The Heart of Presbyterianism: Christ's Saving Rule

Steven F. Miller

Jesus is alive. I know. I know for certain. I know because the Bible tells me so, and the Spirit bears witness with my spirit that it is so. This is just as real as if Jesus himself said in an audible voice, "I am here, and I am with you."

Isn't this just the way it is with you too? For so many of you, it is. You recognize that wonderful help and care provided by our Good Shepherd. What greater comfort is there than this? Whatever we will face, wherever we will go, whoever else may or may not go with us, we do not go alone. He is with us. He will never leave us. He promised us, "Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?' " (Heb. 13:5-6).

And his Spirit seals it to our hearts. So we go on and ahead. We go on with Jesus with us—now, and then. Now, in our living. Then, in our dying. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. He's made sure that we have that promise in hand:

If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Rom. 14:8-9)

Christ's Rule

We all need the Lord. We all so desperately need the Lord. And he gladly gives himself. He comes to us and makes himself and his Father known to us. He gives us life and keeps us. He takes us as his own as we "hear his voice," and are incorporated into his flock under the care of the kingdom of his grace:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father' s hand. (John 10:27-29)

Word and Spirit

Then Jesus leads us through this life in his grace until we enter his glory. He shows us the way by his Word and Spirit. As our prophet, he teaches us by his Word and Spirit: "Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his Word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation" (Shorter Catechism, Q. 24).

This revelation of the will of God for our salvation is brought home directly to our hearts. It comes to bear on us in the great work of God's effectual calling. We hear his voice in that he calls us with power to himself. The power that makes the Word work in us is the Spirit he sends. The way we say it in our theology is that in our effectual calling the Spirit works through and with the Word in our hearts. The Larger Catechism beautifully puts it this way:

Effectual calling is the work of God's almighty power and grace, whereby (out of his free and special love to his elect, and from nothing in them moving him thereunto) he doth, in his accepted time, invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, by his Word and Spirit, savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills, so as they (although in themselves dead in sin) are hereby made willing and able freely to answer his call, and to accept and embrace the grace offered and conveyed therein. (Q. 67)

So we hear his voice as the Shepherd of our souls, by his Word and Spirit working together in us, as Paul by the Spirit writes, "But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth" (2 Thess. 2:13).

A Living Word

For my family and me, that is what makes Sunday such an important day of the week. We may attend a church where the gospel is preached to sinners. By that I mean that the text of the Holy Scriptures is opened and explained and thoroughly applied to the hearts and consciences of the congregation present in worship. This is just the way his Word is designed and inspired to be used by the appointed officer of the Word, the pastor.

So Paul by the Spirit reminds Timothy

how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:15-17)

Then Paul commands Timothy:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Tim. 4:1-5)

We hear his voice primarily in the preaching of his Word by his appointed servants. Jesus, speak to us in and by your church yet today. Show us something of yourself and your glorious grace, that you would "dwell in [our] hearts through faith" and let us know "with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Eph. 3:16-19).

My wife often comments that Sunday is the best day of the week. On that day, as a pastor and his wife, we really don't get much rest, but we are refreshed nevertheless. We enjoy the privilege of hearing from our Savior and Good Shepherd, and our faith is established and strengthened. That's what our Confession of Faith reminds us in Chapter 14, "Of Saving Faith," paragraph 1:

The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.

And the Larger Catechism emphasizes it again:

The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation. (Q. 155)


Jesus has put life in his flock, the church. His reign of life by grace is present and real as the Spirit works in the church by and with the Word. What a wonderful Savior and true friend of our soul Jesus is! The Confession of Faith sums it up this way:

To all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the Word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by His Spirit to believe and obey, and governing their hearts by His Word and Spirit; overcoming all their enemies by his almighty power and wisdom, in such manner, and ways, as are most consonant to his wonderful and unsearchable dispensation. (8.8)

Officers in the Church

Jesus has appointed a government in the church to establish, refresh, and maintain this heart government in his flock. This government has life and power by the Word and Spirit sent by Jesus. Nevertheless, it is in the hands of men. And into their hands Jesus places the means to exercise his government, namely: the preaching of the Word, the observance of the sacraments, and public prayer. It is by his Spirit and Word that Jesus establishes offices with officers as a real government, not just as a form of organization for his flock. The Confession of Faith has three chapters on the church, and they always ought to be understood together. They are Chapter 25 ("Of the Church"), Chapter 26 ("Of the Communion of Saints"), and Chapter 30 ("Of Church Censures"). From that last-mentioned chapter, we learn about officers in the church:

1. The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.

2. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed; by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

These officers are: the ministers of the Word, who have the several power of the proclamation of the gospel; the ruling elders, who sit with the pastor (hence "the session," which means "a sitting") in all matters of rule and discipline in the joint power of government; and the deacons, who administer the mercy of Jesus to those in need.

A Living Church

When the men whom Jesus calls to fill these God-appointed offices enter into their labors imbued by the Spirit with power and constrained by the love of Christ and the requirements of God's Word, it is a wonder to behold and a blessing to enjoy. Decisions are made on the basis of the Word of God and not by what men think will "work" best or be readily accepted. God's Word, when preached, is fearlessly applied with the great sympathy of the Cross, with the inevitable result that we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. And no one of the flock finds himself without a hand offered to help along the way. That's the kind of church our Lord calls us to be, the kind of church we all want to have and support.

This is what true Presbyterianism is supposed to be, what we are to experience in it. It is the God-instituted, outward means by which we receive, embrace, and enjoy the life of Jesus in and with us. Dwelling by his Spirit, working by and with the Word in our hearts as it is administered faithfully by his servants in the church, Jesus himself shepherds his flock. From this central, vital, life-giving principle—that Christ works among us by his Word and Spirit, through officers appointed to serve in his kingdom of grace—Presbyterian government grows. This is the heart and soul of what a Presbyterian church is. This is the church we should pray to be. This is the church we should pray and work to provide for ourselves and our children. This is the church we could become, God helping us, someday.

King Jesus, have mercy on us. Enable us to do your will as your Spirit, working through and with your Word in us by those outward means of your appointment, establishes your rule in our hearts forever. Amen.

The author is the pastor of Nashua OPC near Pulaski, Pa., and adjunct professor of missions at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pa. He uses the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2002.

New Horizons: May 2002

How the Good Shepherd Cares for His Sheep

Also in this issue

By His Word and Spirit: How Christ Exercises His Saving Rule

Shepherds and Sheep

Your Pastor: Shepherd or CEO?

Weak Shepherds and Hirelings

The Counsel of the Elders

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