Confession on the Church

This is number seven of eight confessions that I had to write for my three Systematic Theology courses with Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  They were extremely challenging assignments for me, but I got much out of completing them.  I am trusting that others may find them to be helpful as well.

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Biblical images/Who are its members: I believe the church is the family of God, a community of subjects in His Kingdom, who are His chosen covenant people that He bought with Jesus’ blood.  The church is the body of Christ with Jesus as its Head.  It is His holy temple.  The church is God’s people.  The church is His sheep, with Jesus as their Good Shepherd.  It is God’s building; its members are living stones and Jesus is the foundation upon which He will build His church.  It is His pure and spotless bride, the remnant of Israel, citizens of heaven, the City of God, the pillar of truth, and the wheat in God’s field.  The church is made of born-again believers in Jesus Christ as well as Old Testament saints, Jew and Gentile, male and female, gathered from every nation.  The church invisible is that group of true believers; the church visible consists of both true believers and false ones.  On Judgment Day, Jesus will say to the false ones, “Depart from me – I never knew you.”  (Matt. 16:15-18; John 10:14-16; 1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27; Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18; 1 Pet. 2:4-6.)

Attributes/Marks of a true church: I believe that the church invisible is one unified group of Christ-followers represented by many Christian denominations.  It is pure and holy and continues the work of Jesus’ apostles.  A local church functions as the true church when it preaches and follows the Bible as its primary authority, baptizes believers in Christ, and regularly celebrates the Lord’s Supper as a body of baptized believers.  (Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, 381.)

Relation to the Kingdom/Activities of the church: I believe the church is the center of the Kingdom of God on earth.  It has been called to make disciples of all nations.  The church must meet together regularly in local assemblies for the purpose of hearing God’s Word as it is preached by gifted preachers and study God’s Word as it is taught by gifted teachers.  Members must fellowship with, serve one another, evangelize the lost, and minister in good works of mercy and justice to those outside of the church so that the Kingdom of God is proclaimed, experienced, and expanded for the glory of God.  (Mt. 28:19-20; Mark 1:15; Acts 2:42; 1 Pet. 2:9.)

Baptism: I believe that Jesus commanded His disciples to continue this ordinance so believers would have a clear picture of the believer’s identification with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.  It is a public testimony of the conversion that has already taken place.  The preferred mode is immersion, and is done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This has continuity with the Old Testament rite of circumcision, and as such is a New Testament ceremony of covenant renewal.  It is more than a mere symbol.  When baptism is accompanied by the preaching of the Word, God works in the hearts of those who participate to build them up in their faith.  It is to be done only one time, soon after a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  It is to be administered by church leaders in a proper way.  (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:38, 22:16; Rom. 6:3-7; Col. 2:11-12; Tit. 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21-22.)

Lord’s Supper: I believe that Jesus at His Last Supper established this ordinance to provide a regular opportunity for the church to call to mind the sacrifice Jesus made as He gave His body and blood for the remission of our sins. It is a corporate testimony of faith.  The elements are wine or grape juice and bread.  This has continuity with the Old Testament Passover meal, and as such is a New Testament celebration of redemption.  It is more than a mere symbol.  When the Lord’s Supper is accompanied by preaching of the Word, God works in the hearts of those who participate to build them up in their faith.  It is to be administered on a regular basis by church leaders.  (Matt. 26:26-29; Luke 22:14-20; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 10:16-17, 11:23-29.)

Form of Government/ Leadership/Church offices: I believe that the local church should be led by a group of male elders.  They must meet all of the required qualifications (a married man of integrity who is mature in his faith and able to teach).  Some of them could be full-time pastors while others could be laymen.  They should lead, manage the church business, exercise spiritual oversight, make decisions, solve disputes among members, and serve the body.  Deacons should also meet the biblical qualifications and serve the members of the body and the community of faith as needed.  Jesus declared the gates of hell will not prevail against His church.  (Acts 15:19, 20; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11-13; 1 Tim. 2:11-14, 3:1-12; Tit. 1:5-9; 1 Pet. 5:1-4.)

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Experiencing God’s Presence

It has dawned on me more than a few times that in all my writing on the subject of work, I have never directly addressed the topic of God’s presence. I guess I take it for granted that most Christians would understand this concept, since being a Christian is more about relationship than religion. When I have discussed my insights on sensing God’s presence at work (which I like to refer to as “Immanuel Labor”), this is merely an extension of what I have practiced pretty much on a daily basis for the past 40 years.

So, what do I mean when I say I “experience God’s presence” at work or elsewhere?

The Bible passage that most believers think of with respect to this is Psalm 139:7-10:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

Although these verses highlight God’s supernatural ability to be everywhere and anywhere, David wants us to see this aspect of God’s personality as not just as an objective reality, but as something he truly feels.  He says personal things like, “you are there” (twice, in v. 8), “your hand will guide me”, and “your right hand will hold me fast”.   These words describe that God is in a very real sense right there in David’s midst, which gives him (and us as well) feelings of peace, security, and hope.  Not only that, but David if fully confident that God has been, is now, and will continue to actively lead him every step of the way.

Before I dive into definitions and observations from other Christian writers, I would be remiss if I did not mention that David’s understanding of God’s presence has to start with the concept of pardon.  There is no experiencing God’s presence without first dealing with our sin that comes between us and our Creator.  In the first five books of the Old Testament, especially Leviticus, we see that sin had to be atoned for with blood sacrifices on a regular basis so that the Israelites, including King David, could experience God’s presence in the tabernacle. David understood quite well the progression of sin, confession, and acceptance of God’s forgiveness (see Psalm 51 and 103:11-12). In the New Testament book of Hebrews, we learn that Jesus’ priesthood and sacrifice of Himself for us, once for all, made complete atonement and forgiveness for all of our sins: past, present, and future, so that we can boldly come before the throne of grace to experience God’s presence continually (Heb. 4:14-16; 10:19-22).

A good starting place might be to explore the divine attribute of God’s omnipresence. Grudem’s Systematic Theology defined it this way: “God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places. . . . There is nowhere in the entire universe, on land or sea, in heaven or in hell, where one can flee from God’s presence.”  He adds, “When the Bible speaks of God’s presence, it usually means his presence to bless.”

I absolutely must mention the work of Brother Lawrence, in the Christian classic book written in 1691 entitled, The Practice of the Presence of God.  He is described in the Preface as one whose heart “had learned the most essential ingredient of the Christian life: how to remain in the presence of God daily.”  In one conversation, he had stated quite simply that “All we have to do is to recognize God as being intimately present within us.  Then we may speak directly to Him every time we need to ask for help, to know His will in moments of uncertainty, and to do whatever He wants us to do in a way that pleases Him.”  After forty years of consistently living in this way, he describes himself as one who “has been filled with a constant inner joy that is sometimes so overwhelming.” I feel the same thing.

Last summer I read another book, The Presence of God, by J. Ryan Lister. He gave a thorough biblical overview of the theme of God’s presence with His people from Genesis to Revelation. He showed “how God’s presence is stitched into the biblical narrative so that it is clearly part of the warp and woof of the story.” The author states, “The presence of God is a fundamental objective in our redemption and, simultaneously, the means by which God completes this objective.” He continues, “Knowing the presence of God as it is expressed across the pages of the biblical script transforms the way we understand and live our Christian lives. The presence of God is more than theoretical; it lives.” He indicates that this impacts us corporately as well as personally, as we participate in the church, the Body of Christ, where God dwells in order to expand His presence in the world. Lister reminds us that in the end, “‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man'” (Rev. 21:3).  This ultimate state of the eternal presence of God gives us hope.

I honestly have experienced God’s presence as a normal part of my own Christian life from the beginning.  I cannot imagine living any other way.  I know the nearness of God when I am reading His word and when I am praying, when I am enjoying the natural beauty of a mountain or a starry night, when I have been in a stadium full of men singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and when I am in the car listening to a Christian music station.  I have confidence that He is there with me when I go through times of great trials, when everything seems to be going well, and everything in-between.  I do not think that my experiences are unique.

In closing, let me share what I wrote inside the front cover of Lister’s book mentioned above.  Before I even started to read it, I thought about what the presence of God really meant for me.  Starting with pardon, which we have already discussed, I made a long alliterated list of other blessings that result from God’s presence with us: proximity (Ps. 23:4), protection (Ps. 27:5), peace (Ex. 33:14), pleasure (Ps. 16:11), power (Acts 1:8), purpose (2 Tim. 2:20-21), and provision (Phil. 4:19).

For those, like me, that are lifted up by the gift of music, here is a great new song called “Right Beside Me” written by Christian recording artist and cancer survivor Tim Timmons that illustrates the power of God’s presence in his own life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eY1EXyIkl2o

I hope that this reflection will help others to experience God’s presence.

 

 

 

 

Confession on Salvation

I wrote this confession for the last of three Systematic Theology classes that I took with Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  It was a good assignment.  I put a lot of thought into it.  I hope that others will find it helpful.

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Election: I believe that in eternity past, God chose certain people to save through faith in Jesus Christ.  This was based on God’s foreknowledge, which does not mean that He merely knew we would choose to believe in the future, but that He knew and loved His sheep beforehand.  God predestined us to be saved by grace and not works; He chose us long before any of us chose Him.

(Matt. 11:27, 22:14; John 5:21, 6:37, 10:26, 15:16, 17:9; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:29-30, 9:10-24, 11:2-6; Eph. 1:4-5, 11; 2 Thes. 2:13; 2 Tim. 2:10; Tit. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1-2; 2 Pet. 1:10; Rev. 17:14.)

General and Effectual calling: I believe that God invites all people to repent and believe in Jesus Christ for their salvation.  Because of total depravity, humans cannot willfully choose to believe without the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit. All people that the Holy Spirit personally invites to have faith in Jesus Christ will believe and be saved.  Unlike the general call, this one cannot be resisted.

(Isa. 45:22; John 6:44, 65, 7:37; Acts 2:39, 16:14; Rom. 1:6-7, 8:28-30; 1 Cor. 1:9, 26, 2:14; Eph. 4:1; 1 Thes. 2:12; 2 Thes. 2:14; 2 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 3:1, 9:15; 1 Pet. 2:9, 5:10; 2 Pet. 1:3, 10.)

Regeneration: I believe that just before conversion, the Holy Spirit causes a sinner to be born again so that one who was once blind can see the truth of the gospel and one who was once dead can come to life and respond in faith.  This supernatural action changes the heart of a soon-to-be new believer, overcoming their inability to obey, and enabling them to genuinely repent and believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.  Becoming a new creature in Christ begins here and continues over a lifetime of transformation through the process of sanctification.

(Eze. 11:19-20; John 1:13, 3:3-8, 6:65; Rom. 3:11; 1 Cor. 2:14, 6:11; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:1-10; Col. 2:11-13, 3:10; Tit. 3:5; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23; 2 Pet. 1:4; 1 John 5:1.)

Conversion – Faith and Repentance: I believe that faith and repentance are necessary steps required in the salvation process.  Both involve the intellect, emotions, and will.  God gives those to whom He has regenerated the ability to respond to the call of the gospel by admitting they are a sinner and turning from their sin, and then believing and trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.  Repentance involves confession of known sin, contrition, brokenness, and a change of heart from self to God. Faith involves acknowledgement of, total surrender to, and a commitment to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Faith and repentance also must continue to be pursued on a daily basis as a key element in our sanctification.

(Mt. 4:17, 18:3; Luke 5:32, 13:3; John 3:16, 36, 5:24, 6:28-29, 40, 20:31; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 17:30, 26:17-18; Rom. 1:16-17, 3:22, 4:5, 5:1, 10:9-13; 1 Cor. 12:3; Eph. 2:8-9; Heb. 11:6, 12:2.)

Union with Christ: I believe that all believers are identified with Christ: His life, death, burial, and resurrection.  We died with Him and are raised to new life; we are in Him, and He is in us.  This union is irreversible.  We possess the very presence of God through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit in us.  This spiritual identification with Christ depicts a close personal relationship which is to be experienced daily, radically changing our attitudes, will, and behavior.  Our union with Christ is described as branches attached to grapevines, stones in a building joined to the cornerstone, and parts of a body connected to its head. This union with Christ is true individually as well as corporately as a church.  All other benefits of salvation are ours only because of our supernatural union with Him.

(John 14:20, 23, 15:4-5; Rom. 6:3-8, 8:1, 9-11, 38-39; 1 Cor. 12:27; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 2:20, 3:27; Eph. 1:1 2:19-22; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2, 27; 1 Thes. 1:1; 1 Pet. 2:4-5; 1 John 3:24, 4:13; Rev. 3:20.)

Adoption: I believe that immediately at the moment of salvation, all believers become an adopted child of God, a member of His covenant family.  This close familial relationship with God as our Father is a permanent, binding, and unbreakable change of status.  With it comes all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of being a child of God.  We become an heir to His kingdom.  When God becomes our Father, fellow believers are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

(John 1:12-13; Rom. 8:14-17, 9:26; 2 Cor. 6:18; Gal. 3:26-29, 4:4-7, Eph. 1:5; 1 John 3:1, 10.)

Justification: I believe that immediately at the moment of salvation, all of the believer’s sins are completely removed and forgiven.  It is not based on works, but on the atoning work of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, and imputing His righteousness to us and our sins to His account.  By God’s grace alone, received only through the means of faith alone, in Jesus Christ, God legally declares us righteous in His sight.  This happens only once at the moment of conversion.  Justification brings reconciliation between God and the believer, which grants eternal life.

(Gen. 15:6; Ps. 32:1-2; Acts 13:39; Rom. 1:17, 3:21-28, 4:1-8, 23-25; 5:1, 8-9, 18-19, 10:3-4;    1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 2:15-16, 3:6; Phil. 3:9; Heb. 9:15, 10:10-14; 1 Pet. 3:18; 1 John 2:2.)

Sanctification: I believe that God declares all believers holy in status.  By His grace, He also enables believers to become more holy in experience, as He transforms them into the image of Jesus Christ over a lifetime until glorification. This development of spiritual maturity empowered by the Holy Spirit will not make a believer sinless, but they should sin less, as we in faith and obedience put on the new nature that was created in Christlikeness and put off the old fleshly human nature. A life characterized by experiential holiness is the goal of conversion.  This requires our disciplined efforts to regularly yield to the control of the Holy Spirit as He works out in words, thoughts, and deeds that which He has put in our hearts.  It will bring God’s discipline when we do not yield; He uses trials and suffering in our lives to get us to focus once again on Him.  If there is no evidence of spiritual transformation, i.e., the fruit of the spirit, good works, or living in sin deliberately, one should evaluate if they ever had genuine saving faith.

(Matt. 7:15-23; John 17:17; Rom. 6:11-19, 7:14-25, 8:9-13, 12:2; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 3:18, 4:16, 7:1; Gal. 5:17, 22-25; Eph. 4:22-24, 5:1-2, 26-27; Phil. 1:6, 2:12-13; Col. 3:1-10; 1 Thes. 4:3-8, Heb. 6:1, 10:14, 12:1-13; James 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:13-16, 2:11, 21; 2 Pet. 1:3-11; 1 John 1:5-10.)

Preservation/Perseverance: I believe that every follower of Jesus Christ will persevere in faith and faithfulness until death or when Christ returns. A true disciple will never fall away; God will ensure that they persevere until the end due to His unlimited power and unchanging purpose. Christians must continue to make every effort in faith to trust and obey in order to finish the race.

(John 3:16-18, 5:24, 6:37-40, 10:27-30; Rom. 8:1, 29-39, 11:29; 1 Cor. 1:8; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; Eph. 1:13-14, 4:30; Phil. 1:6; 2 Tim. 4:7, 18; Tit. 3:7; Heb. 7:25, 10:35-39; 1 Pet. 1:3-7; Jude 1, 24.)

Glorification: I believe that all believers will finally reach absolute sanctification into the image of Jesus Christ at the consummation of all things at His Second Coming. This is a complete work of God alone; there is nothing for believers to do to assist in the attainment of this eternal state of perfection. We will be given a resurrection body. We will no longer be under the constant influence of sin; we will be totally free from the presence of sin for eternity. As the new earth is restored to its pre-fall state, so too the believer will completely reflect the image of God.

(Matt. 25:34; Rom. 8:17, 21, 29-30; 1 Cor. 15:49-54; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Thes. 3:13, 5:23; 2 Thes. 2:14; 2 Tim. 2:10; Tit. 3:4-7; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 1:3-5, 5:4; 2 Pet. 1:11; 1 John 3:2; Rev. 21:3-5.)

How Sin Affects All Aspects of Work

Informational-Texts-Child-Labor-ThinkCERCAWhile heading out of state for a family vacation in July, I was reading the first chapter of one of the latest additions to my library, Work in the Spirit, by Miroslav Volf.  I was struck by some new ideas about how sin affects work.  It opened up the aperture far wider than it had been.

Last September, I shared how the sin of Adam impacts work in my first post on the theology of work (see https://regehrlein.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/thorns-and-thistles/).  I felt I had done an adequate job explaining how Adam’s sin (and our own) makes work much harder than it needs to be.  Now, I think I was merely scratching the surface.

Volf entitled this chapter “The Problem of Work”.  He takes a hard look at “the present reality of human work” (p. 25) by briefly highlighting how work has transformed over the centuries and around the world.  He describes the conditions workers find themselves, which he calls a “crisis of work” (p. 35).  He brought to light things I had not thought about nearly enough considering the dire situations countless workers face daily.  It was not difficult to understand how vastly different the Third World worker’s experiences are from those of us who happen to live in more economically developed nations.  These negative aspects of work are far more painful than mere thorns and thistles.  As I reflected on each of them, it became “a blinding flash of the obvious” that they were all systemically rooted in sin.

Although it has probably been decades since we routinely saw thousands of children working in factories in America like we did during the Industrial Revolution, in much of the world today children work in absolutely horrible conditions.  Volf estimated that up to 200 million children were in the work force (p. 36).  This happens for a variety of reasons that are common in poverty-stricken areas: homes where mothers care for younger children and fathers are unemployed, plus the fact that to an employer children can be almost as productive as adults but at a much lower cost.  My heart broke when I read, “They are among the most exploited and physically and psychologically abused workers in the world’s work force.  The majority of working children are ‘condemned to a cruel present and to a bleak future'” (p. 37).  This condition is clearly linked to root causes of the sins of selfishness, greed, lies, laziness, corruption, a lack of compassion and integrity, etc.

Volf listed other aspects of the current crisis of work, including unemployment, discrimination, dehumanization, exploitation, as well as the detrimental ecological impacts to our natural resources.  He does not mention human trafficking when discussing the topic of exploitation, but unfortunately we are all too familiar with this hellish situation.  He indicates that there are multiple causes to these conditions, falling not so neatly into personal and structural categories.

On a related note, just this morning I saw a meme, lamenting the latest version of a well-known brand of cell phone that was made using minerals for the microchips mined by child slaves, assembled by Chinese workers who often commit suicide due to job stress, and sold by retail workers in the US who make a less than living wage.  These are very real concerns, even if the political statement may have been posted by someone using that very same cell phone.

I am burdened by all of these depressing observations.  Other than a very brief season of unemployment over three decades ago, I honestly do not see any of these atrocities on daily basis where I live.  But I know that God does, and that it has to break His heart.

Let’s get back to our own situation at work.  No matter what we do or where we do it, without a doubt, our employer is a sinner, our employees are sinners, as are our co-workers, not to mention our customers.  And, of course, we also sin.  Even if we work alone, we will still face sin in the workplace.  How do we handle all this sin around us?

Quite simply, when we find ourselves in sin, we will just need to confess it and forsake it. When others around us sin, we will have to forgive them.  This may or may not require us to confront them, depending on a number of factors.  I also believe we need to adjust our expectations a bit.  Sinners will sin; it’s what they do.  We can’t fix everything that is wrong with everyone.  If they are believers, we can take a different approach than if they are not.

With respect to the systemic sins in the world of work, I think we need to realize that much of the injustices we see will be with us until Christ returns.  However, rather than throwing up our hands in numb despair, as Randy Stonehill sings in his song “Save the Children”, it is entirely possible that we were placed by God “for such a time as this”. (Esther 4:14).  We can easily shop differently without too much trouble.  For example, we can buy “fair trade” coffee to discourage those coffee-bean plantations that use child labor.  We can also address unfair labor practices or discrimination of all kinds with our employers or through unions.  Or, perhaps God may want to use us to bring renewal, hope, restoration, reformation, healing, and redemption to our workplaces.  (I addressed this briefly in a previous blog three months ago on reforming the workplace: https://regehrlein.wordpress.com/2016/06/04/reforming-the-workplace/.)

In closing, I have to end on a high note.  There will come a day, and it may be soon, when all of this nonsense brought on by sin will be a thing of the past.  Forever.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus!