************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 32 ************
By: Rev. Robert Godfrey
This sermon was preached on March 7, 2010
Belgic Confession Article 32
1 Corinthians 5
As I was thinking about this article of the confession this week, I couldn't help but be reminded about an IMAX film I saw on Mount Everest that documented the climbing account of 1996. An expedition where they climbed to the top of Mount Everest in 1996. And I saw it when I was in high school to date myself a little bit, I'm getting old, well, not really, but anyhow, so what we find in this documentary is that it was one of the biggest tragedies in the climbs of Mount Everest that has ever happened. And I remember it vividly because a number of people died, more than had ever happened before. And there was a very specific reason why. And it was because there's a very specific stretch of Mount Everest called the Hillary Step, named after Sir Edmond Hillary, who was the first person to climb Mount Everest. And it's not a very long stretch of this lengthy climb of Mount Everest, but it's a stretch that's only about a 40 foot vertical climb, but it's very narrow and people can only crawl up it single file and the reason it turned into such a tragedy was a good number of groups came up Mount Everest at the same time and so it created a bottleneck where they all had to wait at Hillary's Step at the same time. And so a number of people were trying to go up and down it at the same time and so they created this traffic jam, as it were, on the step. But it had to be a path that was tread slowly and single file and carefully, because to the left was a deep, cavernous abyss. And to the right was a deep, cavernous abyss. So the only option when you come to Hillary's Step is to go very slowly, to go very narrowly, to go very carefully.
And this came to mind when I was looking at this article, not because there's any mention of mountains or snow or expeditions, you might be thinking, how in the world did this come to mind when he was looking at article 32, so hopefully I have your attention captured now. But it's because I think what we're told here is a very narrow pathway that has to be guarded carefully when we look at the order of the church.
Here the Belgic Confession wants to make it very clear that when we're looking at the order of the church, there's only one way to go, the Biblical way. And to the left and to the right there are two cavernous abysses that are very easy to fall into, that were deep threats when the Belgic was being written.
On the one side, you have the guiding principle of the church, which was tradition, that the Reformation was fighting against, the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, that was putting the Bible aside and looking just to the past, oral tradition, tradition from the popes, tradition ultimately from the church that was trumping the Bible. But then, even in the midst of this Reformation, that was appealing to the Bible, you had another cavernous abyss on the other side and a new movement springing up amongst the Anabaptists, who said holding to the Bible wasn't even nearly as important as holding to charismatic leaders, holding to those who say they have direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit. So even while there was this Reformation going on, a new group was springing up, a new slippery slope to fall to. And so here the Belgic Confession is trying to keep us away from these two slopes, these two sliding paths where we will fall so easily in the church. And it's saying to keep the order in the church you must stay with the principles and the truth of scripture.
And it does that by outlining that in three specific ways. It tells us that we must do so according to the word of God and the structure of the church, according to Biblical worship and in Biblical discipline. All three of those things must have order. And you know when we say order we say things must be arranged properly, neatly, harmoniously. They must be done well so they can function. And the only way those three things can happen, the structure of the church, the worship of the church, the discipline of the church is if they are according to the Word of God.
So the first thing we think about is the structure of the church according to the word of God. In Colossians 2 we're told, in verses 6 & 7, ‘so then just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught and overflowing with thankfulness.' This charge that we're given from Paul is showing us that whatever we do in the church, however the church is organized, it must be done so in Christ.
Listen to these rich terms, ‘rooted', ‘built', ‘strengthened'. All of these in reference to Christ. And that's why the Belgic says that it is good to have structure as a church. But we must be guarded in our structure as a church. It is good is the first aspect. And we've seen that already in the past weeks when we've looked at the offices that God has ordained, those of elders, of deacons, of pastors. He's given officers to the church as though so his church may be overseen. And we have structures that have been set up as summaries of scripture. That's why we have the Belgic Confession, that's why we have the Heidelberg Catechism, that's why we have the Canons of Dort, as helpful, teaching tools to summarize what scripture has to say.
But beyond we have helpful aids based on scripture to organize the structure of our church and our unity as churches that we call our church order, that helps us as we examine the offices of the church, the assemblies of the church, the functions of the church. These are wonderful tools for us that are always appealing to scripture so that as a church we might know how the church is to be run, how it is to be structured, how it is to be overseen. And it's not something that is to be rigid and formal and just being done for tradition's sake.
And that is something that the church in America as a whole is starting to see more and more. I think there is really, we're starting to find a return to this because it is Biblical, it is something God calls His people to do. To have affiliation with other churches as we do in our denomination, have roles and specific assemblies and specific functions.
And you know in the southern Baptist denomination, one of the larger denominations that we find in America today, it's more congregational, there's loose affiliation. But one of the most prominent names in the Southern Baptist fellowship, Mark Dever, he's a really prominent name there today. He's starting to advocate reformation in the way the church is organized. And most of the principles he's advocating, kind of ripping off reformation principles, I don't think he realizes it, but if you look at what he's saying they're really things that our church already has today because it's Biblical.
Because it's a way that a church should commune and fellowship together, because it's guided by Biblical principles and it should guard us away from hierarchy. It should guard us away from putting certain people above others in the church. From saying that certain positions are better than others, from setting up popes and archbishops and all the rest that was happening in the time of the reformation.
As I said, on the flip side with the Anabaptists of ignoring the church altogether. During the time of the reformation there was one Anabaptist who said, ‘devout hearts' meaning the Anabaptists, ‘have resolved that they shall serve God in quiet simplicity like the fathers and patriarchs, without preacher, teacher or any external assembly to serve God in the simplicity of the spirit.' So that was their answer; no pastors, no teachers, no church, just me and my Bible.
These are the errors that we seek to avoid in our church, by having an assembly, not just with the congregation but with other churches as well, to follow the model that we find with Paul in the early churches. Follow the model of officers that we find, with elders and deacons and pastors.
And the constant question we must be asking to guard ourselves from falling the way of ignoring church structure, or from falling the way of hierarchy is why we're doing what we're doing. That is the million dollar, wonderful question in the church. That beautiful question of a child, that they learn so quickly, ‘why?' ‘Why?' Why are we doing this? because far too often our answer in the church is, well we've always done it that way. We must never be content to have that as our answer when we're talking about the order of the church. Why do we do that? Well, we've always done that and we do things right here. Because there are things, believe it or not, that we might do wrong, that we might need to rethink, that we might need to reconsider. We don't live in a perfect world, we live in a sinful world so we must always be guarding ourselves as the confession tells us here. Are we doing things biblically? Because, ultimately, if we deviate from the way of the Bible, from the oversight and functions that are Biblically principled we fall away from order and into disorder and disunity of what we hear in Romans 16 from Paul, ‘I urge you brothers to watch out for those who cause divisions and put up obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned, Keep away from them, for such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites by smooth talk and flattery.' They deceive the minds, naive people. The church in all its structure and authority must constantly be under the word of God, it must be on that straight path, not wandering to the left or to the right.
And one way to tell if that's the case is to look at the church's worship. That's the second thing the confession deals with. That the worship of the church must be Biblical as well, because that's one of, if not the main, thing that the structure and the authority of the church is to preserve, is it's Biblical worship.
1 Corinthians 14 says that everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. That's speaking of our worship. So that's why the Belgic says we are to reject everything that is invented, that is against the word of God, that is man-made, as it is inserted into our worship. Christ Himself tells us in Matthew ‘they worship me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men.' And the Lord declares in Isaiah 29 ‘ these people come near me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules, taught by men.' You know all these words are not saying, speaking of pagans, who are worshiping idols, not Moabites.
These are people who are claiming to worship God. But they're worshiping Him as they see fit. They're worshiping God as they would have and not as God would have. That's why we always ask the question of how are we to worship God.
And what we believe is the Biblical grounds is what we call the regulative principle of worship. Where we are always asking how God would have us worship, where we ask God to regulate our worship. We are constantly looking at his Word and seeing how God tells us to worship Him, rather than asking ourselves ‘how do we feel like worshiping God', we ask of God ‘how do You want to be worshiped?' Because the other wonderful thing we believe in worship, that we must be convicted of in worship is that our worship is a dialogue between God and man. When we come in here, when I give that call to worship, when you receive God's blessing, a dialogue begins between us and God Almighty. It is not fellowship hour, it's not coffee time when we're here. You are hearing from God, you are singing praise to Him, you are receiving His blessing and it is a wonderful thing but it means it is something to be taken seriously. To seek to worship Him with reverence and awe and to do so according to His Word and His desire.
And so that too is a reason we need to have constant examination and why we are to, as the confession says, reject all that is improper, all human innovation as it puts it. And when we ask that question again, that million-dollar question, ‘why?' Why are we doing what we're doing in our worship? The knee-jerk, immediate response better be because God wants it. And because it glorifies God. That better be the immediate reason that comes out of our lips and out of our hearts and out of our heads, because all too often the answer is well, we've always done that, or on the flip side, we need to shake things up or we need to attract a different group of people, we need to use everyone's gifts, we need to keep people here. And all these reasons have validity, all these reasons make sense and none of these reasons are necessarily bad, but if these are the first and foremost reason, if when somebody asks you why, that's the first thing you come up with, that's wrong. The reason we worship God the way we do should always be first and foremost because He wants it. Because it glorifies Him, because He has asked for it. We're here to please God. And when we do that we will rejoice in the worship that He receives.
That the words of the Psalmist that say ‘ I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord. When you hear that call, when you sing God's praise, when you bring your gifts, when you pray, when you hear the Word of God, when you receive the sacraments, when you receive God's blessing, let it be a joy cuz these are elements of worship that we have not concocted out of the sky but that come from God's Word, that He wants. They are not human innovations, that they are pleasing to our Lord and ultimately they are Christ-centered, which is the main reason we gather together.
We gather together because Christ came, don't we? If Christ did not come, we are here in vain. If Christ did not die, there is no reason to be here. If Christ did not risen, there is no reason to come. That is the main reason that we gather here this evening, the main reason we rejoice. The main reason we are to reject everything that takes our eyes off of Christ. If we leave here thinking about our own agenda and thinking about ourselves and not thinking about the beauty of Christ Jesus our Lord then it has been a waste of a Sabbath because, praise God, He has come. And when our eyes are fixed on Him, it will give us nourishment and life to go forth in the week and to live a life for Him and to seek to please Him in all we that we do and say. That is Biblical worship.
The structure of the church must be Biblical. The worship of the church must be Biblical and, as an extension of that, the discipline of the church must too be Biblical.
And that is why I read the text I did for this evening from 1 Corinthians 5. Because I thought that was the note to highlight maybe more than any of the other points the confession makes, is this concept of Biblical discipline. Because, let's be honest, in our day and age, this is the most controversial point of the three.
I think if you went into any church, and you were to say our structure of our church needs to be grounded Biblically, even if it maybe wasn't being done, I think everybody would say, yes, that's true. If we said our worship needs to be Biblical and even if that wasn't being done I think people would say yes that's true. If we said our discipline needs to be Biblical, I think a lot of people would say, wait, our what now? Because discipline is a bad word. Discipline in the church today conjures up all sorts of unpleasant images. And that's why discipline is really not something administered in the church very much today.
You know we dealt with the briefly when we talked about the marks of the true church in our Article 29 but it's worth considering a little more in depth this evening. It's such a controversy because when you hear that term so many will say, well discipline is hateful. Church discipline is judgmental. So far too many churches have done away with this concept of church discipline.
What Paul tells us here in 1 Corinthians 5, where we read these words, ‘expell the wicked man from among you', the ultimate end of church discipline. And I've seen it and I've heard stories from far too many churches where someone is unfaithful to their spouse or abusing drugs and alcohol or living in hatred of a brother. And without any repentance, with hardened hearts, after a church has worked with him for years, they just decide to transfer their membership or move to another church. And when the previous church approach that church and says, ‘this brother is living with an unrepented sin, you need to know that, this needs to resolved'. The new church says, well this is a place of forgiveness, this is a place of love, we don't harbor grudges or hatred. Rather than dealing with the sin that has never been repented of.
That's not what Paul tells us here, is it? And that's not what the confession says, echoing the words of Paul. We believe that discipline is indeed a very Biblical thing that the church is commanded to do. And I think it's something we need to understand properly. And I want to think of it in two parts, in the role of excommunication with the hope of restoration secondly. And when we think of excommunication, it's a process, it's not some sort of stamp, that just happens. Excommunicated.
There's a whole process that goes along with discipline. And it's a process that first and foremost appeals to Matthew 18, where you are to go to a brother and if he does not repent, you take someone with you. If he does not repent, you take more people. If he still will not repent, then time for more drastic action, you bring it before the whole church. But there are a few keys things for us to take note of. First of all, this is to be done slowly. This takes a long time when it is enacted. And along with that length of time it's because it's done patiently because it's also done prayerfully. And the process of discipline begins we keep people in prayer, trying to work with them, trying to talk with them, trying to counsel them and seek to speak with them cuz it's also done in love, done lovingly.
But the thing I'd like to highlight tonight is to say, it's also done congregationally. And I think that's a real point to highlight that is often missed because I think very often when we hear the term discipline or we hear the term excommunicate as a church, you know, we say yes we believe discipline is good thing, it's a Biblical thing, it's a thing that's overlooked but it's nothing that we have anything to do with until an elder comes up here and says so and so is under church discipline or so and so is excommunicated. And it's not until that time that the church has any real role or notice in the role of discipline.
But beloved, church discipline is a congregational activity on a number of different levels. First and foremost in guarding your own heart, constantly examining yourself, looking into your own heart, having a repentant heart, a humble heart so if you are confronted and admonished that you would have the humility to repent and to examine if you are in the wrong. Also to follow the method prescribed by scripture, in the case of discipline in Matthew 18. If you are wronged to go to that brother, to go to that sister, rather than speaking ill of them behind their back, rather than immediately going with multiple people, rather than going to an elder or elders or the pastor, but following this method that we're given in scripture of Matthew 18.
And then finally, also taking seriously when a case of discipline, if and when it ever does come before the congregation, taking that seriously and praying for someone, praying for a brother or a sister in the Lord who is hardening their heart that they would repent. And ultimately if excommunication does come as the final end, these things take place not hatefully but still ultimately with a loving goal of restoration. So if anyone ever hears the term discipline and says that it's a hateful, judgmental activity you also always put on the heels of that term, restoration.
The goal of discipline and excommunication still always has the goal and hope of restoration. To restore, to restore that sinner. To restore them to the fold of grace, to the people of God. And beloved, I've heard so many pastors and elder tell me, and it sounds as though the greatest thing in their pastoral career is when somebody who is under discipline or even excommunicated, repented and was restored. I've heard a number of people say that was the greatest moment in their ministerial career. Because it showed to them so crystal clearly the power of the Holy Spirit at work. They saw a change in somebody's heart as they were restored from darkness to light.
Just as the church's structure and worship must be Biblical, so too discipline must be Biblical to keep the purity and peace of the church. I Corinthians 7 says, ‘ You were bought at a price, do not become slaves to men.' We need to remember that in all avenues of our church. Its structure, its worship, its discipline. We need to remember that we are Jesus Christ's, that we were bought with His precious blood and that we are answerable to Him. So therefore let us seek to glorify Him with all that we do. Let's not fall into the abyss of tradition, on the other side the abyss of charisma, the charismatic leaders and ignoring the church and the Bible altogether but let us delicately and diligently walk in the middle, that straight path, the Biblical path, depending on Christ as our guide and our shield and our help. Amen.
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