Presbyterian's Terrible Responsibility

The more I read the Westminster Confession of Faith, the more frustrated I become. If it were simply the case that the Confession said "this is true" while I happen to think "that is true", then it would be easy to examine the arguments for "this" and "that". But when the Confession makes multiple statements which are true but ends with a conclusion I don't agree with, it's much harder to show where the error lies. Sometimes the error lies in something held to be true, but not explicitly stated. [1] Then you have to find that missing piece and show why it doesn't fit. It can take a great deal of unravelling of the Gordion knot to see where this kind of mistake was made.

An easier example, however, is found in J. Gresham Machen's
Christianity and Liberalism, where a number of true and partially true statements are made leading to a wrong conclusion. He writes:

At the very basis of the work of the apostolic Church is the consciousness of a terrible responsibility. The sole message of life and salvation had been committed to men; that message was at all hazards to be proclaimed while yet there was time. The objection as to the exclusiveness of the Christian way of salvation, therefore, cannot be evaded, but must be met. In answer to the objection, it may be said simply that the Christian way of salvation is narrow only so long as the Church chooses to let it remain narrow. The name of Jesus is discovered to be strangely adapted to men of every race and of every kind of previous education. And the Church has ample means, with promise of God's Spirit, to bring the name of Jesus to all. If, therefore, this way of salvation is not offered to all, it is not the fault of the way of salvation itself, but the fault of those who fail to use the means that God has placed in their hands. But, it may be said, is that not a stupendous responsibility to be placed in the hands of weak and sinful men; is it not more natural that God should offer salvation to all without requiring them to accept a new message and thus to be dependent upon the faithfulness of the messengers? The answer to this objection is plain. It is certainly true that the Christian way of salvation places a stupendous responsibility upon men. But that responsibility is like the responsibility which, as ordinary observation shows, God does, as a matter of fact, commit to men. It is like the responsibility, for example, of the parent for the child. The parent has full power to mar the soul as well as the body of the child. The responsibility is terrible; but it is a responsibility which unquestionably exists. Similar is the responsibility of the Church for making the name of Jesus known to all mankind. It is a terrible responsibility; but it exists, and it is just like the other known dealings of God.

It is true that salvation is found only in Christ. It is true that salvation is by grace, through faith, and that faith comes from hearing the word of God. It is true that there will come a time when there can be no more Gospel proclamation -- the door will shut. The problem is in the notion that the presentation of the Gospel is "committed" to men. The hidden assumption is that we, and we alone, are responsible for delivering the message and that, if we do not, terrible results will follow.

But this position cannot be supported by Scripture. If salvation is by grace, and God's grace is irresistible (as Reform doctrine affirms), then the "terrible responsibility" side must affirm that God's irresistible grace will not reach someone when we fail in our duty to proclaim the kerygma. This ties in with the Presbyterian understanding that one of the "means of grace" is the word, leading to the conclusion that we can thwart God's grace by not evangelizing. But this cannot be true. God does not need us to convey His grace. He can speak through dreams and visions, a burning bush, a donkey, or any other way He desires. Jesus was quite emphatic when He said, "I tell you, if [my disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out!" [2] This also shows a problem with the Presbyterian view of Scripture. Scripture is whatever God says, however God says it, whether it's confined to the pages of 66 books or not. This, of course, opens us up to the problem as old as Eden, "has God said?" But it does the Church no good to take the easy way out and say "these books and no others". That's contrary to what the book itself says. After all, Paul quoted pagan philosophers. But that's a topic for another time.

No, the proclamation of the Gospel is not a "terrible responsibility". Instead, it is joyful participation in Kingdom life. It is joyful because we participate in what the King is doing. [3] It is joyful because it bears fruit. [4] It is joyful because if we fail, we have a Shepherd who will not lose any of His sheep. [5]

If you ask me "why evangelize?" then I will give you two answers. First, our Lord told us to do it. [6]. Second, even a pagan Norse god knows the reason for right behavior: [7]


[1] The "means of grace" is one such example. "It is only in an indirect way that the Confession treats of the means of grace..," (
here, which then notes, however, of fuller direct exposition in the Catechisms).
[2] Luke 19:40
[3] Rom 10:18
[4] Isaiah 55:11
[5] Ezekiel 34:11-12, John 10:27, John 18:9
[6] Matthew 28:19-20
[7] Thor: Ragnarok.

Presbyterianism and the Sabbath

The book of Nehemiah came up in the sermon rotation and, in due time, Nehemiah 13:15-22, where Nehemiah lamented the lack of Sabbath observance by the Israelites and took corrective action. Our assistant pastor said [@ 21:11]:

"How are we to worship? ... Very clearly, [our Pastor has] said 'theologians are divided.' I happen to be on the other side, I believe that this is binding to us, this is one of the Ten Commandments..."

This position comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXI:

VII. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him:[34] which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week: and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week,[35] which, in Scripture, is called the Lord's Day,[36] and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.[37]

VIII. This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their wordly employments and recreations,[38] but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.[39]

I dissent.

First, the Confession bases the positive command to keep the Sabbath on Exodus 20:8-11 -- the fourth of the Ten Commandments. Even if we ignore the larger discussion of the relation of the New Covenant to the Mosaic Covenant, the Confession ignores what St. Paul says in Romans 14:5-6a:

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord.

This alone should be enough to show that Sabbath observance, as described in Exodus, is not binding on the Christian. It is permissible for the Christian to treat all days the same.

The Confession also ignores what St. Paul says in Romans 13:9-10:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

"And any other commandment" includes the Fourth Commandment in the Mosaic Covenant.

Paul provides yet more detail why love fulfills the Law in Colossians 2:16-17. Because the "substance belongs to Christ":

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Paul repeats this idea in Romans 10:4

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Now, we can argue over what τέλος means in this passage: does it mean the end of the book, or the end of the term of a contract, after which something new happens; or does it mean the goal to which all things point, in which case the thing continues completed? The second part of VII implicitly argues for the latter by claiming that the Christian Sabbath is the first day of the week. But the passages used as support by the Confession say no such thing. The Confession is reading into the text what isn't there. One could also, and with more fidelity to Scripture, argue that the disciples met on the first day of the week because that is when Jesus rose from the dead and began the first day of the new creation.

What the Confession ignores is that Christ, crucified on Good Friday, spent the Sabbath in the tomb. In "
The Parables of Grace", Capon observers:

(Sunday, for Christians, is not the sabbath; it is the First Day of the Week, the Lord's Day, Dies Dominica, celebrated in honor of the resurrection. In the Romance languages, the name for Saturday comes from the Hebrew-e.g., the Italian Sabbato; the name for Sunday comes from the Latin for Lord's Day-e.g., the French Dimanche).

Item. In the old covenant, the sabbath is a day of rest in honor of God's work of creation; in the new covenant, the sabbath becomes a day of death-the day Jesus' body lay in the tomb, the day Christ lag in Totesbanden....

The death of Jesus, therefore, is not just something that lasted through a single sabbath day in the spring of A.D. 29. Precisely because he who was dead that day was the Incarnate Lord, the Second Person of the triune God, his death is an eternal as well as a temporal fact. Jesus is not only risen forever; he is also dead forever.

This is how the substance of the Sabbath belongs to Christ. His body partook in the ultimate rest.

In Romans 6:4-5, Paul shows how this substance belongs to us:

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

We are united with Him in His perfectly kept Sabbath -- the one He kept in the tomb. And therefore, I also dissent from subsection VIII. We observe the Sabbath by our union with Him by faith.


John Owen's Trilemma

In today's adult Sunday class on the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:14), the trilemma of John Owen was mentioned as an aside. Owen tries to shows the doctrine of Limited Atonement -- formulated as Christ died only for the elect -- from this argument:

The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:
  1. All the sins of all men.
  2. All the sins of some men, or
  3. Some of the sins of all men.
In which case it may be said:
  1. That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.
  2. That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
  3. But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?
You answer, "Because of unbelief."

I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!"

I would argue that this argument fails because the correct answer is #3: Christ died for some of the sins of all men. In fact, I would propose a modified form of #3: Christ died for all but one sin of all men. This is, in fact, what Jesus Himself said in Matthew 12:31:

Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.

We might argue about what the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit entails, but I hold that it refers to unbelief, since Paul, in Romans 3:21-25, wrote:

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

Showing an error in an argument for something, of course, does not prove that thing and this post is not looking at the doctrine of Limited Atonement in general. However, in reviewing the doctrine of Atonement in the Westminster Confessions, I found
this discussion interesting, in that it said that the Amyrauldians present at the Westminster Assembly were not hesitant to sign the Confession. That argues for some ambiguity in the wording of the Confession.

2019 Reading List

1The Grand Fenwick Book SeriesLeonard Wibberley
2On Being PresbyterianSean Michael Lucas
3Five English ReformersJ. C. Ryle
4Dangerous VisionsHarlan Ellison
5Witch WorldAndre Norton
6CeremonyLeslie Marmon Silko
7A Clockwork OrangeAnthony Burgess
8Hallelujah DaveDavid Valdez
9ModeranDavid R. Bunch
10The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyDouglas Adams
11Philosophy in MinutesMarcus Weeks
12The Epistle to the EphesiansKarl Barth
13Chance and the Sovereignty of GodVern S. Poythress
14Holiness by GraceBryan Chapell
15Lost in the CosmosPercy Walker
16Breaking Down the Sacred-Secular DivideMichael R. Baer
17So Say We AllEdward Gross & Mark A. Altman
18A Journey Through EphesusDavid Gwartney
19Business as MissionMichael R. Baer
20On The Existence of GodsDominic Saltarelli & Vox Day
21Why Call Them Back From HeavenClifford Simak
22TacticsGregory Koukl
23One, Two, ThreeDavid Berlinski
24Nature and ScriptureCornelius van Til
25Sailing To ByzantiumRobert Silverberg
26Past MasterR. A. Lafferty
27Deception in Gospel PresentationLarry Adams
28Just MercyBryan Stevenson
29Functional Programming Through Lambda CalculusGreg Michaelson
30Twisted Fairy Tales AnthologyAlternate Ending Publications
31AD 70 and the End of the WorldPaul Ellis
32The Parables of JudgementRobert Farrar Capon
33Free Will: The BasicsMeghan Griffith
34The Parables of The KingdomRobert Farrar Capon