The past few years have been a strain on the relationship between the citizenry and the state in many nations. Some citizens have interpreted the actions of their governments as overreach while others have waited with bated breath for the next federal dictate. This boundary-pushing exercise was felt acutely in the church. Can our federal overlords tell the church they cannot meet? Is there any authority overlap between the church and state? What is the nature of this relationship?
The Confession addresses this very issue, which is tied closely to the issue of religious liberty. In fact, religious liberty was a key tenet of early Baptist life. While the Anglican Church formed somewhat apart from the wider Reformation of the 1500’s and 1600’s, it did undergo a reformation of its own. There were those who sought to purify the Church of England from the remnants of Catholicism who were later known as Puritans. Out of this group formed a few others. One such group saw that there was no biblical support for a state-sanctioned and state-supported church. They believed that only the presence of the Holy Spirit made one a Christian, not the government. What business does a civil government have in ordering the church? All of these issues and more were deeply interrelated.
This group could agree on the freedom of the church to operate according to biblical commands apart from state intervention, but they disagreed on other matters. The Congregationalists continued the practice of infant baptism, and the Baptists reintroduced the practice of believer’s baptism. In this regard, it is not difficult to argue that the Baptists carried this conviction to its logical conclusion.
The Second London Baptist Confession is a baptized version of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is of Presbyterian heritage. In the Westminster Confession, there is a paragraph under this chapter that calls upon the magistrates and governments to exercise their power to preserve the order and discipline of the church. That paragraph is conspicuously absent from the Second London.
This conviction gave rise to the 24th chapter of the Confession, Of the Civil Magistrate. It begins:
God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under Him, over the people, for His own glory and the public good; and to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for defense and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evildoers.
This first paragraph is nothing more than a mediation on Romans 13. Verse 1 is a masterclass on declaring two things to be true at once. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Yes, we are, by divine providence, under the authority of our governments. Also, those governments are under the authority of God. Local, state, and national governments’ authority is not to go unquestioned. Their authority is derived from God’s sovereign authority.
This chapter begins by outlining the nature of God. He is the sovereign of all creation, full stop. Any lesser authorities proceed from his ultimate authority. While the Confession does not advocate any particular form of government, it does assert that governmental authority is not the product of majority rule or the consent of the governed. Government is not a human invention. The very fact that Adam was called upon to take dominion implies a magisterial order to human life.
That being said, all lesser authorities, including federal governments, are not free to make the people bend to their whims and wishes. Governments are bound by the same will of God that all individuals are. As Romans 13:4 says, “for he (the ruler) is God’s servant for your good.” And “because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending o this very thing” (v.6).
So how is the civil magistrate, or governmental authority, “over the people”? Romans 13:3 tells us, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval[.]” The role of civil authorities is to reward good conduct and punish evil.
This also tells us what will happen when governments abdicate their divinely given authority and become a terror to those of good conduct instead of bad. When governments neglect their own laws and act by the opinions and impulses of their own parties, when governments neglect their citizens, and when governments advocate for perversions, abominations, and the neglect of any human life, said governments are under the condemnation of God.
Why do we pray for those in authority? Because it is all to easy for them to cave to the darkest impulses of human depravity. Paul encourages us to pray for those in high positions so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:2b-4).
We must pray for our civil servants. Sometimes, God gives us the leaders we deserve. What does that tell us about our own country? It tells us that is why Paul continued in verse 5-6. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
The only government that will last is the kingdom of God. God has appointed civil servants in this age to bring about his will, which will be accomplished regardless of whether we have leaders who seek to serve God or not.
With all this weighing on the mind of those in government, can Christians serve in high offices? Should they? We will turn to paragraph two of this chapter next time.
The end of one year and the beginning of another is a regular time of reflection. As time ticks on, we grow more aware of how quickly it does so. That awareness has a way of making us soberly assess what’s important and what’s not. Often, when we identify what is eternally important, we are content to let many other things go undone without any sense of guilt. Those things don’t matter like they used to.
People often remark that the church is always one generation away from decimation. While that may be true of any local congregation, we can rest assured that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Christ.
There is, however, some truth to the sentiment. Institutions of all stripes destroy themselves when they fail to communicate their core values and concepts to the next generation. Why are many churches hemorrhaging membership, especially among the generations under 55?
I offer that we (meaning many in the American church) have misidentified our core values and concepts for too long. While many churches have focused on building good relationships and therapeutic preaching and teaching, there are many concepts that have collected dust. Some have grown a little mildew, and others could gag a maggot.
I was talking just this morning to a friend about the importance of writing things down. Sometimes writing or journaling is like talking to someone else (in the non-schizophrenic sense). You get a lot of clarity, as if you’re playing Plinko with your thoughts. You're throwing all of them down from your brain and funneling your thoughts down through your fingers. By the time they settle on the screen or paper, they're neat and orderly. The following reflection is a result of trying to think myself clear. What values and concepts do I need to both live by myself and make sure I pass on to the next generation?
What about you? Do the following values and concepts seem familiar to you, or do you need to commit to establishing these in your life in the coming year?
Do I believe in justification by grace through faith? That we are declared righteous based on the merits of Christ? That his righteousness is imputed to us only by the good pleasure of God the Father? That our sins were imputed to the crucified Christ as he substituted himself on behalf of God’s people in every age?
Do I believe in the necessity of the new birth? That Christ calls us to faith and repentance? That salvation is entirely of God’s mercy? That good works are evidence of saving faith? That the Christian will fight sin and temptation throughout all of his or her life? That spiritual warfare begins at conversion? That no one but God alone—not the state, the family, or even the church—can do the work of conversion?
Do I believe historic theology proper? That God is three persons of one substance? That the Trinity is the bedrock of our faith? That each person of the Godhead participates in creation and redemption? That the Father decrees redemption, the Son purchased redemption, and the Spirit applies redemption? That the Father and the Son agreed in eternity past that the Father would send the Son to redeem a people for the Father and the Son would receive a kingdom in return for his faithfulness?
Do I believe in the glory of God? That God is perfectly good without any defect or imperfection? That we must be hidden from his glory or perish in his presence? That he is beautiful beyond comparison? That heaven and earth teach us that God is glorious? That God will not share his glory but is jealous for it above all else? That everything we do should be done in order to glorify him?
Do I believe in the authority of Scripture? That Scripture dictates not only the way of salvation but also the law of God? That the law of God is good for teaching us the righteous demands of holiness? That God is the ultimate author of Scripture? That it speaks with one voice? That every word is necessary and true? That the Bible is the highest authority for the Christian and is to interpret itself?
Do I believe that worship is not a service to me but to God? That God determines what happens in worship? That it’s not about entertaining the lost but calling them to repentance and faith and edifying the believers? That anything that distracts from blessing God through hearing and obeying his word should be eliminated, no matter how precious it is to us?
Do I believe biblical anthropology, or what the Bible teaches about mankind? That man is not inherently good but is by nature an enemy of God? That the heart deceives itself and is not to be trusted? That every individual is accountable for his or her life before a righteous, transcendent God? That every part of us—mind, body, and soul—is affected by sin? That God gives rebellious mankind over to the sins we love so much as his judgment upon us?
Do I believe that Jesus is coming again? That he will exhibit his dominion over creation and every man and woman who’s ever lived? That every knee will bow to him as king? That he will separate the righteous and the reprobate and send them to their eternal destinies, whether it be with him in the new Jerusalem or in the lake of fire? That everyone will stand before him and give an accounting of their deeds, whether their own deeds performed in sin or the righteous deeds of Christ performed on their behalf? That judgment day determines an unchangeable sentence?
Do I believe in a grace and mercy that is beyond finite, human comprehension? That God loves his enemies? That Christ died for us while we hated him? That he reconciled us to the Father and took the initiative in salvation when we were without the strength or desire to do so? That God has spared us from an eternal demand of justice and instead poured out his mercy with such liberality that we will never grasp the height, depth, width, and length of it? That he is responsible for salvation from beginning to end? That he rejoices when a sinner repents and adopts us into his family? That he accepts such meager, laughable good works with the joy of a loving father toward his child? That he withholds nothing from us that is for our good and his glory?
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if people don’t find the church-at-large compelling, especially if the church looks like the world and has nothing to say to the culture. Maybe a little clarity about our core values and convictions is just what we need, no matter if people like it…at first. Nobody is glad to hear that they’re diabetic or have cancer or can’t button those jeans anymore.
But a little courage and a commitment to the truth pays dividends in this generation and the next. Let’s commit to passing on core values and convictions to those coming after us. That starts with you and me believing these things and holding to them firmly.
How many times in a day do you make an oath?
While you might not raise your right hand and put your left hand on a Bible, you surely make promises every day. At least, you tell someone what you will do, and the only assurance is your word.
While we should not equate simply telling someone that you will pick them up at 5:00pm and swearing to tell the truth to a judge, we nevertheless are working off of the same principle. The truth is all we have.
While Scripture, which The London Baptist Confession summarizes, does permit proper oath-taking, it also shows us the wisdom of never making oaths at all. To break an oath is to bring about a curse on your head. That does not mean that bats will swarm around you and you’ll fall into a well, but it does mean that not keeping your word, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is in fact sin.
The Confession continues, Whosoever takes an oath warranted by the word of God, ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he knows to be truth; for that by rash, false, and vain oaths, the Lord is provoked, and for them this land mourns.
James writes, But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation (5:12).
Again, promises should be made, but not by lesser beings or things. Swearing oaths does not bring about God’s judgment on its own. Take notice that swearing oaths falsely by the name of God is what brings about judgment. Falsity can be intentional or not, and it is sinful either way.
Moses also tells us, You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:12).
The Confession continues, An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation.
I would argue, anecdotally, that this is the most common way that oaths are unfaithfully sworn today. Look no further than everyday politics. We speak in such a way that it would be easy to later say, “That’s not what I meant.” How often do we employ that retort week to week? If you have any hesitation in your heart that you’re not telling the full truth, do not speak at all.
I think of Laban from the book of Genesis. He tricked Jacob into marrying his older daughter, Leah, even though Jacob believed he had agreed to marry Rachel, whom he loved (Genesis 29). Only speaking technically, Laban did no wrong. But clearly working off of what Jacob had proposed and what he intended, Laban knew precisely what he was doing when he agreed to let Jacob marry his daughter.
Any attempt to avoid the commitment you’re making is a false oath, and it brings about God’s judgment.
The Confession continues, A vow, which is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone, is to be made and performed with all religious care and faithfulness; but popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.
Vows are somewhat distinct from oaths in that vows, in biblical usage, are only made to God. What this paragraph is addressing is the kind of vow that is commonly performed in Roman Catholicism. Why the need to address this?
Persecution toward the earliest Christians was brief and relatively isolated until the early 300s. And as brief as it was during the first few years of the fourth century, it was awful. Bishops, Bibles, and buildings were all burned to the ground. Ordinary Christians were hunted and killed.
While it lasted only a few years, it did create a view of martyrdom that bordered on the heroic. Now that Christians were tolerated again (and would eventually be placed in the highest levels of civic life), how can we prove we’re as courageous and honorable as the martyrs of the last few years? The answer turned out to be monasticism.
Monasteries and monks before the third century were not exactly like schools and printing houses, but the similarities are good enough to make the point. Men and women created communities that were self-sustaining and spent their days copying the Scriptures. We owe them a debt for the copious amounts of manuscripts we have.
But the change in the monasteries after the persecutions of the 300s turned them into the places where people could go seek a higher way of life on par with the martyrs. Eventually, dogma caught up with practice, and by the middle ages, monks took vows of poverty and chastity to attain a higher plain of faithfulness. It is this unbiblical practice and thought that the Confession (and all Protestants) reject.
Is a vow of celibacy or poverty intrinsically evil? Of course not. Jesus says in Matthew 19:12 that some men have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God. What we cannot do is argue biblically that these people who have made such vows have attained, or are on the path to attaining, a higher form of Christianity. That notion should be rejected outright. There are not levels of Christianity. There are those farther along the path of sanctification, but to imply they have done the work themselves is foolish. As Paul writes to us, And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). God began the work, and he will finish it. You don't to be a poor virgin to be loved by God.
Next, we will see what the Confession says about something that tends to get people’s attention: how the Christian should relate to the government.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.”
Our words are incredibly powerful. I’m not talking about the law of manifestation or any new age piffle. The Scriptures routinely condemn lies and speaking untruthfully in any measure. In summary fashion, the Confession begins:
A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein the person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgment, solemnly calls God to witness what he swears, and to judge him according to the truth or falseness thereof.
Besides being true on its own, some historical context is helpful in understanding why it’s true. The Baptists wrote this section of the Confession as a way of clearly delineating their view from both Roman Catholics and Anabaptists. Roman Catholics dramatically changed the meaning and purpose of oaths and vows specifically. Anabaptists (from whom modern-day Baptists do not descend) forbade all forms of oaths and vows.
There are oaths where we guarantee that what we are saying is absolutely true without any equivocation or doublespeak. There are also oaths where we swear to do something.
By “religious” oaths, the Confession is simply acknowledging that an oath is something where we are specifically swearing in God’s name. It is not ordinary, daily speech. It should not be common. This is the intent of the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Religious oaths are not those that take place during a worship service. What would that even look like?
Righteousness is a key component of proper oaths. We do not swear to do something that is wicked or evil. In Judges 11, Jephthah swears to sacrifice the first thing that walks out of his house if God will deliver the Israelites from the army of the Ammonites. The battle is a success for Israel. To Jephthah’s dismay, the first “thing” to walk out of his house is his only daughter. Even though this was a wicked vow that he would be under no obligation to keep (and should never have made), Jephthah still sacrificed his daughter to God—who always forbade human sacrifice!
An oath, properly sworn, calls on God to be a witness to what is said. This is in fact proper because it recognizes that God alone is omniscient and omnipresent. He is the only one who can hear and bear witness to all the words of men, and he will curse those who go back on their oaths.
The Confession continues, The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear; and therein it is to be used, with all holy fear and reverence; therefore to swear vainly or rashly by that glorious and dreadful name, or to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred; yet as in matter of weight and moment, for confirmation of truth, and ending all strife, an oath is warranted by the word of God; so a lawful oath being imposed by lawful authority in such matters, ought to be taken.
If you were ever taught that all oaths and vows are condemned by God, it likely stems from isolating Matthew 5:34-35, which says, “But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.”
It is worth putting that verse in its full context.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:33-37).
You notice that we are not forbidden from swearing by God’s name but by lesser things. The trick played by the religious leaders of Jesus’s day was to swear by things lesser than God’s name so that there was a way out of keeping their oaths. In fact, in its proper context, we see that Jesus reiterates the fact that we should only swear by God’s name and nothing else.
The third commandment does in fact forbid using God’s name in invoking curses or speaking blasphemy. But the commandment goes further than that. We should actively honor God’s name. Not taking his name “in vain” means using it properly in confirming what is true.
Next time, we’ll take a closer look at how oath-taking is good but never something to be done hastily.
We have seen that the Confession points us back to Scripture and shows us that we not free to worship God any way we please. We know this somewhat instinctively, but even the most devout of us need to be reminded that God sets the standard for worship, not us. If that is true for preaching, prayers, singing, communion, and baptism, what about time and place? Are we free to assemble to worship whenever and however we want?
The Confession continues, As it is the law of nature, that in general a proportion of time, by God's appointment, be set apart for the worship of God, so by his Word, in a positive moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men, in all ages, he has particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy unto him, which from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which is called the Lord's Day; and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.
It only makes sense that because God determines what takes place in worship that he also determines when worship takes place. We should obviously make the point that private and family worship should happen regularly, if not daily. But here we are speaking specifically of Lord’s Day, gathered, corporate worship.
You do not have to read very far into the book of Kings and Chronicles to read that bad kings built high places and altars throughout Judah and Israel and that good kings tore those things down. God was to be worshiped as an assembly only in the temple in Jerusalem, the location that God chose to place his holy name.
When speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus clearly said that there was coming a time when there would no longer be a sacred place, such as the temple. When Jesus cleanses the temple in John 2, John interprets what Jesus had done by reading it through the lens of Zechariah 14 where it says, “And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (v.21).
Zechariah is speaking of a day when holiness and righteousness will no longer be confined to the temple in Jerusalem but will be found throughout the entire earth. That day will be marked by all of the traders and merchants who are buying and selling in the temple being removed. When John applies this truth to Jesus cleansing the temple, John is saying that the time when God’s people can worship anywhere has finally arrived.
The brick-and-mortar temple is no longer the only place for God’s assembly. But if the law of God remains, then the Sabbath is a perpetual commandment. The difference is that God established explicit means of keeping the Sabbath under the old covenant, and there are new means of keeping the Sabbath under the new covenant.
The light (or law) of nature makes it clear that God ordered creation around a day of worship. God was not so tuckered out that he needed a quick nap and so ordered the seventh day as a day of rest at creation. God does not rest nor sleep, so the Sabbath was an ordinance of God for mankind, not for him.
God instituted a Sabbath at creation, he expanded upon it in the ten commandments, and it was reordered to be kept on Sunday after the resurrection of Christ. The means of keeping the Sabbath, looking back at creation and forward to redemption, was markedly different before and after the resurrection of Christ. The fourth commandment looked back at creation and its goodness and would continue to be a commemoration of salvation from slavery in Egypt. Under the new covenant, the Sabbath would be a callback to the fact of a new creation and an even greater redemption in Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath.
Isaiah 58 repeatedly calls the Sabbath the Lord’s holy day, a phrase picked up by the early church when it called Sunday the Lord’s Day (E.G., Revelation 1:10). Perhaps most telling is that the Sabbath was a day of assembling for worship, and that pattern continued into the new covenant, though now on Sunday. For these reasons, and many more, the Christian rightly understands the Lord’s Day, Sunday, as the Christian Sabbath. As Hebrews tells us, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (4:9-10). Jesus is our Sabbath rest, because he has accomplished all that was necessary to enter into the rest to which the Sabbath of the old covenant pointed toward.
The Confession continues, The sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering their common affairs aforehand, do not only observe a holy rest all day, from their own works, words and thoughts, about their worldly employment and recreations, but are also taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.
The Lord’s Day is special to God, meaning his people order their affairs so they can assemble with his people and worship him in spirit and in truth. There is no Church of St. Mattress or “watching” worship from home. Practices such as live-streaming are helpful for pandemics, the sick, their caregivers, or those whose “duties of necessity and mercy” prevent them from assembling. But people show they misunderstand the purpose of the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, when they think participating looks like stretching out on their couch.
We all understand obligations. Your job has certain obligations. Your family has certain obligations. And if the Lord’s obligations take a back seat to all of those, consider whether or not you understand what the assembly of God’s people is really for. We must all order our affairs before Sunday so that Lord’s Day worship is a given, not a convenience if nothing else is happening.
Obviously there are those who work in healthcare or are first responders who qualify for “duties of necessity and mercy.” There are those whose family situations are complex at best. There are even be situations where employment is necessary. I believe there is grace in those situations. Every-day responsibilities do not disappear. Food needs prepared. Diapers need changed. That does not negate the fact that it is good to set aside all that is possible to make worship such a priority that there is no close second.
But while I do not want to bind anyone’s conscience in secondary or tertiary matters, the Lord’s Day is worth taking a look at how we keep it. We should not think that God has been silent on the matter.