Kicking This Particular Can Down the Road

All right, then. More on Steve Wilkins.

Actually, this is more on the sociology and demographics of the thing. From where I sit, in the Idaho nickel seats, this is what the lay of the land looks like.

I have urged every Reformed believer who has had any interest whatever in the federal vision controversy to follow this particular chapter of the story very closely. The early indicators show that this is exactly what is happening. Each day, the web traffic for this site averages between three and four thousand visitors (and between 16,000 and 19,000 hits). Last Thursday, when I posted the first of this series on Steve, I had over six thousand visitors that day — in short a spike unheard of in these parts. There were almost 25,000 hits. Lots of people are following this.

On paper, the folks involved with the Standing Judicial Commission can do whatever they want to do with Steve. Their decision would be final; there is no appeal to GA. They don’t have to have their action approved by GA — all they have to do is report what they have done, and the GA would say oh. This is a body that carries the full authority of the entire PCA. Whether that was a good idea is a discussion for another time, but right now that is just the way it is.

This being the case I am urging everyone with a dog in the fight to watch these developments very closely, and it is important for the SJC to know that they are being watched closely in this way. And more people have a dog in the fight than you might think. Ministerial candidates who are under the care of various presbyteries need to follow this. Seminarians need to be following this.

Ministers in the PCA need to follow this because everything that is happening to Steve could happen to them — with no charges ever having been brought and no appeal possible. Nice set up if you can arrange it. These guys know their onions. This could happen even if a minister jots and tittles his way through the entire Westminster Confession of Faith.

If this travesty happens (as it certainly could), it needs to happen with many thousands of informed observers looking straight at it, in the broad light of day. From what I have gathered thus far, thankfully that is what is happening.

As I have written earlier, this is not at all inconsistent with what I have urged people to do in other judicial situations (e.g. the RC Jr. situation). When a judicial body is charged with sorting out a host of did-too-did-nots, the last thing that needs to happen is for Internet-land to form a committee of the whole, with the loudest quadrant of that committee being made up of anonymous and scurrilous railers. This is because the nature of the dispute has to do with particular situations and about what happened, or did not happen, at a session meeting last August, say. But this situation with Steve is a public dispute about doctrine, a public dispute about what Steve teaches and has taught in public. What does he affirm? What does he deny? In this situation, Christ’s words to the high priest are far more apropos. “Go ask the Temple crowd about that parable. They heard me.”

Steve holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith. If we are talking about original intent, he is far more in conformity to the Westminster than are his accusers. Ask any of those who are worked up about his teaching if they believe the two sacraments are effectual means of salvation. They will respond that they believe the sacraments are means of grace, but they are means of sanctifying grace, not saving grace. So then ask them why the Catechism question put it the way it did, instead of asking how the two sacraments are effectual means of sanctification. You will get a reply that amounts to them having an interpretive wand that they wave over certain words to make them mean, a la Lewis Carroll, what they want them to mean. They will perhaps add that this is why nobody wants to debate you. You keep getting off the point, which is that you are a heretic, and keep gravitating to extraneous material, like how the early Reformed fathers made almost all the same points you guys are making. “Like, man, who cares?” This is a postmodern era, and the TRs are now going in for advocacy history — the cheap and easy way of being historic and confessional. But they would rather not know about this because they still like believing that they are genuine conservatives.

I got distracted. The central point remains this: read Steve’s written responses to the questions put to him by presbytery. Listen to the audio if you need to. Without any judgment on these responses having been made by any judicial body, make up your mind on what Steve is teaching and saying. And then wait for the decision of the Lousiana Presbytery next month. After that wait and see what the SJC does, if anything.

Like a Rock

Minister: Lift up your hearts!

Congregation: We lift them up to the Lord!

 

Lord, who can live with You?

     Who can dwell within Your tent?

     Who can live upon Your holy hill?

 

The one who walks straight up,

     The one who does the just and right,

     The one speaks the truth within.

 

He does not backbite with his tongue,

     He does no evil to his friend,

     He never takes reproach in hand

          Against his neighbor or his friend.

 

He looks on the vile with holy contempt,

     And honors those who fear the Lord.

If he swears to his own hurt,

     He still will keep his promised word.

 

He does not grind the poor with loans,

     He never takes a bribe against simple.

A man like this is like a rock.

Psalm 15

And so, gracious Father, we worship You now through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end, amen.

Fellowship and Office

Once there was a young man who worked for a retail store that was owned by a fellow Christian, and his job was that of a cashier. Although he was tender-hearted, he was also undisciplined and weak-willed, and when he was running short on funds one month, he “borrowed” from the till one day with every intention of paying it back. Of course, his lack of discipline made that impossible, despite his intention, and he was not able to do it.

Some time went by, but one day as his boss was going through the books, the discrepancy was discovered. His boss confronted him, he confessed, and his boss, not surprisingly, fired him. The young man was in agony over this for some days, but after about a week, he borrowed from his parents the amount he had taken, came back to his former boss, gave him the money back, and sought his forgiveness for what he had done.

His boss said that he did forgive him, completely. The air cleared, they had quite a good conversation. At the end of the conversation, the young man asked, quite casually, if he could have his job back. Much to his surprise, his boss shook his head no.

“What do you mean?” the young man asked, before he really had a chance to think. “I thought you forgave me!”

“Well, I did,” his boss said. “I am more than willing to come to the Lord’s Supper together with you” (the two attended the same church). “I have not needed to tell the police about what you have done at all.”

“But I thought forgiveness meant putting everything back just the way it was before.”

“Well, no,” his boss said. “It means putting some things back. Like fellowship. But qualifications for fellowship are not the same thing as qualifications for office. Simple forgiveness is all that is necessary for the former. But qualifications for holding office are higher. And if you don’t meet them, and I see that you don’t, it doesn’t mean that I have not forgiven you.”

The young man shook his head, confused. “I thought . . .” he began.

His former boss interrupted him. “I have forgiven you,” he said, “completely. Nothing stands between us. You have sought forgiveness, and I owe you that forgiveness. But I don’t owe you a job.”

Blessed and Broken

“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26).

As Jesus was instituting this Supper among His disciples, note in particular what He did with the bread. He picked it up, and then He blessed it.

In blessing that bread in this way, He, the Lord Himself, blessed this bread here in the same way. The Lord Jesus did not just establish this meal; He established it with a blessing. That blessing extends to the end of the world because the Lord promised to be with us always.

So this morning you are partaking of a meal that Jesus Christ Himself blessed. This is bread that Jesus Christ prayed over. But there is more than this. You are, the apostle Paul once declared, one loaf. The congregation of God’s people is the bread that the Lord blessed.

But then note, that having blessed the bread, He broke it and gave it to the disciples. Now this bread was obviously His body, broken on the cross. But also, just as obvious once we think of it, we are also His body, broken on the cross. I have been crucified with Christ, Paul said. We who have been baptized have been baptized into His death.

He takes, He blesses, He breaks, and He distributes. He takes you and calls you by His own name. He blesses you, and you are blessed beyond all reckoning. He breaks you—not out of malice, but because this is His way—and then He gives you to your brothers and sisters. You, in participating in this meal, are cooperating with that same action. You are saying amen.

This is why squabbles within the body of Christ are so unseemly. They contradict everything else that is being done. When Jesus breaks you, it is with a blessing just before. When you bite and tear on your own, the break still happens, but the blessing is not there. There is a breaking that does not nourish others, and one that does.

More on Steve Wilkins

Now, just a few comments on why Steve Wilkins’ answers to his presbytery’s questions satisfactorily address all the basic questions. This will not be long and involved because the issues are not complicated.

First, Steve unambiguously affirms the exhaustive sovereignty of God over all things. “‘2. Do you at all deny the definition of election as given in the Standards?’ ‘Absolutely not, never have, and God willing, never will. I firmly believe in the absolute sovereignty of God over all things, including the salvation of man.’ Now from any affirmation of the final and complete sovereignty of God over all things, the five points of Calvinism (as traditionally defined and understood) inexorably and necessarily follow. Steve is aware of this, and affirms the absolute sovereignty of God. He is therefore embracing the consequences of that affirmation.

Now the controversy is not over this, but rather over other affirmations which some believe to be inconsistent with this one. But as long as the full system of Westminster soteriology is unambiguously and clearly affirmed, the burden is on those bringing the accusation to demonstrate the inconsistency. They are certainly capable of asserting the inconsistency (so long as it is a friendly crowd, and no one there to debate them), but they actually have to show the inconsistency.

This leads to the second point. Steve is clearly not asserting that the benefits enjoyed by all covenant members are identical until the moment of apostasy undergone by some of them. This is not what he says. The emphasis below is mine.

4. How would you distinguish between the benefits enjoyed by a (decretively) elect member of the visible Church and a reprobate member of the visible church who has not yet manifested his apostasy?

This is not an easy question to answer but it does seem to me that the benefits enjoyed by the “decretively elect” do differ from those received by the non-elect. First, they differ qualitatively. Thus, for example, though the non-elect are brought within the family of the justified and in that sense may be referred to as one of the justified, the elect person’s justification in time is not only a declaration of his present acquittal from the guilt of sin but also an anticipation of his final vindication at the last judgment. The non-elect church member’s “justification” is not. His “justification” is not the judgment he will receive from God at the last day. Second, the blessings conferred differ in their duration. The elect person perseveres and remains in a state of grace until the end of his life. The non-elect believer eventually forsakes the faith and falls away from the state of grace. There may also be other experiential differences between the elect and the non-elect, but these differences may not be discernible (to the individuals themselves or to others) until the non-elect person displays his unbelief in some very explicit and concrete ways.

In other words, Steve is not affirming a tautological definition of perseverence (e.g. those who persevere are the ones who persevere). There is a reason for the perseverence of the decretively elect covenant member, and there is a reason for the apostasy of the non-elect covenant member. Part of that reason is qualitative and is seen by God throughout the entire course of their lives. God sees the apostasy coming, and, furthermore, going back to the first point, the whole thing is within His sovereign control.

This goes back to my first post on the Steve Wilkins thing. Those who have read through this material and cannot see that Steve embraces the heart and soul of the Calvinistic system are not qualified to be guardians of that system. There may be various reasons why they cannot see it. I mentioned three earlier — ignorance, hostility, or suspicion of personal dishonesty. I would be willing to consider other options if anyone wants to suggest them.

I don’t want to seem rude to observers like “Johnny Redeemed,” but it seems to me that his comments betray a real naivete when it comes to historic Reformed theology. I appreciate his caution, and would encourage him to continue, but the basic issues here are really clear. If I were talking to a pastor friend — say a Wesleyan Methodist or a Lutheran — and he affirmed in the course of our lunch discussion that he believed that God sovereignly decreed whatsoever comes to pass, including the salvation (or lack of it) for all individuals, and that he affirmed that God knew His elect from before the foundation of the world, and that He knew His elect throughout the course of their lives as they mingled with non-elect covenant members, my eyebrows would go up and I would say, “Friend, you had better be very careful. You’re a Calvinist.”

Appealing to the Cheap Seats

Normally I would file comments on the Steve Wilkins deal under Auburn Avenue Stuff. Why not? It’s the name of his church, after all. But there is another aspect of this, and so I want to make just a few comments about this thing under “A Justice Primer.”

This is not an allegation of personal wrongdoing which is denied by the accused, and which then needs to be proven. In that kind of situation, we need to have all the factors that I have written about earlier — presumption of innocence, two and three witnesses, accountability for the accusers, and so on. But this is a different kind of allegation entirely, and evidence needs to be handled differently.

Not surprisingly, the Bible has something to say about this as well. Jesus was accused of teaching certain doctrines that His adversaries (for various reasons) twisted and misunderstood, and it is very interesting to note what the Lord’s response to this was.

The high priest then asked Jesus of his disciples, and of his doctrine. Jesus answered him, I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing. Why askest thou me? ask them which heard me, what I have said unto them: behold, they know what I said. And when he had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, Answerest thou the high priest so? Jesus answered him, If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me? (John 18:18-23)

So the high priest asked Jesus about His followers, and he asked about His teaching. Jesus, in response to this “controlled environment” grilling, appealed to the cheap seats. He says, in effect, that His teaching ministry was public. He said that He taught these things in synagogues. He denied that He was involved in teaching anything in a clandestine way. Jesus then says that because of this He doesn’t need to answer the question, and that the men who are interrogating Him need to ask the general public what went down. They know what I teach, Jesus said. The response to this was for one of the officers to strike Jesus, and accuse Him of despising the lawfully constituted high priest. Jesus wasn’t having any, and said, “If there is a problem with what I said, then what is it? And if there is not, then why did you hit me?”

Now let me stop for a moment. Given how words can be twisted and misunderstood, and certainly have been in this controversy, my point here is not that Steve is Jesus, and that the SJC are the Saducees. My point is simply a structural and juridical one. What was the nature of the charge? What was nature of the (appropriate) response that Jesus gave? And where did the appeal go?

This kind of response — appealing to the public — is completely inappropriate if the charge against someone is that he murdered Smith on the evening of the thirteenth. In that kind of situation you marshall the witnesses (and there needs to be two or three credible witnesses who saw him do it) and you evaluate and probe their testimony. The defense cannot get anywhere by producing ten witnesses who didn’t see him do it. Appeal to the crowd under such circumstances is demagogery, not justice.

But when the charge concerns what someone has been teaching and saying in public, it is fully appropriate to appeal to that public, which is precisely what Jesus did in this situation. I will have more to say on this in a follow-up post, but I have known Steve for many years, and have heard him teach and preach in many settings. I have read what he has written here. I have heard him explain his full commitment to the doctrinal system found in the Westminster Confession to his critics, face to face, and in an unambiguous way. What he has made available to the public in this setting is fully consistent with what I have heard him say in other places and times.

All this is simply a biblical defense of what I urged everyone to do yesterday. Read what Steve wrote, listen to what he has taught, and then wait patiently for the response of the PCA. The more people who are watching this, the better. This is a public event, and it concerns the public teaching of a public minister. This is a place where many people are involved in making sure justice is done.

Hot Providence

After much waiting and anticipation, the copies of Hot Providence came in last night. You can get them through Canon Press here. It still says pre-order on the page, but they are in fact here and ready to ship. You can also have a peek inside if you like. A hearty well-done to Luke and Liz Jankovic for all their faithful work in assembling this. Sabbath living is not about fussiness and obsession, but rather about rest and joy. One of the best features of this cookbook is that there is no pretense that we have somehow “arrived” at some kind of sabbath-nirvana. So please join us as we laugh together, figuring this thing out.