Ministers, never forget that piety must be at the foundation of any long continued & cheap usefulness in the church.

So said William Swan Plumer in a sermon on the call to the ministry (found in Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, edited by James Garretson). But what does he mean by “cheap” usefulness? 

He explains: “The phrase ‘cheap usefulness’ is not employed without design. For it is not impossible for a man without piety, and under the influence of ambition, or false zeal, to be useful to some extent; but it will be at a tremendous expense. In compassing some good, he will create a world of mischief. At least his good, which perhaps first appears, will be followed by a train of evils, that may not cease their operation on earth in a century. Indeed, men of some real piety may do this in many ways; and how much more, men without it!”

May the Lord daily grant me and all His ministers a cheap usefulness!

Dating and marriage advice from a 19th century Presbyterian pastor (it’s actually quite helpful)…

In 1850, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, a 19th century Presbyterian pastor in Columbia, SC, and New Orleans, LA, was asked by a single young pastor friend for some advice on the subject of finding a spouse. His words of wisdom are quite insightful, though perhaps not what one would expect from a pastor one hundred and sixty-five years ago. But before hearing the actual counsel, Palmer’s self-deprecation concerning his fitness to give such advice is refreshing: “I had a hearty laugh, but have committed [your request] to nobody’s confidence but Mrs. Palmer’s; whose aid I must require, if I am to provide a wife for you.”

Now, for Palmer’s advice:

I have but two suggestions on the general subject; for really my creed as to matrimony is exceedingly simple. The first is, commit this selection of a wife to Providence, and wait until you are caught. In matrimony, the fancy of the affections must take the initiative. There is no use of spurring these into action, they act best when they act spontaneously; and while they do not act it will not distress you to live singly. There is no benefit that I know of in loving the abstract passion. Wait until it assumes the concrete, and is associated with some object of love. My second suggestion is, do not surrender yourself blindly to the impulses of the taste and heart, but weigh in the balance of  sound judgment the qualities of any who may have caught you by the horns. Piety, prudence and intelligence are the prominent characteristics she should possess. If to these she can add a trace of beauty, that will please the eye; and if a little pelf [money], that will relieve the purse. But neither of these is indispensable… A good wife is from the Lord: therefore deliver yourself in this to the guiding of his Providence. The great secret of a happy choice may be given in a single sentence: it consists in united the taste and the judgment equally in the selection. Let the former be the active power, going forward in the choice; and let the latter be the satisfying power, indorsing or else vetoing, as the case may be. If both are satisfied, there is not much danger of forming a connection that will be regretted hereafter. — Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer, p. 145-146

Encouragement for pastors who are trying to turn a ship, with little success

The 19th century New Orleans Presbyterian pastor Benjamin Morgan Palmer, in a letter to a younger pastor, gives some great words of counsel to those who are discouraged by the pace and impact of their labors:

Can it be you have forgotten that we have God, and time and truth upon our side, and that we can afford to be patient? We belong to a system which is eternal, and which sweeps in cycles that utterly baffle all human comprehension. ‘One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day;’ and though this is far from being true of us, it is true of that divine scheme to which we have consecrated our lives, our hearts and our labors. It would be pleasant indeed to be permitted to move the church over an entire semicircle, or some larger segment still; but it is a matter of profound thanksgiving if we are used in pushing it forward but a single inch. If God allows ages to elapse in the erection of that splendid temple in which his praise is to be sung through all of a future eternity, it is perhaps enough for you and me to put but a single brick or stone into the glorious structure. Be sure, that in due season it will go up; and ‘the headstone be brought forth with shoutings, grace, grace unto it.’ — The Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer, 143-144

Some Thoughts on Today’s Supreme Court Ruling

In what Russell Moore calls the “Roe v. Wade of marriage”, the Supreme Court today in Obergefell v. Hodges ruled that same gender couples may legally marry in every state of the union. No state can prevent them from being married. How are Christians to think and respond? Several things come to mind, certainly not an exhaustive list:

1. Feelings of distress and torment of soul are not unbiblical or ungodly; quite the opposite, in fact. II Peter 2:7-8 speak of “righteous Lot,” who was “greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard)…” To be filled with sorrow and a sense of oppression by the redefinition of marriage and the practice of homosexuality is normal for the regenerate heart.

2. We ought not to be surprised by cultural degeneracy, the marginalization of Christians, or the increasing suffering that will likely come our way. It will most likely get worse. The reasoning of the majority, “Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations,” appear to me to open the door for any thing five justices deem appropriate. So on what grounds, other than popular opinion (which can turn on a whim), could proponents of polygamy or polyamory or pedophilia or incest or man-boy love or bestiality be turned away at the bench of SCOTUS?

Those who affirm the sinfulness of homosexuality and the immorality of homosexual “marriage” will eventually confront the power of the State. Chief Justice Roberts, in his dissent, writes,

The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage. Ante, at 27. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to “exercise” religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses. Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage. See Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, at 36–38. There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.

If he is discerning the future correctly, then Christians and churches will be negatively impacted by today’s ruling. Yet Peter reminds us that such a state of affairs ought not to shock us. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God God rests on you…if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (I Peter 4:12-16). The church in America has for the past decades been entering a phase of existence that churches throughout time and across the globe have known intimately. Peter would have us not be surprised, but be filled with joy as we suffer and keep our minds fixed on the return of Christ. “Those who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (I Peter 4:19). He calls us to trust and obey. We are to “live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already past is sufficient for you have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; but will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (I Peter 4:2-5).

The culture will malign us, will wonder why we don’t just go along with the changing times, will persecute us for standing up for the truth and godliness. Again, we must entrust ourselves to the Lord – “For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power…” (II Thessalonians 1:6-9). And we must recommit ourselves to the practice of holiness, bearing witness to the truth no matter what the cost: “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong…” (I Peter 3:14-17). Christians must continue to explain why we believe what we believe, with gentleness, respect, and reverence for God and man. We don’t back down from stating the truth of God’s word, even when our culture rejects it as an authority.

God has willed that our country abandon the creation ordinance of marriage, and perhaps that His people will know suffering as a result. Our faith in His sovereignty keeps us from panic and absolutely dismay, and keeps us resting in His sufficient grace – when we are weak, then we are strong in Christ (II Corinthians 12:9-10).

3. It’s a good time to remember the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, expressed clearly in the 17th century in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate” (WCF 31.4). In the words of the PCA Book of Church Order, “The power of the Church is exclusively” spiritual; that of the State includes the exercise of force. The constitution of the Church derives from divine revelation; the constitution of the State must be determined by human reason and the course of providential events. The Church has no right to construct or modify a government for the State, and the State has no right to frame a creed or polity for the Church. They are as planets moving in concentric orbits: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). The church is a spiritual kingdom, not of this world (John 18:36). Sessions and Presbyteries and Assemblies can bear witness to the moral and spiritual truth of cultural/political matters, but must leave civil government in the hands of civil magistrates – even when its decisions are morally bankrupt. Of course, individual Christians are members of two kingdoms, and as citizens of America are called to be salt and light, to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God to the things that are God’s. We must continue to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1ff.), insofar as they are not asking us to do something that God forbids, or preventing us from doing something God commands. Christian statesmen can and ought certainly seek to work to protect the rights of Christians and churches (as they are already seeking to do), but no matter what happens with such attempts our calling remains unchanged: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (I Peter 2:9-12). Let us not “return evil for evil or insult for insult, but give a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (I Peter 3:9). May God give us many opportunities in the coming days to be a blessing even to those who hate us, that they might turn to Christ and be saved, that they as well as we might not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2).


“It is an unspeakable mercy that the state of sin into which man is fallen is also a state of misery…

…since, naturally considered, therein lies the chief hope of his recovery.” –Robert Jefferson Breckinridge  

The Both/And of Francis Turretin on “He descended into hell”

In Volume 2, Thirteenth topic, Question 16 of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin has a very helpful discussion of the meaning of the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended into hell.” After refuting the view of Lutherans and Roman Catholics that Jesus descended locally to hell (in favor of the Biblical view that His soul, after its separation from the body, went immediately to glory), Turretin asks, “May the descent into hell be rightly referred to infernal torments and to a most abject state under the dominion of death in the sepulcher [grave]?” He acknowledges that there is disagreement about this topic even among the orthodox, “some referring it to the spiritual anguish and hellish torments which he suffered (as Calvin, Beza, Danaeus, Ursinus and others, even various confessions of the churches), others maintaining that it pertains to his burial and three days’ detention in the sepulcher (as Zanchius, Piscator, Pierius and others).” The Westminster Larger Catechism #50 emphasizes the latter, and the Heidelberg Catechism #44 stresses the former.

Turretin skillfully, and I believe rightly, holds the two poles together:

If it is asked which of these two opinions ought to be retained, we answer both can be admitted and be made to agree perfectly with each other. Thus by descent into hell may be understood the extreme degree of Christ’s suffering and humiliation, both as to soul and body; and as the lowest degree of humiliation as to the body was its detention in the sepulcher, so as to the soul were those dreadful torments he felt. And thus this last article will be apposite for expressing the last degree of Christ’s humiliation, whether as to disgrace of body or as to anguish of soul. Nor should it seem wonderful if these two parts (mutually diverse from each other) should be joined together in one and the same article. It is not unusual in Scripture for a single sense to put on various relations and for many things to be embraced together, especially when the things are mutually subordinated and connected with each other. Since this phrase may be referred now to abjection of the body, then to griefs of the soul (and Christ should have undergone both conditions), it was not without reason that the ancients added this article to the preceding in order to set forth more distinctly this state of Christ.

There are many more things to say in response and rebuttal concerning this question, and Turretin addresses more aspects of it in Questions 15 and 16 (another good resource is from Daniel Hyde, who has written a short book entitled In Defense of the Descent, in which he gives more detail on various modern views, and affirms the view that Turretin espouses). In sum, whenever someone asks me, “What do we mean by ‘He descended into hell?'” following Turretin I answer, “That Jesus Christ suffered the full wrath of God in body and in soul for us and for our salvation.”

Perseverance and Assurance

The past two Sundays I have preached on the P of TULIP (the perseverance of the saints), and on the assurance that flows out of the doctrines of grace to those who believe. I pray the Lord uses these written manuscripts as He has been doing the preaching of the word. You can find the rest of my TULIP sermons here: I , and my Intro sermon, entitled “The One Point of Calvinism.”


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