Idols vs. Vessels
“Paul, an apostle…”
There are a great many icons in the world. This is practically a given at this point, with the existence of Hollywood and sports, but despite the age of both entertainment in art and athleticism, they nevertheless continue to create individuals for people to follow wholeheartedly. In fact, people are so willing to follow after the famous in almost any regard, going so far as to sacrifice morality or even basic consistency on the altar of these “idols.” And isn’t it telling, how many are referred to as something as specific as an “idol,” and that with little to no contradiction, even within the church itself. People are freely allowed to title anyone an object of practical worship, and nobody thinks twice about it. If we truly think about what an idol is, this should be a no-brainer when it comes to discernment, and yet here we are, the members of the churches filling their homes with idols on massive display. I am not saying we cannot follow the example of anyone, but I also do not believe that it takes an extensive amount of investigation to conclude that this is not what people are doing. They do, in fact, worship people, teams, and any organization that agrees with their priorities.
And that isn’t even to speak of self-worship! Oh, how the church loves that subject. After all, the Bible says you need to love yourself before you can love others, right? Well… no, actually, it doesn’t. It assumes that no man can hate himself, and that no man would harm himself out of that hatred, but this is an assumption of the character of man- an observance of his behavior and natural inclination- used as a point of comparison to show how we ought to love others. This isn’t hard to understand when you understand the following: love others as yourself. Not “love yourself first, and then others,” as this contradicts that very point. But that is for another post…
Ah, but those within the true church (i.e. not the modern charismatic or universal churches) would be quick to point out that we do not have such idols within the Calvinistic or Biblical churches. But I beg to differ.
Allow me to provide an example: Find any Reformed group on Social Media (Facebook, for example) and contradict any quotation of a famous Reformer (i.e. John Calvin, Martin Luther, etc.). Go ahead, I dare you. You will find yourself quickly surrounded by the gathering of ravenous beasts, quick to shower you with quotes, books, rebukes and condemnations for going so drastically far as to question any well-known Reformer. I know, because I have done such to an extent. The issue wasn’t even one of a particular Reformer either, but rather the following question was asked: “Can an individual read and study solely the Scripture, without any commentaries or study guides, and come to a consistent and accurate knowledge of the truth?” Now, granted, that is somewhat of a trick question. But the responses were very telling. “NO!” or as Paul might say, “May it never be!” Such a question was practically blasphemy, as no such individual could ever understand the depths of Scripture without a collective gathering of commentaries, books and cult-like followers of the authors to guide them through the confusing and treacherous maze that is the revealed Word. And therein lies the trick in the question! It is the revealed Word of God. Revealed by whom? The Holy Spirit. Regardless of the amount of commentaries, Reformers or assistants one might have, they will never come to the accurate conclusion of Scripture without the work of the Spirit. And such was the point of my question, to which I received even more vehement responses. These could not conceive of the thought that one might only need the Spirit of God to understand His revealed Word.
Now, don’t misunderstand me (as they did so quickly). I am not saying we should avoid such resources as the commentary or Reformer, but these are not required to understand God’s revealed Word. These are assistants to His revealing, yes, and are invaluable means of understanding it more thoroughly, or finding better ways to understand and explain the complex areas of the Bible. But these are not areas that are utterly foreign to the human mind without the spiritual guidance of the long-dead men of old. Such a concept is Gnostic at best, and contrary to the very nature of the Spirit.
Let’s look at Galatians 1:1-5 for what is (I think) the definitive answer to such a claim.
“Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me,
To the churches in Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Fat her, to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.”
I have a great amount of respect for the Apostle Paul, as I do for all of the apostles. But bear in mind, it is not because of who the man was in and of himself. Indeed, he was a good man, a Godly man and a wise man. But these are purely outworking of the Source he here points to. Note his point of emphasis: not “PAUL, and APOSTLE!” but rather Paul, an apostle (which means the following:…)” He is redirecting the attention to not just another person in the letter, but to the very definition of his apostleship.
As he will go on to clarify to the church here, they very well knew who “Paul” was. Formerly Saul of Tarsus (“Saul” being his Hebrew name), he was the very persecutor of the church. Not simply “a persecutor,” but “the persecutor.” He was the head of the movement to destroy the church of Christ, by imprisoning those who followed the “false” Messiah he sought to discredit. We find this description in the latter portion of the chapter (vs. 1:13-14), showing the Galatians that he was their worst nightmare before. And this carries more weight in the context of the letter, in that position Saul held (Pharisee) was a very similar title the false teachers were ascribing through their teaching. The maintaining of one’s salvation through the works of the Law was at the core of this “different gospel” (vs. 6-7), and was the very thing that the Galatians practically ran to, causing such a sharp rebuke by the apostle (3:1). So they knew who Saul was. But equal to this, he uses the name “Paul,” his Greek/Gentile name. Why? Because of that very issue. They assumed salvation would come, or at the very least be kept, through a sort of “Jewishness.” This was the point Paul had to counter the apostle Peter on in 2:15-16, pointing to the fact that both Jews and Gentiles had to be saved through the same Messiah. One condemned because of their inability to keep the Law, and the other condemned because of their separation from the Law. We must bear in mind the fact that the name “Paul” is (at least in part) given to him by Luke in the book of Acts to reflect his redirection from his ministry from the Jews to the Gentiles. So his writing to the Galatians, who wanted to be more like the Jews, begins with his Greek name.
Going on, we see he clarifies the title of “apostle.” This title, in a general sense, carries with it the idea of an “ambassador.” So Paul does not here say “Paul, your leader!” but rather “Paul, an ambassador of Christ.” But he adds a whole lot more than that. He is an apostle not from men, showing that he was not sent out by a collective gathering of men of authority (that is, the other apostles (1:15-17)), nor was he sent through the “agency of man,” that being any official organization of men. He was not sent by the church, he was not sent by the office of the apostles, and he was not sent by his brethren, but was sent specifically through Jesus Christ and God the Father. To put it plainly, he was not writing to them as Paul, but as Jesus Christ with the authority of the Father. In essence, ignore the whole “Paul” part.
Furthermore, he adds yet another qualifier: the Resurrection. Not to spend too much time on this, as the importance of the Resurrection can be seen in texts such as 1 Cor. 15, but we find here that he uses it as a means of authority behind his words here. He writes this especially with the understanding that in so much as the Galatians ran to the Law in regards to their salvation, they ran that much farther away from Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Law (Gal. 5:4). The Resurrection being a sort of cap placed on the completion of the Law’s requirements and purpose, it validated the Jesus had indeed beaten death, the requirement of the Law and the end of sin, and perfects us as the High Priest before the Father. He is the Mediator of a new covenant, making us free from the Law (“oh happy condition!”).
In summary, he tells them to listen, not because of Paul, but because whom he was representing. Jesus Christ, the Mediator, granted all authority from the Father, who Himself said “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Mat. 17:5).
So what is the point of all this? To point out the fact that even within the more principled, “reformed” churches, we find the same problem as the rest of them. Idolization of the vessels of Christ, not the Christ Himself, who should alone be the One we worship. I am perfectly fine with one having people to lookup to. But to hold them to such a position of perfection, that no man dare question them, is to defeat the very point of their need. That being the redirection of our attention to the Person about whom they wrote, and who they served. The Reformers (yes, even Calvin) got things wrong. All of us do. But the only deciding factor of our theology is the consistency it bears to the Word itself, and that alone. If we cannot be countered or corrected by the Word of God in its proper context, no amount of dead men should change our resolve. “What about the heathen doctrines?!” the Young, Restless and Reformed(ish) shout. “What about the fool who sits down and distorts the Word of God?” The answer is actually rather simple. If they indeed preach heresy, it should be of little challenge for the Scripturally educated to counter them correctly. The Bible is not so vague so as to generate satanic doctrine. The only things that do that are the perversions of the heart and the lack of the Spirit. And without the Spirit, no amount of study and references can defend the doctrine of demons, nor can the truly Elect be led astray by any such doctrine. Of that we are assured, by the seal of the Spirit Himself.