When confrontation is required, to fail to do so is not gentleness but cowardice. Of course, even this confrontation needs to be done with gentleness. However, gentleness does not mean that we omit the hard things that need to be said, but it does mean that we say them for Christ’s sake and not our own.
What is it to be gentle? Everyone has an image in their mind’s eye or an idea. But it’s probably best to start with the One we ought to model and so ask, what did gentle look like on Jesus? Perhaps the first place we might go is Matthew 11:28-29. There Jesus tells us that he is “gentle and lowly in heart.” Gentle here means meek or humble. We might say that to be gentle is not to think of oneself more highly than one ought to think. B. B. Warfield once wrote, “No impression was left by his life-manifestation more deeply imprinted upon the consciousness of his followers than that of the noble humility of his bearing.” Jesus was humble.
What is more, he called others to be the same. In the Sermon on the Mount, we find that Jesus gave the qualifications for kingdom citizenship. One must arrive at a true sense of their spiritual poverty, mourn as a result of it, and humble themselves as they reach for a righteousness that is not their own. Humility is essential to the way that God leads us to Himself.
Paul, a man who was made aware of his jealousy by being bested by Stephen (Cf. Acts 6:8-9, 58; Romans 7:7-12), learned this lesson and taught it in Romans 12 saying, the transformation of the mind has to do with not thinking more of ourselves than we ought to think (Romans 12:1-4).
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By R. Scott Clark — 10 months ago
Written by R. Scott Clark |
Saturday, February 18, 2023
The social gospellers taught that we may and must “save” ourselves “through love.” For Machen, however, such a doctrine was just “semi-Pelagianism.” For the social gospellers, the hope of the world is to “apply the principles of Jesus” to it, as though He were a mere teacher or prophet. For Machen, however, the “redeeming work of Christ which is at the center of the Bible is applied to the individual soul . . . by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, we “find no permanent hope for society in the mere ‘principles of Jesus’ or the like, but we find it in the new birth of individual souls.”
World War I turned Europe on its head, brought crashing down the optimism of the Enlightenment, and ushered in post-Enlightenment Europe. In America, however, young people undeterred by the war set about attempting to bring to earth the kingdom of God through social action. They called their message “the social gospel,” and its principal preacher was Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), who endeavored to address the poverty he found in Hell’s Kitchen (in New York) by preaching a “gospel” of social improvement and working toward bringing about the kingdom of God on the earth through social action. This was their definition of salvation.
J. Gresham Machen (1881–1936), however, also survived World War I and defended a different doctrine, which held that the visible church represents Christ’s spiritual kingdom on the earth and that Christians exist in what John Calvin had called a “twofold kingdom” (Institutes 3.19.15). For Machen, salvation was too grand an idea to be brought utterly to earth. He recognized that Christianity was “certainly a life,” but how was it produced? The social gospellers thought that they could bring about that life “by exhortation,” Machen wrote, but such an approach always proves “powerless.” “The strange thing about Christianity was,” he explained, “that it adopted an entirely different method. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event.” He recognized that such an approach seems “impractical.” It is what Paul called “ ‘the foolishness of the message.’ . . . It seemed foolish to the ancient world, and it seems foolish to liberal teachers today.” Nevertheless, the “effects of it appear even in this world. Where the most eloquent exhortation fails, the simple story of an event succeeds; the lives of men are transformed by a piece of news.”
The social gospel reduced the human problem to material poverty. For Machen, a student of Paul and an Augustinian, our problem is much more profound. In his 1935 radio addresses, he explained that sin is much more than “antisocial conduct,” as the progressives and the social gospellers had it. The true definition of sin is “disobedience to a command of God.” It is, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism so wonderfully says, “any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God” (Q&A 14).
By Bill Muehlenberg — 9 months ago
In 2021 American pastor Eric Tonjes wrote Either Way, We’ll Be All Right (NavPress). He and his wife married young, and while still quite young, Elizabeth got cancer and eventually died from it. This book is about his story, and his wrestling with God. I want to highlight one chapter here. Given that I wrote a piece yesterday discussing purpose and meaning, how does cancer fit into this? Is there a reason for it – does God have a purpose in it? Most believers are aware of the famous statement that our chief aim in life is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But with cancer?
In the West at least, the related topics of suffering, grief, dying and death are not something we like to talk about. Sure, these are not pleasant things, so one can understand the reticence. But they are also universal things – we ALL experience them.
In fact, to speak of certain people having a terminal condition is misleading – we all have a terminal condition. Because of the universality of sin, death is universal as well. We will all die. But unless one is going through this, or knows someone who is, we shy away from it and really try not to think or talk about it.
And that includes most Christians. But it should not be this way. We all pay lip service to the truth that ‘this is not our home, we’re just passing through’. However most believers live as if the opposite is true. We avoid thinking about the next life and we put everything into this one.
It often takes some tragedy or illness to get our attention, and to get us to refocus. Cancer – whether in yourself or a loved one – will certainly do that. Millions of people right now are struggling with cancer. Some of it is curable, some not. Some people seem to get through it, yet often remission occurs.
We have friends in this situation. And much closer to home, my own wife is in this boat. While we all know about the word ‘cancer’ and many would know the word ‘metastasis’, it is usually not until it happens to us or someone we love that we really stand up and take notice.
There are different ways to deal with this. If you are like me – a hardcore reader – you will start buying books on the topic. I already have many hundreds of books on the broader topic of suffering and evil, and many of those books would cover practical matters such as dealing with grief. A subset of this would be dealing with cancer.
There are hundreds of books out there on this. Let me highlight just one very good volume. In 2021 American pastor Eric Tonjes wrote Either Way, We’ll Be All Right (NavPress). He and his wife married young, and while still quite young, Elizabeth got cancer and eventually died from it. This book is about his story, and his wrestling with God.
I want to highlight one chapter here. Given that I wrote a piece yesterday discussing purpose and meaning, how does cancer fit into this? Is there a reason for it – does God have a purpose in it? Most believers are aware of the famous statement that our chief aim in life is to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ But with cancer?
Tonjes cites Isaiah 43:7 among other passages: “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Says Tonjes, “Isaiah’s point is inescapable: God’s purpose, and the purpose of his people, is his glory.” He continues:
How does God’s glory meet our grief? We think that happiness is the goal of life, but happiness is a mediocre purpose. Those seeking it never accomplish much of worth. Given that life includes suffering and, ultimately, death, what we need is a purpose big enough to make that struggle worthwhile. We need something worth laboring for, and there is no worthier goal than God’s glory embodied in our lives.
Pursuing the self cannot sustain us in the face of this world’s brokenness.
Thoughts on the Church’s True Nature and Mission: A Partial Rejoinder to Larry Ball’s Challenge to the Spirituality of the ChurchBy Tom Hervey — 6 months ago
The church has a definite purpose to accomplish, which her Lord has provided her with the authority, gifts, and power to achieve. It is her business to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded. This will often result in great social, economic, and political consequences, yet the church’s purpose is not to seek socio-political reform as such, but to reconcile men to God so that, being in the right relation to him, they may in turn stand in the right relation to their fellow men.
What is called ‘the spirituality of the church’ seems to be rather unfashionable at present. In its most recent consideration we find longtime PCA minister Larry Ball inveighing against what he regards as its weaknesses. He says:
The term “spirituality of the church” has become one of those phrases that often stops all further conversation about the relationship between church and state. Few Christians ever question the meaning of the phrase. It assumes that the church should remain silent about all political matters. Although the expression does not appear in any of our confessional standards, it has become a doctrine of Presbyterianism as sacrosanct as any one of the five points of Calvinism. No one is allowed to challenge it without being labeled with a pejorative term.
I fear, as a supporter of the truth which this purports to challenge, that I shall contradict nearly everything above. I shall question the meaning of the phrase spirituality of the church. I shall deny that the concept requires silence about all political matters. I shall dissent from the suggestion that it is as sacrosanct as the doctrines of grace, and shall ponder its church-state implications. Above all, I shall forgo labeling Larry Ball pejoratively for challenging it.
Ball first inveighs against interpreting the term in light of “Greek dualism” that “assumes that the spiritual is the higher good and that the physical is the source of evil.” That would be mistaken, but I am not aware that anyone does such a thing. The spirituality of the church does not refer to the church’s essence, as such, nor posit that other institutions like the state have a lower essence. Its corollary is not ‘the physicality of the state.’ A solely spiritual, non-corporeal essence can only be asserted of the church triumphant in heaven. The church militant on earth is a physical, visible institution that does indeed have physical concerns that fall under its purview, not least in its charitable and diaconal affairs.
He then inveighs against the church’s spirituality if it “means that the church must not speak to political issues because we live in a pluralistic society, and we must not impose our views on others.” This is a large topic, full consideration of which is not possible here. He is correct that the church should not refrain from truth-telling merely for fear of offending infidels. If we keep silent we may rest assured that others will not. However, there is scriptural warrant for not giving needless offense (Acts 15:19-22) and for not taking the side of any political faction (1 Cor. 1:10-16; 3:3-4; see footnote). The spirituality of the church does not mean keeping quiet to avoid offending per se, but it does mean refraining from behavior that does not directly fall under her duty of making disciples. The question in any case of proposed church action is whether it is a part of that duty, and if it is not then she ought to refrain from it.
Third, he says that the concept is sound if it “means that there are two realms ordained by God and they must remain separate.” This is close to what is properly in view in the ‘spirituality of the church.’ The state and the church are both ordained by God (Matt. 22:21), the former to rule in civil and the latter in spiritual affairs. There is some overlap in their respective concerns, however, which makes it somewhat unhelpful to speak of two realms that “must remain separate.” In addition, there are other authorities established by God (especially the parental/familial) that have their place in human affairs.
While the church does not have any business administering the affairs of the state or family, and vice versa, the church is nonetheless still subject to the state’s authority. She must comply with fire codes, abuse reporting requirements, etc., and her officers are as liable to criminal prosecution and civil liability as other citizens. In addition, there are matters which fall under the jurisdiction of both church and state. An abuser would incur the church’s censure and the state’s indictment, for example, and there are many matters that receive the ban of both church and state in their respective capacities as ministerial/declarative and force-wielding authorities (say, polygamy). It would perhaps be better to say that there are different aspects of life in this world that are governed by these various authorities in their different ways.
Now I assert the following. First, the term ‘spirituality of the church’ is not the best available. Its weakness is that ‘spirituality’ has several meanings, and that it is not obvious which of these is in view. Spirituality/spiritual can mean having a spiritual essence; being guided by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13, 15); dealing with the invisible realm that includes angels (Eph. 6:12); or can refer to the part of man that animates his body.
Many of the proponents of what is called the spirituality of the church do not use that exact term: it does not appear in Thornwell, who gave the doctrine in “its most classic form” (in Sean Lucas’ phrase), nor in Stuart Robinson’s The Church of God As An Essential Element of the Gospel that David Coffin – probably our most learned minister on this topic – regards as the masterpiece on the doctrine. Dabney refers to the concept as “the church’s spiritual independence” in discussing a minister who suffered on its account. Elsewhere C.R. Vaughn called it “the non-secular character of the church.” The exact phrase “spirituality of the church” first appears, as near as I can tell (but I am no authority here), in Henry Van Dyke Sr.’s speech objecting to the General Assembly’s actions regarding the United States’ war aims in 1864. (And inconveniently for the scholars who like to imagine that the concept was dreamed up by southerners to justify slavery, he happened to be a minister in Brooklyn.) It occurs only twice in that speech, which is called “The Spirituality and Independence of the Church.”
What term is preferable then? The truth in view does arise from the church’s concern with spiritual affairs and its powers of government and teaching being spiritual in nature. Yet it also arises from the church’s independence viz., other authorities, as well as from its role as an ambassador of Christ that represents his claims to the world (which also implies its independence and otherness). For my part, I do not think the concept requires a single term, nor that it is always advantageous to summarize all that it entails with a single phrase. It is an inferred doctrine, in many respects, that arises from various aspects of the church’s nature, role, and relations, and in many cases, it is best discussed at length.
Second, the concept does not preclude all political involvement. The church reserves the right to treat those things that would infringe upon her independence, such as laws restricting her freedom of speech or ability to assemble. Vaughn speaks of the church having “political duties,” says “these duties when done involve no breach whatever on its true spiritual sphere,” and objects to the northern church’s “political deliverances” because they were excessive and “entirely transcended the duty of the church” (emphasis mine).
Third, the doctrine is largely useless as a defense against ‘social justice’ in the church if taken in isolation. For on the conception of our would-be reformers, all matters are moral and have spiritual significance: for them politics is the highest expression of piety, for they believe that the prophetic injunctions to seek justice entail their version of justice, rather than the particular requirements of God’s law (Isa. 8:20). To be useful the doctrine has to be abetted by polemics that show the social activists’ aims and notions are incorrect. It is insufficient to simply say the church is a spiritual/redemptive institution, for they believe social justice is of the essence of redemption and pure spirituality. The concept must not proceed alone, then, but in company with other arguments and teachings about the nature of justice, salvation, individual responsibility before God, etc.
Fourth, the doctrine assumes the separation of church and state, but is not strictly synonymous with it. Saying that church and state are separate does not necessarily say anything about the proper nature and function of each, nor discuss their proper relations in those matters in which both have a part (e.g., morality). Even established churches have the duty of not meddling in most affairs of state, hence Van Dyke quotes the Anglican Toplady criticizing the divines of his church for bumbling by involvement in politics.
Fifth, the doctrine is meant to defend the church from being co-opted by politicians and the state, to the neglect of its concern with redemptive affairs. Those people who are infamous for their expediency and lack of scruples, for whom even plain honesty and simplicity of speech are too much to ask, would not hesitate to use the holy church of God for mere political advantage, thus making it worldly, profaning its message, and turning its focus from heaven to earth. In such an unholy alliance of the spiritual and the political the church would be reduced to a propaganda arm to a certain wing of their constituents, but would receive little of spiritual significance in return.
Sixth, the concept is somewhat embattled in that its greatest opponent, the revolutionary spirit, wishes to subsume everything under itself and has, as such, brought practically all matters into controversy. We live in an age in which everything is political because there is a great body of men in this country who wish for everything to be subjected to the control of the state down to the most minute particulars. It is a matter of political controversy to assert there are only two sexes. It is a matter of politics to spank one’s own offspring. It is a matter of politics for the church to exist or operate at all; and that arises, not because she has transgressed the distinction between the civil and the ecclesiastical, but because her enemies have done so. She may expect to be accused of indefensible meddling where she does not belong as a matter of course, for her very existence is hateful to many. Yet that does not mean that she should regard the matter of civil/ecclesiastical distinctions as a moot point and throw herself wholly into the arms of the enemies of her enemies. She has a proper mission of spiritual redemption even where she is the target of political opposition.
Now I have been writing inductively, as it were, discussing various facets of this important concept without giving a clear definition of it. In sum, what is in view is that the church has a definite purpose to accomplish, which her Lord has provided her with the authority (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10), gifts (Eph. 4:7-16), and power (Acts 1:8) to achieve. It is her business to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). This will often result in great social (Acts 17:6; 19:19), economic (Acts 19:25-28), and political consequences, yet the church’s purpose is not to seek socio-political reform as such (Jn. 18:36), but to reconcile men to God so that, being in the right relation to him, they may in turn stand in the right relation to their fellow men (Matt. 22:37-40; Jn. 13:34-35; Gal. 5:13-14; 1 Tim. 1:5; 1 Pet. 1:13-25; 1 Jn. 4:4-20). The corollary of this is that activities which are not directly involved in this mission are excluded from the proper realm of church action. This includes all questions of a purely political or social character, and many others (educational, philanthropic, artistic, etc.) besides. For the church to give itself to such affairs is to transgress the proper bounds of its task and to risk being weighed down with the affairs of this life (Lk. 21:34) to the neglect of fulfilling its appointed task.
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name.
 The real dualistic conception is between the kingdom of Christ and that of Satan.
 If intra-ecclesiastical factions are forbidden, as the passages from 1 Corinthians here suggest, how much more alliances between believers and unbelievers in questions of temporal politics (comp. 2 Cor. 6:14-16) in which believers themselves might be divided (comp. 1 Cor. 6:1-8)!