Real Joy in Reformed Doctrine
Leadership for a Greater Consensus
PCA 33rd General Assembly | Chattanooga
I want to thank you for the blessing that it has already been for me to be among you. As far as I can remember, this is the first time I have ever spoken in the city where I was born 59 years ago. I come to the PCA with a strong desire that God would send a great spiritual awakening in our land, marked by a passionate God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated unity rooted in the fullness of central gospel truths. I am less excited and less enthusiastic about a spiritual awakening rooted in truncated, partial, ambiguous gospel truths. The glory of God shines most brightly when his ways and his beauty are most fully and most clearly seen, especially when that sight gives rise to great joy and great unity in the church.
It’s true that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, but it is also true that God is more glorified in us and in our unity when we long to see more and more of him revealed in more and more of his word and his truth. I have never understood nor have I ever empathized with those who say that knowing more and more about God gets in the way of loving God. And yet there are people who build their lives and some who build their ministries around the elevation of doctrinal limits and doctrinal ambiguity and obscurity.
It’s been my conviction and my experience for over 40 years that knowing more about God from his inspired and energy-full word puts more kindling on the altar where the Holy Spirit can make a bigger and bigger conflagration of passion for Christ. That’s been my experience. I don’t understand people who want to emphasize not going for more knowledge of God. That makes no sense experientially to me at all. There are people who believe that we will marvel at the mountain of the truth of God better if we don’t try to climb it, but just keep our distance so that it’s shrouded in a great cloud of unknowing and mysterious ambiguity and obscurity because it must be so great. Distance and ignorance can sustain wonder only so long.
I have been driven and come to you now with the opposite conviction, namely that the fullness and the clarity of the doctrines of the gospel are a source of indomitable and exquisite joy, passionate worship, radical obedience, biblical unity, and in view of tonight’s theme, national reformation. My enthusiasm for spiritual awakening and unity in the body of Christ increases in direct proportion to the fullness and the clarity of the central gospel truths that drive that awakening. My enthusiasm for spiritual awakening goes down — it decreases and diminishes — in direct proportion as the fullness and the clarity of the central gospel truths driving it goes down. So when I have a passion, and I do, for awakening, reviving, reformation, and unity in the body of Christ, that desire rises as I see God using the fullness and the clarity of the central gospel doctrines to drive that awakening.
If you have a Bible, I invite you to open it to Acts 20:24–31, and we will read a few of these verses to the Ephesian elders. I don’t believe Luke or Paul makes any distinction here between the ruling and the teaching elders, they’re just all there, and this word lands on all of them. I’m sure you agree that that distinction between ruling and teaching elders is rooted probably most clearly in 1 Timothy 5:17, which says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” That especially warrants a distinction in role in the eldership, but you can’t draw it very closely. It will not work to divide these guys up really precisely.
There is a common burden that all the elders bear, and it’s this chapter and in these verses in particular, so listen up ruling and teaching elders. Start at Acts 20:24–31:
But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
The Whole Counsel of God
I have five very brief observations to make and one extended reflection upon the term whole counsel of God.
1. Preaching is more important than living.
Testifying to the gospel of the grace of God is more important than staying alive. Acts 20:24 says:
But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
That’s all Paul’s life counted for.
2. Faithfulness precludes culpability
Paul’s ministry in Ephesus for three years was of such a kind that he is now innocent of any of their blood — the blood of the elders — if they should make shipwreck of their professed faith. He’s not responsible, as Acts 20:26 says:
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you …
And then in Acts 20:31, he says:
Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
He finished his work in three years sufficiently enough so that if any of them goes to hell, it is not his fault.
3. The whole counsel of God must be taught.
The reason he is innocent of their blood is that during these three years, he imparted to them what he calls “the whole counsel of God.” Acts 20:27 says:
I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.
Paul is saying, “That’s why I know I’m not guilty if any of you make shipwreck of your faith. I’ve done what a human can do to preserve you, namely by imparting to you this reality called the whole counsel of God.”
4. Elders must shepherd the church of God.
The job of the elders (Paul’s audience) is to pick up where Paul left off and earnestly shepherded the blood-bought flock of God. Acts 20:28 says:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
That’s to make the stakes as high as they can possibly be made. Paul is saying, “Don’t toy with the church. Shepherd the church. Carry on with my ministry.”
5. Sound doctrine must be guarded.
The focus of this shepherding in this context, you elders, is protecting the flock from teaching that twists the apostolic doctrine. Now, you know as well as I do, both from reading this unit and the whole New Testament, that the work of an elder is more than that. It’s more, but it in this text is not less, and it is central. He says in Acts 20:29–30:
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.
The preeminent elder task in this passage is to so love the people and so teach the people and so shepherd the people that that doesn’t happen.
So I conclude that preeminent in the task of the elders is the impartation and protection of the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). And in view of Acts 20:24, the gospel of the grace of God that is more important than staying alive, must be at the center of the whole counsel of God. And the whole counsel of God is surrounding it and protecting it. It is over it with implication, and it is under it as foundation. It is all the things necessary to be taught to protect that precious deposit.
Awakening and Unity
So, for the remainder of our time, what I would like to do is reflect upon the whole counsel of God. I would like to talk about its existence, its nature, and its effect, all with a view to a spiritual awakening in our land and a spiritual unity in the body of Christ, rooted in the whole counsel of God. I’m not interested in an awakening or unity that is not bubbling up out of massive gospel truths.
The Existence of the Whole Counsel of God
Here’s the first step then — the existence of the whole counsel of God. There is such a thing. That’s my point; it is. There is such a thing. The first evidence is Acts 20:27, which states, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole complete counsel of God.” Now there are numerous other passages that refer to this reality in different words. Let me give you two of them. Romans 6:17 says:
Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed …
That refers to a type, or pattern of teaching. It’s the word used for the pattern of the tabernacle in heaven that is now reflected in the tabernacle in the Old Testament. That’s the gist of the word here. So there is a standard, or a pattern, or a type of teaching. And what’s so remarkable in Roman 6:17 is that Paul, writing to a church he’d never been to, assumes they all had been committed to it. That’s amazing. This was basic discipleship in the early church. He just praised God that they all were handed over to the standard of teaching.
Here’s the second one. Second Timothy 1:13–14 goes like this:
Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
From these passages, we now have four terms describing this reality:
- the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27)
- the standard, or pattern, of teaching (Roman 6:17)
- the pattern of sound words (2 Timothy 1:13)
- the good deposit entrusted to you (2 Timothy 1:14)
And there are others we could go to that describe this reality that I am insisting exists. So my first point about the whole counsel of God is that there is such a thing.
The Nature of the Whole Counsel of God
I have two things to say about the nature of it, and this is the main thing I have to say tonight.
First, it is propositional. And here’s the first piece of evidence — it’s called a pattern of teaching. It’s called sound words, healthy words, and clear words. The second piece of evidence is the way Luke in Acts describes how Paul delivered it for three years. This is very interesting to me, really interesting. It says so much about how to plant a church and how to fit a church in a pagan Ephesus to evangelize all of Asia. Let me read you Acts 19:8–10. It says:
And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
There’s a King James variant reading that says five hours a day. I don’t know where that came from, but if it came from an original, I’m gasping all the more. That continued every day for two years, plus the three months at the front end, so that:
all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
Both Jews and Greeks heard, because one man spent five hours a day, maybe, every day for two years, doing what? Well, the words are reasoning and persuading. He was reasoning daily. This is propositional. For two long years he continued, and it had an explosive evangelistic effect on all of Asia. What an amazing way to plant a church. Just think of that other text in Acts 5:28, where they’re accusing the apostles, “You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Americans don’t have a clue what we want them to believe. You can’t just become a Christian. We must teach, we must find strategies to do this kind of thing.
More Than Propositions, but Not Less
My argument here is that the language of whole counsel, sound words, pattern of teaching, and reasoning daily for two years is a strong argument for the propositional nature of what he spent three years imparting, which absolved his hands from their souls. Yes, he did more. I know some of you who are not all that propositionally oriented are sitting there saying, “There’s more to it. There’s more to it.” Look, I’ve been in the pastorate for 25 years now. We’re going to have a little celebration in a few weeks, and I have buried a lot of people, watched a lot of people die, tried to rescue and failed often in marriages, prayed prodigals home — my own included — and preached when I had no energy left.
I know. I don’t want to oversimplify. I don’t want to academicise the work of the eldership. And in fact, Paul won’t let me, will he? Look at Acts 20:20. It says:
I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house …
He just went after everybody. Then look at Acts 20:31. It says:
Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.
This man got so involved in the pain and the unbelief and the struggles of these people, he said, “Everywhere I was crying.” Pastors who don’t cry don’t have a clue what life is about. So, yes, I don’t want to overstate the case; I just want to say that he chose to focus on delivering the whole counsel of God as that which absolved him of their shipwreck, if they make it, and there is enough evidence to see that it exists and that it is propositional. This is important in our day and needs illustration, so let me illustrate with Athanasius and some people today who might not get along with him.
Compare Athanasius with some aspects of the emerging church. Not all aspects, but I mean the aspect, or part, that minimizes doctrine and wants to say that propositions about Christ are not a very helpful way of loving Christ. When I read the story of Athanasius, which I spent most of last year doing, and saw that he was banished, exiled five times from his bishopric in Alexandria, Egypt, I saw a magnificent testimony to this truth: Loving Christ includes loving true propositions about Christ. What was clear to Athenasius was that propositions about Christ carried convictions that could send you to heaven or to hell. There were propositions like this that he was dealing with: “There was a time when the Son of God was not.” Here’s another one: “He was not before he was made.” And here’s another one: “The son of God is created.”
Those are propositions, and they are strictly damnable. And if they spread and are believed, they will send the souls of those who embrace them to hell. Therefore, Athanasius labored with all his might and tears, I am sure, to formulate propositions that would conform to reality and lead the soul to faith and to worship and to heaven. I believe Athanasius and the Apostle Paul would have abominated with tears the contemporary call to depropositionalizing that we hear among reformists, some in the emerging church, younger evangelicals, post-evangelicals, and post-conservatives. I think he would’ve said something like this, “Our young people in Alexandria die for the truth of the propositions about Christ. What do you young people die for?” And if the answer came back, it probably would be, “We die for Christ, not propositions about Christ.” And I think he would’ve said, “That’s exactly the way Arius talks,” which was his arch, heretical opponent.
Athanasius would surely say, “Which Christ do you die for?” To answer that question, you must make some propositions about him. And if you say, “I don’t want to make propositions about him,” you are saying all that matters is the word Christ, and you can fill it up with anything you want, which is no honor to him and will save no one. Words don’t save. Reality, faithfully captured in propositions, saves. The gospel is the power of God, truly and biblically articulated. I think Athanasius and the apostle Paul would’ve grieved over sentences like this: “It is Christ who unites us, doctrines divide us.”
I think they would’ve wept over that sentence, or sentences like: “We should ask, ‘Whom do you trust?’ not, ‘What do you believe?’” Sentences like that they would have wept over. They would’ve seen right to the bottom of where that kind of talk was coming from. They knew it was the very tactic used by the Arian bishops at the councils to see to it that a fog prevailed in the council. Those who talk like this, “Christ unites, doctrine divides,” have simply replaced propositions about Christ, not with Christ, but with the word Christ, which nobody knows what it means. It carries no beautiful reality content and will save no one. They think that they are saying something fresh, profound, and new, when they are speaking the language of the fourth century heretics. It is old, it is worn, and it is deadly.
That’s the first thing I want to say about the whole counsel of God, which I pray will be the energy and the power by the grace of the Holy Spirit to energize a new, great awakening and a new consensus.
The Fulness of the Word
Here’s the second thing I want to say about the nature of it; it has about it a fullness, a wholeness, and a completeness. It’s called the whole counsel of God. That means that we should be thrilled that it is whole, thrilled that it is full, complete, and not truncated, partial, or fragmentary. We should want the fullness and the wholeness, and we should pray for a reformation rooted in the fullness and in the wholeness, not in pieces and not in fragments, even though the apostle Paul and you are aware that now we see in a mirror dimly, then face to face. Now we know in part, then we shall know fully, even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Don’t play that sentence off against whole counsel. Don’t play that sentence off against Acts 20:27, because the meaning is this: The fullness of the council is full, not in comparison to what we will know in heaven, but in relation to what God through his apostles in his word has revealed for our good now. That’s what’s full about it. It’s not full because it’s all we’ll ever know. It’s full because it’s the apostolic design for what’s good for the church under God’s inspiration, and we ought to care about the wholeness, fullness, and completeness of it.
At this point, I have a very concrete, practical, strategic suggestion for the Reformed community today. As I read the lay of the land, the Reformed community is an amazingly lively phenomenon. You are a very small fragment of it, and so am I. I wish my denomination were, but we’re just generic. But you have a document, and it comes pretty close. I love almost all of it. The reformed community — let’s just call it the soteriological Reformed faith, the five points of Calvinism, the doctrines of grace — around the country coming into a zeal and a love for these truths is so diverse and so extensive it would blow your socks off if you knew how God was doing this.
You have fundamentalistic-type Baptists believing these things, and you have wild-eyed charismatics believing these things. You have Presbyterians believing these things, and you have pockets in the Wesleyan church believing these things. It is amazing, which is why I feel so, not just biblically driven, but experientially driven to hope and dream and pray that beyond anybody’s dream, an awakening — that doesn’t just has people laughing, or has people getting healed, or has people speaking in tongues, or has people singing vibrantly, but has people unified around massive, full-gospel truths — is possible and imaginable.
So here’s my practical suggestion: Let’s seize the biblical high ground of fullness. In other words, all the other kinds of ways you conceive of controversy or difference, let this one become very prominent; that is, we who love the historic Reformed faith love it because it is fully biblical. It is full and everything else is fragmentary. You don’t have to say first, it’s wrong. It is, but not entirely. And if you focus on the defect instead of the fragmentary nature, you probably will not be as successful in winning people to the fullness. I’ll give you a concrete example in the five points, and then an example in how I pray.
I find that it is possible, believe it or not, to win people to the very point of the five points that most people have the hardest time getting to, namely, particular redemption or limited atonement. If one doesn’t first say, “You’re wrong to say Christ died for everybody,” but instead says, “Of course he died for everybody,” as John 3:16 says:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
That’s all the man on the street means by unlimited atonement. Ninety-nine percent of the people walking around saying “Jesus died for everybody” simply means John 3:16 is true, and that if you believe on him, he’ll save you. No Reformed person has ever denied that. Therefore, what you say is, “I believe that with all my heart, and the way I preach, I preach indiscriminately.” Andrew Fuller taught us to do that over against hyper-Calvinism back in the 1700s. It’s the free offer, the gospel, that everybody in this room embraces.
And then you say, “But you know what? There’s more in the cross. It’s fuller. There’s so much more going on.” And they say, “What could be more than that he died for everybody?” And you can say, “He bought a wife. He paid a dowry. He sealed a covenant.” If you unpack these words they will be shocked. And you illustrate it, saying something like, “Look, I look out on all you women and I love you, not like I love Noël, is that okay?” And the women in my church say, “It’s not just okay. We really like it that way. It’s safe.”
You find ways to say, “I don’t want to deny what you are saying.” Now you might not be able to say that exactly with sophisticated Arminians, but you can say that with 99% of the people who are stumbling over this truth. You can say, “Look, I just want you to have the whole ball of wax. I want you to know not just what it is to be loved by God in the way he loves people in hell, or loved people in hell, I want you to know what it is to be loved by God in the way a husband loves a wife.” The sad thing about people who don’t embrace that particular point in the doctrines of grace is that they can’t enjoy covenant love. They can’t live the sweet assurance that we were particularly secured and bought. So all I’m saying is let’s seize the biblical high ground of fullness.
Let me illustrate this by the way I have been praying, because I don’t know if you elders want to be a part of ecumenical prayer groups in your city. How do you pray as a person who believes in the sovereignty of God in his full way of saving so that it doesn’t sound like you’re preaching to these guys and trying to get them all converted to Calvinism? Here’s the way I do it. Everybody in that prayer meeting and in every church in this city of any denomination agrees Jesus is just, Jesus is loving, Jesus is wise, and Jesus is strong. I don’t know any Christians anywhere who say, “No, he’s not strong. No, he’s not wise.” And so there’s some common ground.
All I want is to have the fullness of his justice, the fullness of his love, the fullness of his wisdom, and the fullness of his strength, so I pray like this, “Oh God, grant us all in this prayer and in all of our churches to see the fullness of the justice of Jesus Christ, and how his death in our place absorbed all of your righteous wrath, so that you could justify the ungodly and be just. Grant, Oh Lord, that we would see the beauty of how it will be perfectly just for him to cast into everlasting torment those who spurn this offer of reconciliation.”
Now there are two or three massive doctrines I just was praying into reality there, and I was praying it in the context of fullness. People who are truly born again, no matter how defective they are in their thinking, when they hear somebody longing for more of Christ, they generally don’t think that’s a bad thing.
And then I pray, “Lord grant us to see and to savor the fullness of Christ’s love in his triumphant grace that raised me from the dead into the life of faith, when I was dead in trespasses and sins.” And third, I pray, “Grant me, oh God, grant us to see and savor the fullness of the strength and the power of Christ in the marvelous work of his providence over the world by which not one bird falls to the ground apart from his will, and so that every lot that is cast in the lap turns out by his design. Oh, grant us the fullness of love and appreciation for all the strength of Jesus.” And then fourthly, I pray, “Grant us to see and to savor as we ought the wisdom, the fullness of the wisdom of our Lord, how unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable are his ways. Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has ever given a gift to him that he should be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. Oh, may we see the fullness of the ins and outs of the peculiarities of redemptive history in our own lives so that we never lift an objection against your sovereign wisdom over our lives.”
I just think if you pray like that in an ecumenical prayer gathering, they might come along. They might say amen, or the Holy Spirit might fall and do a wonderful, wonderful unifying on the basis of truth work. So I’m just not interested in spiritual unity or reformation or awakening that isn’t growing out of the fullness of biblical truth.
The Effect of the Whole Counsel of God
That leads me to just one very brief last third point. We’ve talked about the existence of the whole counsel of God, the nature of it as propositional and full, and the last one is the effect. I apologize for the title in the worship folder, because I’m going to spend three minutes on what I thought would be my whole sermon when I chose that title, and it’s this right here.
I was going to talk about the saving effects of the whole counsel of God, the sanctifying effects of the whole counsel of God, and the liberating effects of the whole counsel of God, then I was going to hold up Ron Sider’s new book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, and quote from it supportively that evangelicalism is just like the world, except in the last three pages of the book he quotes statistics that say, “If you add enough doctrines to the telephone interview that people have to believe, their lives are different.” Who would’ve ever thought that Ron Sider would be making the main case today for the elevation of doctrine in the evangelical church, because it seems to be the only thing in the phone interviews that gets people out of bed with their boyfriend or girlfriend?
But I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to talk about one last effect, namely joy, and end here. I’m going to use two verses in a particular order so that it will be biblically plain that when the whole counsel of God is shown to produce joy, it is joy in God and not a theological system. Oh, how we need to so live, worship, and rejoice so that that indictment does not fall on us. Here’s the first verse. It’s 2 John 1:9, which says:
Whoever abides in the teaching …
There it is again — the teaching. It’s like it’s a body of something, and then, again, catch your breath for the most amazing effect, which says:
has both the Father and the Son.
We sang a song, saying, “He’s my portion.” What more glorious statement could be said about a human creature than, “I have God the Father, I have God the son, not in my back pocket, but as my treasure, my Savior, my Lord, my all.” And how does it happen? Abide in the teaching.
Doctrine and Joy
And that leaves one last verse. In John 15:11, Jesus says:
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
He is saying, “These things I have spoken to you, teaching you. I’ve given you a body of teaching, and my apostles will say the climax of it. And what has he spoken? The teaching. And what’s the reason? So that you will have Jesus and have the Father, and also so that your joy will be indestructible and nevertheless, very combustible. And that’s the marvel of the joy rooted in the fullness of the whole counsel of God. It is combustible with a passion and a joy and a zeal, and yet combustible though it is, it is indestructible. It goes on forever; indeed, it increases more and more and more.
So my concluding strategy and exhortation is this. We Reformed lovers of the fullness of revealed truth and all that God is for us, not truncated views, but all that God is for us in Jesus, must out-rejoice everyone, otherwise they will have warrant to think that we don’t have as much of the Father and as much of the Son as they have. That is built into the way God means to be glorified and the way he means to revive and reform the church.