COVID-19 and GCC

I was asked by a PCA minister whether I might publish a new post based upon a comment I made in the original post. That comment is #2 below. At his recommendation I expand a bit upon the original comment. I have also taken the opportunity to contextualize comment #2 by including in this new post another comment (#1) from my original COVID-19 post.

#1 [Grace Community Church (GCC) deems it sin for their doors not to be open for congregational worship. They must offer the opportunity to assemble but to my knowledge they don’t suggest member non-attendance is sin.] If the obedience to God premise is somehow now unwittingly off the table as it relates to congregants attending worship, then the entire GCC argument hangs on the premise that the government “overstepped its bounds” yet without requiring worshippers to disobey God. Given that the church is not the ecclesiastical magisterium but those who profess the true religion along with their children, who does GCC leadership believe is in a position to disobey God by submitting to civil authorities?

Granting the validity of the GCC premise, which I don’t subscribe to, that’s a pretty weak hand to play given that Scripture teaches we are to submit even to tyrannical government unless it would be disobedient to God to do so. [Note: Disobedience would have to be considered not just in light of the objective law that binds objectively, but also in light of he law of love that leaves room for taking civil abuse for a season yet also affords room for defying an oppressor lest one sins in non-action.] If the leadership at GCC has abandoned, or never held to, an obedience to God premise as it relates to congregants having to assemble lest they sin, then what’s their case? Even if our government would one day overstep its bounds in this regard, it would be difficult (though not impossible) to build an argument that begins with the government violating two other lawful spheres of government (ecclesiastical and family government) to the conclusion that: we must break the civil law (based upon a subjective wisdom-driven application of the moral law of God) but aren’t objectively required by the moral law of God to break the civil law. That would take a bit more finesse than I believe I’ve seen. And as noted in the original post, the command not to forsake assembling may not be used here in that wooden way. The church hasn’t been forsaking its first love for the charms of this present age. Hebrews 10:25 does not apply. Neither does Acts 5:29.

#2 What I have found most striking about the debate is that neither side distinguishes an edict from the consequent of an edict. The consequent is derivative, not immediate. For instance, imagine a radioactive leak near a community. The civil authorities ban assembling (malls, schools, churches etc.) within an x mile radius. Churches are within that radius. The edict is the ban. The resultant effect is the church may not assemble in its building. Or imagine road construction involving explosives on a main artery that runs by a church. The work is only done on the weekends. The government forbids traffic for months. In both scenarios assembly would be forbidden as a result of the edict. Is the government regulating worship or is it mandating safety that in turn impinges upon worship? That seems relevant. In such cases the government would not be directly regulating worship. Rather, the government would be operating within its divinely appointed sphere. The result would in turn impinge upon the practice of another sphere. That’s common place. Fire codes can impinge upon worship assembly. If a government feared evening bombings during war time, it could ban evening lights in a city, which in turn would impinge upon worship. 

The government may not overstep its bounds and directly regulate worship. If it tries to, the church need not submit (though it may be wise to for a time) even if submission would not require objective sin as it relates to law proper or simpliciter; though in such cases not to submit would have to be predicated upon a conviction that to submit would be a violation of liberty of conscience against the law of love and a greater cause for Christ. But that is not what is going on here. The government is impinging on our comforts but only as it operates within its rightful jurisdiction. Our discomfort is a byproduct of the government exercising its lawful mandate to rule in a divinely instituted sphere, as apposed to a result of the government assuming unto itself the church’s sphere of government and attempting to influence the church directly. It’s simply naive and hazardous to think that divinely appointed spheres of government (civil, ecclesiastical and family) can or should operate in hermetically sealed silos. Not only do spheres impinge indirectly, they may also directly interfere. Can’t fathers lawfully be removed from the home? Can’t abusive priests lawfully be locked up?

If government were actually to overstep it sphere and in doing so directly impinge upon ecclesiastical government, we would then be placed in the unhappy situation of determining not the government’s sin (that would be a given) but rather our personal sin with respect to acting or not acting, defiance or acquiescence. That must be determined on a case by case basis, which without question would require delving into binding aspects of the law of love as it relates to application. The point is simply this. We must be mindful, should we ever find ourselves in such a dilemma, that in an objective revelatory sense we don’t have to wage non-spiritual activist-type war against oppression, though we may and sometimes should in a wisdom non-revelatory sense. The oughtness in such cases would be a matter of spiritual discernment and not a matter of objective black and white law. A more common example would be when should a wife exercise the liberty to put away her unfaithful husband for his abuse of his governing role as her head? Although God’s revealed law allows divorce, it doesn’t require it. In some instances it’s imaginable that a woman should divorce as unto the Lord, even for the sake of her children and her personal service to God. We are often required by God to act when there is no objective command to do so. Discernment and wisdom presuppose these normative aspects of life.

John MacArthur’s Lordship Salvation

In this post I addressed the aberrant view that justifying faith is assent alone apart from trusting in Christ. In that post I made a passing reference to another extreme view of faith – the “Lordship Salvation” gospel whose advocates not only define faith without reference to trust, but also add commitment of life to assent, which in turn eclipses the gospel and redefines how one might appropriate Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. 

John MaCarthur is the most noteable proponent of this view. It is noteworthy that MacArthur does not subscribe to historical Reformed theology. In that respect, he is unchecked with respect to confessional theology in the Reformed tradition. Aside from having a baptistic ecclesiology and a dispensational view of the covenants, he has gotten the doctrine of justification wrong and justifying faith wrong. I address those errors here.

Saving Faith According to John MacArthur

Forsaking oneself for Christ’s sake is not an optional step of discipleship subsequent to conversion; it is the sine qua non of saving faith.

The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 142

By “saving faith” MacArthur actually means justifying faith. We may infer this because he is speaking of the faith that is tied to conversion. Accordingly, sanctifying or persevering faith is not in view. What is noteworthy is MacArthur cites “forsaking oneself” as an essential condition for our pardon in Christ. Yet that is radically different than how the Reformed tradition defines justifying faith.

Justifying faith is a saving grace wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.

Westminster Larger Catechism, #72 What is justifying faith?

The most detailed Confession in the history of the Protestant tradition defines faith quite differently than MacArthur. At the heart of justifying faith is receiving and resting upon Christ, which is absent in MacArthur’s ordo salutis. Moreover, to add forsaking one’s life(!) to the simplicity of faith is another gospel. It’s to add works to faith. Not only does MacArthur add forsaking one’s life to faith, he also asserts that personal commitment is essential to justifying faith.

Commitment is the disputed element of faith around which the lordship controversy swirls. No-lordship theology denies that believing in Christ involves any element of personal commitment to Him.

Faith Works, The Gospel According To Jesus, p. 43-44

John MacArthur contends that justifying faith, the faith that appropriates the benefits of Christ, entails “forsaking oneself” and “commitment.” It is not MacArthur but the Westminster Shorter Catechism that has it right when it states:

Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, he is offered in the gospel.”

Westminster Shorter Catechism, #86 What is faith in Jesus Christ?

It completely escapes MacArthur that personal commitment and forsaking of life are true works of righteousness, which are fruits of sanctification and not elements of faith. What MacArthur also misses is that justifying faith is merely an instrument through which the unrighteous lays hold of Christ’s righteousness. (Westminster Shorter Catechism #73)

Not only does MacArthur add works to justifying faith, he leaves out the crowing element of justifying faith, which is child like trust in the perfect righteousness of Another. But it is worse than that. Much worse. Not only does MacArthur add works to faith while leaving out trust, he would have us believe that the traditional view of trust (often referred to as fiducia) is not reliance upon Christ but rather surrender.

This “trust,” or fiducia, faith’s volitional component, is the crowning element of believing it involves surrender to the object of faith.”

Faith Works, The Gospel According To Jesus, p. 44

In essence, MacArthur takes the volitional component of justifying faith, fiducia, and turns it into something other than mere child like trust in the righteousness of Christ. MacArthur redefines trust. For MacArthur fiducia is not to exercise trust in Christ’s alien righteousness but rather it is the work of bringing to Christ our own righteous deeds in the form of forsaking of oneself, commitment, and surrender.

Justification

In MacArthur’s book Justification by Faith, MacArthur takes up the question of “Crediting righteousness to the Christian’s account.”

God actually credits righteousness to our account. He imputes righteousness to us; He infuses divine life into us; He regenerates and sanctifies us. He makes the unholy holy, and therefore declares that we are righteous. There is an ontological as well as a forensic declaration. There is a reality – God gives us righteousness, and thus He can declare that we are righteous.

Justification by Faith, p.121

God does not declare that we are righteous because he makes the unholy holy. God justifies the ungodly! (Romans 4:5) Nor are there two declarations, one for our ontic change and one for our imputed righteousness. The forensic applies to imputation, not infusion. Lastly, does God declare us righteous because he “gives” us righteousness?

One page later MacArthur states:

The believing sinner is justified by righteousness infused into him.

Justification by Faith, p,122

That is Rome, not Westminster.

It’s my understanding that MacArthur may have repented of his views of Justification, just like he repented of his denial of the eternal Sonship of the Second Person of the Trinity. He has not recanted on the nature of justifying faith, however.

My point is not to point out MacArthur’s errors. If that was my agenda, there’s more I might have written. My original point was to address the aberrant views of faith that flank the Reformed view. Two ditches to avoid. Yet one cannot help but realize the protective nature of Confessional Theology. One can attend an independent church for her entire life and believe that she is getting the pure milk of God’s word, when in fact she is getting something quite foreign to the teaching of the Fathers and the Reformers. Nor is this just a matter of theological novelties and heterodoxy. It’s a matter of both faith and practice. Case in point, how many Reformed denominations are aligning themselves with MacArthur’s stance against the civil magistrate? That practice is rooted in dubious exegesis, arbitrariness and inconsistency. Often right but never in doubt is not a comforting formula for church leadership. I thank God for the checks and balances of Presbyterianism and the collective wisdom of the Reformed tradition.

Assent Alone And The Gospel

Most of the things we assent to, whether a priori or a posteriori, are not volitional. One does not will to believe that God exists any more than one wills to believe image-5the rose is red. These are mental assents that are not discursive; they are immediate and without reflection. The will is bypassed. However, the gospel always engages the will as the unbeliever counts the cost and by grace abandons all hope in himself while looking to Christ alone, finding rest in Him. Accordingly, it is inadequate to reduce justifying faith to belief alone when belief is reduced to assent without remainder.
Clarkians and easy-believism advocates promote that we are justified by belief alone. One is justified by assenting to “Jesus died for my me.” Another extreme comes from “Lordship Salvation” advocates who define trusting in Christ in terms of commitment of life, which eclipses the gospel and redefines how one might appropriate Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. The focus of this post is on the former error.¹ Clarkians will assert that assent is synonymous with resting in or relying upon Christ. In this context it is suggested that to assent to Christ dying on the cross for my sins is to “trust” the proposition is true. Albeit the premise is true for true believers, this observation turns on a subtle equivocation over the word trust. Indeed, to trust a proposition is true is no different than to assent to its truth. So, in that sense trust and assent are synonyms. However, to trust that something is true is not the same thing as to trust in something because it is believed to be true. The latter idea of trust carries the meaning of reliance upon, whereas the former use of trust merely conveys an intellectual assent that might or might not be accompanied by reliance. Accordingly, to argue that trust and assent are synonyms in this way is to deny implicitly the need to trust willfully upon Christ alone for salvation. Clarkians redefine trust so that they might appear confessional since the Westminster standards clearly speak of not just “accepting“ the gospel as true but also relying upon (i.e. trusting in) the finished work of Christ. (It’s not just equivocal but also a downright case of special pleading to define “trust” as a synonym for assent and then on top of that limit its use to assent. Clarkians should outrightly deny trust rather than suggest they affirm it. The trust they equate with assent is not the trust of the Reformed tradition for that trust is metaphysical and volitional. It does not mean assent. It presupposes it!) Assent pertains to accepting something as true, even possibly with no reflection, whereas trust (or lack of trust) pertains to the degree of relevance a person might assign to the “assented to” proposition. Assent is a mental act that need not be accompanied by volition; whereas trust in Christ is always volitional in nature. Assent always pertains to accepting the truth of a proposition, whereas how one might respond in light of assent (e.g. trust, rest, exuberance, etc.) is commonly classified under the philosophical heading of disposition (which is not propositional assent). Whereas trust and other dispositions can evidence assent, dispositions need not accompany any given assent since assents can be mundane, occur without reflection and, also, be subjectively perceived as inconsequential. (This is why philosophers consider disposition to be a poor indicator of the presence of assent.) Assents or beliefs are propositional attitudes that can be distinguished from volitional, metaphysical movements. For instance, choices are mental activities that engage both the intellect and the will. This is more recognizable once we consider that choices involve both judgment and reliance. What one deems as true can result in a choice to rely upon that which the judgment contemplates, but the intellection of belief need not give way to volition. This is sufficient to demonstrate that belief and volition are not the same things though they often go together. This observation would seem rather uncontroversial in the Reformed tradition. It was presupposed in Jonathan Edwards’ writings and was taken up by men like R.L. Dabney, A.A. Hodge and even William Cunningham. Yet contra this popular view, Gordon Clark believed that it is an illusion (an illusion, mind you!) to think that such acts of intellection differ from volition. Clark went so far to say that belief in a chair is volitional. If assent and trust were synonyms, then either both would mean cognitive conviction or else volitional reliance. Conviction of truth (assent) could never give way to reliance upon truth (trust). If assent and trust are indistinguishable concepts and, therefore, mean the same thing, then it would be unintelligible to say that we rely upon anything we believe; nor would it be sensible to think that we believe anything we rely upon. Intellectual assent without reliance leaves no room for relying upon Christ; whereas reliance without conviction paves the way to trusting in Christ while not assenting to the gospel. Obviously, the concepts are indeed distinguishable as well as distinct principal acts of saving faith. 
¹In the not so distant future I plan to address the gospel according to John MacArthur and the nature of faith as the instrumental cause of justification. MacArthur fails to distinguish and ends up conflating the disposition of reliance upon Christ with the sanctifying grace that inevitably produces a faithful commitment of life to Christ. 

The Free Offer Of The Gospel

WSC Q&A 31:
Q. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

Canons of Dort 2.5:
Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.

The free offer of the gospel (abbreviated “free offer”) has meant different things at different times. From a confessional standpoint, it can only mean that God sincerely offers salvation to all who repent and believe. The meaning is at best narrow. The confessions do not speak in terms of God’s desire for all men to be saved; they merely teach that God promises the gift of everlasting life to all who would turn from self to Christ. This promise of life through faith is sincere. It is a genuine offer. If you believe, you will be saved. This gospel is to go out to all men everywhere.

Arminians are often quick to point out that the free offer is inconsistent with Calvinism. They reason that if the offer of the gospel is sincere and to go out to all people without exception, then God must desire the salvation of all people without exception. Otherwise, they say, the offer isn’t sincere. How can God desire the salvation of all men without exception if God as the ultimate decider of man’s salvation chooses to pass over some? In other words, Arminians reason that unless God desires to save all men, which they observe does not comport with Calvinism, the free offer of life through faith is insincere when given to the reprobate. Their axiom is that a sincere gospel offer implies a sincere desire to see the offer accepted, a well-meant offer. More on that in a moment.

The OPC’s Majority Report

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), representative of possibly most Calvinists today on the matter of the free offer, under the leadership of John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, adopted as a majority position the Arminian view that God desires the salvation of all men. While still holding fast to the Reformed view of predestination, the OPC affirmed the view that that the free offer cannot adequately be disassociated from a divine desire of salvation for all men without exception. In other words, such Calvinists assert that the genuineness of the gospel offer presupposes God’s desire that all embrace Christ.

Subsequently, the free offer has taken on the additional meaning of a well-meant offer, or desire, that the reprobate turn and be saved. Accordingly, a major difference between Arminians and such Calvinists as these is on the question of consistency. Arminians find the free offer inconsistent with unconditional election, whereas these sorts of Calvinists (who hold to an expanded view of “free offer”) do not.

Back to first principles. What makes an offer genuine or sincere?

Can we judge whether an offer is genuine or sincere simply based on whether it is true or not? If God intends to keep his promise, then isn’t the offer genuine? With respect to the gospel, if one meets the condition of faith, he will one day enter the joy of Lord. Isn’t that enough to make the offer of salvation sincere?

Let’s do some basic theology…

What does it mean that God desires the salvation of the reprobate? Are we to believe that God desires the reprobate to do something he cannot do, namely regenerate himself and grant himself union with Christ? Or, is that to check our Calvinism at the door? Isn’t it Jesus who saves? Isn’t salvation of God after all? At best, if we are to remain consistent with our Calvinism, then wouldn’t it follow that to argue for a well-meant offer of the gospel we’d have to posit that God desires that he himself would regenerate the reprobate unto union with Christ and salvation?

Simply stated, since Calvinism affirms total depravity and compatibilism, wouldn’t it stand to reason from a Calvinistic perspective that if God desires someone’s salvation, God must desire that he save that person? Accordingly, the question that should be considered in this regard is either (a) “Does God desire the reprobate to turn himself and live?” Or (b), “Does God desire that he himself turn the reprobate so that he can live?” Given that man is blind and deaf to spiritual things and cannot do anything to to turn himself Godward, how are we not strictly dealing with the theological plausibility of (b), that God desires to turn the reprobate contrary to what he has already decreed? If TULIP  is true, then (a) is a non-starter.

Now then, is it reasonable to think that the Holy Spirit desires to turn the reprobate Godward when the Father, in eternity, did not choose the reprobate in Christ? Moreover, if Christ did not die for the reprobate and does not pray that the efficacy of the cross would be applied to the reprobate, then in what sense does God desire the reprobate’s salvation? Does God desire that for which Christ does not pray? Does the Trinity desire that persons of the Godhead work at cross purposes? Does God desire true contradictions after all? Or is this a matter of mystery? Does God have multiple wills, let alone multiple wills that are at cross-purposes? Or is this a matter of two truths that we should accept by faith? Apparent contradiction or true contradiction?

Not only can God not save the reprobate whom he did not elect in Christ; 2000 years ago didn’t God act in time sealing that inability by securing salvation only for the elect? If so, then does it not follow that for God to desire the salvation of the reprobate, we should be willing to say that God, today, desires that Jesus would have died for the reprobate 2000 years ago? Or is there a third way of living looking at this? Does God live with a sense of regret or un-fulfillment? 

The OPC is quick to point out that they are not advocating a position entailing God both desiring and not desiring his decree. Fine, but then what does it mean for God to desire that men act contrary to his decree? Can God desire his decree while also desiring men to act in such a way that would thwart it? Moreover, aside from the question of whether God desires that man act contrary to God’s decree, what does it mean for God to desire that he himself act contrary to how he decreed he would act? Of course, I know no Calvinist who affirms the well-meant offer of the gospel who would also say that God desires that he elected more unto salvation, or anything like that. Yet if man cannot turn himself, as Calvinism clearly affirms, then isn’t the implication of a well-meant offer that God desires to save those he has determined not to save? So much for a well meant offer.

Competing desires and unfulfillment

John Piper has posited that God desires the salvation of the reprobate but that he desires their damnation for his own glory even more. There’s something attractive about Piper’s theory. It makes no apology for God positively desiring his decree, which includes his decree of reprobation. The downside is that it implies competing desires within the Godhead, a priority or ordering of pleasures within the same decree. Although perhaps an improvement upon John MacArthur’s view that in some sense God is “unfulfilled“ in his desire for the reprobate’s salvation, it nonetheless leaves God wanting. It’s an affront on God’s impassibility.

Abstractions, perhaps a useful tool…

If I desire to go to the doctor but it requires I get soaking wet in the rain, which ordinary I would not desire, then in one sense I do not desire to go out in the rain but in another sense I do. I do not want to go out in the rain if we consider going out in the rain as an abstraction from the overall plan of going to see the doctor. Yet I do desire to go out in the rain given that is what is necessary to get to see the doctor. The notion of abstracting particulars from the whole can be useful in this context. Although God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, God most certainly takes pleasure in his eternal decree coming to pass. He desires all the components of his comprehensive plan because it serves his purposes. As a matter of an isolated instance, God takes no pleasure in punishment. As an abstraction without purpose salvation is pleasurable, judgement is not. Yet in the context of all things – God himself, his plan, his glory etc., God takes the highest pleasure in himself, which includes his just indignation against the impenitent who have been ordained to judgement (Jude verse 4) for his own glory. God answers to no one.

God does not consider isolated instances outside the whole. In isolation we can consider something evil, but God who transcends time and space ordains evil for good. Therefore, as an abstraction, God does not desire reprobation for the mere sake of reprobation. Rather, God desires reprobation for his own glory and the good of the elect in the context of his one plan and purpose for this world.

God’s love and ours…

God hates the reprobate (Psalm 5:5; 11:5) and, therefore, has an active love only for those who love him. We may safely say that a necessary condition1 for God’s love to be presently active in the life of a sinner is for the sinner to love God (Proverbs 8:17) and love the Savior (John 14:21,23; 15:10; 16:27). But for sinners to love God, they must first be loved of God (1 John 4:19), which is the cause of the love relationship. Therefore, for the sinner to love God in order for her to experience God’s love in her life, she must first be the object of God’s predestinating love (Ephesians 1:4). Does God desire to grant predestinating love to those he has ordained to wrath (Jude 4)? If not, then in what sense does God desire to save them?


 

1. Condition in this context is not causal. The converted sinner’s love for God does not cause or produce God’s love for the sinner. Neither is the relationship between the two a quid pro quo. It’s a relationship predicated on pure grace. To say that the believer’s love for God (x) is a necessary condition for God’s active love in the life of the converted sinner (y) is simply to say that it is impossible to have y without x. Which is to say, the absence of x guarantees the absence of y. It’s also to say that the presence of y guarantees x.

God’s active love in the life of the sinner, which is a transforming love, is also biconditional. Not just only if the sinner loves God does the sinner experience God’s Iove but also if the sinner loves God. (The latter being the prima facie rendering of the texts.) The sinner’s love for God are necessary and sufficient conditions for receiving God’s love (and likewise for God’s active love in the sinners’s life as it relates to the believer’s love for God). And again, conditions pertain not to cause but state of affairs.

 

COVID, Government and Assembling

Some have tried to justify civil disobedience by pointing to Hebrews 10:25, the charge to the church not to neglect or forsake assembling. Mistakes done in ignorance are one thing, but when the learned do such things it comes dangerously close to finding a proof-text for personal

pretext. That is not how teachers are to handle the Scriptures, let alone oversee the flock of God. (James 3:1 warns that not many should become teachers in the church. For teachers will be judged more strictly.)

The Ten Commandments have no exceptions. However, from a Confessional perspective there are numerous applications for each of the Ten Commandments. In principle, the Ten Commandments are exhaustive in that all true transgressions fall under them, but not each commandment is one of the Ten Commandments. For instance, adultery is sin. There is no case in which it is not. However, the Seventh Commandment in application includes the sin of immodest apparel and the undue delay of marriage. What constitutes immodest apparel and undue delay of marriage is not always obvious. Adultery simpliciter is always obvious. Another principle to keep in mind that has wide reaching implications is that one can possibly know that someone has dressed immodestly without knowing here on earth where the modest-immodest line is drawn in heaven. In fact, I’m quite sure there isn’t just one line for immodesty. It’s obviously situational. It’s potentially infinite. (e.g. A wife in her swimsuit in a jacuzzi with only her husband is not the same thing as wearing a swimsuit to congregational worship.) But such finitude regarding our knowledge of the stark lines of demarcation does not make anyone less responsible to remain modest, or less culpable for immodesty.

The point is simply this. The command not to forsake the assembling of the church is not one of the Ten Commandments but an application of both tables of the law – love for God and love for man. Though no less binding in its true meaning, it is exceedingly more difficult to parse in application. Yet again, one needn’t know the precise line in order to know it hasn’t yet been crossed. Like all applications of the moral law, it’s multi-faceted. When it’s time to disobey we can potentially know it without being able to define the line of demarcation, as if there were only one line to discern! We don’t always need theoretical understanding in the present given that God is often pleased to give us the grace of practical understanding at the time of testing (Luke 12:12). As with cases of immodestly, so it is here; there is no single line for disobeying God’s sovereign ordination of civil magistrates (even evil Caesars). The variables that make up the philosophical states of affairs are infinite. Also, applications of the law are not to be imposed as binding in the same way as the Ten Commandments. For instance, the Eighth Commandment forbids stealing. Whereas an application of the commandment is moderation of earthly goods. A wife may not submit to her husband if he tells her to steal. Yet a wife, after making her case to her husband not to incur an extravagant expense, may in good conscience co-sign a loan and in good faith thank God for the providential benefits of the unwise financial decision of her husband (perhaps a suitable home for her and her children). However, it would be hard to see how she could thank God for her stolen jewelry. Again, there is a relevant difference between the law proper and how it binds, and an application of the law and how it binds. (Fundamentalists conflate the two without even wincing. In doing so they bind the consciences of the sheep by establishing a righteousness of their own. Whereas the Reformed are generally more theologically nuanced and careful.)

Although we might not know such lines, we aren’t ignorant of certain defining principles. What we do know is that if we are being required to sin, then we must disobey (which in turn complicates things further because of the innumerable considerations of how we might best disobey as unto the Lord). We also know that we may forgo our rights, even our religious freedoms, if our motives are according to other biblical precepts. After all, Jesus did. Not all injustices must be fought. Jesus called Peter “Satan” for wanting to fight the injustice of Jesus’ imminent murder by crucifixion. We also do well to remember that the assembling of the church is not an end but a means to many things, not the least of which is the encouragement of believers. Christians are to provoke each other unto love and good works. A primary way (but not the only way) of doing that is by public assembly on the Lord’s Day. The charge of Hebrews 10:25 is contextualized by the principles set forth in Hebrews 10:24.

Inconsistency can sometimes expose pretext

On occasion congregational Lord’s Day worship is cancelled due to inclement weather. It is also true that on occasion congregants feel too sick or are in too much physical pain to venture out to worship. Such decisions are at least based upon considerations that pertain to personal and public safety, welfare of others and personal comfort. Yet in all such cases, a choice is being made, whether corporately or individually, not to assemble. Therefore, if decisions not to assemble do not necessarily entail sin, then we may not simply point to Hebrews 10:25 as a text requiring Christians to assemble regardless of circumstance. In other words, if not all decisions not to assemble equate to the sin of “forsaking” assembly, then we must work harder to apply the Scriptures to this current age as it applies to COVID and government.

We must forsake hijacking the meaning of forsaking

In Hebrews 10:25 the “forsaking” (“neglecting” or “giving up”) of assembling is an outright willful desertion by some. Forsaking entails a willful exchange of spiritual things for earthly things. Unlike Demas who had “forsaken” (or “deserted”) the Apostle Paul for this present age, the church is not forsaking her assembling for the charms of deceit, the glitter of the age. The church is not forsaking heavenly worship for earthly pleasure. Quite the opposite. The Bride of Christ longs to assemble as the congregation of God. Far from forsaking congregational worship (as is the manner of some) – the church militant, whose weapons are spiritual not carnal, is instead patiently waiting upon the Lord her God to deliver her from this present providence. That is not sin. That is sanctified hope, which is always under good regulation before God.

If one thinks we are sinning in the face of an absolute command not to forsake assembling together, then it’s incumbent upon such a one to explain how it was not sin on day one and what has changed in principle to make it sin today. (Beware of those who cite differences that are not relevant distinctions.) How have things now become a willful abandonment of the spiritual for the earthly? (Play close attention, Bothers and Sisters. As soon as one’s decision is based upon the supposed absurdity of the CORONA statistics or anything that resembles “enough is enough” or even the imposition of tyrannical rule(!), he has made the criteria to break the civil-law, which is ordained by God, reasons other than personal sin. If that is acceptable, then it must be nuanced from Scripture.) There is a place for reasoning with and even expressing opposition to the civil magistrate, but when the criteria for civil defiance becomes our rights, even our Christian rights purchased by Christ, which Christians have throughout the ages have been willing to forgo as unto the Lord even under severe persecution (which this is not), the criterion fails to be a biblical one unless it can be shown in Scripture. (The law of love is relevant, which I touch upon here.) If we were required not to teach in the name of Christ Jesus, then that is something we must disobey. We have Bible for that (Acts 5:26-29). But by the mercies of God, whatever the criteria, I dare say we aren’t close to being forbidden to invoke the name that is above all names.

Moreover, we must distinguish between a direct imposition upon the church that comes from without and an imposition that is the indirect byproduct that comes from another lawful sphere of government that’s acting within its boundaries, even if unwisely. We are suffering under the latter, not the former.

(As an aside, if it has been determined that it is absolute sin for a church not to assemble, then there’s no relevant reason regarding the decision at hand to consult attorneys, for the consequences have no bearing when sin is being required. There can be other biblical reasons to consult legal counsel but it shouldn’t pertain to the consequences, not the decision.)

God is providing…

Even during the trial of the pandemic, in God’s mercy and grace he has provided other ways to fulfill the law of love set forth in Hebrews 10:24. Moreover, a little reality check might be in order. We are by no means suffering even close to the first century elect exiles of the Dispersion (i.e. the Christian Jews – the strangers scattered throughout regions of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia). The extended first century promise to us should require less faith than the faith of the Apostle Peter’s immediate audience. We have it on good authority that after we have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called us to eternal glory in Christ will restore, confirm, strengthen and establish us. Amen and Amen.