How to Read the Bible

by Rev. Benjamin P. Glaser
Pastor, Ellisville Presbyterian Church, ARP

One of the most common questions I receive as a pastor is, “Rev. Glaser, how do I get the most out of my Bible reading?” It is a question even the apostles themselves wondered. (2 Peter 3:14-18). In this short article we will look at three things that can help you feast upon the meat of the gracious Word of our Triune God.

First of all we must understand that what we are reading is God’s Word. (Heb. 1:1-4, 2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Peter 1:16-21). This may seem obvious or even unnecessary to mention, but part of the problem many of us have is that we, intentionally or not, use the Bible the way we would any other book. We look for pithy statements for a greeting card or a quick verse to simply settle an argument or to find a justification for something either we would like to do or even as a club to stop someone from doing something we may not like. When we humbly present ourselves before the Word as the recipient of the Bible and not as its author, to simply use it how we please, we have a come a long way to rightly using it for both God’s purpose and for our benefit. A good example of this can be seen in 2 Chronicles 29. There King Hezekiah is in the process of rebuilding the Temple. He is careful to only do that which God has commanded to be done in His Word.

Second of all we must be careful to answer three questions before we fall into the trap of using a part of the Bible unwisely. These three are, 1) What is the larger context and background of the book/chapter/verse?, 2) What did the original author of that book/chapter/verse have in mind when he wrote it?, and 3) How, in the larger context of the redemptive story of the Bible, does God want us to apply this book/chapter/verse today in our context? Once we find the answer to these three questions we will have gone a long way in not only rightly understanding the text, but using it in the way its true author, God Almighty, intended. Another thing worth mentioning here is that the Bible was not written with the chapter and verse divisions we have now. Each part was constructed to be understood in the context of the whole book. This is one of the problems with just randomly taking verses and using them without taking into consideration the purpose the author had for them. A good example in the Bible of someone doing this very thing can be seen in the temptation narrative in Matthew 4. Satan knows the Scriptures. He takes passages and misapplies them in order to cause trouble. Now, it is not likely that any of us intend to do that, but God in His wisdom warns us in a very serious way the damage this can cause. (Rom. 16:17-20).

Lastly, it is important that we understand what the Bible is about. It is the story of man’s creation by the Triune God (Col. 1:15-17), man’s fall in the covenantal sin of Adam (Rom. 5:12), and redemption by the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:21). Our Savior is present on every page, whether as the King of Kings providentially ordering things for His glory (like in the Book of Esther), or as the recipient of the praises of David in the Psalms, which he sang and the Church continues to sing, in thankfulness for Christ’s love, or as the subject of His own life and work as in the Gospels and Epistles in the New Testament.

I hope these three short principles are helpful to you in using your Bible to grow in the knowledge of God’s grace and the person and work of His only begotten Son. When we use the Holy Scriptures rightly and truly there is nothing better for our lives, both in the here and now as well as in the life to come for those who rest and trust in the finished work of Christ.

Thinking Through the Next Evening Series

It is my general practice to preach through books. Since I came to Ellisville in the morning service we have covered:

2 Peter
Psalms 1-20

In the evening the practice has been a bit different, going through “topical” series as well as through whole books:

Biblical Covenants
10 Commandments
The Lord’s Prayer
1 Samuel
1 John
The Live’s of the Apostles

In 2016 the plan is to start the book of Mark in the morning and spend our time there for the whole of the year, maybe going into 2017 if necessary.

Rotationally that means an Old Testament book for the evening/afternoon service. I am really struggling with where to go next in the second service.

I do not necessarily want to do a big OT book like a major prophet or one of the books of Moses, preferring not to only cover two books over 52 Lord’s Days, but could be talked into that if you can convince me it is wise.

In the comments below (or on Facebook or the Twitter feed) I’d love some ideas, help in where to go starting January 1.

Top 10 Traditions About Christ’s Birth That Are Not True

As King Grumpus makes his appearance once more I bring to you this year the top 10 (of many) traditions which have come to be held as gospel truth and inform so many of the celebrations during these months of the year that unfortunately not only have no historical factual foundation, but obscure the biblical representation of the glorious incarnation of Christ Jesus. While this post is meant to be a bit playful, it is worth remembering these verses as we begin:

“He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He.” — Deut 32:4

“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” — John 4:24

“Grace, mercy, and peace will be with you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.” — 2 John 1

This list is given in no particular order, just as they popped into my head as I sat here considering these things. The sections under each one will provide a paragraph length or so explanation and a link to a short article, etc, that give some evidence to the comment. It is not meant to be exhaustive, obviously, but just as a brief word. One of the things that will become plain is that so many of these “traditions” are not really traditions at all, but were inventions of Victorian extraction that did not become a part of the wider Church celebration, some until as late as the 1950’s.

1.  Mary and Joseph were turned away from an inn.

In the nativity stories in the gospels (Matthew and Luke) there is no mention of a man turning them away. In fact, the word translated as “inn” should not be understood as referring to a 1st-century version of Motel 6, but a guest room at the house of a relative.

2.  Jesus was born in December.

The early church has several interesting reports of how the birth of Christ came to be celebrated on the 25th of December. Most of them center around the idea that Christ was conceived during the Passover, thereby placing his birth 9 months later at the end of the year. Obviously, there are a number of assumptions in this argument. First of all it would mark that Mary had a perfect 39 week and 2 day pregnancy. Second of all it only works if you follow the Gregorian calendar, which is why the Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas at a different time (usually in January in accordance with the Julian record).

There are of course other problems with a winter nativity and they center around two particular details. First, there would not have been shepherds out with their flocks that time of year. Just as in the America’s sheep are corralled during the winter months, not out in the fields feeding. Second, the Romans would not have called for a census during the winter when travel was precarious and many of the legions were in their winter quarters. As things work in our day, even with central heat, back in the days of Christ most activities would be pushed off to the nine months of the year when access to places were much easier and simple.

3. Three Kings came from the East to see Jesus and their gifts point to His work.

One of the most popular Christmas carols consists of the travels of three kings from “the Orient” named Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar to see the newborn Jesus and that their three gifts mark out Christ’s kingship (gold), His divinity (frankincense), and His suffering (myrrh). All of the detail’s of the kings are made up tradition and none of it is to be found in the biblical record.

4.  Jesus didn’t cry.

This one also concerns a popular carol and hymn. As an side it is not an accident that many of the untrue traditions have come to us through these man-made hymns. In the carol “Away in a Manger” there is a line:

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

Many theologians have marked this song since its first appearance in the late 1800’s as unacceptable for this reason alone. Not only does it make a docetic statement about Christ, but the saccharine nature of the hymn is another example of the milieu that birthed the words. Now the rest of the verses of this hymn are not exactly much better, being full of the sappy Hallmark view of the Lord’s birth. You can tell that it originally was written as a bedtime song for little kids (notice the rest of verse two) originally written by universalists.

5.  The common nativity scene.

More than likely you will see advertisements for live nativity scenes and/or see the manger set up out in front of many churches in the coming weeks. It is worth remembering that none of them will be accurate either in their historical details or by the biblical record. First of all the manger was not in a separate barn or a stable. The way Hebrew houses were built consisted of two floors. On the second floor were the living quarters and underneath at street level was where the animals lived. This is where Jesus was born (see the inn article under #1) and where the manger would have been in the stories of the nativity. Second the magi and shepherds were not in the same place at the same time. It is also doubtful that the shepherds brought their sheep with them to see Jesus and His parents. The appearances of ox’s and other animals are also not likely.

6.  Snow fell when Jesus was born.

It really does snow in Israel and so if Jesus was born in December it is not impossible that snow was present in Bethlehem. However, since He was not born then it makes the likelihood of snow pretty small and this is also something you see in the aforementioned misguided creches. Carols like “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” do it explicitly, but others keep the winter theme quite strong. See “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, Silent Night! Holy Night!”, “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning”, and others. It seems odd to sing things that are not true about Truth itself.

7.  Santa is ok, because he’s really Saint Nicholas.

Probably just as strange as the recent trend of Christian celebrations of Christmas adding a creation of the Coca-Cola company to December church activities is the memeable story of Saint Nick punching Arius in the face (which didn’t happen) and therefore becoming in and of itself a reason for Santa being acceptable for church celebrations. It seems odd to celebrate a non-existing violation of the 6th Commandment around the same time you are exalting the God-man who said to turn the other cheek.

8.   Chrismon trees represent eternal reign of Christ

As with each of the last four of these they represent a fairly common Christian practice of reverse engineering reasons for bringing in wholly cultural practices and giving them a theological spin of some sort. The second one has to do with the Christmas or Chrismon tree. Growing up it was the practice to have a large evergreen in the sanctuary during the days of Advent. The reason I was given, and is certified by my research, is that the pine tree represents eternity (evergreen, get it). One could think of a number of better examples that could point one to the everlasting kingdom better than a tree which does not exist in most of the world. It does not seem very ecumenical with our brothers and sisters to make a Western cultural artifact a center of the worship of our common Lord.

9.  Holly points us to crown of thorns and berries to His blood

The reasons for the holly likewise eminent from a wider cultural practice and then are given theological significance. The holly is given a two-fold duty in its place in the worship of Christ during advent. Much like its arboreal cousin holly is not the best example of the sacrifice of the Savior. Jesus Himself already gave us a symbol of His broken body and shed blood.

10. Lighting candles on Christmas Eve

Last, but not least, is the practice of turning out all the lights at the end of a Christmas Eve service and everyone lighting a personal hand-held candle while singing Silent Night. Now, the only reason I can think of for doing this is that one would not want to wake the little baby in the manger. But as with the rest of these 9 there is absolutely no biblical record of this being a part of Christ’s incarnation in Bethlehem. But to be serious here for a moment the mindset behind the lighting of the candle is to represent the coming of the Light of Lights into the World. Life the previous three this final example is better given for the Christian not as the human mind can create, but as God has given.

WLC #109, Mental Images of Christ, and a Seceder View

One of the most common exceptions taken in the ARP (and the PCA et al) by newly ordained men and those taking transfer exams in presbytery is without a doubt the clause in the explanation to Westminster Larger Catechism #109 concerning the prohibition against making mental images of the Godhead in accordance with the catechism’s teaching on the Second Commandment. I will post the question below:

Q. 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.

Now there is a lot more there than just mental images and that is one of the criticisms this presbyter often has for those taking the exception, but that is a different argument for another post. As the title suggests my purpose is to provide a Seceder view against the taking of this exception and provide a positive defense for the Catechism. Probably the largest book ever written on this subject is a work called “Faith No Fancy, a Treatise On Mental Images” by one of the founders of the Seceder Church, a forerunner of my denomination, the ARP, Ralph Erskine. In this post I am going to provide relevant quotations by the author. Be advised that there will be regular updates as I read further and further into the work.

The quotes will appear chronologically and I pray it will be edifying and answer some of the common objections to the Catechism.

“The image of Christ as God in our nature, represented to us in the light of the gospel, which is the only glass wherein we can behold His glory (2 Cor. 3:18) is of such a nature, that no image of His human body formed in the brain, can stand before it, any more than Dagon could stand before the ark of God.” — Ralph Erskine, “Faith No Fancy”, pg. 19

“To seek after any part of the knowledge of Christ in our own imaginary idea of Him as man, is equally as foolish as to seek the morning star in a dungeon or the sun in a dunghill.” — Ralph Erskine, “Faith No Fancy, a Treatise On Mental Images”, pg. 32

“Now, it must be said even of natural reason and human understanding: How much more must sense and natural imagination be rejected and cast out, when it is brought in, under the strange term of an imaginary idea of Christ as man, to be helpful to the right knowledge and understanding of this great mystery of godliness, an incarnate God?” — Ralph Erskine, “Faith No Fancy, a Treatise On Mental Images”, pg. 41

“Again, let a man have an imaginary idea of Christ’s human nature, now exalted to heaven, and sitting at the right hand of God, and on the throne of God; he forms the idea of a man, and the idea of a throne on which He sits. I would ask whether the idea of the Man, be any better than the idea he has of a throne; or if any of these ideas give the best help or assistance to his faith, or rather if the do not in fact cloud his mind and contribute to make him have a gross, carnal, and unworthy notion of Christ? Can he in that glass be anything of the invisible glory of God in Christ, as the image of the invisible God?” — Ralph Erskine, “Faith No Fancy”, pg. 65

“They bring forth an image of Christ formed in the brain by an imaginary idea, as Aaron said of the idol I cast the gold into the fire, and there came out this calf. They bring forth an image of Christ, that diverts the mind from the true Christ, and from the true spiritual object of faith set before us in the gospel, where alone we see Christ. (2 Cor 3:18).” — Ralph Erskine, “Faith No Fancy”, pg. 73

Serving With Calvin by Terry L. Johnson – A Book Review

US price $20.99 Author Terry L Johnson 400 pages EP Books

As a confirmed bibliophile I will take books in any form they can be obtained. This coupled with the fact that I am most certainly a cheapskate and there is no better way that this can happen but through an opportunity to receive a book for free. So when the occasion came to review a new work on worship by the pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church located in Savannah, Georgia I gladly took on the offer.

This book is titled “Serving With Calvin” with the subtitle of “Leading and Planning Services of Reformed Worship in the Reformed Church”. It is a sequel to the 2014 work by the same author called “Worshipping With Calvin“. As the title and subtitle both suggest this book has as its main goal, “Serving With Calvin will focus on the nuts and bolts, the ‘how-to’s,’ the application of historic Reformed worship today” (We’ll come back to the word “historic” later) and there can be no question that this is exactly what the book does. It is divided into nine chapters with two appendixes and some bibliographies for further reading. Each part of the work is designed to build upon the one before as the author leads the reader (mainly aimed toward ministers and ruling elders) to examine the foundations for and then the applying of the principles of Reformed worship in the local church. While not necessary it may be helpful to read the earlier work in this series as the author in many places points you back to chapters and sections in the Worshipping With Calvin book (I have not read the earlier book). That being said the work is written in such a way that even a complete novice to Reformed worship could pick it up and read it for personal profit. While there are some cases where terms may need to be looked up in a theological dictionary if one is completely brand new to the discussion, the average Reformed reader will have no trouble following the argument. The author writes in an engaging style and unlike many of the dry books about Reformed worship the prose is very good. I was able to finish it in three sittings and never once became bored or considered the reading laborious. As much as some may not think this to be very important I find the biggest impediment to reform, especially in worship, is often bad writing that is an absolute chore to go through.

These questions about structure, form, and literary quality taken care of I would like to move on to the content of the book itself. If the reader is at all familiar with any of Dr. Johnson’s other works then nothing in this book will be of a shock or surprise. The opening chapters wisely, in my estimation, deal directly with the problem, to paraphrase the old proverb, that attempts at reform in the worship of the American church are often taken with far too much vinegar and not enough sugar. The sections on piety, humility, and wisdom are worth cutting out and passing along to younger ministers (including myself) for general practice in every area of ministry, not just when it comes to worship questions.

Following these opening chapters comes the meat of the book, applying the principles of Reformed worship in real life. If the whole work could be summarized in one sentence it would be this one from page 64, “We only mean to urge that the church, for its part, ought to concentrate on those means which God has promised to bless”. The author goes on to examine questions such as the attitude of the minister in the service, the pace of the service, and the aesthetics of Reformed worship. This last section was something the author rightly noted is far too often dismissed as being unimportant, but if the means of grace and the reforming work is to be done the relative comfort and mental and physical attitude of the worshiper must be taken into serious consideration. After addressing these preliminary issues the next two chapters take on inquiries surrounding the reading of Scripture, as in how much and from which parts of the Bible, and the same question is then applied to the preaching of the Word. The section on the proclamation of the Scriptures was phenomenal. It was devotional at times. As the author rightly notes one of the greatest problems with Reformed preaching today is that one gets the suspicion sometimes that Presbyterian ministers don’t really believe what they are preaching, sure they may agree and consent to the theology of what is being said, but as the author quotes Richard Baxter the minister has to preach as a dying man to dying men. This internal understanding should have an effect on the passion (not for show) of the preacher. Other things taken on in this part of the book include questions surrounding prayer, music, and the sacraments and how they are to be used in the service of Christian worship. Lastly, the book goes into the personal story of how Dr. Johnson found the situation on the ground and how he went through reforming the worship of his church in Savannah, Georgia and walks the reader (if they are so inclined) on the manner and ways to go about doing these works of reforming in their local church and especially certain pitfalls and mistakes to avoid.

Hopefully the above has provided you with a basic introduction to the book and spurs you on to purchase it for your edification and instruction, because I do highly recommend it. In this last paragraph, as I have already gone on too long (I set out to write 500 words, here I am at 953), I do want to set forward a couple of criticisms. This has more to do with the project than the book itself. To put my cards on the table my personal worship philosophy and theology is probably best summarized in this work by Dr. Dennis Prutow. I am 100% on board with the ethos of Dr. Johnson’s work and I use his book “Leading in Worship” for every Lord’s Supper celebration as well as other special services. But my problem comes back to a word I highlighted at the beginning of this review, historic, and its cousin tradition. In many cases in this book when difficult and hard choices need to be made concerning practices within the church’s worship the fall back is often dropped at the lap of the “historic Reformed practice”, when one really looks at the history of Presbyterian practice, on things like instrumentation and the five evangelical feast days, not to mention the heritage Sundays that Dr. Johnson mentions go on at Independent Presbyterian Church (Georgia and Scottish heritage, and the author does give his reservations about these two things), one finds that the history and tradition are not really on the side of this particular strain of thought in the Reformed world. The problem with putting too much weight on history and tradition is that inevitably you get into the problem of whose tradition and what history you are going to follow. Which leads me to the second small criticism. I know the author makes the point that much of the exegetical and theological case is made in the earlier Worshipping with Calvin work, but I would have liked to have seen more (and there still is plenty to be sure) Scriptural cases made, especially when it comes to the content of the singing of the church and the buttressing of some other parts of the Reformed liturgy and practise.

This all being said, again I really enjoyed reading this book and found it stimulating and challenging, in the right ways. I commend it to your study and your blessing.

Interview On Worship at the Ellisville Presbyterian Church, ARP

I had the pleasure of filling out an interview for my friend Wendy Heinemann and found the questions helpful to describe generally the how’s and the what’s of a normal Lord’s Day looks like at our church, I added a section on the Lord’s Supper at the end. The questions and answers can be found below:

Pastor Interviews: Worship Design

  1. What is the name and location of your church/worship setting?

The Ellisville Presbyterian Church, ARP (Associate Reformed Presbyterian)

We are at a downtown location, in a small town, in the southern part of Mississippi. Our church building was constructed in 1892 and the sanctuary has undergone only minor, cosmetic changes since then. Bare white walls, wooden pews, and the pulpit is centered. We have no sound system or amplification.

  1. How would you characterize the worship service and style of music? Liturgical, blended, contemporary, etc. Organ, piano, band, choir, worship leader, etc.

Probably we are best categorized as “traditional protestant”, but without some of the things that are usually a part of that description. We only use a piano to accompany the singing. We do not have a choir or any other special music (i.e. – solo’s, anthems, etc…). The pastor is the worship leader, is the only one who is up front, and does all the reading, praying, etc. I wear a plain black robe during our service.

  1. How is the content of worship decided? Scripture, sermon, music, prayers, etc.

The content of the service is left up to the discretion of the pastor, with input from the Ruling Elders. In other words the current order of service we have was designed and put together during a regular meeting of the session with discussion between the pastor and the elders considering the Biblical forms of worship and what best met the needs of our members. Without getting into too much detail our denomination does have a Book of Worship, though it is not binding for the local congregation, but is very helpful in marking out general principles to follow when putting together a worship service.

The scripture lessons (and the call to worship) follow a sequential pattern in both morning and evening. The calls to worship will usually be from a psalm or a prophetic book (Isaiah right now) and the benediction will be from about 15 selections that I rotate based on context. In the morning we read consecutively through the New Testament (currently in Luke) and read whole chapters, breaking them in two as the case may be. My general rule of thumb is 40 verses. If a chapter is more than that I will break it up over two Lord’s Days. In the evening we read through the OT, likewise by chapter with the same general rules. All readings (and our pew bible) are from the New King James Version.

It is the general practice to preach through books of the bible in both the morning and evening service. As an example I am currently working in Esther and began the second week of October and will conclude the last weekend of December. In 2016 I will preach 48 sermons through the book of Mark in the morning. However, there are times (baptisms for example) where events may make it prudent to break for one-off sermons as the case may be.

The music nine times out of ten will be purposefully chosen to tie into the sermon text in some way. For instance if the main theme of the passage is repentance then a psalm selection from Psalm 51 and a hymn like “Remember Not, O God”. We use the Book of Psalms for Singing, the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter, and the Trinity Hymnal (2nd ed.) for our song selections.

Prayers are based on context and the main prayer (Pastoral prayer) includes prayers for the physically and spiritually ill, civil government, special concerns, etc…

  1. What does the flow of the service look like? Does it ever change?

Our order of service for the morning and evening stays the same year round. We do not follow the church calendar or hold any of the “5 evangelical feast days” (i.e. – Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, Pentecost, and Ascension) so a worship service in July will look fundamentally the same as one in December or April.

Morning order of service looks like this:

Welcome and Announcements

The Call to Worship

Opening Psalm (BoPfS)

The Invocation and Lord’s Prayer

Reading of the Law (from both OT and NT)

Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon

New Testament Reading

The Giving and Receiving of Offerings

Pastoral Prayer

Sermon Text

The Sermon

Prayer of Application

Closing Hymn (TH)

Benediction From God’s Word


Evening order of service looks like this:

Welcome and Announcements

The Call to Worship and Invocation

Opening Psalm (1650 Scottish Psalter)

Old Testament Reading

Prayer of Confession of Sin

Assurance of Pardon (Scripture Reading)

Three-Fold Amen

Season of Prayer

Sermon Text

The Sermon

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Closing Hymn (TH)

Benediction From God’s Word

  1. Are there particular holidays that affect the worship design of the service?

As noted above we do not follow the church calendar, but we also do not break our normal patterns for secular days like Mother’s Day, 4th of July, Start of Public School, etc…

  1. Who is involved in planning worship?

As noted above while the Ruling Elders are involved in the organization of the pattern of the service, the week-to-week planning is left up to the pastor. Now, I will ask for advice (especially when it comes time to move on to a new sermon series) from time to time, but generally the pastor has free reign to select the songs, etc…

7. What does communion look like in your service?

We observe the Lord’s Supper normally on the first Lord’s Day of the month. One of our practices is what can be termed “Session-Controlled Communion”. What this means is that ordinarily we would require that any visitor meet with an elder prior to the beginning of the service where the Lord’s Supper was going to be observed for a brief moment on their confession of faith and to make sure they were not under discipline in their home church of membership. Another thing that is probably worth mentioning in this context is that we use real wine and leavened bread. When we do have the Supper the order of worship given for the morning above has the below order slotted between the Prayer of Application and the Closing Hymn. We also have a preparatory psalm (from the BoPfS) added after the prayer of Application and the invitation with an opening prayer as well.

The order looks like this:

Invitation and Fencing of the Table
Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon
Words of Institution
Prayer of Consecration
Distribution of Elements
Prayer of Thanksgiving

I would welcome any questions or clarifications you may have in the comment section below

Reasons Why the U.S. Constitution is Morally Questionable by an Examination of James M. Willson, RPCNA Minister’s work “Civil Magistracy”

It may seem strange to see a politically conservative minister present quotations on why the U.S. Constitution is (and has always been) morally bankrupt and why this fact requires Christians to reconsider their support thereof, especially when the constitution itself has almost become holy writ in its own right in evangelical circles. But as you will see in the passages that follow political dissent is something worth at least meditating upon by Christians of any denominational stripe, let alone Presbyterians. A current examination of the U.S. Code would provide multitudes of examples of this need, which would likely also show in lurid detail the anti-biblical principles through which our nation thumbs its nose at the Lord our God, but the main purpose of going back to the Constitution itself is to show that the rot was baked into the cake from the very foundation of our nation and this understanding was seen from very early on by Fathers in the faith. While this post is necessarily limited it may be worthwhile in the future to dig a little deeper into the points made.

As a bit of an introductory biography of the author of the work under consideration James M. Willson was the Son of James R. Willson, an RP minister himself and author in his own right, and was born in the Elizabeth Township of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania on November 17, 1809. He graduated from Union College in Schenectady, NY in 1829.  He studied theology under the direction of his father, and was licensed by the RP Presbytery on June 5, 1834.  He was ordained by the same Presbytery, and installed pastor of the First congregation of Philadelphia, November 27, 1834.  He was elected Professor of Theology in the Allegheny Seminary, near Pittsburgh on May 31, 1859.  He authored numerous pamphlets and books expounding Covenanter principles.  He died at his residence in Allegheny City (which is the North Side neighborhood of the City of Pittsburgh today) on August 31, 1866.

The work from which the quotes will come is a series of three sermons that Rev. Willson preached to his congregation in Philadelphia and later turned into a short book. At the time of press there was added a new chapter entitled:

“The principles contained in the preceding chapters, applied in an examination of the moral character of the civil and political arrangements of the Unites States”

 The author begins the chapter with this opening statement:

“Prove all things: hold fast that which is good,” (1 Thess. 5:21). Christians are required to examine the moral character and bearings of every thing with which they have any connection or concern. National institutions are not an exception. The law of God reaches them; and the Christian must go as far, both as to the subject and manner of examination, as he has the moral law of God as his rule and guide.”

In these words Rev. Willson has said several things of which there is not agreement in our day. Firstly, the simple idea that the civil authorities are under the rubric of 1 Thessalonians 5:21 would be challenged by many, even in confessionally Reformed circles. Secondly, the assertion that national institutions, like the Federal government, have to consider the Law of God and use it as their rule and guide has become passé. Even by supporters of this basic idea it is reduced to an amorphic general principle rather than the simple application of the moral law to the moral organization of society. This is also the case as well with the idea that Christians should use the moral law when bringing these institutions under their examination.

After this opening he gives two statements that outline his purpose in the chapter:

  1. By presenting some general facts respecting their character and influence in a moral point of view: And
  2. By an examination of the Constitution of the United States

The first heading has under it three points which question the moral integrity (think Amos 3:3) of being in league with this Constitution through one’s active support of the American government. This post will limit itself to looking at these three particular points and will leave the reader to read the rest of Willson later.

Rev. Willson provides quite a provocative start to this examination by pointing to the fact “ungodly men are entirely satisfied with them in this respect”. It is an interesting proposition. How does this argument, that people who are in active rebellion against God, being satisfied with the Constitution points to its moral illegitimacy? Well, remember what Willson said above about what should be the internal heart of any institution. If an instrument of government is based upon the law of God it should follow that no Atheist, Deist, and/or moral degenerate could sign onto it with any integrity. So the reality that there had been no objection to the Constitution itself by these groups gives credence to Willson’s point that it must be the case that the U.S. Constitution is not based on any Biblical foundation. It is an interesting discussion. A way to illustrate this would be to think about the way the intended purpose of insect repellent is to keep the bugs off of your body. If that product instead of causing the flies and mosquitoes to react in alarm provides a safe haven and an opportunity to flourish then you would not support the continued operation of that merchandise.

The argument as presented is not one that we usually consider when thinking about the nature of government and its role in the world. If the people God warns us to be separate from see no trouble with the organizing principles of a nation it should bring the Christian to a pause. While the concept of sphere sovereignty was made popular through the work of Abraham Kuyper its history is much older and can be applied in this situation. The way in which it would be done here is through asking if we would accept a Church in which non-Church members were accepting of the doctrines and organization thereof. The answer obviously would be no, and for Willson the same categories apply to the State. If the Atheist can give his yeah and amen to the Constitution it is enough for the Christian to confess that there is a fundamentally fatal flaw with the document made at the Convention in Philadelphia.

In the second subheading of this opening point the next principle that Willson wants to highlight is the circumstance that “the administration [of the Federal government] has been in the hands, generally of irreligious, and often immoral men”. This also may seem odd to the American mind which is conditioned against the idea of there being any problem with Christians being led in the civil realm by non-Christians. However, Willson’s argument is pretty straightforward on this front. If the civil government is to be a moral agent it makes logical sense that it should be led by someone who is moral. This especially being the case that under the biblical paradigm only those who submit to and express agreement with the moral law can be said to be moral it naturally follows that any civil authority which allows immoral people to lead it cannot be said to in any fashion be honoring that command. If Romans 13 is descriptive rather than normative then this argument has less oomph than Willson would like. However when taken in its larger context it is readily apparent that Paul’s point is that this passage points to the way things should be rather than the way they are in the 1st Century. (As an excursus I recommend this sermon by Rev. Dr. Richard Gamble that further elucidates this). What it means for this second argument is that the since there is no religious test for office the civil government is illegitimate. Willson says this concerning the lack thereof:

And who would think of attempting to exclude a president, or a judge, or a legislator from office, because he was an Atheist, a Jew, or even a Mahommedan, a profane swearer, liar, gambler or adulterer?

Now, to be fair we are in a situation in the United States today where there is more concern about these things, but not really in a principled logical way. It is more the result of the anti-intellectualism of evangelicalism that this is the case than the kind of point Willson is seeking to make here.  The fact that evangelicals supported a member of an Anti-Christian cult and a Roman Catholic for President and Vice President shows the flexible manner to which they hold this principle, but with that digression taken care of it probably is time to move on to the next argument.

This last principle that Willson wants to elucidate for the reader is along similar lines to the previous two. He says, “The practical workings of the civil institutions of the United States, have been adverse to the interests of morality.” Whereas the first argument was built around the idea that the U.S. Constitution has no detractors from the kinds of people who would demure if the work was Biblically based and the second had to do with the leaders of the government the Constitution chooses to lead it, this third one logically moves to the practical effects of having a founding document which does not have Christ as its Head and Lawgiver.

To illustrate this point Willson goes to two primary examples. The first being the general state of immorality in the land and the second was the flagrant violation of the Sabbath in the transporting of U.S. mail and the opening of government facilities on the Lord’s Day. On this first one Willson wants to say that despite the attempts of the various moral associations, missionary societies, and other para-church (though he does not use that phrase) organizations they can never hope to have any real affect on the morality of the nation as long as the head is rotten. In other words how can people really expect anything other than the proliferation of the malignity of sin when the Constitution and the Federal government at large refuses to recognize the moral law of God. A way in which Willson describes this is through the lives and actions of the ungodly office holders who reign over men. In the second section in this argument he goes to the character of the nine Presidents the United States had since the founding. He notes:

There have been elected nine presidents. Of these there have been by three for whom it has been even claimed they were professing Christians while they were in power: and there are great doubts respecting the claims set up for two of the three. Of the remaining six, three, and perhaps four were infidels: one has made a profession of religion since he left the chair of state: and another intended to make a profession had he lived: at least so he said upon his deathbed.

Where Willson receives his information on this he does not say, but a quick examination of the history shows that the only two that Willson possibly had in mind for Christian faith were Martin Van Buren and George Washington and/or William Henry Harrison. Though regardless of which Presidents he had in mind the point stands quite clearly. It should be of no surprise that wickedness reigns when the man charged by God as His minister in the civil government is himself immoral. On the second example, concerning Sabbath desecration we live in a day in age where almost no one follows the 4th Commandment and those who do are looked upon as legalists and pharisees. It goes without saying that Willson has been proven right on this case by the example of the Christian church, let alone the nation surrounding us.

In closing it must be reiterated that the surface has barely even begun to be scratched in regards to Willson’s larger argument and as this post is already around 2,100 words it is pushing the acceptable length of a blog post. (Though the three of you who have made it this far deserve a reward of some sorts ;) ). It may be worth breaking this post out into a longer article in the future. I believe Willson’s arguments deserve that kind of deeper and longer examination. So to end I hope that this post has at least brought some new considerations to your mind and even if you think Willson is a bit off kilter in this regard it is worth looking into the thoughts about the Federal government through the eyes of someone who lived in the early days of our grand experiment in supposed liberty of free expression in every area of life.