I Prize Her Heavenly Ways?


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John 20:19-23

The title of the sermon, as many of you will recognize, is taken from Timothy Dwight’s famous hymn I Love Thy Kingdom Lord. The question mark is the point. In singing that hymn generations of Christians have confessed of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ:

“Beyond my highest joy I prize her heavenly ways,
Her sweet communion, solemn vows, her hymns of love and praise.”

If they meant what they said, when they sang it, those English speaking Christians of generations past, it is perhaps as well that few Christians sing the hymn today, because on the lips of most English speaking believers in our time it would not be true. In our day it is the rare Christian, who actually believes that the Christian Church has heavenly ways or that she has ways that are at all unique to herself. For a great many modern Christians of the western world the world’s ways will work well enough. In fact, for many of those who have charted the evangelical church’s course over the past generation it is an article of faith that it is bad form for church to have her own ways. To be different in practice, to employ a distinctive vocabulary, and to practice in her services rituals that are alien to the life of the culture is thought to hinder outreach, unnecessarily to place a barrier in the way of seekers.

Far better, it is thought in many quarters, to use the world’s ways because people are accustomed to them, find them familiar and comfortable, and are susceptible to their influence. Under the influence of this thinking massive changes have taken place in the culture of the church, in the practice of Christian worship, and in the understanding of the very nature of the church, some of which changes and some of the most important of them almost unprecedented in the history of the church. We live in a radically revolutionary age.

  1. For example, under the influence of the world’s ways and as a way of accommodating the church’s ways to that of the world, the biblical offices of prophet, priest, and king have been largely replaced in its understanding of the ministry with the modern roles of CEO, therapist, and news anchor.
  2. The dominant role of technology in modern life has produced in the church the deep assumption that the church ought to be able to fix any problem and the proliferating instruments of convenience in our culture further erode the church’s willingness to embrace and to foster in the life of her people the virtues of patience and longsuffering. And, particularly important to our consideration this evening of ordination and installation of officers,
  3. The elimination of standards of public propriety and good manners undermines in subtle but powerful ways the church’s assumptions about the legitimacy of authority.

Some years ago in the magazine First Things [Aug/Sept 1996], a very influential and valuable journal of commentary devoted to the intersection of Christianity and public affairs, there was an exchange devoted to the separation that exists between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity. Two authors, one a Protestant, the other a Catholic, weighed in on the divide that separates them. The Protestant, our own Peter Leithart, a minister of this presbytery, gave an eloquent explanation as to why it is that so many Roman Catholics who eventually convert to Protestant Christianity do not think that they were Christians at all when they were Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church certainly considers itself a Christian church; indeed, for many centuries it thought itself the only Christian church. Why would so many people equate their becoming Christians with their leaving the Roman Catholic Church? According to Dr. Leithart, the reason is that the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, so central to the message of the Bible and to the experience of living faith in God and Christ, is not kept central in Catholic teaching and worship. It is buried under and shrouded by layers of tradition and the addition of unbiblical elements of faith and practice. He then quoted several Roman Catholic writers who have recently said the same thing.

But in the second article a Roman Catholic professor of theology, one John Haas, made the daring claim that, as a matter of fact, Roman Catholicism is more biblical than Protestant forms of the faith. And he began his article with an anecdote from his own experience.

“The man sitting next to me on the plane was pleasant enough. He was well dressed, had a kind face, and showed a surprisingly friendly concern for me as a total stranger. So when he finally revealed that he was a Protestant minister, I was not surprised. He spoke openly and easily of his faith and of the joy he had found in his relationship with the Lord.

He continued to be courteous to me even when he learned that I was Catholic. He said that he was pleased to learn that I, too, knew and loved the Lord Jesus. But, as the conversation progressed, he eventually could not avoid giving expression to a frustration he had with the Catholic Church.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘I just cannot understand why you Catholics engage in these practices which have no basis in Scripture?’

‘Oh, I responded, a bit surprised. ‘What particular practices did you have in mind?’

‘Well, for example, this practice of men presuming to forgive other men’s sins! This practice of confession,’ he replied.

‘But that is based on Scripture,’ I insisted. ‘After our Lord’s resurrection, He appeared to his disciples in an upper room. He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit! Whose soever sins you forgive are forgiven, whose soever sins you retain are retained!’

‘Well, that may be in your Bible,’ he responded. ‘It’s not in our Protestant Bible.’

‘Do you have a copy of your Bible with you?’ I asked.

‘Of course, I do,’ he responded reproachfully, as though I thought he might travel without it.

I took the worn, black leather-bound King James Bible he handed me, turned to the twentieth chapter of John, and read the passage aloud in its eloquent Elizabethan prose. A look of astonishment and confusion came over the man’s face. ‘I never noticed that before,’ he said. After a moment’s silence, he went on, ‘I’m going to have to think about this.’

Of course the kindly minister had undoubtedly read the passage many times before. But he had never done so in the light of Catholic practice.”

Well, I’m quite sure that Roman Catholicism is not as biblical as Professor Haas imagines. After all, the most he could claim was that the Catholic practice of auricular confession (that is, confession into the ear of the priest) and the sacrament of penance (which results in saying so many “Hail Marys” or rosaries to effect the removal of guilt) are somehow based on Scripture. Such things are hardly taught in the Bible and much of that practice is utterly alien to the Bible’s actual teaching on repentance, prayer, confession, and forgiveness. What Roman Catholicism made of this text is precisely what the Scripture never teaches us to do, never shows us anyone doing, or ever suggests that such practices would be compatible with gospel truth and the Christian life. That wouldn’t trouble John Haas because, as you know, the Roman Catholic Church believes that there are two authorities for Christian faith and practice: Holy Scripture and the Church and that the church can add to the laws, even to the beliefs that are found in the Word of God.

But, the fact is, I doubt that any of us is terribly surprised that the Protestant pastor had nothing to say about John 20:23.

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

If we don’t make of that text what Roman Catholics do, what shall we make of it? The answer is, apparently, “not much.” Few Protestants today, very few, have any respect for the authority of the church and her officers to declare the judgments of God and to enforce his law. In the ancient epoch forgiveness was regularly mediated through the sacrifices of tabernacle and temple all of which required, absolutely required, the mediation of the priest. No one imagined, certainly no pious Israelite imagined, that it lay within a priest’s power to forgive sins. God alone could do that, but the priest was his officer and instrument and the Lord’s judgments to bind and to loose were placed in his hands.

In the New Testament we have the same. In Matthew 16:19 the Lord told his apostles that whatever they bound on earth would have been bound in heaven and whatever they loosed on earth would have been loosed in heaven, very much the same kind of statement we have here in John 20. And lest anyone think that such a statement applied only to the apostles, we have the same statement made again in Matthew 18:17-18 but this time in the context of ordinary church discipline, such as would then and now be exercised by elders. Throughout the Bible we have evidence of the authority of the officers of the church to receive into the church or cast out of the church those who meet or fail to meet the requirements of membership laid down in Holy Scripture.

But the ordinary western evangelical Christian never thinks about this. He is a church shopper and often a church hopper. The church, in his or her view, is a service organization, as valuable as its usefulness to him or to her. It is not, in such a view, the kingdom of God, its officers holding in their hands the authority of heaven. If a man or woman is confronted by the church for some disobedience to God it is very likely that he or she will simply up and leave, saying unkind things about the church and its officers on the way out. They will not likely fear the judgments of God for having defied his authority as that authority is represented in the church.

If such people ever thought about it — which most do not — they would probably justify their indifference to the church by reminding us that clerics and lay elders and deacons have often made mistakes, have often misused their authority, have often been unbelievers themselves, and have by their judgments undermined rather upheld the law of God. True enough. My father was deposed from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in the 1940s literally for nothing except being an evangelical in a largely liberal presbytery. A friend of mine was excommunicated from the staunchly evangelical Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland for riding a bus on Sunday. It was his only way to get to church! But the misuse of something does not nullify or take away the proper use of that same thing. And in the Word of God itself we have the explicit teaching, often repeated, that the authority of the Almighty is exercised by the officers of his church.

It is well for Christians to ponder all of this teaching in the Bible from time to time. We fear the authority of the state because it can give us an expensive traffic ticket, force us to pay taxes and confiscate our income if we do not, or send us to jail. But the state cannot forgive or retain your sins, receive you or cast you out of the kingdom of God. But the officers of the church can do such things. God has devolved on the officers of the church his own authority, greater than which there can be none. No wonder then that the Scripture should tell you to obey your leaders! The real authority in this world — the power that affects eternity — is in the church, not the state, little as most people believe that to be true nowadays. But then, that’s the problem isn’t it, always the problem: this is something known only by faith. We cannot see it with our eye or feel it in our wallet, however true it may be.

Ministers, elders, and deacons have and exercise this divine authority in different ways. And it is this fact that makes ordination so important. What is ordination? John Owen, the prince of the Puritan theologians, gives us this concise definition.

“Ordination in Scripture compriseth the whole authoritative translation of a man from among the number of the brethren into the state of an officer in the church.”

Ordination makes a man an officer of the church, a holder of one of those positions of authority that the Lord Christ has appointed for his Church. The office comes with authority and ordination installs a man in that office and grants him that authority that other Christians do not have. One of the Presbyterian Church’s, actually one of the Christian Church’s, most fundamental convictions about ordination is that all of this is fundamentally God’s doing.

You just witnessed the rite of ordination itself, the laying on of hands. That rite is mentioned in Holy Scripture, as you know, as the appointed method of ordination to church office. Paul speaks of ordination or the laying on of hands “by the presbytery” which is a term that means simply the elders together acting in concert. Tonight you were not invited to come forward to participate in that rite. Why? Because you have no authority to do so. Ordination is an ordinance, something ordered by God and to be performed according to the instructions we have been given in his Word.

Even in electing these men, as was your right, you must not think that you were free to do as you please. You were required, as we told you, to obey God’s word and select only those men who appeared to you to be men God himself had chosen, those men who met the requirements for office laid down in God’s word.

Ministers and elders alone have the authority to ordain officers because only they have the right to act and to speak on Christ’s behalf and in his place. The congregation doesn’t ordain any more than it baptizes or administers the Lord’s Supper. These rites are performed by officers precisely so that it might be clear that they are actually performed by Christ, because they are being done by those he has appointed to speak and act on his behalf in the church. The congregation selected the seven men who were to become the church’s first deacons, but they were ordained by the apostles, both appointed to the office and set apart by the laying on of hands, as we read in Acts 6:1-6.

What did Paul say to the Ephesian elders? No doubt they had been elected by the congregation and ordained in a ceremony very like what you just witnessed. But Paul says to them,

“Guard yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.”

In Ephesians 4 Paul says that it is Christ who gives to the church its officers, mentioning there evangelists and pastors and teachers. He might as well have mentioned elders and deacons. There are gifts required for these offices we read in 1 Cor. 12 and Romans 12 and those gifts are given by the Holy Spirit. It was God, and especially it was Jesus Christ, not man, who gave them their office. I have a distant relative, a firefighter not a minister, who, though a layman, was delighted that his minister gave him the privilege of baptizing his daughters when they had reached an age when they thought they were ready to be baptized. He thought it was “cool,” to be able to do that. No one in this day and age is very likely to say so but the fact is baptism cannot be performed by laymen any more than a sacrifice could be pleasing to God in the ancient church performed by someone who was not a priest. Whatever that was my relative did, it wasn’t baptism. It was some ceremony of sentimental value, but it was not Christ identifying his own because Christ did not perform the act. However alien to modern American sentiment, anti-authoritarian, anti-clerical, egalitarian, and individualistic as it is, certain matters of vast importance lie in the hands of the church’s officers and cannot be had without them. I had a friend in Scotland, not a minister, who with his wife and son would take a weekend and Lord’s Day trip to the west coast and on Sunday morning have the Lord’s Supper themselves: a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine on some Scottish brae. Very American; but not Christian and not biblical.

It is ordination’s appointment in Holy Scripture as the divinely appointed way of installing men in offices of authority that accounts for the fact that in the Bible ordination is not simply the recognition of a man’s gifts for the office, but his equipment for the office. In the Bible ordination makes something of a man that he was not before. Joshua was a man of the Spirit to be sure. That was why he was selected to be Moses’ successor. But in Deut. 34:9 we read:

“Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him.”

And in the NT we have the same thing. Paul writes to Timothy in 1 Tim. 4:14:

“Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you…when the council of elders laid their hands on you.”

Ordination is accompanied by divine empowerment and authority, a gift it becomes the minister, elder, or deacon’s responsibility to nurture, cultivate, and exercise. There is the biblical promise that these men whose ordinations you just witnessed have more of the Spirit than they had yesterday, equipment of the Spirit for the work to which they have been set apart.

It is the fact that God himself is in, under, around and through this entire process of ordination — that it is his own way of exercising his rule in the church and the world — that makes it so consequential and that gives to these men such authority. It is this divine imprimatur on these men that leads the author of Hebrews to exhort his readers to “Obey their leaders so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”

You need the church and what God has placed in the church for you. You need the officers Christ has given to the church and the Holy Spirit has equipped to do for you what the Christian life requires, to preach the Word of God to you, to shepherd you, to oversee your life and conduct, and to lead you further into the life of charity. This is how God made the Christian life to work and it is to love and honor and obey him to submit your life to this divine order.

These are sinful men, weak men; we know that. But that too is God’s way. Paul was speaking of himself and other officers of the church when he admitted that “we hold these gospel treasures in jars of clay,” but he still insisted on the church’s respect for the authority of its officers. It is a lesson even some unbelievers have learned.

In the later years of the 17th century two students at the University of St. Andrews signed a copy of the Solemn League and Covenant — an oath to defend the gospel in Scotland now that it was under direct attack from the forces of the crown — one Donald Cargill, the other the young Earl of Rothes. But from that day the path of the two men diverged. Rothes turned on the covenant and the covenanting party in the Scottish church, became in fact a persecutor of the church, and lived a life of notorious wickedness. Cargill became a faithful preacher of the gospel and a leader of the gospel party in the church and state in that covenanting period, the last third of the seventeenth century.

At the height of the covenanting struggle — the second Reformation in Scotland — when Rothes was doing his best to destroy the faithful church in Scotland, Cargill, then in hiding, excommunicated him in a solemn ceremony and published the act on notice boards throughout the land. Rothes was incensed and redoubled his efforts at persecution and sent his henchmen everywhere looking for Cargill. Cargill was eventually caught and sentenced to be executed, a martyr among many martyrs of that last great period of English-speaking Christian martyrdom.

In a revealing irony of history, the night before Cargill was to be executed, his old schoolmate Rothes lay dying in an Edinburgh palace. The sinful habits of his life had taken their toll. He asked for one of his wife’s ministers — she was a woman of covenanter sympathy, strange to say  — because, as he admitted, his ministers were good to live with but not good to die with. His wife’s minister came and told him of the mercy that was within his reach even now, at the very last. But he could not believe it was available to him. “We all thought little,” he said to John Carstares, the covenanter minister, “of what Cargill did in excommunicating us; but I find that sentence binding on me now, and it will bind to eternity.”

There is the terrible seriousness of life and the divine authority of the church.  How strange it will seem for so many on the great day to discover that when the elders of the church, those faithful men who sought to rule the church in obedience to Jesus Christ, when they pronounce those judgments, those judgments were ratified in heaven. How strange that a wicked man would so clearly understand what Christ said about forgiving and retaining sins when so many Christians have no understanding whatsoever of that statement in the Word of God.

Whether minster, elder, or deacon, ordination day is more important than the world knows; alas is more important than the church knows. And, of course, when the church hardly knows it, it is difficult for the ordained men themselves to reckon with the terrible seriousness and the immense privilege and the weight of responsibility that becomes theirs by their ordination.

Andrew Bonar used to mark the anniversaries of his ordination to the ministry in his journal. Every year he reflected on the fact that he had been given this office in the church and that he had been set apart by the Lord himself to serve him in this way. Let each minister, elder (old and new), and deacon (old and new) hear and consider.

Sept. 19th 1840: “Tomorrow is the anniversary of my ordination… I feel my unholiness, my prayerlessness, and my want of solemnity and sense of responsibility.”

Sept. 21st 1850: “Yesterday, twelve years ago, was my ordination day. I now begin another year. I have set apart time at mid-day every day this week for special prayer in regard to my ministry and my own soul.”

Sept. 23rd 1859: “This day twenty years ago I preached for the first time as an ordained minister. I have been trying to stand before God today like Isaiah 6 to get new blessing and like Zechariah 3 to get all my past failures taken away.”

Sept. 20th 1862: “Remembering my ordination day, this time twenty-four years since. I see matter for deepest humiliation and yet matter of greatest thanksgiving. But, Lord, pour out the Spirit upon me and mine.”

Sept. 20th 1868: “It was this day thirty years ago that I was ordained… What a long time I have been allowed to work! But the retrospect humbles me to the dust. What would not Robert McCheyne have accomplished in so long a time…?”

Sept. 25th 1891: “It was this week fifty-two years ago that I was set apart for the ministry…and now I have arrived at…the last stage of it. It is very solemn to find myself near the threshold of eternity, my ministry nearly done, and my long life coming to its close. Never was Christ to me more precious than he is now.” “I have been thinking tonight that perhaps my next great undertaking may be this, ‘appearing at the Judgment-seat of Christ,’ when I give an account of my trading with my talents.”

What great things lie in store for this church and this congregation if our ministers, elders, and deacons think such things about their office and their ordination and remain faithful to the vows they have taken and if the congregation in its turn appreciates what Christ has given them in officers like this in their midst.