Sunday, July 24, 2016

On Reading John Owen

I guess I must have been in my early 20's when I bought the sixteen volume set of the Works of John Owen published by the Banner of Truth Trust. There they sit in all their splendour on the top shelf of a book case in my study. White and green with Banner's little 'George Whitefield' logo neatly printed at the bottom of each volume. Together they take up over two 2' worth of shelf space. 

Full of the flush of youthful enthusiasm I started with volumes 1 & 2. Some of his best stuff there, On the Person of Christ, Meditations and Discourses on the Person of Christ, On Communion with God, etc. These treatises are rich in theological depth and spiritual insight. Owen invites his readers to revel in the riches of Christ and draw them into fuller communion with the triune God. He shows himself to be biblically literate, steeped in the theological heritage of the church, and have the stamp of a man who knew what it was to draw near to God in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Great stuff. If you are in possession of  Owen's Works and are wondering where to begin, well, you can do little better than to begin at the beginning.

Then, if memory serves, I think I read some of his great works on the Christian life contained in Volumes 6 & 7, On the Mortification of Sin, On Temptation and On Spiritual Mindedness. Here we see Owen as a physician of souls, accurately diagnosing the sin-caused maladies of the life of faith and prescribing their cure in the gospel, "Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this, and thou wilt die a conqueror; yea, thou wilt, through the good providence of God, live to see thy lust dead at thy feet." Owen is both deeply searching in exposing the 'exceeding sinfulness of sin' and deeply encouraging in directing his readers to Christ as the all-sufficient Saviour and Sanctifier of sinners. 

His Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Volume 10), introduced so helpfully by J. I. Packer in Banner's stand-alone edition helped convince me not only of the biblical validity of definite atonement, but also to see its glory. Here was no limiting of the atonement, but a wondrous expansion of its sufficiency and effectiveness for the redemption of a vast multitude of elect sinners. 

I must have got through that lot in the course of a few years, or so.

Then other authors grabbed my attention and I quite neglected Owen. The white and green tomes began to gather dust. Thick dust. Years when by before I picked a volume off the shelf. Then I was asked to give a paper on Puritan Attitudes Towards Rome at the 2010 Westminster Conference. Rather than trying to draw upon a wide range of Puritan attitudes towards Roman Catholicism, I thought it would be better to 'go deep' and explore the views of one representative figure against the background of their times and see what could be learned from them for our situation today. That was John Owen, necessitating that I study Volume 14, the divine's major anti-Catholic writings. 

Owen's stance was not that of a bitter, sectarian hot-head. He carefully scrutinised Roman doctrine in the light of Scripture. But also he endeavoured to out-Catholic the Roman Catholics by appealing to the church fathers in order to show that  distinctive Roman doctrines such as the universal authority of the pope were not in fact Catholic teachings, that is doctrines that Christians everywhere and at all times had believed. He argued that the Roman Catholic Church was divisive and schismatic in its attempt to foist its distinctive dogmas on all Christian churches. Contemporary Evangelicals have a lot to learn from Owen's exposure of the key differences between the evangelical faith of Scripture and the distinctive tenets of the Roman  Catholic Church.  

And now it's a matter of getting stuck into Volumes 13-16 for the Evangelical Library's Reading John Owen conference to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1616. I won't steal my own thunder by saying too much about the contents, but I offer some thoughts on reading John Owen for those who might like to try, but feel intimidated by the sheer weight of material, or others who have made a stab at reading him, but have given up too quickly.

Knowing where to start: Volumes 1 & 2 and then 6 & 7. 

Keeping on: Owen was one of the great scholars of his day. His English prose is heavily Latinised in form and structure. Sentences can sometimes go on for line upon line. By the time you've reached the end, you may not be able to remember how he began. Get used to it. You can't skim though Owen like you would your daily paper, an 'easy reading' Christian book, or a blog. Reading Owen demands the cultivation of good intellectual habits. Concentrate. Think. Absorb. Persevere. 

Another virtue worth cultivating is patience. Owen can sometimes be very prolix, taking pages and pages to say something that could have been put more succinctly. He seemed to want to explore an issue from all angles before leaving it alone. But just when you find yourself thinking, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just get on with it, man', he comes up with a dazzling spiritual insight that will blow you away. Owen will make you do some heavy digging before you strike gold. But it's 22 carat gold, not easily obtainable 'fools gold' that he has in store for you. 

One thing that will strike you on reading Owen is his intellectual honesty. He was always willing to follow the biblical evidence wherever it led, even if that meant changing his mind. As he did when shifting from Presbyterian to Independent views on reading John Cotton's The Keys of the Kingdom. A critic, Daniel Cawdrey charged him with inconsistency because his Presbyterian convictions as set out in an earlier work The Duty of  Pastors and People Distinguished had been modified in favour of Independency in the divine's later writings. Owen made no attempt at hiding his change of mind, or pretending consistency where there was none. With guileless honesty he admitted that he had only read Cotton with a view to 'confuting' his work, a classic statement of Independent polity. Owen confessed, "In the pursuit and management of this work, quite beside and contrary to my expectation...I was prevailed upon to receive that and those principles which I had set myself in an opposition unto. And, indeed this way of impartial examining all things by the word...is a course that I would admonish all to beware of who would avoid the danger of being made Independents." (Vol. 13, p. 223-224). A perhaps unexpected element that stands out in that quote is the old Puritan's penchant for dry wit. OK. He won't have you rolling around hysterically on your study floor, but he can raise a knowing smile. Occasionally. 

Above all, Owen is worth reading because while he ranges far and wide in his thinking, he always brings us back to the central truths of the gospel. That can be seen most clearly on Volumes 1 & 2, 6 & 7. But in his argument with Rome, it is the gospel that is at stake, His doctrine of the church is not some dry disquisition on the finer points of church order, but is framed in terms of a Discourse concerning Evangelical Love, Peace, and Unity (Vol. 15) and The True Nature of a Gospel Church (Vol. 16). Whether his subject is doctrinal, devotional, controversial, or practical, you can be sure that Owen will relate the matter in hand to what God has done by his Son and through his Spirit to secure the salvation and future glory of his people. 

Thomas Watson's style is more racy and engaging. Bunyan is more imaginative and direct. But with Owen what you get is Paul-like profundity. Reading him will make you cry out together with the apostle, 'O the depth!' (Romans 11:33). That's why you should get about reading John Owen. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Blogging: An Apology


Yes, it's been a while, but there we are. Things aren't what they used to be between us back in the early days and we've kind of drifted apart, I suppose. Life and stuff, you know. It's just like...

Look at the dwindling number of posts over the years. 

It's not as if I've neglected you altogether. There's been the occasional post. Recycled articles, holiday snaps, wedding anniversary stuff, event publicity. But that's not real blogging. We both know that. 

I dunno. Been kind of busy, I guess. Rome and Venice with the Mrs, church work, governor responsibilities, dizzying round of concerts and things; Coldplay, From The Jam, The Tempest. Meetings. There's always the meetings. 

And I've got a volume and a half of John Owen to get through, absorb and turn into a paper by September. Read and speak on Vols 13-16 of Owen. Saying 'yes' seemed like a good idea at the time. Here's the low-down: on Reading John Owen

It just isn't happening for me right now. Bloggers' block. Like writers' block, but for wannabes.

'Are  you the Exiled Preacher' they ask. Maybe once I was. Who knows?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Growing Smaller Churches

We're looking forward to hosting a Grace Baptist Partnership 'Growing Smaller Churches' Regional Day Conference on Thursday 14 July at Providence Baptist Chapel.

Programme for the day:

11.00-11.50  Introduction
                   Nigel Hoad - ‘Evangelism in a smaller church’
11.50-12.10  Break
12.10-1.00    Barry King  - ‘Leadership in a smaller church’
1.00-2.00      Lunch
2.00-2.50     Jim Sayers - ‘Mission and the smaller church’
2.50-3.10     Break
3.10-4.00     Q&A and Close

See here for more info and to book a place. 

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

25th Wedding Anniversary

It was on a sunny July day just like today that Sarah and I were married at Kensit Evangelical Church, Finchley. We met when I was a student at the London Theological Seminary. Sarah's from London and I'm from Wales. We've lived all of our married lives in the south west of England, Dorset and then Wiltshire. We've been blessed with two wonderful children, Jonathan and Rebecca, who are now university students. 

We're grateful to the Lord for all his goodness to us over the past 25 years.

Our people from Providence and Ebenezer churches kindly laid on a celebration lunch for us on Sunday, complete with speeches, cakes, gifts, and even a poem, which was very good of them. 

"Many waters cannot quench love,
    neither can floods drown it."
(Song of Solomon 8:7)

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Citizens of Hope

 
By the time you read this the result of the EU referendum will have been revealed. I am neither a prophet or pollster so I’m not going to try and anticipate the outcome here. Whatever that may be, one of the defining issues of the referendum campaign was our sense of political identity. Are we first of all Europeans and then British, British and then European, or simply British? The answer to those questions is partly based on a sense of cultural belonging and partly on political matters such as sovereignty and citizenship.

There is no ‘Christian view’ on whether we are better off in or out of the EU, but the Bible has something to say about citizenship and the role of the state. A decent government will defend its citizens, uphold the rule of law and harness the power of society to serve the common good. But there’s only so much the state can do, both at the national level and as states work together in organisations like the EU.

The Christian attitude towards politics is summed up well in the words of Jesus, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ We are to give ‘Caesar’ or the state its due by obeying the laws of the land, paying our taxes, and acting as good citizens. But the state has no power to change the human heart, or command our worship. That is God’s domain.

Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God. Its power is not of this world and cannot be measured in terms of military might, GDP, or global influence. King Jesus did not come to destroy his enemies, but to die for them. He did not seek to enrich himself, but by his poverty to bestow the riches of God’s grace upon others. Belonging to this kingdom is not a matter of race, or national citizenship. All who believe belong.

None of this means that Christians have little interest in politics, or that we wish to withdraw from society. Jesus calls his people to play a full part in the life of this world and to seek the wellbeing of their local communities. But for the Christian, our ultimate citizenship isn’t measured by the words on our passports, but our hope in the Lord, ‘our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 3:20). That thought helps to put the raging political controversies of the day into perspective.

* For July's White Horse News, Trinity Magazine & News & Views.  

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Equality in humility: some thoughts on the Son's submission to the Father


I have no intention of weighing in on the 'Eternal Relations of Submission and Authority' controversy triggered by US-based Brit-Brat Packers Carl Trueman and Liam Golhiger. You can catch up on that by reading Owen Strachan's thoughts here and those of John Stevens here. But familiarising myself with some of the arguments has got me thinking. 

I have to say that I prefer 'submission' to 'subordination' when it comes to the Son's relationship to the Father. The latter is expressive of attitude, the former suggests (albeit unintendedly) inferiority of being. There is no order of being in the one God. Concerning his deity the Son is of the same essence as the Father. Concerning his person he is of the Father. The persons are not interchangeable and the economic Trinity truly communicates the ontological Trinity. It was reflective of the order of persons in the Trinity that the Father sent the Son into the world and that the Spirit proceeded from the Father through the Son. 

Herman Bavink says as much, having made the point that in the economy of redemption;  'The Father came without being sent, the Son came having been sent by the Father, and the Holy Spirit only came because he was sent by both the Father and the Son.' Bavinck then posits,
But this "being sent" in time is a reflection of the imminent relations of the three persons in the divine being and is grounded in generation and spiration. The incarnation of the Word has its archetype in the generation of the Son, and the outpouring of the Spirit is a weak analogy of the procession from the Father and the Son. The church fathers, accordingly, derived the eternal and imminent relations existing between the persons from the relations that were manifest before the human eye in time. (Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation Volume 2, Baker Academic, 2006, p. 320-321). 
Were this not the case, the economic Trinity would fail to communicate and truly reveal the ontological Trinity, thus driving a wedge between 'God in himself' and 'God for us'. Granted that 'God for us' does not reveal 'God in himself' without remainder, the God who is for us in Christ and by the Spirit is the true self-disclosure of the being and persons of the immortal and invisible God. 

The fact that there is an order of persons in the Trinity which is reflected in the economy of redemption in no way should be taken to imply superiority on the part of the Father, or the inferiority of the Son and Spirit. This order of relations in no way undermines the co-equality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the divine being, which is wholly possessed by each person. 

That said, the Son possessed his equality with God not as something to be grasped at all costs. He was willing to become less than what he was - as man - without ceasing to be what he was - as God. The attitude of the Son towards the Father was that of loving, obedient and humble submission, just as the Holy Spirit submitted to being sent into the world not to display his own glory, but that of the Son. This attitude of humble submission was not an act of self-abnegation for the Son, but self-expression; a true revelation of the heart of God. The divine identity of Jesus was disclosed most clearly as he was lifted up to bear our sins on the Cross, John 8:28, 12:32-33, 17:4. As Robert Leatham reasons, 
The point is that when we have to do with Jesus Christ we have to do with God. His presence in the world is identical with the existence of the humiliated, obedient, and lowly man, Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, the humiliation, lowliness, and obedience of Christ are essential in our conception of God." (The Holy Trinity, In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, P&R, 2004, p. 397). 
Equality and humility are not mutually contradictory in divine or human relationships. The marriage relation described in Ephesians 5:22-33 is one example of this. Loving authority is not tyranny and loving submission is not servility. Philippians 2:5-11 describes the Son's pre-incarnate as well as incarnate attitude of loving humility, obedience and submission to the Father. That mind should also be in us, even when, perhaps especially when we engage in theological controversy with our brothers in the gospel.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Long to Reign Over Us

This weekend the nation will be celebrating the ‘official’ 90th birthday of Her Majesty the Queen. Elizabeth II has been Queen for 64 years, making her this country’s longest serving monarch. She has made no secret of her Christian faith, which often comes to the fore in her Christmas messages. Her faith has inspired her to serve country and Commonwealth with remarkable consistency of character, “I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try and do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God... I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.”

Speaking in 2012, our Queen commended the Servant King, “God sent his only Son ‘to serve, not to be served’. He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ.” Jesus’ followers had been jostling for position, arguing amongst themselves as to who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God. The Lord told them that their attitude left something to be desired. In his kingdom greatness would not be measured in worldly status, but service, “whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant.”

Jesus himself exemplified that servant mindset, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many.” He came not to get, but to give. Jesus was willing to give his own life to pay the price of sin that we may receive the gift of God’s forgiveness through faith in him.

Queen Elizabeth II has ruled over this land for many generations. Long may she continue to do so. But one day her reign will end, as is the way with all earthly rulers. The kingdom of Jesus will endure for ever and those who follow the Servant King can look forward to eternity in his presence. That is the message of hope in the Christian gospel. 

* For News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Venice


And to think I once believed that Tenby is the most beautiful place on earth. That was before we visited Venice. Tenby has its attractions, mind you. Castle walls, brightly coloured houses, endless sandy beaches, sunbeam-dancing sea etc. But Venice. St Mark's Square at night. A piazza to knock the spots off the prettiest town in Pembrokeshire. 

Our hotel was on the mainland, so we accessed the Island City by tram. On arrival Wednesday evening we had a meal and then headed for the fabled St Mark's Square by foot. That was a mistake. The place is a maze of identical-looking houses, church buildings and pasta restaurants. Signs pointing to St. Mark's Square never seemed to get us anywhere. We happened upon a Vaporetta (water bus) stop, hopped on board and soon found our intended destination.

Wow. the Basilica and subtly illuminated piazza were an amazing sight. OK, you couldn't buy a stick of rock, or candyfloss like in Tenby, but wow. 

On Thursday, our  only full day in Venice we visited the Doge's Palace, St Mark's Basilica, and a couple of the smaller islands. In the evening we had a Gondola ride, which was amazingly atmospheric after the dark. 

Reading up on the city I discovered that it is founded upon wooden piles, driven deep into the compacted clay that sits beneath the grand buildings and splendid piazzas. Venice is slowly sinking back into the lagoon at a rate of 2mm per year. The grandest of cities, a dazzling achievement of Western culture has feet of clay. 

Pride of man and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But God's power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.


Sunday, June 05, 2016

Rome


As a schoolboy I was fascinated by the Greeks and Romans, their history and literature. Classical Studies was one of the few subjects at which I did reasonably well at O Level. Reading Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic reignited my interest in ancient Rome. Sarah and I had long wanted to visit the 'Eternal City' and decided that we would do so for a 25th anniversary treat. 

Among the highlights of our brief stay were visits to the Forum and Palitine Hill, centre of old Roman political life, the Colosseum and the wonderfully preserved Pantheon. Rome really is a beautiful city. Its classical heritage is etched on every Baroque building, replete with Corinthian columns and elaborate architectural detail.   

It is often said that while Rome conquered Greece militarily, that Greece conquered Rome culturally. I could add to that by observing that while Rome conquered Britain militarily, it seems that English speaking pop music has now conquered Rome culturally. While Sarah and I were eating pizza in the Pantheon piazza we were serenaded by an electric guitar player filling the air with the sounds of Hey Jude by the Beatles, One and With or Without You by U2, and various other well known English language songs. It was Stereophonics and Oasis at our hotel. Didn't know whether to feel proud or slightly sad that about the reverse cultural imperialism that we witnessed. What would old Cato have thought, I wonder? On hearing of this affront to Roman dominance would he have pronounced the earth-shattering words in the Forum, 'Cwmavon must fall!' and sent his legions to flatten the place?

We visited St Peter's Basillica on the Monday evening. You can't but be impressed by the architectural grandeur of the place and almost overwhelmed by its artistic splendor. Shining marble, rich paintings, almost life-like sculptures of various popes and biblical figures. But it's a far cry from the Christianity of the New Testament; a simple, mariganlised people who preached a crucified Saviour. If church architecture is expressive of theology, then Rome's buildings proclaim a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross, Her proud Basilicas project power and bid us, 'Behold my works, ye mighty and despair!' Church buildings should be simple, unadorned meeting places where the people of God gather to hear nothing but 'Jesus Christ and him crucified'. A meeting house is a place for hearing the word proclaimed rather than enticing the eye to see the invisible realities of the gospel. It should not draw attention to the achievements of the church, but house a congregation who are directed by the preached word to 'Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!' 

Some quirky things. On Tuesday, our whole day in Rome, we were hindered in our journey from the hotel where we were staying to the city centre because the Metro drivers were on strike. That meant all the would-be Metro passengers had to squeeze onto overcrowded buses. A fellow-traveler got so irate at the failure of the bus doors to open at his stop that he yanked them apart, breaking them. The driver promptly threw us off the bus, leaving us to make our way as best we could. We got there in the end. When visiting the Pantheon, we bumped into an ex member of staff at the school where I'm a governor. How strange is that? The only trouble with Rome (apart from striking Metro drivers) is the hordes of selfie-snapping tourists cluttering up the place. Like, er, us. 

Anyway, we really enjoyed it. A very special holiday. Venice next. 


Friday, May 27, 2016

Rome/Venice 25th Anniversary Tour

Sarah and I will have been married for 25 years in July. To celebrate we're off to Rome and then Venice next week. We're looking forward to seeing the Coliseum and perhaps taking a Gondola ride. Flights and the train ride between the two great Italian cities will give me a bit of reading time. I'll be packing Lila, the latest of the 'Gilead' novels by Marilynne Robinson,