Friday, June 17, 2022

The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown

Audibe edition, read by Lucy Tregar

Thursday 2 June 2022 marked the beginning of Her Majesty the Queen's Platinum Jubilee celebrations. It was also the day on which I finished listening to Anna Keay's gripping account of the time when Britain was without a crown. That wasn't an act party pooping Republicanism on my part. It just happened that being on holiday gave me time to listen to the final chapters of the author's book when sitting on Tenby beach. 

And a very splendid book it is too, brilliantly read by Lucy Tregar. The period of the Republic and Commonwealth is often thought of as a drab and colourless time. Puritan killjoys draped in Bible black endeavoured to suck the joy out of life with all the relish of a wasp stinging a small child. With them in charge living in these islands was about as much fun as Afghanistan  under the Taliban. 

Well no. Those old Puritans certainly took life seriously, but life in the Republic was far from dull. Radical political ideas were put to the test. Religious diversity and toleration were allowed to thrive. Within limits, of course. Almost recognisably modern newspapers began to roll off the presses. Even the formidably stern Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell was known to throw a decent party. With music and high jinx. Anna Keay depicts a vibrant and restless republic indeed.    

While the subtitle promises an account of Britain Without a Crown, it's mostly about England, with a nod to Scotland an occasional side-glance to Wales, but a good hard look at Ireland. Of course it all went pear shaped on the death of Old Noll. But when Britain had a crown again, Charles II did not attempt to wind the clock back and rule with the high handed pretentions of his father, Charles I. Monarchs would now be of the constitutional, not absolute variety. 

The author devotes two chapters each to nine characters from the period of the Republic. Some were movers and shakers, others more marginal figures. The personalities depicted span the Republican/Royalist divide. The lawyer John Bradford presided at the trial of Charles I and went on to become President of the first Commonwealth Council of State. The staunch Republican became disillusioned when the Commons-led Republic was supplanted by the rule of Cromwell as Lord Protector. While Bradford and his fellow Republicans were willing to execute a king, there were limits when it came to turning the world upside down. Gerrard Winstanley's Digger commune at St George's Hill was brutally crushed. The landowning gentry who dominated England's newfound Republic were not about to turn the nation into common treasury for all. 

How defeated Royalists fared during this period is illustrated by the poignant tale of what happed to Lord Derby and his redoubtable wife, Charlotte Stanley. They were actively involved in trying to overthrow the Commonwealth and suffered the consequences. The L’Estranges of Norfolk kept their heads down, but still faced decimation at the hands of the Republican regime. Had Cromwell and Co acted with greater magnanimity towards their defeated foes, maybe there would not have been such a clamour for Charles II to take the crown when the Lord Protector died. 

The religious ferment of the time the London-based mystic Anna Trapnel. People would hang on her words as the young woman emerged from trace-like states to utter her oracles. Trapnel's prophecies addressed political as well as spiritual matters, so the authorities kept a close eye on her. For a time she was carted off to Cornwall where she could cause less trouble. Little is said of more mainstream Puritan figures such as John Owen or Thomas Goodwin. Baptists barely get a look in. 

Marchamont Nedham was a newspaper man. Initially a Royalist critic of the Republican regime, he was imprisoned in the notorious Newgate Gaol. On escaping he did a reverse ferret and courted favour with high up figures in the Commonwealth. His publication, Mercurius Politicus  became the must-read journal of the period. Nedham was careful to maintain his loyalty to the Republic. He exploited his contacts for insider news. Nedham cultivated an array of foreign correspondents whose reports gave the paper international scope. His columns not only included news and comment on current affairs, but also adverts. Mercurius Politicus did not survive the return of the King. 

William Petty was a man of science. And by that he meant the empirical study of nature, not uncritical acceptance of the theories of the ancient Greeks. On the continent Galileo got himself into trouble with the Vatican for advancing Copernicus' heliocentric account of the solar system. The lack of a centralised religious authority in England created space for men like Petty to follow wherever the evidence of nature led them. Petty made his name by almost miraculously restoring Anne Green to health after she had been hanged for murder. Petty and a colleague were about to perform an autopsy on Green when  they noticed she wasn't quite dead. The scientist put his methodical approach to good use in charting the territory in Ireland that was due to be taken from Irish Catholic landowners and given to Protestants in their place. Cromwell's Irish campaign and the subsequent attempts at land clearance showed the Republic at its vindictive worst. As John Owen commented in a sermon to Parliament, “How is it that Jesus Christ is in Ireland only as a lion staining all his garments with the blood of his enemies, and none to hold him out as a lamb sprinkled with his own blood to his friends?”

The man who dominated the era of the Republic was, of course, Oliver Cromwell. Keay neither paints him as a 'boo-hiss' villain, or a plaster saint. Cromwell was a complex character. His conversion to Christ changed the course of his life. He was too humble to take the crown when it was offered to him. Cromwell sought to be attentive to the voice of God addressing him through providence. He could be magnanimous in victory and was tolerant of religious differences within reason. His main political aim was not to achieve a perfect constitutional settlement, but to secure a godly reformation in the land. His Major Generals worked hand in hand with Puritan pastors to achieve that goal in the face of sullen hostility from the masses. Cromwell was an uxorious husband and doting father to his children, yet he feared accusations of nepotism and was cagey about promoting his sons to high office. On the other hand, the Lord Protector could also be harsh, bad tempered and impulsive. Successive parliaments were called and then dissolved. Papist Ireland was treated most cruelly.  His providentialist view of history meant that the Lord who gave him victory at Naesby and Marston Moor must have approved of his political actions, when that isn't necessarily the case. Prosperity isn't always a sign of the Lord's favour and the lack of it a token of his displeasure, as the Book of Job testifies. 

Disappointingly, the author does not adjudicate on whether it is true that a monkey kidnapped the infant Oliver Cromwell and carried him to the roof of Hitchingbrooke House, only to deposit the future Lord Protector of England safely back in his crib. Be that as it may, when Cromwell died the Republic was doomed to collapse. It didn't help that Oliver appointed his unsuitable son Richard to succeed him, rather than the altogether more capable Henry. Cromwell's old generals George Monk and Thomas Fairfax were not Republican purists. They craved stability and concluded that only restoring the monarchy could rescue the nation from chaos. And so it was that Charles II was crowned king. The Republic was no more. 

Listening to this colorful and captivating account of life in Britain without a crown was a salutary reminder that as an attempt at securing a godly reformation, the Commonwealth era was a spectacular failure. Witness the return of 'Merrie England' with the accession of Charles II to the throne. The Puritans' Calvinist theology should have told them that only inward transformation by the Spirit can make a people godly. Political imposition by the State won't cut it. The early Particular Baptists understood this and argued for a clear separation between church and state. 
Given the patriotic fervor that greeted Her Majesty's Platinum Jubilee celebrations it doesn't look as though Britain will be once more without a crown any time soon. Although King Charles III could always mess up spectacularly. Be that as it may, modern Britain would not be what it is today were it not for the Restless Republic depicted here. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The King of Love

Over an elongated Bank Holiday weekend a grateful nation paused to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. I well remember the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations way back in 1977. We had street parties, people merrily waved Union Jack flags and wore red, white and blue plastic hats. Much fun was had by all. Little did we think when we sang, ‘Long live our gracious Queen’, that Her Majesty would live to see her 96th birthday and reign over us for 70 years (so far).

The Queen’s reign has been so long that she seems like a living embodiment of modern British history. She has seen 14 inhabitants of 10 Downing Street, from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson. Even the oldest of us has lived most of our lives under her rule. We don’t like to think that one day Her Majesty’s reign will end, but end it will. Prince Charles sitting in for the Monarch at the recent State Opening of Parliament  was a little glimpse of what’s to come. His time on the throne is bound to be short lived compared to that of his mother.

The Queen makes no secret of the fact that her dedicated service to the nation is inspired by her faith in a King far greater than even her royal personage. That King is Jesus. The Bible styles him, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’. Death will not deprive him of his crown. In fact, it was by dying on the cross for our sins and being raised from the dead that he was enthroned as the world’s true Lord and King. His kingdom of love will never end.

In her message to the Commonwealth in 2011, Her Majesty the Queen, said: “Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.”

* For the June edition of various local parish magazines 

Monday, May 23, 2022

Confessing the Son's impeccability

In an earlier post I argued, 'No, Jesus could not have sinned, but he was tempted'. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith does not explicitly rule on whether Jesus could have sinned. Although it clearly states that he did not, 'The Son of God... [took] upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities of it, yet without sin'. (2LBC 8:2). But there are resources in the confession that help to throw light on the matter and point in the direction that the incarnate Son of God could not have sinned. See Chapter 8 of the 2LBC: 'Of Christ the Mediator'.

The confession acts as an aid to theological reflection by erecting a fence around the mysteries of the gospel, lest we stray out of bounds. Its teaching will help us think through whether Jesus could have sinned in the light of classic orthodox Christology. The Puritans who drew up the Westminster Confession of Faith and its offspring the Savoy Declaration and Second London Baptist Confession were not reckless revisionists. They were Reformed Catholics, who happily confessed the truths laid down in earlier creedal documents such as the Nicaean Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition. 

The Doctrinal Basis of the FIEC doesn't help us either way. It simply says, 'The Lord Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, and lived a sinless life in obedience to the Father.' (4. The Lord Jesus Christ). Traces of Nicaea and Chalcedon can be detected in the wider statement, but they are much more faint than in the 2LBC. 

Clear echoes of Nicaea may be heard in the language the 2LBC uses to describe our Lord. He is God's 'only begotten Son' (8:1), 'the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father's glory, of one substance and equal with Him who made the world' (8:2). The confession's account of the hypostatic union is thoroughly Chalcedonian, 'so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures [divine and human] were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.' (8:2). 

The doctrine of 'communion of attributes' is clearly spelled out, 'Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture, attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.' (8:7). This helps to explain statements in Scripture which seem to suggest that the divine Son suffered and died for his people: 'crucified the Lord of glory' (2 Corinthians 2:8), 'the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me' (Galatians 2:20). Those things clearly happened to Jesus' as man, but we do not say that his human nature died for us, but the person of the Son gave himself to the cross in the mode of his human nature. 

What do these statements have to say to the question of whether or not Jesus could have sinned? Quite a lot. For Christ to have sinned his human nature would have needed to unhitch itself from the divine person of the Son, who cannot be party to sin, Hebrews 1:8-9. The confession rules that out by saying the two distinct natures 'were inseparably joined together in one person' (8:2). The communion of attributes also comes into play by underlining that all actions of the incarnate Son, according to both his  divine and human natures were actions of the person of the Son of God in whom they were united. That means any sin committed by Jesus' human nature would necessarily have been the sin of the Son of God, which is unthinkable. Christ could not have sinned by reason of his human nature's unbreakable union with his divine person. 

Paragraph 3 is also relevant, which I quote in full:

The Lord Jesus, in His human nature thus united to the divine, in the person of the Son, was sanctified and anointed with the Holy Spirit above measure, having in Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell, to the end that being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, He might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of mediator and surety; which office He took not upon himself, but was thereunto called by His Father; who also put all power and judgement in His hand, and gave Him commandment to execute the same.

Here attention is given to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus' human nature. The Spirit is given him 'above measure... to the end that being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, He might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of mediator and surety'. The Spirit's task was to fit Jesus to accomplish the work of redemption. Had Jesus sinned he would have disqualified himself from the office of mediator and surety. It was impossible that the Spirit should have failed in his work. It was impossible therefore for Jesus to sin. The Spirit-anointed Son finished the work the Father gave him to accomplish. 

The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up to God, has fully satisfied the justice of God, procured reconciliation, and purchased an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father has given unto Him. (8:5) 

That the our Particular Baptist forefathers were Reformed Catholics is seen in the distinctively Reformed flavour of their treatment of Christ the Mediator. His work is placed in the context of the covenant of redemption, a hallmark of seventeenth century Orthodox Reformed theology,

It pleased God, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, according to the covenant made between them both, to be the mediator between God and man (8:1)

Taking a lead from John Calvin, Christ's saving work is set out in terms of his biblically assigned offices of prophet, priest and king. Contra Rome, no other mediator between God and man is recognised.  

This office of mediator between God and man is proper only to Christ, who is the prophet, priest, and king of the church of God; and may not be either in whole, or any part thereof, transferred from Him to any other. (8:9) 

They were not called 'Particular Baptists' for nothing: Christ's atoning work procured reconciliation 'for all those whom the Father had given him' (8:5). The benefit of his redeeming work is 'communicated to the elect in all ages' (8:6). 

Had Christ sinned the covenant of redemption between the persons of the Trinity would have been broken. The Lord will have failed in his work as mediator and surety of the covenant. Jesus the priest would need atonement for his own sin. The prophet of our God will have proven false. Christ the king will have been defeated. The Father also will have failed to uphold his incarnate Son by the power of the Spirit. Due to inseparable operations a failure of one person of the Trinity would necessarily involve the other two, which is unthinkable. With that in mind we have to say that the Son simply could not have failed to accomplish the work of redemption. In other words, it was impossible for him to sin.

Although there are differences of emphasis, the Second London Baptist Confession is in agreement with the Westminster Confession and Savoy Declaration on these main points, see here. It is unsettling, then to find that no less a 'Westminster man' than Charles Hodge arguing, 
This sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a non potest peccare [not possible to sin]. If He was a true man He must have been capable of sinning. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes, Kindle Edition, location 20205. 

Of course,  Hodge makes it clear that Jesus did not in fact sin, but he goes on to say,

Temptation implies the possibility of sin. If from the constitution of his person it was impossible for Christ to sin, then his temptation was unreal and without effect, and He cannot sympathize with his people. (Systematic Theology, location 20205-20212). 

But later the Princeton divine states,

All Christ’s acts and sufferings in the execution of his mediatorial work were, therefore, the acts and sufferings of a divine person. (Systematic Theology, location 20232). 

Quite how that chimes with it being necessary for Jesus to be able to sin for him to face temptation I am at a loss to explain. I guess that 'even Homer sometimes nods' and great theologians don't always perceive the inconsistency of their arguments. 

But  why is this matter even important? Advocates of the view that Jesus could have sinned insist that in reality he did not. Supporters of the impeccability of Christ argue that the doctrine does not imply that his temptations were a sham. Very good. But it is important because admitting the possibility that Jesus could have sinned plays havoc with orthodox Christology. The union between the person of the Son and his human nature is rendered uncertain, rather than unbreakable. Due to the inseparable operations of the Trinity, a failure of the incarnate Son would have constituted a failure of the Father and Holy Spirit too. To be consistent Hodge and those who argue like him would have to say,
All Christ’s acts, sufferings [and any possible sins committed] in the execution of his mediatorial work were, therefore, the acts, sufferings [and sins] of a divine person. 

 You see the problem? 

Friday, May 20, 2022

No, Jesus could not have sinned, but he was genuinely tempted

Contrary to what John Stevens said in his tweet, I believe that Jesus was impeccable. Not only was he without sin, it was impossible for him to sin. Yet I also insist that Christ was not impervious to temptation. He 'suffered, when tempted' (Hebrews 2:18), experiencing the full force of Satan's attacks. How can both those points be true? 

1. The incarnate Son was a divine person with a human nature 

At the incarnation the Son of God took a human nature into union with himself. That personal union is unbreakable. For Jesus to have sinned his human nature would have needed to be able to detach itself from the person of the Son, for the Son as God cannot be party to sin.

The human nature of Jesus cannot act independently of the Son, for it is his human nature. Speaking abstractly, Christ's human nature is impersonal. It his no personhood of its own. But speaking concretely of the incarnate Christ, his human nature was in-personal. It existed in union with the person of the Son from the moment of its conception by the Holy Spirit in Mary's womb.  With that in mind we do not say that the human nature of the Son died for our  sins, but that the Son of God died for us in the mode of his human nature.

That is why Christ cannot sin according to either nature; divine or human. The two natures are united in the person of the Son. To say otherwise and suggest that the human nature could act independently smacks of Nestorianism, the idea that the incarnate Son was an alliance of two persons, divine and human, rather than a divine person with a human nature. 

Donald Macleod cites W. G. T. Shedd to this end, saying, 'When the Logos goes into union with a human nature, so as to constitute a single person with it, he becomes responsible for all that this person does through the instrumentality of this nature... Should Jesus Christ sin, the incarnate God would sin.' (The Person of Christ, IVP, 1988, p. 230). Similarly, Oliver Crisp spells out the logical implication of holding that while Christ was sinless, he could have sinned, 'In short, if Christ really could have sinned - but did not - then he must have been able to choose to sin as the God-Man. (God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology, T&T Clark, 2009, p. 134). 

2. The Father promised the incarnate Son the help of the Holy Spirit 

Jesus was conceived in the virgin's womb by the power of the Spirit so that the nature he assumed might be fully human and yet without sin, Luke 1:35. Also, the Father promised his Son the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit to enable him to accomplish the work of redemption, Isaiah 42:1, 61:1, Luke 3:21-22. The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus to live in obedience to the Father's will, that he might offer himself without blemish to God, Heb 9:13-14. 

It is inconceivable that Jesus could have sinned, as that would have constituted a massive failure in the work of the Spirit of God whom Christ received without measure from the Father. Not only the indissoluble union of Son to his human nature, but also the inseparable operations of the Trinity stand against the idea that Jesus could have sinned.

3. What the Son could not do as God he could do as man, but not sin

The incarnate Son did many things that God in himself could not do. That is the point of the incarnation. For human beings to be saved it was necessary for the Son to become man to suffer and die in our place. It fully consistent with God's character for the Son to become man to redeem us by his blood. Indeed, the cross is the great revelation of God's justice and love, Romans 3:25-26, 5:8. But it would have been inconsistent with God's character had Jesus sinned. God is love, but he also light and in him there is no darkness at all, 1 John 1:5. Again, Donald Macleod this time in his own words, 

We may link the subject 'God' with many predicates. The Son of God may suffer, be tempted, may be ignorant and may even die. But we cannot link God with the predicate 'sin'. God cannot in any situation or for any purpose commit a transgression of his own will. He absolutely cannot be guilty of lawlessness. (The Person of Christ, p. 230). 

4. The the incarnate Son needed no capacity to sin to be truly human 

In the original article tweeted by Stevens, Matthew Corey asks, "What kind of humanity is Jesus redeeming if there is no capacity for sin?" (Unionized Perfection). This assumes that having a capacity to sin is a mark of authentic humanity. Presumably resurrected and glorified humanity will be incapable of sinning. That does not mean that in saving us God rescues us from being human, rather than redeeming humanity from its fallen state.  As Robert Letham points out,
If the quintessence of being human is found in heaven and consists., among other things, in freedom from the possibility of sinning, it follows that impeccability itself does not undermine the humanity of Christ in his state of incarnate weakness prior to the resurrection. (Systematic Theology, Crossway, 2019, p. 525)
Jesus was the 'Word made flesh' (John 1:14). He came, said Paul 'in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin' (Romans 8:3). The flesh he assumed was weak and mortal like ours, but it was the flesh of the Son of God and so was incapable of sinning for the reasons already given. Corey questions, 'If Jesus has no capacity for sin how was able to “become sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21).' But this it a category mistake. Paul was not saying that Jesus  "became capable of sinning for us" by virtue of his incarnation. Rather, he 'who knew no sin' bore the judicial penalty of sin on behalf of his people that 'so that in him we might become the righteousness of God'. Similarly in Romans 8:3, driving idea is the judicial condemnation of sin in Christ's flesh, not that he had a capacity for sin, 'by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh'. 

Robert Letham concludes his discussion of whether it possible for Jesus to sin saying,  'that since a sinful condition is not essential to human nature, the argument that impeccability undermines the reality of Christ's humanity and the genuineness of his temptations fails.' (Systematic Theology, p. 526). 

5. The incarnate Son was impeccable, but not impervious to temptation

The incarnate Son was impeccable from the moment of his conception. But that does not mean he was impervious to temptation, Luke 4:1-13, Hebrews 2:18. Adam was so made that it was possible for him not to sin, but he did sin. For Jesus it was not possible to sin, but that does not mean his temptations were like water off a duck's back. We do not find him resisting the devil by saying, 'You must be joking, I'm the Son of God and therefore impeccable, don't you know?' 

Jesus 'suffered when tempted' (Hebrews 2:18), combatting the evil one by wielding the sword of the Spirit (Matthew 4:4). While Satan sought to tempt Christ by appealing to his unique divine identity, 'if you are the Son of God...' (Matthew 4:3, 5), Jesus responded as one who had 'taken the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men' saying, 'Man shall not live by bread alone...', (Matthew 4:4). The incarnate Son 'learned obedience through what he suffered' (Hebrews 5:8) in the arena of temptation. Satan did did his worst, but 'full of the Holy Spirit' (Luke 4:1), and in humble dependence on the Father, Jesus vanquished the foe. As Hebrews insists, in Jesus our great High Priest we have 'one who was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin'. (Hebrews 4:15). Kevin Vanhoozer reflects,

There is no necessary contradiction between Jesus being "open" to temptation and the certainty of never sinning. The temptation was no sham, for it is precisely because Jesus resisted temptation that he could "feel" its full force. He was impeccable yet subject to real temptation in the way that an invincible army is subject to real attack. (Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 432. 

Could Jesus have sinned? No, but 'because he has himself suffered when tempted, he is able help those who are tempted.' (Hebrews 2:18). 

Monday, May 09, 2022

Ten Points on Reformed Baptist Federal Theology

1. God made a covenant of life with Adam, whom he appointed federal head of all humanity. This was a covenant of works, under which if Adam obeyed the Lord he and all in him would live for ever and enter God's Sabbath rest. If Adam disobeyed, he and all in him would die under God's judgement. (Gen 2-3, Rom 5:12-21, 2LBC 7:1).

2. God made a covenant of grace with his elect people, who were chosen in Christ for salvation before the foundation of the world and redeemed by his blood in the fullness of time. The covenant of grace is made effective by the power of the Spirit, (Ephesians 1:3-14).

3. The Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants were not administrations of the covenant of grace. They were 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12) in which the covenant of grace was progressively revealed 'until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament' (2LBC 7:3).

4. The old covenant (the collective name for the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants) was not a republication of the covenant of works. The law 'was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made'. (Galatians 3:19). The law also served as a rule of life for Israel, setting out their covenant obligations to the Lord. In her idolatrous disobedience Israel broke the covenant and brought upon herself its terrible curses, Leviticus 26:14-39. Unlike the covenant of works with Adam, for Israel there was a way back to God from the dark paths of sin, Leviticus 26:40-45. The Lord's deliverance of his people from captivity was typical of the greater exodus accomplished by the redeeming work of Christ (Jeremiah 23:7-8, Luke 9:31, Colossians 1:12-14).

5. Abraham was the federal head of the Abrahamic covenant in whom blessing was received (Genesis 12:2-3, 17:1-8). Moses was the mediator of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 20:18-21, 33:12-17), of which David and his royal line served as federal heads. As went the king, so went the people for good or ill, (1 Kings 9:4-9).

6. While the old covenant foreshadowed the covenant of grace, it was only in the new covenant that the covenant of grace was fully enacted. (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Colossians 2:16-17, Hebrews 8, 9:15-22). Christ is both mediator and federal head of the new covenant, (1 Timothy 2:5-6, Romans 5:12-21).

7. During the Old Testament period people were saved by faith in the Christ who was yet to appear as mediator of a new and better covenant. (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15). Under the new covenant people are saved by faith in Christ who has come and accomplished the work of our redemption (Galatians 2:16, Ephesians 2:8).

8. The old covenant was with Abraham and his offspring, which is why all males descended from the patriarch were circumcised. But not all who belonged to Israel through descent from Abraham and circumcision believed and were saved (Romans 9:6, 27). Only a godly remnant knew 'circumcision of the heart' of which circumcision in the flesh was a sign (Deuteronomy 30:6, Romans 2:28-29).

9. As the historical enactment of the covenant of grace the new covenant is between God and the elect in Christ. The law is written on the hearts all new covenant people of God by the Spirit of Christ (Jeremiah 31:33, 2 Corinthians 3:3). All who believe in Jesus belong to the Israel of God, whether Jew or Gentile. Baptism is the sign that believers have been savingly united to Christ by the Spirit. (Galatians 3:27-29, 6:16). That is why according to the New Testament baptism invariably follows repentance and faith, and is linked to church membership. (Acts 2:38-39, 41-42).

10. As federal head of the new covenant, Jesus takes us not back to the beginning, but to the end of the road that Adam had to walk. (Herman Bavinck). In fact, we receive more in Christ than we ever would have had in Adam. For the riches of God's grace and the depths of his glory are  fully revealed only in Jesus, the last Adam, Romans 5:21, 1 Corinthians 15:42-49, Ephesians 1:7-10, Colossians 1:27. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Banner of Truth Minsiters' Conference 2022

I first attended the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference as a student at the London Seminary from 1988-90. The academic year began in October, so I guess my first conference must have been April 1989. Back then I was young enough to attend the Youth Conference over the weekend and then stay on for the Ministers' event from Monday to Thursday. 

The conference used to be held on the campus of Leicester University. There was something special about 'Banner' in the 1990s and early 2000s. Some of the speakers were marvellously helped and the presence of God seemed near. Al Martin with his 'fire & fury' awakened us. Stuart Olyott pointedly called us to ministerial zeal and faithfulness. One year Sinclair Ferguson gave three addresses on sanctification. Outstanding examples of theology on fire, practically applied. Plus, Ted Donnelley at the height of his powers spoke on the temptation of Jesus. Donnelley's ministry was characterised by the exegetical insight of a biblical scholar, wedded to the pathos of a pastor's heart. Then there were gripping biographical papers by Iain Murray on the likes of Archibald Brown and Geoff Thomas on Howell Harris. There were giants in those days. At least that's how it seemed to me. 

The pandemic put paid to the 2020 & 21 Banner Ministers' Conferences, so it was good to be back in Yarnfield Park Conference Centre, Staffordshire for the 2022 event. I enjoyed catching up with old friends, many of whom I hadn't seen since 2019. Nice to bump into some new people from the UK and beyond too. The programme of speakers and subjects can be found here. I was especially helped by Conrad Mbewe's (featured above) three addresses on 1 John 1, exploring various aspects of communion with God. Robert McCollum Jr preached on what Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:45-52) has to teach us about communion with God exemplified and experienced. Those were the highlights for me. 

I didn't buy any books this year, but that doesn't mean I returned home without anything to read. The confessional Baptist publisher Broken Warfe  had several titles on display in the exhibition room, including the ones pictured below, by Samuel D. Renihan. Both books had been on my 'wish list' for a while and I was grateful for the freebie review copies.   

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Growing old gracefully

No, this is not an autobiographical article. It was prompted by reading a thoughtful piece in the Sunday Times the other weekJeremy Clarkson on growing old and his fear of death. He's 'only' 62, which is older than me, but not exactly what you might call geriatric. That’s not how it seems for Clarkson, though. He is definitely feeling his age. And then some. The writer laments the effects of the passing of time. Knees need replacing and ears boosting with hearing aids. Eyes grow dim and you can’t remember where you put your spectacles. ‘We are all dead men walking’, he laments. Faced with increasing weakness of body and mind, the writer is not cheered with the hope that at death he will be going to a better place, “I know I’m going to be in a hole where I shall rot. And I shall be there for ever”. More a case of growing old grumpily than gracefully.

Jeremy Clarkson has had a hugely successful career as a TV presenter, journalist and author. Millions tuned in to watch him, Richard Hammond and James May on BBC’s Top Gear, before the team made the move to Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. The presenter’s Clarkson’s Farm was also a big hit, with Season 2 in the offing. Most weeks Clarkson has not one, but two columns in the Sunday Times. Yet his movingly honest reflections on the ravages of time put me in mind of a sobering passage in the Bible's book of Ecclesiastes. With unblinking realism the author reviews his many life achievements and concludes, “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

Clarkson is grappling with the fact that death deprives us of our achievements and stops us fulfilling our dreams. But is nothing left when we reach the autumn of our days than to rage against the dying of the light? The Christian faith puts a different perspective on things. Paul writes, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” The believer’s inner life is being rejuvenated by the power of God’s grace, even as their bodies are wearing out with age. The Christian has hope in the face of death, that although their bodies will rot in a hole, their spirits will be present with the Lord in heaven. Beyond that, we look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. By the grace of God it is possible to grow old gracefully, with hearts full of hope rather than despair.  

*For the May edition of various local parish magazines 


Monday, April 04, 2022

The NHS, a case of bad theology?

"The NHS is the closest thing the English have to a religion"
(Nigel Lawson) 

The other week the wife and I headed to the Land of My Fathers to watch Wales v Italy at the Principality Stadium. It seemed obvious that Wales would win that game of rugby, but Italy didn't read the script. They snatched victory with a brilliant try in the closing minutes of the match. Before the game we went for a wander around Cardiff city centre. At the Cardiff Castle end of Queen Street stands a statue of Nye Bevan, the Labour heath secretary who set up the National Health Service in 1948. If Lawson was right, the religion of the English was founded by a Welshman. 

I was reminded of the words of Mrs Thatcher's Chancellor on reading a column by Matthew Syed (@matthewsyed) in The Sunday TimesWe must challenge our leaders when they lazily deify the NHS. In the article the author reflected on the Ockenden report into failings at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. The report detailed 1,592 incidents of poor care between 2000 and 2019. At least 201 babies and nine mothers might have survived if they had been given better medical treatment. 

Syed argued, "the problem within the NHS is not institutional but theological. In short, we have deified this organisation for so long that it is no longer amenable to rational reform." Because the NHS has been accorded almost divine status. its actions are deemed almost beyond criticism. Those who do complain about poor practice are all too often shunned rather than listened to so that lessons might be learned. Syed's prescription was to target the 'theology' of NHS-worship, "its time to secularise the NHS". If the problem with the NHS is one of bad theology, however, the solution is not no theology, but good theology. 

Porcelain gods
Last Friday we went to see Paul Weller in concert at the Guildhall in Portsmouth. One of the songs he performed was Porcelain Gods from the album Stanley Road. Weller knew what it was to be a 'pop idol'. His band, The Jam often topped the charts in the late 1970s and early 80s and attracted a loyal following of young mods. Weller blindsided fans, not to mention fellow band members Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler by splitting The Jam in 1982. He went on to form the highly successful  Style Council, but by 1989 his creative juices seemed to have run out.  His record label rejected his latest offering and the Style Council were no more. Weller was the rock god who fell to earth, not knowing whether he could resurrect his career and start again. That is the background to Porcelain Gods. Weller sang,

How disappointed I was
To turn out after all
Just a porcelain God
That shatters when it falls

The song is a recognition that the singer was all too human and breakable, a 'porcelain god'. Any worship offered to Weller the pop idol is therefore misplaced. And so it is with any human individual or institution. Those who 'clapped for carers' during the pandemic might be excused for feeling similarly disillusioned when they read the shocking findings of the Ockenden report. For all the undoubted good it does, the NHS is not a fitting object of worship and should not be treated as such. There is only one who is worthy of worship, that is God our Creator. He is perfect in his being and flawless in his ways. That is true of no one else, not even the NHS. Criticism of the health service is not sacrilege. It is the necessary prelude to much-needed reform.  

Good pessimism 
Another theological problem highlighted by Syed is a kind of Pelagian attitude that shapes how the NHS views itself. Healing the sick is a definite good, but that does not mean everyone involved in the world of medicine is morally perfect, or that every aspect of the NHS deserves to be championed as 'world class', when clearly it is not. Witness the damning Ockenden report. The fact is that NHS managers and medical practitioners are not exempt from the effects of 'original sin'. We are all morally flawed. Donning a stethoscope is no cure for that. 

Syed thinks that secularism is the answer, but one of the most distasteful things about Christianity according to 'Enlightenment' thinkers was the very idea of 'original sin'. David Hume and others rejected the Bible's pessimistic view of human nature. They believed that human beings were capable of discovering the truth by reason alone and on that basis decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. It was a kind of secularised Pelagianism. Pelagius taught that it was possible for human beings to achieve moral perfection by their own efforts. Augustine of Hippo argued strenuously against Pelagius. According to Augustine, his views constituted a denial of the seriousness of sin and the need of salvation by the grace of God. 

Augustine-style pessimism about human nature is both realistic and healthy. It protects us from thinking our own actions are always beyond criticism and that it is only others who are capable of doing wrong. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart." Given that is the case, robust systems of oversight and accountability need to be put in place as a safeguard against wrongdoing. The institutional Pelagianism of the NHS militates against that, which is why whistle-blowers are often ostracised and patient concerns are all too frequently ignored. According to the Ockenden report, “There was a tendency of the trust to blame mothers for their poor outcomes, in some cases even for their own deaths.” Tragic.  

Secularise the NHS?
Secularising the NHS won't necessarily help matters. But good theology may be of some service in  pointing us to the one true and living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is no 'porcelain god' who cannot bear the weight of our worship. Theology also bears witness to the unique worth and value of human life, created in the image of God. That is why the sick should be cared for, rather than discarded. The 'Golden Rule' laid down by Jesus is the foundation of medical ethics. We should care for others as we would like to be cared for, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them" (Matthew 7:12). But regarding NHS staff as 'Angels' who are incapable of getting things badly wrong is a denial of reality. Strong Augustinian antibodies are needed to destroy the virus of institutional Pelagianism.  

Friday, April 01, 2022

A time for war, and a time for peace

The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven’. The Preacher then lists fourteen pairs of opposites from, ‘a time to be born, and a time to die’, to ‘a time for war, and a time for peace’. Few thought we would see another ‘time for war’ in Europe. It’s horrifying to see images of bombed out cites and to hear stories of lives lost and bodies maimed.
Times like this bring out the best in people. Neighbouring countries have welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees.  The United Kingdom is also doing its bit to provide a safe haven for people fleeing the horrors of war. Millions of pounds have been donated to charities providing aid to those left with nothing who remain in the conflict zone.
But war also puts on display the worst in human nature. The fact that there is war at all is bad enough. The cruel targeting of civilians by Russian forces only makes it worse. The idea that such barbarity was a thing of the past in Europe has sadly been proven wrong. 

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman propounded the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.” He claimed “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” Well, they had branches of the fast food outlet in both Moscow and Kyiv. It seems Ronald McDonald hasn't forever silenced the din of battle after all. It will take more than global capitalism to do that. 

This ‘time for war’ is a shocking reminder of the terrible reality of sin. Sin is rebellion against God our Maker, the bold defiance of his law. God’s law calls us to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’, not hate them, steal from them, or take their lives. God will deal justly with all who break his good commands, whether in times of war or peace. 
This April we celebrate Easter, the time when Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world. His death in our place satisfied God’s just demands and revealed the depth of his love for us. Jesus paid the price of sin so that all who believe in him may be forgiven and be put right with God. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead tells us that the powers sin and death have been defeated. The Bible holds out the hope that when the Lord Jesus comes in glory, ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’ Then there will be a ‘time of peace’ for ever.

* For various local parish magazines 

Friday, March 25, 2022

Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards, by Paul Helm

Reformation Heritage Books, 2018, 282pp, 

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones would often say that the truth of God’s word should be presented to the mind in order to inflame the heart and move the will to action. In speaking like that the preacher was using the language of ‘faculty psychology’. The ‘faculties’ of the soul describe its intertwining functions and powers, such as the mind, the affections and the will. That does not mean the soul is composed of various bits and pieces. Most proponents of faculty psychology believed that the human soul is a simple entity that cannot be divided into discrete parts as can the body.

Early Christian thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo drew upon the views of Plato and Aristotle when formulating their doctrine of human nature. Reformers John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli followed in their wake. The old Greek philosophers knew nothing of original sin or the resurrection of the body, however, so their ideas had to be modified in the light of biblical teaching.

The focus of Helm's study is on the ‘faculty psychology’ of Puritan writers. He cites the views of numerous Puritans on the relationship between body and soul, the faculties of the soul and moral agency. The teaching of familiar figures such as John Owen and John Flavel is discussed, as well as less well known writers like William Pemble. The book demands careful reading, as each author quoted had a slightly different perspective on the matters under consideration. Helm’s discussion of the conscience in Puritan writings is especially illuminating.

John Locke critiqued traditional faculty psychology, preferring to emphasise the actions of the undivided self over and against differentiated powers of mind, heart and will. Helm provides evidence of Locke’s influence on Jonathan Edwards’s work, The Religious Affections. But Locke’s objections did not spell the end of faculty psychology. The insights of our Puritan forebears continue to cast light on human nature as created by God, affected by sin and redeemed by grace. 

Paul Helm blogs at Helm's Deep

*Reviewed for the April 2022 edition of  The Banner of Truth Magazine