Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reading list for 2010

Here are some of the books I'd like to read (or finish reading) next year:

Who Made God? Searching For a Theory of Everything, Edgar Andrews, Evangelical Press. (Ordered)
Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2, God and Creation, Herman Bavinck, Baker. (Started)
Catholicism: East of Eden, Richard Bennett, Berean Beacon Press. (Started)
What The Bible Teaches About The Future, Peter Bloomfield, EP Books. (Review for Protestant Truth Magazine)
Dictionary of European Baptist Life and Thought, Gen. Ed. J. H. Y. Briggs, Paternoster. (Review for European Journal of Theology).
Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a former Catholic, Chris Castaldo, Zondervan. (On shelf)
The Works of John Owen, Volume 14, Banner of Truth. (Started)
Fearless Pilgrim: The life and times of John Bunyan, Faith Cook, Evangelical Press. (Almost finished)
Ratzinger's faith: the theology of Pope Benedict XVI, Tracey Rowland, Oxford. (Ordered)
Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship, Kevin Vanhoozer, Cambridge. (January 2010 publication date).

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Christmas!

Here's wising my readers a very happy and blessed Christmas. I'm not sure what John Owen would have thought about the observance of Christmas, but in this meditation he brings us face to face with the glorious mystery of the incarnation:

But had we the tongue of men and angels, we were not able in any just measure to express the glory of this condescension; for it is the most ineffable effect of the divine wisdom of the Father and of the love of the Son, — the highest evidence of the care of God towards mankind. What can be equal unto it? what can be like it? It is the glory of Christian religion, and the animating soul of all evangelical truth. This carrieth the mystery of the wisdom of God above the reason or understanding of men and angels, to be the object of faith and admiration only. A mystery it is that becomes the greatness of God, with his infinite distance from the whole creation, — which renders it unbecoming him that all his ways and works should be comprehensible by any of his creatures, Job xi. 7–9; Rom. xi. 33–36.

He who was eternally in the form of God, — that is, was essentially so, God by nature, equally participant of the same divine nature with God the Father; “God over all, blessed for ever;” who humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven and earth, — he takes on him the nature of man, takes it to be his own, whereby he was no less truly a man in time than he was truly God from eternity. And to increase the wonder of this mystery, because it was necessary unto the end he designed, he so humbled himself in this assumption of our nature, as to make himself of no reputation in this world, — yea, unto that degree, that he said of himself that he was a worm, and no man, in comparison of them who were of any esteem.

We speak of these things in a poor, low, broken manner, — we teach them as they are revealed in the Scripture, — we labour by faith to adhere unto them as revealed; but when we come into a steady, direct view and consideration of the thing itself, our minds fail, our hearts tremble, and we can find no rest but in a holy admiration of what we cannot comprehend. Here we are at a loss, and know that we shall be so whilst we are in this world; but all the ineffable fruits and benefits of this truth are communicated unto them that do believe. (From The Glory of Christ, Works Volume 1, p. 330 - here).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Why the Word did not become a human person

I can understand what the poet Roy Lessin is getting at in the sentiments expressed in this Christmas card. But something's not quite right. The Word did not become a Person when Jesus was born into the world as man. The Word was the second Person of the eternal Trinity. He for ever existed in a loving and personal relationship with both the Father and the Holy Spirit. The idea that the Son of God became a human person is the error of Nestorianism. According to Nestorian doctrine (although Nestorius himself almost certainly did not teach this), the person of the Word entered into union with a human person at the incarnation. But as Cyril of Alexandria pointed out, this construction divides the one Lord Jesus Christ into two personal identities. Nestorianism was condemned as a heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. Now, I'm not accusing Roy Lessin of being a Nestorian heretic! I simply quote his poem as an example of how Christians sometimes use well-defined theological terminology in a rather loose way.
Discussion over the precise relationship between the divine and human in Jesus continued to rumble on until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. At that council, the Church declared that best account may be made of the Bible's portrait of Jesus by saying that in the incarnate Son there are two natures, divine and human. So, we may say that the person of the Word became flesh, taking a human nature, but not that the Word became a human person. This one Person with two natures Christology has stood the Church in good stead for centuries.
What then may we say of Jesus' humanity if he did not become a human person? It was suggested that the human nature was strictly speaking impersonal or anhypostasia. But this is problematic and open to misunderstanding in the light of the highly individualised human being described in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and ministry. Here is no impersonal automaton. In his humanity, Christ evidently had a distinct psychological make-up. He had his own mind with a unique way of thinking as expressed in his teaching. He had human emotions. Jesus had a human will with the capacity for making meaningful decisions. He had relationships with a wide range of other human beings. The notion of impersonality doesn't quite capture all this. Better to speak of the humanity of Jesus as in-personal or enhyposatos. This term stresses that the humanity of Jesus has no independent existence apart from in union with the person of the Son. The humanity he assumed when conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary was his humanity. It was the Son in his humanity who preached the Sermon on the Mount, cleansed lepers with a touch of his hand, wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and commanded the dead back to life. It was the Son of God in his humanity who gave himself for us on the cross. It was not simply that his human nature died in our place, but that the Son suffered and died for us in his human nature. All that he did as man was an expression of his personal identity as the Son of God.
At the back of this discussion lies the very idea of personhood. In modern-day terms "personality" refers to the set of individualising psychological characteristics that make us what we are as unique human beings. In that sense, Jesus' humanity clearly had "personality". But in the language of theological discourse, "person" refers to God in his threeness as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while "being" refers to God in his oneness as the one Lord God. In this context, "person" means something like "centre of self-consciousness". The Son is conscious that he is the Son and has an I-Thou relationship with the Father and the Spirit in fullness of God's inter-Trinitarian life.
That is why we cannot say that the Word became a person at the incarnation. At worst it seems to mean that the impersonal Word only became personal at the incarnation. Where does that leave the doctrine of the Trinity? At best we would be suggesting that Christ has two personal identities, so that the divine Son has an I-Thou relationship with his own human nature. That does not accord with what we find in the New Testament, where Jesus is possessed of one unifying self-consciousness. As both God and man he knows that he is the Son. There may be two levels of consciousness - as God the Son he knows all things, while as man he only knows some things. However, there is but one self-consciousness in the Son of God incarnate.
So, the Christmas card is wrong. The Word did not become a person. For us and for our salvation, the person of the Word took a human nature. God became man to bring man back to God. Jesus is and ever will be 'Emmanuel', God with us as one of us.
See here and here for some more attempts at corrective Christmas theology.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Manhattan Declaration: what price co-belligerency?

The declaration
On November 20th a coalition of 150 leading representatives of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Evangelical traditions released a joint-statement, ‘The Manhattan Declaration’. Amongst the Evangelical signatories were several high-profile names, Chuck Colson, Tim Keller, Albert Mohler, and Joni Eareckson Tada. The declaration is the expression of concern over the secularisation of American society. Evangelical Christians on this side of the Atlantic will readily share that sense of concern in the case of the United Kingdom.

Here is an official summary of the 4,700 word document,

Christians, when they have lived up to the highest ideals of their faith, have defended the weak and vulnerable and worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen vital institutions of civil society, beginning with the family.

We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are:

1.the sanctity of human life
2.the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
3.the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Inasmuch as these truths are foundational to human dignity and the well-being of society, they are inviolable and non-negotiable. Because they are increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our culture, we are compelled today to speak out forcefully in their defence, and to commit ourselves to honouring them fully no matter what pressures are brought upon us and our institutions to abandon or compromise them. We make this commitment not as partisans of any political group but as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The main body of the Manhattan Declaration is taken up with developing the three key points listed above; the sanctity of life, the unique dignity of heterosexual marriage and freedom of religion. It cannot be doubted that these are some of the most pressing moral and social issues facing Christians today. The culture may be increasingly hostile to what we have to say on these matters, but it is for us as Evangelical Christians to bear witness to biblical principles in public life.

The declaration garnered a fair bit of coverage in the American media, both secular and Christian. In the UK, The Guardian somewhat predictably dismissed the document as a “declaration of hypocrisy” as it makes no mention of the Iraq war, while the Christian Concern for our Nation website asks hopefully, “The Manhattan Declaration: An historic call to Christian Truths. Is the UK next?
Controversy
However, not all Evangelicals have welcomed the declaration. Some well known leaders have refused to sign up, among them, Alistair Begg, R. C. Sproul and John MacArthur. What’s the problem? Clearly all Bible believing Christians will identify themselves with the three key points at the heart of the declaration. It is good that representatives from Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Evangelical traditions can speak with one voice on life issues, marriage and religious freedom. The problem is the Manhattan Declaration seems to go further than that to suggest that the three groupings proclaim the same gospel. Church-level differences are acknowledged, but it is assumed that all involved parties are “Christians” and “fellow believers” who share a common vision of the gospel,

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defence of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.

For Evangelicals involved in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement such as Chuck Colson, this approach is not at all problematic. ECT proceeds on the basis that, Evangelicals and Roman Catholics as those who "accept Christ as Lord and Saviour are brothers and sisters in Christ." (Reaffirmed in the most recent ECT joint-statement on Mary). However, so long as Evangelical Protestants hold that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone in accordance with the witness of Scripture alone, we have to say that the Roman Catholic Church does not preach the biblical gospel of salvation. The same goes for Orthodoxy.

Al Mohler has written to explain that his signature on the Manhattan Declaration does not involve acceptance of the ECT position. For him the declaration is all about the three key issues mentioned above and entails no subversion of confessional integrity. But as already pointed out, the document seems to imply that all signatories are Christians who proclaim the same gospel. Listen here for a revealing interview with Ligon Duncan, where he explains why although an opponent of ECT, he signed the declaration, HT Dan Phillips.
Co-belligerence and gospel faithfulness
The declaration and its fall-out raises the question of co-belligerence and gospel faithfulness. We owe the phrase “co-belligerence” to Francis Schaeffer. He argued that it is right for Evangelicals to make common cause with other interested parties on matters of moral and social concern. On that basis we may stand with Roman Catholics against abortion and in favour of heterosexual marriage without suggesting that we are in agreement on gospel essentials. Just recently Evangelicals via Christian Institute campaigned alongside Roman Catholics and the atheist Rowan Atkinson in the name of free speech - see here. Similarly William Wilberforce assembled a broad coalition in support of the abolition of the slave trade and other good causes. He worked with people whose beliefs were quite different from his own without compromising his Evangelical convictions.

If the Manhattan Declaration had simply stated that as representatives of the Judeo-Christian tradition, leading members of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Evangelical groupings had spoken out on some of the key moral issues of the day, there would be no problem. Indeed the declaration is a welcome clarion call for Christians not bend the knee to Caesar if the State should demand that we compromise our beliefs and values. Jesus Christ is Lord and it is to him we owe our ultimate allegiance. But regrettably, in the Manhattan Declaration co-belligerence appears to have trumped gospel faithfulness.
See Co-belligerence and common grace: Can the enemy of my enemy be my friend? by Daniel Strange for some helpful theological reflections on co-belligerence gospel faithfulness.
*An edited version of this post is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming edition of Evangelical Times.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ten of my favourite things from 2009

1. Best doctrinal book: Words of Life: Scripture as the living and active word of God, by Timothy Ward, IVP, 2009.
2. Best book on the Christian life: Broken-Down House: Living Productively in a World Gone Bad, Paul David Tripp, Shepherd Press, 2009.
3. Best book on Mission: Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, by Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paperback 519pp.
4. Best biography: John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, by Herman J. Selderhuis, IVP, 2009.
5. Best book on heresy: Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church, edited by Martin Downes, Christian Focus, 2009.
6. Best Christian radio programme: Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley.
7. Best album: 'The Resistance' by Muse.
8. Best film: UP!
9. Best blog: Helm's Deep
10. Best Exiled Preacher moment: Blogging in the name of the Lord interview with Dan Phillips.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Special offer evangelistic books by Roger Carswell and Vaughan Roberts from 10ofthose.com

We are increasingly living in a post-Christian society. By that I don't mean Christianity has passed its sell-by date, but that many people in our society no longer have a basic grasp of the Christian message. Churchgoing is a minority interest. When the Christian faith features in television programmes and newspaper articles the aim is often to undermine key elements of biblical teaching. RE lessons in schools or "Beliefs and Values" as they are called today follow a pluralistic agenda that emphasizes the intrinsic value and importance of all faiths. The unique and special claims of the Christian faith are played down. We might lament all this and long to return to a period when Christianity helped to shape the assumptions and beliefs the masses, but this is where we are right now. If we are going to reach the people of our day with the gospel of Christ we can no longer take it for granted that they have a even a nodding acquaintance with the authentic Christian message. It not sufficient simply to urge people to "Come to Jesus!" or ask them, "Are you saved?". Such an approach only makes sense in a context where men and women know full well the message of salvation, but they have failed to do anything about it. We need to go back further and set the claims of Christ and the message of salvation in the context of what the Bible says about who God is and who we are in relation to him.
This is what Roger Carswell attempts to do in Things God Wants us to Know, Christian Focus, 2009 reprint, 64pp. First of all he urges his readers to question their questions and to give the Christian message a fair hearing. He then devotes a chapter to four things that the evangelist believes that God wants people to know, God wants us to know who He is, God wants us to know who we are, God wants us to know what He has done and God wants us to know what we must do. As might be expected from the pen of an experienced Christian communicator, the book is well-written and is sprinkled with attention grabbing illustrations. Carswell is not afraid to take on opponents of the Christian faith like Richard Dawkins. He demonstrates the emptiness of atheism and gives a reasoned defence of the Christian message. Non-believers who give serious attention to this book will be challenged to think carefully about what God wants them to know. And by "God" Carswell does not mean a shadowy Intelligent Designer, but triune God of the Gospel who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a God of amazing love and awesome holiness. Here the gospel of salvation in Jesus is set in the context of God's self-revelation in Scripture. Only in that light can sinners be meaningfully urged to trust in Christ and devote their lives to following him. A winsomely written, yet robust and challenging evangelistic title.

If Carswell gives attention to the theological context of the gospel, Vaughn Roberts has a slightly different tack in his Missing the Point? Finding Our Place in the Turning Points of History, Authentic, 41pp. The Christian message does not come to us in the form of a set of abstract truths about God, ourselves, and salvation in Christ. The gospel is the culmination of the unfolding story of biblical revelation. Unless people have an understanding of the Bible's basic plot-line, the claims of Jesus will make little sense. Robert's approach is all the more necessary given the widespread ignorance of the Bible in our society. This user-friendly title takes the reader through some of the big 'turning points' in Bible history; creation, the fall, God's promise to Abraham, the Exodus, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. With all this in mind, Roberts not only invites his readers to believe in Jesus and be saved, he also makes it clear that being a Christian involves serving the Lord in the context of church life. The booklet comes in an attractive format and manages to sketch out the Bible's main plot-line without leaving the reader overburdened with detail. An ideal evangelistic tool for helping the non-Christian get to grips with the greatest story ever told.

If you like the sound of these two titles, the good people at 10ofthose.com have a special offer for Exiled Preacher readers. You can get them for £2.50 per booklet or 10 for £25 or 100 for £125 (all prices include postage within the UK). Quote 'Exiled' when e-mailing sales@10ofthose.com.

Friday, December 11, 2009

2010 Westminster Conference

Next year's Westminster Conference will meet on December 7 and 8, 2010. Details of exactly who'll be speaking to be confirmed, but the subjects have been announced:
1. Rewriting the Reformation (response to Duffy, Starkey, Sansom, etc)
2. Puritan attitudes to Rome
3. AV 1611
4. Preaching for repentance
5. The 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference
6. Andrew Bonar (born 1810)
I'll be speaking on 'Puritan attitudes to Rome'. By way of prep, I'm working my way through Anthony Milton's fascinating study, Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600-1640, Cambridge University Press, and the Works of John Owen Volume 14, which contains Owen's anti-Roman writings. Much to my surprise his unpromisingly entitled, Animadversions on the Fiat Lux is a great read. The prince of Puritan theologians adopts the stance of a longsuffering cat toying with an overconfident mouse. He engages his Roman opponent, John Vincent Cane with ironic good humour. Yet when Owen bares his claws, he cuts the Franciscan Friar's arguments to shreds with some devastatingly incisive theological analysis. With the new attitude of Evangelicals to Rome signalled by Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the controversy over the Manhattan Declaration, it looks like this may be a good time to consider what we have to learn from Puritan attitudes towards Rome.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

2009 Westminster Conference Report (3): Stephen Clark on 1859 - A Year of Grace

1859 - A Year of Grace
Stephen Clark
It fell to Stephen Clark to break the Conference's concentration on Calvin to give an account of the 1859 Revival.
USA
The Revival began in America in the wake of a severe financial crash in October 1857. In the September of that year the famous Foulton Street prayer meetings began. These meetings began in a small way, but soon 100's of prayer meetings had been set up throughout New York. Churches were revived and many lost sinners were saved.
Ireland
Similarly in Ireland, four concerned believers started praying and soon large crowds of 3,000 people gathered for outdoor prayer meetings in all weathers. Many were prostrated under deep conviction of sin. Notorious sinners in Protestant and Roman Catholic camps were converted. Sectarianism waned as converted Protestants showed a new love for their Roman Catholic neighbours.
Scotland
The 1859 Free Church of Scotland's annual assembly made mention of a remarkable work of grace. Many were converted under the preaching of Brownlow North.
Wales
'Land of Revivals' since the 1730's. There were around fifteen powerful revivals from 1735 to the early 1850's. Clark sketched out the course of the 1859 revival in Wales, but I won't recount that here. See this earlier series of posts.
Leading characteristics
1. Remarkable conversions.
Many people from 'Hell Corner' in the USA converted. T. C. Edwards converted under David Morgan's preaching in Wales. Sceptical intellectuals as well as prostitutes saved.
2. Powerful preaching
Preachers were empowered by the Spirit to preach with great effect. For example, see David Morgan here.
3. Consequences
Revival of the church. Awakening and conversion of sinners. Social impact - crime and drunkenness cut. Some areas pronounced crime free. Magistrates were presented with white gloves as they had no cases to try. Prostitution outlawed. The poor helped. Beginning of Dr. Bernardo's orphanages. Spiritual impact: In the wake of the 1859 Revival there was a work of the Spirit amongst students in Oxford and Cambridge that led to the eventual founding of the IVF (now UCCF) and via IVF the publishers, IVP . Hudson Taylor was joined by converts of the '59 Revival when he returned to China in 1865 - start of China Inland Mission.
4. Aftermath
Churches damaged by Liberalism in the 1880's
5. Lessons
1) The work of God's kingdom is advanced by 'special seasons of mercy' like the 1859 Revival. Jonathan Edwards, “It may here be observed, that from the fall of man, to our day, the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable communications of the Spirit of God. Though there be a more constant influence of God’s Spirit always in some degree attending his ordinances; yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work, always have been by remarkable effusions, at special seasons of mercy”.
2) We need to pray for such 'special seasons of mercy' - 2 Thessalonians 3:1.
3) We should not be parochial, but have a world-wide vision. The '59 Revival led to renewed interest in mission.
4) We should not confuse results with causes. Trying to replicate the prayer meetings of the 1850's will not guarantee revival. Those special meetings were themselves the result of an outpouring of the Spirit. God is sovereign and revival cannot be created on demand. Beware of old Plymouth Brethren teaching that since the Spirit was given at Pentecost we need not pray for further outpourings of his grace. Views of Moore College similar. Danger of overreaction against Charismatic excesses. The risen Jesus is able to pour out the Spirit in fresh power and we should urgently seek him for this.
5) ? - skipped due to time constraints
6) Our contemporary situation is different to that of 1859. Religious pluralism, the presence of other faiths, strident atheism. We must engage in apologetics, 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, Acts 17:22-34. But what we need above all else is the demonstration of the Spirit and power in our preaching - 1 Corinthians 2:1-4.
I didn't stop for the discussion as I had a train to catch and the paper ran a little over time. I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to the Westminster Conference for many years. Stimulating papers. Good discussion. Nice to have fellowship with old friends. The event was spolied a little by a poor, muffled sound system and some strange noises off. The papers for both days will be made available in printed form - keep an eye on the website for details.
I was only presnet at the Conference on Tuesday so that's it for my reports. But my good friend, Gary Brady has posted some notes on Wednesday's papers:

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

2009 Westminster Conference Report (2): Don Carson on Calvin as commentator and theologian

Calvin as commentator and theologian
Don Carson
Carson is famed a New Testament scholar rather than a Calvin specialist. As he approached his subject he reminded us of the words of the 'famous American theologian', Clint Eastwood, "A man's got to know his limitations." But he suggested coming from his specialism he might be able to offer some fresh perspectives on the matter in hand.
Introduction
Calvin was remarkable in that he was a systematician and a Bible commentator. Today's commentators are not often systematic theologians and many systematicians are not too hot on biblical exegesis. Much of what passes for systematic theology today is in fact historical theology where the views of figures from the past are compared and contrasted. Some systematics is more akin to philosophical theology, others give attention to prolegomena, but there are few biblically informed systematic theologies. Calvin however was a systematiser in the Institutes and a prolific biblical commentator. The Institutues and the commentaries fed off each other. In his preface to the Institutes, Calvin made it clear that his systematic work and the commentaries needed to be read together. He did not dilate on doctrinal points in his commentaries because he had dealt more fully with theological issues in the Institutes. As the Institutes expanded from the modest 1536 edition to its 1559 definitive form, it is possible to trace the impact of Calvin's exegetical work on his overarching theological system.
The term 'Biblical Theology' was first used in 1604 of a book full of proof texts for Lutheran orthodoxy. By the 18th century Biblical Theology denoted the study of the theology of the Bible in historical sequence. Under the influence of the Enlightenment, Biblical Theology fell under the spell of the history of religions school of thought. Today Biblical Theology tends to focus rather narrowly on the theology of John, Luke, Peter or 'Q' rather than looking at whole Bible Biblical Theology. Calvin was a 'whole Bible biblical theologian' and a systematic theologian.
Calvin criticized both Melanchthon and Bucer's approach to writing commentaries. 1) In his commentaries Melanchthon gave attention to the theological loci found in the text rather than the whole textual unit. 2) Melanchthon's loci were determined by Aristotelian philosophy. He did not follow the flow of the biblical text. Calvin's expositions followed the text wherever it led. 3) In Bucer we find both the loci approach and an exegesis of the text, making his commentaries massive, unreadable tomes. Calvin aimed at 'clear brevity' in his commentaries. Many of his commentaries were transcripts of his lectures on the Bible. He dealt with the loci in the Institutes.
The development of Calvin's thought can be noted as the Institutes expanded over the years. Material was added to sections on the knowledge of God and ourselves, justification, repentance, the likeness and dislikeness of Old and New Testaments, predestination, providence, the Christian life and monastic vows. His exegetical work influenced and enriched his treatment of these subjects.
Case Studies
Genesis 1 & 2
In the 1536 Institutes there is a lengthy discussion of the image of God under the heading of the knowledge of God and ourselves. In his Commentary of Genesis, he gives scant attention to the image of God.
Genesis 1:2 & 26
From the start the Institutes was thoroughly trinitarian, but Calvin was cautious about seeing the Trinity in the text of Genesis 1. In his commentary he does not draw trinitarian conclusions from the plural divine name Elohim or the use of "us" in Genesis 1:26. He knows very well that God is Trinity, but did not wish to dump his wider theological conclusions into every text of Scripture. Calvin was accused of being a Judaizer because of his reluctance to read truths only fully revealed in the New Testament back into the Old.
Calvin was a master of grammatico-historical exegesis. He eschewed Luther's more explicitly Christological approach to the Old Testament, refusing to read the Old Testament anachronistically.
Genesis 3
In the 1536 Institutes, Calvin spoke of the cancellation and effacement of the image of God due to the fall. As his work expanded he gave more attention to the matter of living for righteousness, with large a sections of Book III of the 1559 Institutes becoming in effect "A Little Book on the Christian Life". He has little to say about this in his commentary on Genesis 3.
Ten Commandments
Calvin wrote a Harmony of the last four books of Moses, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Here he follows a more loci-based approach rather than straight exposition. He gives a more lengthy discussion of the purpose of the law than we find in the Institutes. Unlike in his Harmony of the Gospels, his work on the Pentateuch does not follow the original order of events. The order is changed for the sake of theological emphasis. This more complex approach is partly due to the fact that the work was written rather than being based on his lectures.
In the Harmony his treatment of Exodus 20:1-17 is very much like that of his exposition of Deuteronomy 5 in his commentary on the last Book of Moses. But he comments on Exodus 20:18 first in order to set the scene. In the Harmony Calvin was attempting to provide a biblical theology of the Pentateuch.
1 Peter 2
In the 1536 Institutes, Calvin argued that there are three marks of a true Church, the right preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments and church discipline. Thereafter, while he emphasizes the importance of discipline, only the Word and sacraments are mentioned as the marks of the church. Calvin was willing to adapt his material for the sake of emphasis.
1 Corinthians 1
In the categories of systematic theology, 'justification' is a once-for-all forensic declaration that a sinner is right with God by faith in the finished work of Christ. 'Sanctification' is defined as the progressive transformation of the believer. Calvin recognised that sanctification does not always carry that meaning in the Bible. Paul described the Corinthians as "saints", 1 Corinthians 1:2. But as the rest of the letter shows, that does not mean that they were living holy lives. Calvin saw that in this case sanctification simply meant being set apart to God. In a similar way, the instruments used in the temple were described as "holy", without implying moral change. Calvin did not use the later language of definitive or positional sanctification in contrast to progressive sanctification. But he was aware that the discourse of systematics is often different to the vocabulary of the biblical text. We need to be sensitive to this too. In systematic theology, we speak of the 'effectual call' to salvation, but in the Synoptics 'call' means invitation. It is in Paul that 'call' means 'effective call'. Philippians 3 is all about progressive sanctification in the sense intended by systematic theology, but the word 'sanctification' is not used once. Preachers need to be aware of the differences between the discourse of systematics and the way language is used in the text of Scripture, so that we do not simply read the categories of systematic theology into the Bible.
Those who read a lot of systematic theology need to compliment that study by reading commentaries that give serious attention to the text of Scripture. Those who read lots of commentaries also need to engage with systematic theology to gain a holistic and coherent view of biblical truth. Biblical theology helps systematic theology to consider texts in their proper redemptive-historical setting. Systematic theology helps biblical theology to locate individual texts in the context of the whole counsel of God. The fact that Calvin was a fine systematiser and a model of clear and concise biblical exegesis makes his God-given gifts seem all the more remarkable.
Discussion
The ensuing discussion mainly ranged around the issue of Christ-centred hermeneutics. Is Calvin Christ-centred enough in his Old Testament commentaries, especially compared with Luther? Carson said that Calvin got it right. When we take his ministry as a whole, he was thoroughly Christ-centred. But he did not read Christ into every Old Testament text. Carson argued that a simplistic "this points to Jesus" approach to the Old Testament is unhelpful. For example, Psalm 69, quoted several times in the Passion Narratives is firstly about David. We understand it as Messianic due to God's covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7, and the expectation of a Davidic Messiah in the prophets - Isaiah 9:6-7 etc. We need to show how the Old Testament Scriptures speak of Christ by making these redemptive-historical links clear. Calvin did this. But still some were unhappy with the apparent lack of Christ-centeredness in Calvin's OT commentaries. His work on Genesis was cited as a case in point. This is also a complaint that might be levelled against many contemporary conservative Old Testament commentaries. The text is expounded in accordance with the rules of grammatico-historical exegesis, but very seldom is an attempt made to show how the passage points to Christ. This is out of kilter with what Jesus said about his place in the Old Testament, Luke 24:46-47 and also 1 Peter 1:10-12. On its own, a grammatico-historical approach to the Old Testament is not sufficient for the Christian expositor. We also need to be sensitive to the redemptive-historical and Christological pattern of biblical revelation.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

2009 Westminster Conference Report (1): Garry Williams on Calvin and separation from Rome

John Calvin’s agenda: Issues in the separation from Rome
Garry Williams - Director of the John Owen Ce
ntre
For the first time almost 20 years I attended the Westminster Conference. It was a bit like stepping back in time, spotting faces in the crowd I recognised from all those years ago. But there were also a good number of younger people in attendance. For various reasons I was only able to be there for Tuesday's sessions. Here are some notes on the first of the day's three papers.
I. Calvin's anti-Roman writings
Key works: Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto, The Necessity of the Reformation of the Church & Reply to the Council of Trent.
Controversy with Rome a necessity because of Roman idolatry. Avoidance of controversy tantamount to 'rocking the world in a sleep of death'. Idolatry has eternal and temporal consequences. Temporal judgements on Corinthians because of abuse of the Lord's Supper - 1 Corinthians 11. Blasphemy of the Mass far worse than Corinthian error. Encroachment of the Ottoman Empire on Christendom a judgement for abuse of the Lord's Supper.
Priorities:
Concern for worship & doctrine.
Christian religion summed up under two headings:
a) Knowledge of true worship
b) Source of salvation
Church order is comparable to the body and doctrine to the animating soul of the Christian faith. The Reformation aimed at reforming the church and doctrine. Justification of primary importance - the soul of Christianity. The right ordering of the church also important. Unlike Zwingli Calvin believed that God uses external things as means of grace. Not that the sacraments have power in themselves, but when received by faith the Holy Spirit uses the Lord's Supper to strengthen the believer's union with Christ. Christ is given with the signs when they are received by faith.
While we might agree with Calvin's priority on right doctrine, especially justification by faith, do we also share his concern for the reformation of worship? Are our concerns more individualistic with little thought being given to the form and content of Christian worship?
1. The New Testament is concerned with the right ordering of public worship - 1 Corinthians 11.
2. Public worship has an evangelistic purpose - 1 Corinthians 14.
3. Corporate worship in all its parts is meant to be educational, grounding Christians in the Word of God.
II. Calvin's actions in defence of the faith
Attention was drawn to his preaching, teaching, writing, polemical work and correspondence. Herculean labours wielding the club of the Word in the defence and confirmation of the Gospel. Calvin fostered Evangelical unity, seeking to forge links between Lutheran and Reformed camps. Not like Luther who treated Christians who disagreed with him as his enemy. Calvin had a more Conciliatory spirit when it came to controversy with other Evangelicals, but was clear that there could be no reunion with Rome unless Rome was radically reformed. Evangelicals and Catholics Together misguided. GAFCON too willing to side with Anglo-Catholics against Liberals. But we need to work harder to encourage friendly relations with other Reformed Evangelicals across the Anglican/Nonconformist divide. Church Society Anglicans not ecumenically compromised. Not that areas of disagreement don't matter, but we should be governed by a disposition towards unity.
III. The centre of Calvin's vision of reality
His vision focused on the physical body of Christ to which everything else in the world is related. The Christian has been brought into saving union with Christ's body by the Spirit. The life of God flows through the body of the risen Christ to his people. The Roman Catholic teaching of the intercession of the saints robs Jesus of his unique dignity as Saviour. The Roman Catholic bishop attempts to 'strip Christ bare and give the spoils to the Pope'. Christ is 'deformed' by doctrine of the Mass. That is why Calvin has no option but to enter into controversy with Rome. Saving doctrine is at stake - the need to understand what it truly means to eat Christ's flesh and drink his blood, John 6:53-54. The Reformation was about being near to Jesus rather than far from him as in the Roman system.
From Calvin's disagreement with Rome we are reminded of the vital importance of three things: The ongoing reformation of the worship of the church in accordance with the Word of God. The need to cultivate unity among Reformed Evangelicals. A Christocentric vision of reality.
Discussion of this stimulating paper ranged mainly around the theme of worship. The Moore College view that Christians meet on a Sunday simply for instruction was criticised. It was argued that there is such a thing as public worship on the Lord's Day. The New Testament specifies the elements of public worship. The introduction of worship groups and the informality of some church services was kicked around. We need to carefully think through the form and content of our Sunday services. Are they biblical in form and content? Are they reverent and yet joyful? Is there a sense of expectation that in worship we are gathering to meet with the living God? Also, given Calvin's stress on right doctrine, especially of justification by faith, there was a some discussion of the influence of N.T. Wright's views.
It was good to catch up with some old friends at the conference. On the train there and back I was able to read a couple of evangelistic booklets for review on behalf of 10ofthose.com and picked up a copy of a Gospel Intimacy, won in a competition. More reports to come.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Westminster Conference


I'll be heading to London tomorrow for the first day of the Westminster Conference. On the menu:
John Calvin’s agenda: Issues in the separation from Rome
Garry Williams
Calvin as commentator and theologian
Don Carson
1859 - A Year of Grace
Stephen Clarke

I shall be taking my trusty notebook and pen and hope to post a report on the blog.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Presents

The special Christmas edition of Evangelical Times features my article, 'Presents':
At Christmas time we give and receive presents. I suppose this echoes the gifts that the wise men brought to the infant Jesus. Perhaps, it is an even fainter echo of God’s gift of eternal life to us through his incarnate Son.
Christmas is a reminder of the importance of giving. But we have to learn to give well. It is possible to give for the wrong reasons. We can give coercively, such as when we say to our children, ‘You’ll have to be good if you want that special present for Christmas’. We may give proudly to parade our generosity to others or make people feel beholden to us in some way. That is bad giving. Being a Christian involves learning to imitate the giving God (Ephesians 5:1). He is not a contractual giver who only gives in order to clinch a deal — ‘I’ll do this for you if you’ll do that for me’. Such a construction undermines the true grace of giving. But neither is he a ‘Father Christmas’-style giver; one who gives freely yet who demands nothing from us by way of response. God gives to do us good, not to spoil us like an indulgent parent. He gives lovingly, out of the overflow of infinite giving and receiving in his own divine life — as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Costly giving

God’s giving is costly, disproportionate and extravagant: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16). It cost the Father to give his Son to be despised and rejected by men, and ultimately to be made sin for us on the cross. All he demands from us by way of response is faith — and that itself is a gift he bestows as part and parcel of our salvation (Ephesians 2:8). Is this not totally disproportionate? God gives us his one and only beloved Son. In return, we give him our trust and he lavishes upon us the extravagant blessing of everlasting life. What can we say but, ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ (2 Corinthians 9:15). Clearly we cannot match the infinite and unrestrained generosity of the giving God. But Jesus said, ‘Freely you have received, freely give’ (Matthew 10:8).
Reflecting on the truth of 2 Corinthians 8:9, Miroslav Volf writes, ‘If the presence of the gift-giving Christ makes us rich, rest will replace weariness, and peace will banish unending restlessness. ‘Like the apostle Paul, we will then know the secret of being content whatever the circumstance, “of being well-fed and of going hungry, or having plenty and of being in need” (Philippians 4:12). ‘And like the apostle, we will then give, even if we must work hard to do so and sacrifice what’s rightfully ours (see 1 Corinthians 9:1-24)’. (Free of charge: Giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace, Zondervan, p. 109 - see here).
For Christians, giving is for life, not just for Christmas. But Christmas is a good time to give.
Previously posted on the blog as 'Gifts'.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Jim Packer on the superficiality of blogging

The veteran Evangelical Anglican theologian delivers his none too favourable verdict on blogging:

"I'm amazed at the amount of time people spend on the internet. I'm not against technology, but all tools should be used to their best advantage. We should be spending our time on things that have staying power, instead of on the latest thought of the latest blogger—and then moving on quickly to the next blogger. That makes us more superficial, not more thoughtful." (From World Magazine article on Packer, Patriarch).
Does he have a point?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Reformed Baptists, whatever next?

William Kiffin (1616-1701) - A Reformed Baptist?
Stateside some of the big beasts of the Calvoblog jungle have been clashing over whether Baptists can can justifiably identify themselves as 'Reformed'.
James White says, yes!
R. Scott Clark says, no!
Michael Haykin says, yes!
For what it's worth, I say "yes" too.
Baptists subscribing to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith are Reformed Baptists, especially so since we reject paedobaptism on biblical grounds. Being Reformed involves a commitment to semper reformanda. We should be continually reforming our beliefs and practices in the light of Holy Scripture. On that basis the Independents were correct to revise the Westminster Confession of Faith in their Savoy Declaration. And Baptists were justified in further reforming the teaching found in Westminster and Savoy.
I commend Henri Blocher's essay, Old Covenant, New Covenant in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, A. T. B. McGowan (ed). Baptism is not his primary focus. But his discussion of the relationship between the old and new covenants is highly relevant to the subject. Following Blocher's reasoning it can be convincingly argued that unlike circumcision, baptism as the sign of the new covenant is applicable only for those believe in Christ. In other words, when properly understood, the key tennet of the Reformed faith that is covenant theology is baptistic. Reformed Baptists? Oh yes!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Broken-Down House by Paul David Tripp

Broken-Down House: Living Productively in a World Gone Bad,
Paul David Tripp, Shepherd Press, 2009, 223 pages
As you can see, the front cover of this book features a picture of a broken-down old house. The bad news is that this is the place where God calls us to live. The good news is that God is going to renovate the broken-down house and restore its former glory. And the renovation process has already begun. We live between the already of the dawning of grace and the not yet of the renewal of all things.

The author uses the idea of a broken-down house to illustrate what it means to live for the Lord in a fallen world. The world has gone bad because of sin. Nothing is as it should be. Everything from the environment to personal relationships have been affected by the devastating effects of the fall. But that does not mean that the believer should fatalistically write off the 'broken-down house' of this world. God has called us to be part of his renovation work by living productively in a world gone bad.

Doing this requires a healthy dose of biblical realism. We have to come realise that we cannot change other people, let alone the world in our own strength. To think otherwise is a recipe for the frustration and bitter disappointment that so often seems to mar our relationships. Believers need to come to terms with their limits and rest in the sovereign power of God. We need to live in the light of eternity and learn what it means to actively wait upon the Lord. He alone is able to restore the broken-down house and transform those who live in it.

But that does not mean that we can do nothing. Fuelled by love for the Lord and empowered by grace we must reject passivity and involve ourselves fully in God’s redemptive community, the church. We have been saved to serve and having a ministry mentality will affect every aspect of our lives. Understanding this and living it out will transform our relationships within the family, church and society.

In the final chapter, Tripp urges his readers to examine their legacy. Can the people closest to us see that we are living for eternity with an eye for God’s glory, or are our goals altogether more earthly? Such questions force us to think about what really makes us tick. And that isn't a bad thing.

This well written book is full of telling illustrations and is characterised by pastoral honesty and sound biblical teaching. The believer is challenged to live faithfully and fruitfully in a fallen world that God is busy restoring. Read, reflect and act.
* An edited version of this review will appear in a future edition of Evangelical Times.

Monday, November 30, 2009

FIEC for a New Day: Resolved

So, on Saturday we (that is me and one of our deacons) hitched a lift with a neighbouring pastor and wended our way to Birmingham for the FIEC Extraordinary Assembly. On the table were a series of resolutions that if passed would lead to the wholesale restructuring of the FIEC. Among the proposals was that we have a full-time Director in the shape of John Stevens, rather than a revolving three year Presidency. The existing Gen Sec, Richard Underwood to become 'Church and Pastors' Support Director'. The appointment of an Admin Director. Extra Funding for evangelism and training. A Trustee body of 11 good men and true who will exercise financial and spiritual oversight over the FIEC in place of the old 35 man Council. Voting rights weighted according to size of church. A beefed-up Leaders' Conference that will represent the churches and hold the Directorate and Trustees to account at an annual Assembly.
The whole thing took ages, starting about 1.30pm and concluding at 5.00pm. Current President, Rupert Bentley-Taylor gave the opening devotions on Psalm 121. Richard Underwood talked us through the proposals. Then we came to discussion of the resolutions prior to voting. Lots of talk. I didn't get a chance to seek reassurance that the appointment of additional directors for evangelism and training would have to be specially approved by a Leaders' Assembly. Next, various amendments to the resolutions were proposed, but all were overwhelmingly voted down. In response to the amendments clarification was given that the Trustee's "spiritual oversight" did not amount to an extra tier of church government, but simply involves oversight of the affairs of the FIEC itself. The role of the Leaders' Conference as an expression of co-operative Independency was further explained. In the end all the resolutions were accepted by a large majority of delegates. John Stevens was welcomed as the new Director and said a few words. He seems like a good and gifted man, but we'll have to be careful not to rely on him, but on the Lord to revive and renew the churches in FIEC. And so we headed back to Wiltshire.
On the way home we stopped at one of the M5 Services for coffee. Bowing to peer pressure I had a cup of McDonald's "cappuccino" with my fellow travellers when a Costa coffee shop was just across the way. It was weak, way too milky - even for cappuccino, and had no bite. Resolved never to drink such stuff again. No amendments. No clarification. Got home about 8.00pm feeling rather weary and having missed the rugby entirely. Wales lost badly to Australia 12-33. Doesn't seem much point in watching the recording. Preached yesterday to Bulford Independent Church. It was good to renew fellowship with old friends and to meet new members of the congregation. Still feeling tired, I'm hoping to take it easy today with a bit of reading and prep for a school assembly tomorrow morning.

Friday, November 27, 2009

FIEC for a New Day


Tomorrow I'll be off to the FIEC (Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches) Extraordinary Assembly in Edgbaston, Birmingham. We'll be considering whether on not to accept the 'FIEC for a New Day' proposals. These include appointing John Stevens, pastor of City Evangelical Church, Birmingham as full time FIEC Director, and making current General Secretary, Richard Underwood 'Church and Pastors' Support Director'. I understand that the suggested appointment of further Directors for Training and Evangelism have been put on the back burner for now. Talking to fellow FIEC ministers in the area, it seems that there is some cynicism about the proposals. So, it will be interesting to see how it goes.
For my part, I think that the FIEC needs to work harder to get churches and pastors involved on a local level. Our area Leaders' Meeting is often poorly attended, with pastors claiming that they are too busy to be there. That makes me feel like a bit of slacker for just turning up. But should not fostering fellowship and co-operation between local Evangelical churches be a priority for pastors? If I get the chance this is one of the points I hope to raise in the discussion session. What ideas do the proposed national Directors have on making the FIEC work on a local level? In other words, how can we make the 'F' for Fellowship in the FIEC meaningful?
I hope the trip to Birmingham will be worthwhile and that the Assembly will help to rejuvenate the FIEC. It had better be worth it because I'll have to miss watching the Wales v Australia rugby match on TV to be there. Didn't the FIEC bigwigs think to consult the WRU to make sure the Assembly didn't clash with international fixtures before setting the date of the meeting? Don't they realise that a disproportionate number of FIEC ministers are Welsh?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Preaching on Hell

At yesterday's Ministers' Fraternal at the Old Baptist Chapel, Bradford on Avon, Mark Stocker of Spring Road Evangelical Church, Southampton spoke on 'Preaching on Hell'. Here are some notes on what he had to say together with some reflections of my own on the subject.
For many hundreds of years it has been preached that there is a real, physical place called "Hell". That place is one of everlasting separation and deprivation, of pain and punishment, of darkness and destruction, and disintegration and perishing. This teaching is fiercely attacked by some today and is one of the most difficult doctrines for believers to accept.
Where have the attacks come from?
In personal witness people often react strongly against the idea of hell as everlasting conscious punishment. This doctrine can be a stumblingblock to faith. In the late 80's and early 90's some respected Evangelical scholars such as John Stott, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes and David Wenham questioned the traditional teaching on hell. They proposed an annihilationist alternative that denies the eternal punishment of the wicked. As a result of renewed interest in the teaching of Karl Barth, universalism is once again gaining ground in some quarters. Universalists teach that all human beings will ultimately be saved, hence no one will go to hell, or at least no one will remain there for ever. More recently, Robin Parry alias 'Gregory McDonald', the 'Evangelical Universalist' has endeavoured to make a case for universalism from a professedly Evangelical perspective.
Old Testament revelation
Relative to the New Testament, there is little material on the afterlife in the Old Testament. Sheol - 'the realm of the dead' can simply mean the grave, but in some contexts sheol is described as the destination of the wicked, Psalm 9:17 cf Ezekiel 32:17-32, from which the righteous will be delivered, Psalm 49:13-15. See also the contrast between the wicked in Psalm 73:18-20 and the righteous in Psalm 73:23-26. The distinction between the righteous and the wicked in death is made most clearly in Daniel 12:2-3, where the prophet has the resurrection of the body in mind.
New Testament revelation
A key passage is 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10, where many of the key aspects of the New Testament teaching are expressed.
The nature of hell
What are the main characteristics used to describe hell?
1. Punishment
Sinners are consigned to hell as the just punishment for sinning against an eternal and holy God. They will be judged and condemned righteously according to their works, Mark 9:42-48, Luke 16:19-31, Romans 2:5-11, Revelation 20:12-15. The more one sins, the greater one's punishment, Matthew 11:20-24, Luke 12:47-48.
2. Banishment
Jesus often spoke of hell as the "outer darkness" (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). This suggests that hell involves being banished from every expression of God's goodness, to face only his wrath and displeasure against sin.
3. Destruction
Not in the sense of annihilation, but meaning that the wicked will face eternal ruin, Matthew 7:13-14, 24-27, Luke 13:3-5, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10.
4. Hell is eternal, conscious punishment
The Bible teaches that the wicked will suffer everlasting destruction. See Matthew 25:46, where the same word aionion is used of the eternal state of both the righteous and the wicked. The variations 'everlasting punishment' and 'eternal life' are not warranted by the original.
How would we answer those who say that hell = annihilation?
The biblical words, 'destruction' and 'perish' do not mean 'annihilate', but 'ruin' see 2 Peter 3:5-6.
In my opinion it is a mistake to make the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked overly dependent on anthropology, specifically on the notion that the human soul is inherently 'immortal'. To do so is to play into the hands of those who teach 'conditional immortality', a form of annihilationalism. We must use biblical language in a biblical way. In Scripture the word 'immortal' is applied uniquely to God in 1 Timothy 6:15-16, he alone is innately immortal. He is the undying God who has life in himself. As far as human beings are concerned, according to the Bible 'immortality' is not an inherent property of the soul. It is brought to light in the gospel, 2 Timothy 1:10. Only resurrected believers are described as 'immortal', 1 Corinthians 15:50-55. Adam was not immortal before the fall - he was liable to death should he sin. Not even Jesus was immortal or undying in his humanity prior to the resurrection - he died on the cross. Only as the risen Lord is he immortal with the power of an endless life. In the Bible 'immortality' is a redemptive-eschatological category. It is at the resurrection that believers will be raised immortal in the image of the the last Adam.
So, we misconstrue the biblical teaching when we say that hell is for ever because the human soul is innately 'immortal'. That view savours more of Plato than the Bible. We must look at the issue of eternal punishment theologically rather than anthropologically. Hell is for ever because the infinitely holy God demands that sinners suffer the eternal consequences of their actions. That is what his justice requires (2 Thessalonians 1:9). At death the souls of the wicked are consigned to hell (Luke 16:19-31), awaiting the day of judgement and the resurrection of the body, (John 5:28-29, Acts 24:15). At the resurrection, the wicked will be raised to face eternal, conscious, spiritual and bodily punishment, (Revelation 20:11-15). The wicked will not be raised immortal. Their resurrection and consequent punishment in the lake of fire is described as a 'second death' (Revelation 20:13-14). As Jonathan Edwards rightly argued, sin against an infinite, eternal God deserves an infinite and eternal punishment. Note that it is the duration of this God-imposed punishment rather than an innate quality in the soul of the wicked that is described as 'everlasting', Matthew 25:41, 46 cf. Revelation 14:11. It is on this theological basis that we believe in the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked in hell.
Advocates of annihilationism often point to the emotional impossibility of coping with the idea of the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked. Those who hold to the traditional view of hell are not ignorant of the emotional implications of the doctrine. But we cannot allow our emotions to determine whether we will accept the plain teaching of Scripture. Emotional resolution of the problem of eternal punishment is to be found in the cross of Jesus. We must preach that hell is everlasting. But the good news is that people don't have to go there because Jesus died as a propitiation for our sins, enduring the sufferings of hell in our place. Those who believe in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.
How do we preach hell?
In the light of what Scripture teaches, what emphases and elements should we see in our preaching?
1. Reality
Hell is real and people need to be warned to flee from the wrath to come.
2. Right
God does not consign people to everlasting punishment arbitrarily. Human beings will be judged and condemned according to their works. We can be sure that our holy God will act justly against sin. 'Will not the judge of all the earth do right?'
3. The seriousness of sin
One reason why people have a problem with hell is that they do not have a sufficiently serious view of sin. But if sin is not serious, why Calvary?
4. Balance
We must not make hell the singular theme of our preaching. We should preach it proportionately and appropriately, with Christlike love for the lost. He wept over lost sinners. We also need to urgently admonish the unrepentant to turn and be saved, remembering that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, Ezekiel 33:11, 2 Peter 3:9. This note of compassion is so important when it comes to preaching on hell.
5. Marvel
God will punish the wicked to display his power to the praise of his glorious justice, Romans 9:22. That we have been saved from hell is a marvel of God's grace to sinners. We must stand in awe of his mighty works of grace and judgement and say, Romans 11:33-36.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Church Website

Our church website has just been updated and has a fresh new look. Check it out here. We hope to add sermon audio files and other content soon. Thanks to Matt Hopkins for all his hard work.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Alister McGrath interview

Alister McGrath was recently interviewed on Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable? He shares his own journey of faith and discusses why Christianity makes best sense of the world as he sees it. He addresses the way atheism is currently making its case, as well as the fine tuning of the universe, the resurrection, heresy and more. Not everything the theologian-apologist says commands agreement, but an interesting and worthwhile listen.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Evangelical Ministry Assembly 2010: 'Not by might not by power: Spirit-filled ministry'

Unfairly or not, The Proclamation Trust has often been associated with the Moore College view that the Holy Spirit is always and invariably active when the Word of God is preached (see here). It was therefore a nice surprise to see from their latest brochure that the theme of the 2010 Evangelical Ministry Assembly will be 'Not by might not by power: Spirit-filled ministry'. Speakers include Rupert Bentley-Taylor giving the EMA Bible readings, John Piper on 'The preacher and the Holy Spirit', Christopher Ash on 'Word and Spirit in John's gospel', and Vaughan Roberts on 'George Whitefield'. 23-25 June 2010, check it out here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Charles Hodge on the Spirit working apart from the truth

On Monday I gave an address on Word and Spirit in Preaching to the Evangelical Ministers' Fraternal, Bradley Stoke. I quoted Charles Hodge in defense of my thesis that the power of Holy Spirit does not always accompany the Word in the same invariable way,
"In short, the whole Bible, and especially the evangelical history and the epistles of the New Testament, represents the Holy Spirit not as a power imprisoned in the truth, but as a personal, voluntary agent acting with the truth or without it, as He pleases. As such He has ever been regarded by the Church, and has ever exhibited himself in his dealings with the children of God." (Systematic Theology Vol. III, p. 484).
In the discussion time after the paper someone questioned Hodge's assertion that the Holy Spirit acts "with the truth or without it, as He pleases." The questioner argued that while the Spirit is sovereign in the way he operates, he always works with the truth and never without it. Stupidly perhaps I hadn't given sufficient thought to this aspect of Hodge's teaching. I waffled a bit saying, "It depends what is meant by 'truth'." As some aspects of the Spirit's work may occur apart from specific biblical revelation. But I couldn't come up with anything more convincing to say and so I conceded the point. It seemed that Hodge was mistaken. But was he?
An article by Stuart Olyott on Why Luther Got It Wrong - and Why We Need To Know in December's Banner Magazine got me going on this one again. Criticizing the idea that the Word innately contains the converting power of the Spirit, Olyott wrote, "In fact if he [the Spirit] wishes, he can even work without the Word. He can!" Reflecting further, I think that the old Princeton theologian was thinking along the right lines. The Spirit does not normally work apart from the truth of biblical revelation in the salvation of sinners. But his action in the world is not limited to the presence of the Word of God whether written or preached. He may act apart from the truth of of special revelation in speaking to the conscience of a sinner in order to convict of sin. People who have never heard of the Bible's message of salvation in Christ have sometimes been given strange visions that help prepare them to receive the gospel. The Spirit has given us the written Word of God, but he may work apart from the Bible as he pleases. Having said that, salvation is not usually possible apart from the sinner believing Holy Scripture's witness to Christ, Romans 10:9-14, 2 Timothy 3:15. But perhaps there are some instances where the Spirit may work apart from the truth of the gospel even in the salvation of sinners. The Westminster Confession of Faith makes allowance for this,
X:III. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.
A couple of important truths need to be safeguarded here. 1) Only special revelation is salvific. No one will be saved merely by the light of general revelation - Romans 1:18-25. What the WCF seems to have in mind here is not the unevangelised, but those who lack the capacity to believe and be saved, such as infants and those with severe mental disabilities. 2) The Spirit is sovereign and may act savingly apart from the word. For the reasons just given some human beings are incapable of being 'outwardly called by the ministry of the Word'. In that instance the Holy Spirit, "who works when, and where, and how He pleases", is able to regenerate the sinner apart from the truth. So, in the end Hodge was right. While the Spirit usually works with the Word, he may act "with the truth or without it, as He pleases." Note the way Hodge echoes the language of the WCF on this point.
Why is this important? Because we need to maintain the free and sovereign agency of the Holy Spirit as a divine Person. "The wind blows where it wishes" (John 3:8). Two dangers need to be avoided. One is a Lutheran understanding of the relationship between Word and Spirit that virtually imprisons the Holy Spirit in the Word. The other is the Barthian view that so disconnects Holy Scripture from the Spirit that the Bible only becomes the Word of God in an event of divine self-disclosure. We need to confess that all Scripture is the product of God's creative breath (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). Our supreme authority is the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. Whenever the Bible is read or its message preached, the Spirit of Christ speaks. But he does not always work with the Word in the same uniform way. That is what drives us to pray, "Come great Spirit, come!" Apart from his working with the Word nothing can be accomplished, 1 Thessalonians 1:5.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Synod of Dort

In a previous post (here) we looked at the life and teaching of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). When he died the system of theology that bears his name did not perish with him. In 1610 forty Dutch theologians who championed Arminius’ views gathered at Gouda for a conference under the leadership of Simon Episcopus (1583-1643). They set forth their views in a five point Remonstrance:

1. Predestination is conditional on God foreknowing who would believe.
2. Christ died for all, although only believers will be saved.
3. Human beings are sinners and cannot believe apart from the grace of God.
4. Saving grace may be resisted.
5. The doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints needs further investigation.

There was much heated discussion over the Remonstrant Articles. It was perceived that the proposed five points constituted a direct threat to the Calvinistic basis of the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1618 a Synod was convened in Dordtrecht to decide whether the position of the Remonstrants was in accordance with the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions. At stake was nothing less than the glory of God in the salvation of lost sinners by free and sovereign grace alone.

Although occasioned by theological controversy in Holland, the Synod had an international flavour with delegates from Reformed Churches in Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland meeting alongside their Dutch brethren. Simon Episcopus and a group of his supporters were invited to represent the Arminian agitants.

From the deliberations of the Synod of Dort emerged what are popularly called the “Five Points of Calvinism”, usually set out under the mnemonic TULIP. These points do not represent a complete account of Calvinistic theology. They were simply intended to be a blow by blow rebuttal of the five point Remonstrance. The original order of the points has to be reworked for TULIP to fit.

Total Depravity

On the face of it, the Arminians agreed with the orthodox Calvinists that all human beings are sinners and that we are saved by grace. But they redefined grace to mean that God gives all people the ability to be saved if they so wished. We must cooperate with the grace of God and decide to accept his offer of salvation. Thus man is only partially depraved by sin. He is able to exercise a choice to believe and be saved. The Synod of Dort rightly smelled a rat. According to Scripture, man in sin is totally depraved. That does not mean that we are all as bad as could be, but that every human faculty has been radically affected by sin. The mind is incapable of receiving God’s truth (Romans 8:7), the heart is deceitful and wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), the will is enslaved by sin (John 8:34). Scripture teaches that man in his fallen state is not damaged, but dead (Ephesians 2:1-4). There is no possibility that a sinner in such a state could ever choose to be saved (Jeremiah 13:23). We don’t need “grace” that will simply facilitate our choice to believe but a gracious act of God that will bring us back from the dead.

Unconditional Election

Jacob Arminius taught that election is rooted on God foreseeing who would believe and be saved. In that sense election is conditional on the sinner’s response to the gospel. However, if human beings are in fact totally depraved and incapable of choosing to be saved, then conditional election is an impossibility. The Cannons of Dort insist that God chose to save certain sinners from condemnation, not because of anything in themselves, but because of his sheer love and free grace (Ephesians 1:4, 2 Timothy 1:9). The elect were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, redeemed by Christ in the fullness of time and are called to saving faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Repentance and faith are the fruit of election, not its cause (Acts 13:48).

Regrettably, the doctrine of predestination has often been a cause of angry discussion and unhelpful speculation in the church. We should guard against such an attitude, “this teaching must be set forth with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High. This must be done for the glory of God's most holy name, and for the lively comfort of his people.” (First Main Point of Doctrine, Article 14).

Reflection on unconditional election should cause the believer to cry out, “Why, O Lord such love to me? Glory to God in the highest!”

Limited Atonement

This is probably the most difficult and controversial of all the “Five Points of Calvinism”. I’m not sure that “limited atonement” is the best way of describing the Reformed view of the cross. “Definite atonement” is probably more appropriate. The Arminians claimed that Christ died for all, although only believers will be saved. However, if Christ died for all, but not all are saved, then his death was limited in its effectiveness. Some for whom he died will nevertheless go to hell if they perish in unbelief.

Arminians seem to have Scripture on their side when they say that Christ died for the “world” or for “all men” (1 Timothy 2:5 & 6, 1 John 2:2). True Calvinists should have no problem with such texts. Christ did die for a world of guilty sinners. He laid down his life for all kinds of human beings. But we should also bear in mind another strand of biblical teaching that reveals that Christ laid down his life for his “sheep” (John 10:11). Sheep who will most certainly be saved (John 10:27-30). Consider also that Jesus gave himself for the “church” (Acts 20:28, Ephesians 5:25-27).

Christ’s atoning death did not make salvation a possibility should anyone choose to be saved. Rather he actually saved us by his blood (Ephesians 1:7). The Canons are careful to point out that Christ’s death was of infinite value because he who died for sinners was the eternal Son of God in the flesh (Second Main Point, Articles 3&4). He died as a substitute, bearing the penalty of sin specifically for those whom the Father had given him in eternity. Those for whom he died will most certainly be saved by the power of the Spirit. With definite atonement we see all three Persons of the godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit united in a single purpose, to redeem a great multitude that no man can number. The definiteness of the atonement is no bar to the free offer of the gospel,

“Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.” (The Second Main Point of Doctrine, Article 5).

Are you trusting in finished work of Christ to put you right with God?

Irresistible Grace

Again, while TULIP may be a handy aid to memory, “irresistible grace” may not be the best way of putting it; “effective grace” is more accurate. As Stephen pointed out, the offer of grace may certainly be resisted, Acts 7:51. But the Father effectively calls all those whom he has given to Christ for salvation (John 6:37, Romans 8:29).

In the Arminian scheme, saving grace is synergistic. Man must co-operate with God in order to be saved. But this is contradicted by the Bible’s teaching on regeneration or the new birth. This is a monergistic act of divine grace. God alone can breathe new life into those who are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:4&5). Grace is effective because it is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit by whom sinners are born again (John 3:8).

Effective grace does not mean that God does violence to the human will when he savingly unites a sinner to Christ. Rather, he liberates the enslaved will from the shackles of sin to enable his people freely to repent and believe the gospel. As Jesus said, “You must be born again.” (John 3:7). And only the Spirit of God can give you new life in Christ.

Perseverance of the Saints

Initially the Remonstrants suggested that this doctrine needed further investigation. They did not reject it outright. But by the time of the Synod of Dort their position had hardened. Now they argued that it is possible for a genuine Christian to loose his or her salvation. This not only flies in the face of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions, it is also detrimental to the believer’s assurance. The Canons acknowledged that even the best Christians fall into sin, but God will not allow any of his lovingly chosen, blood-bought people to perish. We are kept by the power of God unto salvation. None can pluck us from the mighty hands of the good shepherd. But the assurance of divine preservation should not induce spiritual carelessness. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. It is the saints, God’s holy people who will persevere to the end. We can be certain that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).

Conclusion

Arminianism represented a serious challenge to the Reformed Churches and the subtle arguments of the Remonstrants had to be met with clear scriptural answers. It is often the case that controversy helps to clarify the teaching of the church. We see this with regard to the Trinity and the Person of Christ at the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. The Synod of Dort delivered the definitive Reformed response to Arminian error (see the complete Canons here). The biblical Calvinism of the Synod offers a coherent and compelling vision of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. To him alone be the glory!

* An edited version of this article was published in November's Evangelical Times.