Christian Freedom Bounded by Law
In the previous article in this series, we asserted that the underlying
principle of true Christianity is the full sufficiency of Scripture
for all life and godliness. All other true principles and practices
flow from this “first principle,” or axiom, of Protestant Christianity.
This primary principle of “sola Scriptura” is especially important in
three areas of church life: doctrine, worship, and polity. We propose
to discuss one of the “legs” in this series of articles. However, from
the beginning we should realize that we are simply saying the same things
about church polity that Protestants have always said about doctrine
and that reformed Presbyterians have always said about worship: we must
limit ourselves to “thus saith the Lord” in such things.
Also in the last article, we made reference to 2 Timothy 3:16-17. In
that passage, Paul told his protégé, Timothy, that Scripture is not
only inspired, but also that it is sufficient to every good work. If
Scripture is sufficient for every good work, then surely it contains
sufficient information to know how God wants the church to be structured
upon earth. Some might argue at this point that the Scripture contains
very little information on how the church should be structured and they
would then claim that the paucity of information indicates that we must
invent our rules to “fill in the gaps.” It is the historic position
of Presbyterians, however, that where there are “gaps,” the church should
not be legislating or operating at all.
Sadly, we live in a day in which Protestants, rather than having their
consciences bound to the Word of God, would bind the Word of God by
their consciences. That is to say, men wish to exert a liberty that
God has never given in his Word – a liberty to do as they please in
matters of worship and polity. “Scripture is sufficient for our doctrine,”
they say, “but the silence of Scripture has left us free to develop
church government following only broad principles.” But that denies
that there is such a doctrine as ecclesiology and at the same time places
church government outside the realm of “life and godliness.” We maintain
that there is a principle by which we can claim that our church authority
is a real extension of biblical authority – and the principle is that
the government of the church may do only those things which Scripture
commands it to do.
Some might still object, “Oh, but the church has a greater measure of
the Holy Spirit today than it did under the Old Testament. Surely we
must understand that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. If
we limited the church’s authority to the ‘letter of Scripture,’ we would
be leaving no room for the Holy Spirit.” We maintain, however, that
the Holy Spirit guides the church by the Scriptures He inspired. In
fact, we maintain along with the Westminster Confession, that all controversies
of religion are to be settled by the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.
We do not separate the Spirit from the Word He inspired. We do not settle
controversies by appeal to the Word apart from the Spirit; nor by appeal
to the Spirit apart from the Word. Instead, we settle all controversies
of religion by appeal to the Spirit speaking in the Word (Westminster
Confession I.10). Paul, in his dispute with the Jews at Rome, claimed
as much: “Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers”
(Acts 28:25). It was not simply Isaiah who spoke, but the Holy Ghost
who spoke through Isaiah. It is not right to appeal to the Holy Spirit
apart from Scriptures, for we say in this instance, “what God has joined
together, let not man put asunder.” The divorce of Word and Spirit is
as sure to end in tragedy as is the divorce of a married couple.
The Holy Ghost, speaking through the same prophet Isaiah said, “To the
law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word,
it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20). Not only in worship
(Deuteronomy 12:32), but respecting all God’s commandments (Deuteronomy
4:2), God forbids his people to leave undone that which he has commanded
and to add anything of their own devising to the Lord’s commandments.
Thus generations later, when the Pharisees had added many of their own
commandments to those of the Lord’s as a sort of “fence around the law,”
Jesus condemned the practice. He stated, “this people draweth nigh unto
me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart
is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines
the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8-9).
Dr. Richard Bacon, Pastor
Faith Presbyterian Church Reformed, Rowlett, TX
Dr. Edwin P. Elliott, Jr.
Pastor, Reformed Presbyterian Church, Manassas, VA