share authority in government, whether civil or ecclesiastical, many conclude that effective government by a number of men who possess parity of authority is impracticable if not impossible to achieve. Poh writes:
The fact that one or two churches have functioned well with this system is no proof that it is correct. It only proves that the men involved have been long-standing friends who would have operated well in any other situation.
We agree that a harmoniously functioning eldership in which there is parity of authority does not prove that the system is biblical. That determination must be made exegetically. But a well-functioning eldership with parity does prove that the Bible’s order of church government is practicable. It is not only practicable, it is ideal, and its realization ought to be our aim. To suggest that such an eldership owes its harmony to quirks of personality is akin to attributing every God-honoring Christian marriage to mere compatibility of the partners and asserting that they would have been successful even if they had remained unregenerate. The reality and profundity of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is denied.
The Bible’s form of church government requires faith in the necessity and efficacy of the work of the Holy Spirit. If we walk by sight and not by faith in this area, we will inevitably settle for a pragmatic arrangement, having concluded that the Bible’s method is designed for implementation only by angels or spirits of just men made perfect. Functioning in harmony with parity requires more than simply having godly men in the eldership. It requires the present and powerful dynamic of the Holy Spirit. He alone can help men of diverse age, gift, native inclination, and experience to cooperate peaceably and successfully. Only the Spirit of God can enable men to soberly assess themselves (Rom. 12:3ff.). Only He can enable them to mortify pride. Only He can keep them from sinful contentions and enable them to submit to one another. Only He can enable a man to sincerely appreciate and welcome the genuine oversight of his own soul by men who may be his inferiors in age, learning, or gift. By the same token, it is only the Holy Spirit who can enable equals in authority to defer to those who possess greater gift, experience, insight, or familiarity in a given area or situation.
Dr. Poh sees it as an inherent weakness of parity that it gives rise to a “constant tension of having to give deference to one another.” However, pride will wreak havoc in any eldership, whether it has parity or not. No system of church government produced Diotrephes. Diotrephes spoiled the government of the church (3 John 9). The requirement of humility and the perpetual demand for submission is not peculiar to systems of church government holding to parity. It is required for the Christian ministry, period. If a man cannot defer to his fellow elders, how can he faithfully and effectively shepherd the flock of God (1 Pet. 5:2f.)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, how can he be the servant of Christ’s people (Matt. 20:25-27)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, how can he truly esteem others better than himself (Phil. 2:3-5)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, how will he ever spend and be spent for men’s souls (2 Cor. 12:14f.)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, let that be the first clue that he is not fit to be an elder in the church of Christ.