Westminster Larger Catechism (Q 1-3)

Westminster Larger Catechism (Q 1-3)

Dear Church Family,

After a brief overview of the Westminster Larger Catechism, in our Sunday school lesson this past Sunday we began our study of the actual questions and answers. In the present context, it would be too much to give a detailed account of the class, but here are some of the highlights as we studied the first three questions.

WLC 1  What is the chief and highest end of man?
A. Man’s Chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

The “chief and highest end” refers to the ultimate purpose for which something exists. The Scriptures declare that everything has been created from God, through Him, and to Him, for His glory (Romans 11:36); specifically, believers are admonished to do all that they do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). That’s the purpose for which God created us: to glorify Him and fully to enjoy Him forever.

In our sinful fallenness, however, man creates idols and false “ends.” For example, utilitarianism says that man’s ultimate purpose is to seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people. While seemingly noble, it is a man-centered way of thinking. Then there is hedonism which espouses the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good. Living in a therapeutic culture as we do, hedonism seems to the be the order of the day.

WLC 2  How doth it appear that there is a God?
A.
The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only, do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.

This second question provides a biblical epistemology (a theory of knowledge, how we know things). Specifically, it speaks of two ways that we know that there is a God: general and special revelation. General revelation has two components: the light of nature in man (the fact that all men are created in God’s image) and the works of God (the created universe). Both this inner and external revelation declare plainly that there is a God.

But the catechism is quick to add that there are two things that are necessary to sufficiently and effectually reveal God to men so that they may be saved: His word and His Spirit. One of the clearest places that we find this teaching in Scripture is in the first chapter of Romans. The knowledge of God is evident within man and His invisible attributes are revealed through what has been made; this general (or natural) revelation is only sufficient, however, to leave men condemned and without excuse before a holy God (Romans 1:18-20). In his natural state, man suppresses the truth of God in unrighteousness and exchanges the worship of the Creator for the worship of the creature (Romans 1:21-25).

The two things which are necessary to reveal the will of God for our salvation (actually, one is a Person) are His Word and Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). One of the implications of this truth is that those who have never read the Bible or heard the preaching of gospel are not able to be saved. It drives home the imperative and necessity of sending missionaries and preachers out into the world, for “how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:12-17). And, this truth also reminds that the Word of God – or the preaching of the gospel – is not alone sufficient. Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2) and the Holy Spirit works faith in us before we may believe and understand His Word (2 Corinthians 4:13; Ephesians 2:8). Both His Word and His Spirit are necessary.

WLC 3  What is the word of God?
A.
The Holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.

The Bible declares itself to be the inspired Word of God: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). So, all of the doctrines that we believe (faith), and all of our moral activities (obedience) are to be governed by God’s Word. It is the only rule of faith and obedience.

Even from the early days, Christians were referred to as “the people of the Word.” However, throughout history people have sought to displace or augment God’s Word with other man-made “rules of faith and obedience.” Some have sought to elevate tradition, while others have looked within themselves to a supposed inner light for guidance, but the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments is our final authority.

If that is the case, then the question might be posed: why do we use a confession and catechisms? The answer is that our confession and catechisms are not a rule of faith and obedience. They are simply systematic summaries of what the Bible teaches. They are only legitimate and useful insofar as they are faithful to the teachings of Scripture.

Conclusion

The catechism begins with some very important questions and answers about epistemology, natural revelation, and Scripture. It might seem odd that the catechism begins this way, rather than with the doctrine of God, Himself. But if you think about it, this just makes sense. First, we must know how we know and where to find the truth. Then, we may begin to discover and speak about the truths which are given to us in Scripture. So, it’s actually very important to begin with the doctrine of Scripture, and then to consider what the Scriptures teach, which is the next topic of the Westminster Larger Catechism.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

The Imperative of Catechesis

The Imperative of Catechesis

Dear Church Family,

As I wrote last week, this past Sunday we began a new Sunday school lesson series in the Westminster Larger Catechism. In our first introductory lesson, we talked about the historical context in which the Westminster Standards were written in England in the 1640s. We also talked about some of the American revisions to the Westminster Standards, their Biblical basis, and why those were made. Finally, we began looking at an overview of the Westminster Larger Catechism but will actually begin our study of the questions and answers this coming Sunday, September 25th.

So now, in addition to our Youth Catechism Class on Sunday evenings where we are going through the Westminster Shorter Catechism, I am also teaching the Larger Catechism in on Sunday mornings. At this point, you might be thinking, “Why are you so obsessed with the catechisms?!”

Well, I don’t think I’m obsessed, but I have increasingly grown convinced that there are three things that are generally lacking in modern American evangelicalism: Christ-centered expository preaching, reverential worship, and catechesis. I think I’ve written and preached about those first items quite a bit but let me emphasize here the importance of catechesis.

Catechesis

J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett define catechesis as “the growing of God’s people in the gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight.” If you did not grow up in a family or a church that used catechisms for this purpose of spiritual growth, I want to encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities that are available in the church, and to implement a regular study of the catechisms in your home – for yourself, and if you’re a parent, for your children.

Earlier this year, as part of a series of essays about why we worship the way we do, I wrote about the purpose of using catechisms in our corporate worship service. If you’re looking for resources for studying and memorizing the catechism at home, I included some resources in that essay that I think you will find helpful.

But still, you may be wondering why I believe that catechesis is so important. Actually, I have two reasons; one is personal and the other is statistical.

Personal Testimony

Personally, for me as an individual and for our family, catechesis (especially in the Westminster Shorter Catechism) has been integral for growth in faith and understanding. For me, it wasn’t until I attended seminary that I learned about the Westminster Standards and the Reformed faith. It was actually through the study of the Westminster Shorter Catechism for the first time at twenty-six years old that I came to understand the doctrines of Scripture in a more coherent and applicable way. It helped me to wrestle with the Scriptures and grow in my faith.

So, as my wife and I started having children, we began teaching them the Westminster Shorter Catechism from an early age. You’d be surprised how easy it is for young children to memorize these things. Of course, they may not fully understand everything that they’re memorizing at the time; however, over the years we also instructed them in the meaning of what they were learning and using the catechism as another tool to study the Scriptures. As they’ve grown and begun to leave the home for college and head out into the world, I’ve noticed how often they are able to use the categories that they’ve learned in the catechism. Sometimes, it has helped them to better understand, remember, and apply the teaching from a sermon or Bible study; at other times, it has helped them to discern erroneous teachings that they’ve been exposed to.

Statistical Evidence

But here’s something that really brought this home for me this week. In 2022, Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research partnered together to conduct a survey of American evangelicals to try and find out what they believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible. The results of that survey may be found online here: https://thestateoftheology.com/. I warn you: it can be pretty shocking and depressing.

Their findings are not difficult to read, but if you’d like to read a summary, a couple of days ago Christianity Today published an article about the survey entitled, “The Top 5 Heresies Among American Evangelicals.” The lead line under the title of the article reads, “It’s 2022, but Arianism and Pelagianism are steadily making a comeback, according to the State of Theology report.” You can check out the data for yourself at the above links; here, I’ll just give you the five “top heresies” from the CT article:

(1) Jesus isn’t the only way to God. (56% of surveyed evangelicals affirmed the statement, “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”)
(2) Jesus was created by God. (73% of surveyed evangelicals affirmed the statement, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”)
(3) Jesus is not God. (43% of surveyed evangelicals affirmed the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.”
(4) The Holy Spirit is not a personal being. (60% of surveyed evangelicals affirmed the statement, “The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.”)
(5) Humans aren’t sinful by nature. (57% of surveyed evangelicals affirmed the statement, “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.”

Conclusion

During one of our recent Westminster Shorter Catechism lessons with the youth on a Sunday evening, we were talking about the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I was telling a story of how I had met self-professing evangelical Christians who did not believe that the Son of God existed before the incarnation, before Jesus’ birth. I am happy to report that every person in our study was incredulous and hard-pressed to believe that such a self-professing Christian could exist.

But, as I meet people in the world, and as I read the results of the recent “State of Theology” survey, it is apparent that there is a lot of confusion – and even heresy – among American evangelicals today. That is why catechesis is so important. For in the confession and catechisms, we learn a summary what the Scriptures principally teach: that is, what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man (WLC 5; WSC 3).

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Sunday School: The Westminster Larger Catechism

Sunday School: The Westminster Larger Catechism

Dear Church Family,

This coming Sunday, September 18th (9:15-10:15 am), we will begin a new study of the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC). If you have your own copy, you’re welcome to bring it; however, copies of the WLC will be distributed in the class. In our first class this Sunday, we’ll talk about the historical context in which the Westminster Standards were written (the 1640’s in England). We’ll also talk about come of the distinctives of the Westminster Larger Catechism that make it valuable for study and growth in the faith.

Why two catechisms?

In addition to their work on a Directory for Public Worship and the Confession of Faith, the Westminster Assembly appointed a committee to undertake the task of writing a catechism that would complement the Confession of Faith. However, after much debate about what to include and how to go about their work, the committee decided to create two catechisms. The Shorter Catechism would be for those who were new to the Christian faith and for the children in the church. [By the way, did you know that the New England Primer, which was the foundational textbook for most schooling in the United States before 1790, included the Westminster Shorter Catechism?]

The Larger Catechism would be for those who were more mature in their faith, providing a more exact and comprehensive teaching of Christian doctrines. One might say that the Shorter Catechism is the milk, while the Larger Catechism is more meaty.

Why has the Larger Catechism been neglected?

Of the three documents that make up the Westminster Standards (Confession, Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism), the Larger Catechism is the one with which most people are least familiar. I confess that while I have read through the Westminster Larger Catechism several times and referred to it on occasion, I have not studied it as much or as in depth as I have the other two documents.

Several reasons come to mind as to why this is the case, why the Larger Catechism is often neglected. For one thing, because of its length (196 questions compared to the WSC’s 107), it can be a bit daunting. Add to that the lengthiness of the answers with many clauses piled up on one another, it can take a little work to parse and understand. It’s certainly much easier to memorize the Shorter Catechism than the Larger.

Another reason for which the Larger Catechism might be neglected is the detail of its exposition of the moral law. The Larger Catechism devotes about fifty questions to explain what is required and what is forbidden in each of the Ten Commandments. Seven questions deal with the fourth commandment, while eleven questions deal with the fifth commandment! There are theological, practical, and historical reasons for these emphases, but it has made some people consider the Larger Catechism to be overly detailed and perhaps moralistic. To the contrary, the purpose of these explanations of the Ten Commandments is, as the Larger Catechism explicitly states in Q 97, of special use for believers in two ways: (1) to grow their assurance of salvation (“to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it [the moral law]” and (2) to grow in their sanctification and holiness (“to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience”).

There are probably more reasons for which the Larger Catechism has been neglected, but as W. Robert Godfrey points out, this neglect is not new, nor is it uncommon:

“In 1908 B.B. Warfield showed himself a master of understatement when he observed: ‘In the later history of the Westminster formularies, the Larger Catechism has taken a somewhat secondary place.’ Compared to the prominence and influence of the Shorter Catechism in Presbyterian circles, the Larger Catechism is a very distant second indeed. At least in the United States the Larger Catechism is seldom mentioned, much less studied, as a living part of the Presbyterian heritage. This situation is not new. From the seventeenth century on, the Shorter Catechism received much more attention than did the Larger…Is such neglect of the Larger Catechism justified? Is there value almost 350 years after the writing of the catechism in renewing our appreciation of it? The answer is certainly yes. The Larger Catechism is a mine of fine gold theologically, historically, and spiritually.” (“An Introduction to the Westminster Larger Catechism” by W. Robert Godfrey in Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), ix)

Conclusion

In our introduction this coming Sunday, we’ll discuss some of those benefits of studying the Westminster Larger Catechism and get a taste of what it has to offer us in hopes that it will whet our appetites to study and learn what we are to believe concerning God and what duty He requires of us (WLC 5).

I’m excited to dive into this study of one part of our Standards that is too often neglected – that I, personally, have too often neglected. I hope you will join me on this trek! See you on Sunday morning!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

The Gospel According to Mark: Proclaiming the Victory of God

The Gospel According to Mark: Proclaiming the Victory of God

Dear Church Family,

This past Sunday, we began a new sermon series in the Gospel according to Mark. If you weren’t present – or would like to review the sermon – the audio recording is available on the church website here: https://hillcountrypca.org/all-sermons/.

As I mentioned on Sunday, we’re going to spend probably 4-5 sermons in the first 15 verses of this book. We’ll cover larger portions of Scripture in the future, but at the beginning I think it will be helpful for us to take some time in our introduction to this book. You see, in these first 15 verses, Mark lays out for us some of the major themes of his Gospel account. So, the general plan for our first five sermons is:

Mark 1:1 – The Gospel of Jesus
Mark 1:2-8 – The Forerunner of Jesus
Mark 1:9-11 – The Identification of Jesus
Mark 1:12-13 – The Wilderness Experience of Jesus
Mark 1:14-15 – The Preaching of Jesus

The proclamation of the gospel as creative act

In our introductory sermon this past Sunday, one of the things that I sought to emphasize was that the proclamation of the gospel is not just a conveying of information from one person to another. It is also, and primarily, a creative act. Like speaking the words, “Open Sesame” in that Bugs Bunny cartoon effects change, so too, the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus is a creative act. To distill this idea, in the sermon on Sunday, I quoted from William Lane’s commentary, “…to proclaim salvation on God’s authority is itself a creative act; in a sense it inaugurates the reality of which it speaks.” (Lane, William L. 1974. The Gospel according to Mark: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 43).

Because it’s such an important concept, I’d like to elaborate a little bit on this idea of “proclamation as creative act.”

“Gospel” in the Roman culture

Mark’s Gospel account is the earliest written (oldest) of the four Gospels in the New Testament. As such, Mark created the literary genre of the ‘gospel-form,’ but the word “gospel” was not coined by Mark. In the Roman culture, the word meant “joyful tidings.” It was usually associated with the cult-like worship of the Roman Emperor. In fact, there is a calendar inscription from 9 BC which speaks of the emperor Octavian Augustus and the celebration of his birthday. It read: ‘the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of joyful tidings (or gospel) which have been proclaimed on his account.’

There’s a key difference, however, between the Roman concept of ‘gospel’ and the Biblical concept. Again, quoting Lane, “For the Roman an evangel was retrospective, a reflection of the joyous event which has already taken place. In the prophetic word there is a distinctively forward-looking eschatological perspective. The messenger of joy will announce the beginning of the time of salvation and thereby introduce it (cf. Isa. 52:7-10).” (Lane 1974, 43-44). In other words, the ‘gospel’ in the Roman cult was simply an announcement of a celebration of an event – usually the birthday of an emperor. Among the Old Testament prophets, the ‘gospel’ was an announcement of an event that would effect the salvation and future blessing of God’s people – an act of God.

“Gospel” in Scripture

It would be impossible to attempt to do an all-encompassing study of ‘gospel’ in the Scriptures in this setting; however, if we simply take our cue from Scripture that Lane references in the quote above, it will set us on the right trajectory. Isaiah 52:7-10 reads:

“How lovely on the mountains Are the feet of him who brings good news [GOSPEL], Who announces peace And brings good news of happiness, Who announces salvation, And says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices, They shout joyfully together; For they will see with their own eyes When the LORD restores Zion. Break forth, shout joyfully together, You waste places of Jerusalem; For the LORD has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared His holy arm In the sight of all the nations, That all the ends of the earth may see The salvation of our God.” (Isaiah 52:7-10)

Speaking of the future restoration of Zion through the victory of God, Isaiah paints an interesting picture. The picture is that of watchmen on the wall of the city who are scanning the horizon for messengers who will bring news back to the city concerning the success or failure of a battle. By the way in which the messengers are running – by looking at their feet – the watchmen on the wall can tell that it’s good news: The LORD has been victorious; your God reigns!

This is the very same passage that the Apostle Paul references in Romans 10 as he makes the case for the necessity for the church to raise up and send out preachers. His argument is as follows. The word or message of faith is this: “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:8). For whoever – Jew or Gentile – will call upon the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:9-13). However, in order to call upon the Lord, one must believe; and, in order to believe, one must first hear the good news (the gospel of Jesus); and, in order to hear, there has to be a preacher; and, preachers have to be sent out by the church (Romans 10:14-15a).

And then Paul brings in Isaiah 52:7, “Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things’” (Romans 10:15b). Since the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus is itself a creative act, it’s no wonder that Paul would later give such a strong admonition to Timothy: “…give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching…Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:13, 16).

Conclusion

From the opening verse, Mark gives us the title and outline of his book – “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). He is setting out to give us an historical account of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus (what Jesus did and what He taught); however, he is doing much more than that. He is preaching and proclaiming the ‘good news’ of the victory of God through Jesus the Christ and Son of God.

This proclamation is itself a creative act. And, it is my hope and prayer that in this sermon series in the Gospel according to Mark, God will do just that: create or renew in us new hearts that rejoice in the victory of God!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

HCPCA 2022 Fall Schedule

HCPCA 2022 Fall Schedule

Dear Church Family,

It’s only the middle of August, but the summer seems to be coming to a close already as kids head back to school and people’s schedules start changing once again. In our family, three of our four children will be departing this week. Stephen and Lydia are heading back to college. Titus begins his junior year of high school. And, this coming weekend, I will be driving with our son, Timothy, to Pittsburgh, PA to help him move into his apartment with his roommate.

It is a time of transition and, therefore, I wanted to provide a summary of what’s going on at HCPCA in the coming weeks so that you would have all of this information in one place.

Worship & Preaching

In April, I mentioned that I’ve been having some with the new leadership of my Army Reserve unit with respect to getting approval to make-up my Sunday Reserve responsibilities so that I can be with you all in worship. That new policy has not changed; if anything, it has become more strict. I am continuing to pursue various avenues to address the situation and hope to be able to find some way of compromise in the future. However, until that happens, I ask that you please be patient.

That said, here is the plan for preaching through September:

August 21 – Guest preacher: James Poteet II (Pastor Dietsch in Pennsylvania)
August 28 – Pastor Dietsch preaching (beginning a new sermon series in the Gospel according to Mark)
September 4 – Pastor Dietsch preaching
September 11 – Guest preacher: Ben Dunson (Pastor Dietsch at Army Reserves)
September 18 – Pastor Dietsch preaching
September 25 – Pastor Dietsch preaching

I’m hoping to be able to find a solution to this one-a-month Sunday conflict by October, but that remains to be seen. Please pray for a positive resolution.

Officer Training Class

You may find the details of the upcoming Officer Training Class in the email that I sent out last week (https://hillcountrypca.org/hcpca-officer-training-class/), but let me highlight three things:

(1) All men in the church are encouraged to attend.
(2) The class will be on Monday evenings, 6:00-8:00 pm, at the Dietsch home, beginning on September 12th.
(3) Please sign-up for the class by Monday, August 29th.

Sunday School

Sunday school will resume on September 18th (9:15-10:15 am). We will begin a new series of lessons in the Westminster Larger Catechism (https://www.pcaac.org/bco/westminster-confession/). The plan is to cover 2-3 questions per week, adjusting as necessary.

Men & Women Discipleship Groups

The Men’s Discipleship Group and the Women’s Discipleship Group will both resume on Wednesday, September 7th (6:30-7:30 pm). Both groups will meet at the Dietsch home. And, both groups will be studying the Gospel according to John using a NavPress study book. Those books have been ordered and will be available, free of charge, to those wishing to attend.

Men’s Prayer Group

The Men’s Prayer Group continues to meet on Monday mornings at the IHOP in Harker Heights at 6:00 am. Contact Tom Liggett for more information.

Pastoral Visitation

In the next 2-3 months, I will begin a more deliberate plan and schedule to visit the individuals and families in the church in their homes. Look for more information and the opportunity schedule a visit in September.

Fellowship Meal

Our next Fellowship Potluck Meal will be at the Dietsch home on Sunday, September 4th, immediately following the worship service.

Conclusion

Well, I hope that this information is helpful. I hope, also, that it is encouraging. The Lord is at work in and among His people. Please continue to pray for a resolution to my Army Reserve once-a-month Sunday conflict, for the several ministries of our church highlighted above, and that the Lord will grow us both in holiness and in membership as He blesses and builds His Church.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

HCPCA Officer Training Class

HCPCA Officer Training Class

Dear Church Family,

For the last couple of weeks, there has been an announcement in the bulletin regarding the officer training class that I will be teaching on Monday evenings at our home, beginning on September 12th. Herein, I wish to give an exhortation (and reasoning) for all the men in the church to sign up and attend this class, followed by some more details about the class.

Exhortation to Attend the Class

I invite and encourage all the men in the church (young and old, members or visitors) to attend this class; and, first of all, let me say that if you plan to attend the course, please sign up by August 29th so that I may order the necessary materials for each person attending; you may email me, call me, or speak to me in person.

There are several requirements and steps required in order to become a church officer (an elder or a deacon): taking the officer training class, meeting the Scriptural qualification set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, undergoing a written and oral examination by the session of the church, and being nominated and elected by a majority vote at a congregational meeting.

All of this can sound very daunting, I know! However, to the men in the congregation, I would also say: even if you do not feel called or qualified to serve as an officer in the church – or if you are on the fence – this class is a great opportunity to study the Scriptures, the Westminster Standards, our denomination’s Book of Church Order, and various other topics pertaining to the doctrine, practice, and leadership of our church. I have found this kind of class to also be a means to help discern a calling to serve as an elder or deacon in the church.

If you’ve ever taken an online or home-study course, you know that it is very different from interacting with other people in a classroom environment. That’s one of the great benefits of this class. You could probably go and read all of the materials for this class and study on your own, but there’s something uniquely beneficial about studying, learning, and interacting with others in community. I’m looking forward to this class and hope you will join us on Monday evenings this fall!

Again, please sign up by August 29th.

Structure and Plan for the Officer Training Course

The class will consist of sixteen 2-hour session, on Monday evenings from 6:00-8:00 pm according to the following schedule: September 12, 19 / October 3, 10, 17 / November 7, 14, 28 / December 5, 12, 19 / January 9, 16, 23 / February 6, 13. We may amend the schedule as we go in order to accommodate people’s schedules or if other things come up, but as you can see, there are several breaks or weeks off during the class.

There are four areas of study for this class: (1) an overview of the Scriptures, (2) the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order (BCO), (3) the Westminster Confession of Faith, and (4) various articles covering topics related to serving the church, including things like the history of Presbyterianism, the regulative principle of worship, infant baptism, philosophy of ministry, principles of leadership, and many others.

The class is divided in two parts. In the first eight weeks, we will study an overview of the Scriptures and the Book of Church Order. In the second eight weeks, we will study the Westminster Confession of Faith. Over the entire sixteen weeks, we will devote some time to the various topical articles at the end of each class. You can expect at least 1-2 hours of preparation each week, outside of class.

Conclusion

Let me reiterate that all men in the church are encouraged to participate in this class. Whether or not you feel called to the officer or elder or deacon, this class will help you to grow in your knowledge of the Scriptures, Reformed theology, and our denomination’s constitution. Additionally, it will be a good opportunity for dialogue and fellowship with other men in the church. I’m looking forward to this class and hope you will join us!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Summary of the PCA’s 49th (2022) General Assembly

Summary of the PCA’s 49th (2022) General Assembly

Dear Church Family,

Before the General Assembly of the PCA met in Birmingham, AL, last week, I provided a brief summary of the business that was to be conducted, along with some recommendations for things to look for: https://hillcountrypca.org/pca-2022-49th-general-assembly/. I was not able to attend the General Assembly; however, I did follow much of the events via the virtual livestream and have read several summary reports.

The official summary report of the actions of the General Assembly may be found at the online magazine of the PCA, byFaith: https://byfaithonline.com/byfaith-report-actions-of-the-49th-pca-general-assembly/. There’s a lot there and it might be hard to wade through all of that information. So, here are five things that I think you should know about from this year’s General Assembly.

Five Major “Take-Aways” from General Assembly

  1. Study Report on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault

In 2019, the General Assembly approved a study committee to look into the issue of domestic abuse and sexual assault. This was not an investigative report into allegations of abuse in the denomination; rather, the report was intended to be an in-depth study of how the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards define abuse, and to provide churches with advice concerning best practices in dealing with domestic abuse and sexual assault.

This 220-page report is both theological and practical, and is available online here: https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/2301-AIC-on-Domestic-Abuse-Updated.pdf.

This report is well done and well received. I believe it will be a great help for sessions and churches.

  1. Petition to United States Government to End Abortion

The Westminster Confession of Faith states that church synods and councils “are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the common wealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary.” (WCF 31.5) In keeping with this biblical admonition, the General Assembly approved, without objection, the following statement regarding abortion (this was approved the day before the Supreme Court decision repealing Roe v. Wade):

“God declares in Sacred Scripture that civil government, no less than the Church, is a divine institution and owes its authority to God. The Bible is the supreme revelation of God’s will and teaches that the unborn child is a human person deserving the full protection of the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not murder”. We who love our nation, in the name of God who alone is sovereign, call upon you to renounce the sin of abortion, to repent of the complicity in the mass slaughter of innocent unborn children, who are persons in the sight of God, and to reverse the ruinous direction of both law and practice in this area. The obedience to God which places us in subjection to your rightful authority, requires of us to proclaim the counsel of God as it bears upon the same God-given authority.”

  1. The withdrawal of the PCA from the National Association of Evangelicals

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was founded in 1942 as a coalition of evangelical Christian churches and organizations. The PCA joined the NAE in 1986; however, over the last 10-15 years, there has been growing concern among pastors and elders regarding our denominational affiliation with the NAE. Specifically, the concern is our denomination’s association with an organization that has become increasingly politically minded and more broadly accepting in its moral stances.

At the PCA’s General Assembly last week, our denomination voted to withdraw from the NAE by a vote of 1030-699. You may read the official overture, along with the reasoning, here: https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Overture-3-Pee-Dee-to-49th-GA.pdf.

For my part, I believe that it was a good decision for our denomination to withdraw from the NAE. This does not mean that individuals Christians and local churches may not work together and fellowship with Christians and churches that are not Reformed; however, it simply removes our official denominational association with this very broad group of churches which have become more politically and socially minded. We are still a member of the National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (NAPARC), with whom we have great affinity – https://www.naparc.org/directories-2/.

  1. Moral (or “above reproach”) Qualifications for Church Office

Of the many overtures which were debated and voted upon at the General Assembly, two were related to the qualifications for church office, particularly as to how the thinking about these qualifications has been affected by the influence of the LGBTQ-affirming agenda of our culture. The following to proposed amendments to our Book of Church Order (BCO) were approved by the General Assembly, one by a large majority and the other by a small majority. According to BCO 26.2, in order for these amendments to the BCO to be approved, two more things must happen: Two-thirds of the presbyteries must approve them in the coming year and the General Assembly in 2023 must approve them by a simple majority again.

Here are the two proposed amendments along with the vote totals from the General Assembly:

(a) Overture 29 to add a new paragraph to the Book of Church Order, Chapter 16, “Church Orders – The Doctrine of Vocation” was approved by a vote of 1922-200:

“16-4  Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America must be above reproach in their walk and Christlike in their character. While office bearers will see spiritual perfection only in glory, they will continue in this life to confess and to mortify remaining sins in light of God’s work of progressive sanctification. Therefore, to be qualified for office, they must affirm the sinfulness of fallen desires, the reality and hope of progressive sanctification, and be committed to the pursuit of Spirit-empowered victory over their sinful temptations, inclinations, and actions.”

(b) Overture 15 to add a new paragraph to the Book of Church Order, Chapter 7 – “Church Officers – General Classification” was approved by a vote of 1167-978:

“7-4  Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.”

It remains to be seen how these amendments will proceed through the presbytery votes and then next year’s General Assembly, but the approval of these two amendments to our BCO is a move in the right direction and very encouraging for our denomination.

  1. Great Preaching!

Finally, I encourage you to watch (or listen) to the sermon from the Thursday night worship service. The preacher was Kevin DeYoung who preached from 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 – “God’s Gift of New Eyes and a New Identity.”

You may find the sermon at the following link, beginning at marker 27:35: https://livestream.com/accounts/8521918/events/10498374/videos/231776042.

Conclusion

The wheels of Presbyterian polity grind slowly. That can be frustrating, but it also is a safe guard against radical change; it makes sure, as much as possible, that the work of the church is done in good order and discipline. Please pray for our churches, our presbyteries, and our denomination as we seek to continue to be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

PCA (2022) 49th General Assembly

PCA (2022) 49th General Assembly

Dear Church Family,

The 49th General Assembly of our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, meets this week in Birmingham, AL. As the highest church court in our denomination, the purpose of the General Assembly is to conduct the business of the church which affects all of our presbyteries and churches, as well as our various denominational ministries (e.g., Covenant College, Covenant Seminary, Mission to the World (MTW, our missionary sending arm), Mission to North America (MNA, our church-planting arm), etc.).
 
With all that is going on, in such a short amount of time, the schedule is very demanding and can be confusing – especially for first-time commissioners (commissioners are teaching elders and ruling elders from across our denomination). As I mentioned on Sunday, I won’t be attending the General Assembly this year; however, I will be watching the live-stream – especially during some key events.
 
If you’re interested in learning more about the important annual work of our denomination, I’ve listed below several links that may be of interested, followed by my recommendations for some of the things that may be of interest for you to observe.
 
2022 PCA General Assembly Links
(Note: Birmingham is in our same time zone (CST) so no need to adjust when looking at the schedule)
 
PCA General Assembly Main Page – https://pcaga.org/ – this is the one-stop source for everything you need to know about the General Assembly, but since there is so much information, I’ll list below some of the specific links that may be of interest.
 
Live Stream – https://livestream.com/accounts/8521918 – the live stream will not be active until the official business of the General Assembly begins at the first worship service on Tuesday night (this link is also available on the main page).
 
Docket – https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/0003-GA-DOCKET-3rd-Draft-for-Supplement.pdf – this is the official docket, or order of business, for the week.
 
Overtures – https://pcaga.org/resources/#overtures – this is a list of the overtures sent up to the General Assembly by individuals, church sessions, or presbyteries, calling for the General Assembly to take a certain action or make a decision of some kind. An overtures committee will sort through these early in the week before General Assembly and then present amended versions of these overtures to the General Assembly on Thursday.
 
Recommended Key Events to Watch
(Here are my personal recommendations of things that might be of interest the General Assembly)
 
Worship – there are three worship services scheduled during the General Assembly (you may find the bios of the preachers by clicking on their names on the main page).
     – Tuesday, June 21st (6:30 pm) – Preacher: Roy Taylor
     – Wednesday, June 22nd (4:45 pm) – Preacher: Elbert McGowan, Jr.
     – Thursday, June 23rd (7:30 pm) – Preacher: Kevin DeYoung
 
Seminars – There will be many smaller seminars (https://pcaga.org/2022-seminars/) which commissioners may attend; however, there will be one Assembly-wide seminar which I believe will be live-streamed and worth watching.
     – Wednesday, June 22nd (8:00 am) – Assembly-Wide Seminar – The Future Glory of the Church: The PCA We Envision for Christ’s Purposes (Ruling Elder Perspectives)
 
Business – while all of the business conducted at General Assembly is important, there are two particular items that may be of special interest.
     – Wednesday, June 22nd (10:15 am) – Review of Presbytery Records Committee Report. Presbyteries must submit their records and meeting minutes to the General Assembly for review and this is the committee that does this work. It may seem mundane and inconsequential, but often-times this is where important issues of theology and practice arise.
     – Thursday, June 23rd (10:45 am) – Overtures Committee Report. If there was a “main event” of the business of General Assembly, this would be it. Important matters of theology and church life are debated and voted upon during this report (this committee report, which begins on Thursday morning, often extends late into the evening and sometimes past midnight).
 
Conclusion
 
I believe that the live-stream recordings will be archived and able to be viewed not long after the event has concluded. I know that there is a lot here and that most will not have the time to watch all of the live-stream events that I recommend above. So, at a minimum, I encourage you to check out at least two things this week on the live-stream of General Assembly if you can.
 
(1) Watch at least one of the worship services (personally, I’m looking forward to hearing Kevin DeYoung preach on Thursday evening).
 
(2) Pop in, or check out the archived video, of at least a portion of the Overtures Committee Report which is scheduled to begin on Thursday at 10:45 am. That will at least give you a taste of the kind of discussion and debate that takes place at General Assembly.
 
Finally, please pray for the work of our General Assembly, that the Lord would guide and bless our church in all the important activities, discussions, and decisions which take place this week.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Corporate Worship: Benediction

Corporate Worship: Benediction

Dear Church Family,

In our examination of the various elements of corporate worship, this week we come to the concluding element of our service, the benediction. Our English word derives from the Latin and refers to “speaking a good word” or “blessing.” Like many of the other Biblical parts of the corporate worship service, the benediction seems to have fallen on hard times in our day. On several occasions when I have had the opportunity to preach in other churches, I have had the experience of raising my hands at the conclusion of the service to pronounce the benediction only to find looks of bewilderment and surprise on the faces looking back at me.

Even in churches and worship services where one is used to hearing a benediction at the close of the service, there may be some confusion as to what exactly is going on. As Terry Johnson observes, “There is considerable disagreement as to the nature of the benediction. Is it a pronouncement, spoken to the congregation with head uplifted and eyes opened, or is it a prayer, prayed with head bowed and eyes closed?” (Johnson, Terry L., ed. 1996. Leading in Worship, 36).

Pronouncing a Blessing

Previously, in our discussion of the invocation, we looked at the difference between the invocation and the benediction. There, we pointed out that in the liturgy of the Christian church, an invocation and benediction have very specific meanings, and they represent two different directions of communication. In the invocation, the congregation (through a representative voice) is calling upon the Lord, their Creator and Redeemer, asking Him to be present with them in worship. In the benediction, the communication is reversed: the Lord pronounces a blessing upon His people (using Scripture, through a representative voice), and usually by way of dismissal.

It is also helpful to remember that in our corporate worship service, God assembles His covenant people in order that they might renew their covenant bond with Him and with one another. This principle of worship as covenant renewal helps us to recognize that in the benediction, God addresses and blesses His people as He sends them out into the world:

“Apart from the narrative structure of this covenant gathering, the benediction could easily become (and too often does become) little more than a way of saying, ‘The service is over, so good-bye.’ But here, one last time, God addresses his people. Grace has the last word, as the people receive God’s blessing through the minister with raised hands. Not only do these benedictions appear throughout the Old Testament (chiefly the Aaronic form), but they are replete in the pastoral letters of the New Testament, closing these missives that were intended as apostolic sermons to be read publicly in churches throughout the Empire.” (Horton, Michael. 2002. A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-centered Worship, 160).

I can attest to how the benediction can easily become little more than a way of saying ‘good-bye’ as Horton describes. My wife and I once attended a worship service which concluded with the worship leader declaring, “Y’all come back, now! Ya hear!” Rather than a colloquial “see ya later!”, the benediction is the pronouncement of God’s blessing upon His people at the conclusion of the worship service, these words of blessing coming from Scripture.

Receiving a Blessing

The benediction is pronounced by a minister or elder, but we must remember that it is God who is speaking to His people. The man who pronounces the blessing is simply a representative voice. As such, it is a solemn, yet joyful word of dismissal from the Lord Himself and God’s people would do well to heed these words and meditate upon them as they depart. I have personally known some people who would take the words of the benediction (or other parts of Scripture from the order of worship) and tape them to their mirrors or a conspicuous place by which they could be reminded throughout the week of what the Lord had declared to them on Sunday.

There is no directive given in the Scriptures concerning the proper stance that one ought to take in receiving the benediction. Some raise their hands and look to the one who declares the benediction in a posture of ‘open reception.’ Others bow their heads in humble reverence in hearing the Lord’s blessing. Still others simply stand. Any of these is appropriate; the most important thing, though, is that we acknowledge the great privilege that is ours as God’s people in receiving His blessing to those who belong to Christ.

Response

In our service at Hill Country Church (PCA), following the benediction, the congregation typically responds in a short song of praise and thanksgiving. Whether it be through the Gloria Patri or the Threefold Amen or some other song, it is appropriate for God’s people to respond to His pronouncement of blessing. Singing thanksgiving and praise to God as we are dismissed is a practical reminder that that we respond to God’s initiative. Singing together with one voice as we depart, we are also reminded of the bonds of Christian unity that we share as we prepare to re-enter the world.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

Corporate Worship: Final Hymn

Corporate Worship: Final Hymn

Dear Church Family,

We have discussed congregational singing previously in this series on the corporate worship of our church. We have discussed the importance of understanding the complementary relationship between words and musical setting in corporate singing. And, we have discussed the importance of thinking about corporate singing in terms of discipleship rather than simply its pleasure inducing qualities.

In our order of worship at Hill Country Church (PCA), we typically sing another hymn immediately following the reading and preaching of the Word and the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. The selection of this hymn is usually based upon – or at least connected in some way to – the sermon. Thus, this final hymn will oftentimes be a congregational song that emphasizes that which was proclaimed in the sermon, or some specific application which is derived from it.

High, Folk, and Pop Art

Since we are once again talking about congregational singing, this might be a good time to discuss the various types of musical aesthetics and how we might employ wisdom in thinking about these aesthetics in the context of the corporate worship of the church. Musicologists, sociologists, and students of aesthetics (particular those who think about worship music) generally distinguish between high, folk, and pop art (see All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture by Ken Myers or Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal by T. David Gordon or With One Voice: Discovering Christ’s Song in Our Worship by Reggie Kidd).

One helpful way to think about and define these categories is as follows: High art is ‘art for art’s sake’ and tends to be produced by those who have been trained and made the study of art their life’s work. Folk art is ‘art for the community’s sake’ and tends to be more colloquial and accessible without great study. Pop art is ‘art for the consumer’s sake,’ the production of which is often based solely on whether or not it is marketable or will appeal to the masses.

These three different types of art are typically described as relating to one another in a hierarchical fashion – hierarchical with regard to their development and not necessarily their value or goodness. What that means is simply that historically, high art has been developed within the realm of a tradition – musicians and artists study and learn from those who have come before them. Folk art (e.g. the music that families and communities sing together) has developed as an offshoot which is dependent upon high art. Similarly, pop art has historically depended upon the traditions of high and folk art.

However, in the 20th century these relationships changed. This is one of the major points in Ken Myers’ book All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes. Writing in 1989, Myers put it this way:

“Every form of cultural expression builds on something else. In high culture, artists (at least those worth paying attention to) work within a tradition…Folk culture has a more direct and organic tie to tradition. Popular culture, too, must build on something, if for no other reason than that it needs some raw materials. Up until the last decade or two, popular culture has tended to rely on high culture and folk culture for its raw material.” (p 70)

Myers illustrates pop culture’s use of the raw materials of high and folk culture by pointing to how Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse conducted Moussorgsky’s “Night of the Bald Mountain” in Fantasia and how these early pop culture cartoons also drew on arias from Puccini and Verdi. In my own experience, I remember watching Bugs Bunny give Elmer Fudd a shave and a haircut in the operatic tradition of “The Barber of Seville.” Yet, according to Myers, the relationship of pop art to high and folk art has changed:

“Since the 1960s, the aesthetics of popular culture have effectively displaced those of high culture…Popular culture doesn’t ‘look up’ to anything today; it simply looks back at its own past. Once popular culture paid homage to high culture (e.g., the classical music used in Fantasia); today it is fascinated with the popular culture of the past. In fact, the roles have become reversed: while popular culture ignores high culture, the institutions once committed to the preservation of high culture are obsessed with popular culture.” (p 72)

In other words, we might put it this way: at one time popular culture fed off of high and folk culture, but today, popular culture feeds off of itself. As a result, popular culture becomes anemic. Of course, this is a generalization – not all expressions of popular culture have become un-rooted from high and folk art; nonetheless, it is the norm in the vast majority of the pop culture expressions of our day.

High, Folk, and Pop Music in the Church

So, how does this relate to corporate worship? Well, throughout the history of the worship of the church, the musical aesthetics of corporate worship were typically drawn from high and folk art. In fact, it is easy to see how these two are interrelated. Typically, the music of corporate singing in worship has drawn from high art (professional, studied musicians) and folk art (musical forms that developed within the community of the church or family). In our church, most of the musical settings that we use in corporate worship are drawn from high and folk art, as well. The vast majority of music of the hymns in our hymnal and Psalter are what would be considered ‘folk art’ music, and several of them might be considered ‘high art’ music; however, ‘pop art’ will typically not be found.

There are many problems that come with incorporating ‘pop art’ in the worship of the church. Here are just three. First, because pop art (in this case, popular music) has an aesthetic that is defined by consumerism (what sells), it encourages individualism and sentimentalism – if it feels good to me, it must be true. Second, pop music is derivative in nature (at least once removed) from the traditions of high and folk music; thus, it encourages passivity rather than active engagement in the musical forms. Third, if Ken Myers is correct, in the second half of the 20th century, pop art has become dislodged from its roots of high and folk art; thus, the forms of pop music themselves usually encourage a mind-set that is opposed to tradition and authority.

Perhaps some of these categories and ways of thinking about music are new to some, and I recognize that some of the statements that I’ve made deserve fuller development. But, I’ve attempted to introduce these concepts and categories simply to engender some proper ways of thinking about the appropriateness of certain forms of music in corporate worship. I may not have done justice to the definition of these categories, their histories, and how they relate to one another, but my hope is that I’ve at least sparked your interest such that you might pursue further reading and study of these matters.

My argument for the appropriateness of high and folk music in corporate worship, and the exclusion of pop music in corporate worship, may not sit well with everyone. But hopefully, it helps us to think in categories that are different than “I like it” or “I don’t like it” with regard to the appropriateness of the music that we employ in corporate worship. [In addition to the books linked above, I recommend this short article by Ken Myers in which he describes the dangers when the Church embraces the aesthetics and idioms of the pop culture around them: “Is Popular Culture Either?”]

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, I personally enjoy many forms of popular music. And, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I personally don’t enjoy certain forms of high and folk music. But, by using these categories and thinking about ‘appropriateness’ rather than ‘likes and dislikes,’ my hope is that we will be better equipped in thinking about those musical forms and settings that are fitting for the corporate worship service – forms and settings that can actually sustain the weighty matters of the gospel and the truths of God’s Word.

May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch