Friday, October 29, 2010

The Westminster Assembly: Reading its theology in historical context, by Robert Letham

The Westminster Assembly: Reading its theology in historical context,
Robert Letham, P&R, 2009, 399pp

This book does exactly what it says on the cover, which is read the theology of the Westminster Assembly (1643-52) in its historical context. That is a necessary task as the Assembly was occasioned by certain historical circumstances and consideration of this fact is an indispensable aid to understanding its work. The writer draws upon Chad Van Dixhoorn's research into the minutes of Westminster debates to help piece together the historical background and get a handle on the nuances of theological discussion that took place in the Assembly sessions.

At the outset of the Civil War the Assembly was tasked by Parliament with vindicating and revising 39 Articles of the Church of England. This aspect of the Assembly's work has not always been given due recognition, but Letham demonstrates that the Westminster documents drew heavily on the 39 Articles. Other influential sources for Westminster Assembly's confessional theology include the Irish Articles, the writings of the continental Reformers and the historic creeds of the early church. The Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms are a distillation of Reformed Catholic theology. Yes, the Assembly went out of its way to refute the errors of Roman Catholicism, but that does not mean that its outlook was sectarian, paying little regard to the theological heritage of the church. The Assembly's teaching on the Trinity is informed by the Council of Nicaea and its treatment of the Person of Christ bears the hallmarks of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. However, unlike 39 Articles, which in article 8 affirm the the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, the Westminster Assembly fails to explicitly endorse the creedal tradition of the Church. Letham sees this as a weakness on the Assembly's part that was out of kilter with the general attitude of the continental Reformed Churches.

Some have been critical of the work of the Westminster Assembly, regarding its documents as a betrayal of the earlier theology of the Reformers. Amongst others, Karl Barth, the Torrance brothers and R.T. Kendall have charged the Assembly with scholastic regression, over and against the more purely biblical approach of Calvin. However, as Letham points out, this scenario has been comprehensively refuted by the work of Richard Muller, Paul Helm and others. Calvin was steeped in the medieval scholastic tradition and those who followed in his wake (including the Westminster divines) continued to utilise the resources of scholastic thought. But contrary to what some critics have claimed, the Assembly was not guilty of trying to draw up an elaborate system of doctrine based on logical deduction from basic theological axioms such as predestination or the covenant of grace. While the material in the Assembly's documents is presented in logical order, its main preoccupation was with biblical exegesis rather than abstract theological reasoning.

Letham is a sympathetic interpreter of the productions of the Westminster Assembly, and is careful to guard against an anachronistic understanding of its theology. Developments in later Reformed thought on matters such as covenant theology, the imputation of Adam's sin and the imputation of Christ's active righteousness in justification should not be read back into the Assembly's work. Several detailed excursus are devoted to tracing lines of doctrinal development in these areas. Interestingly, the issue of whether Christ's active obedience is imputed to the believer was a subject of some hot debate in the Assembly sessions.

In his exposition of the theology of the Assembly, Letham devotes attention not simply to the Westminster Confession, but also to the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The Assembly's work needs to be seen as a whole, as one document may provide a corrective to the emphasis of another. Some have complained that the Confession does not give sufficient attention to the believer's union with Christ in its treatment of salvation, preferring to focus on the ordo salutis. But this lacunae is offset by the Larger Catechism, in which salvation is discussed very much in terms of union with Christ. While Letham is generally supportive of the theological stance of the Assembly, he is not afraid to be critical, singling out the failure of both Catechisms to mention the love of God. He also takes exception to Wesminster's treatment of assurance, which,  he believes, in making full assurance seem so difficult to attain, fails to reflect the confident note of the New Testament.

I'm a Reformed Baptist, rather than a Presbyterian. I believe that the Independents were right to revise the Assembly's doctrine of the Church in their Savoy Declaration (1658) and that Particular Baptists were correct in further amending Westminster's teaching on baptism in the Second London Baptist Confession (1689). Indeed, Letham's discussion of the convoluted debates over paedobaptism in the Assembly sessions only serve to confirm the difficulty of finding a biblical basis for the baptism of infants. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the work of the Westminster Assembly, which provided a  solid Reformed Catholic basis upon which Particular Baptists could build in drawing up their own confession of faith. Robert Letham has given us an excellent introduction to the Assembly, placing its work in the proper historical setting. His exposition of Westminster's theology from Holy Scripture to Death, Resurrection and Judgement is thoughtful and thorough, appreciative without being naively uncritical. No one will come away from his reading of the Assembly's literature without their understanding of its Confession and Catechisms being deepened and enriched. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Preaching to the Saints (4)

The final part of my talk on Preaching to the Saints, given at the PTS Preachers Conference on Saturday 16th October.

III. How we should preach to the saints

1. Before we preach anything to the saints we first of all need to preach it to ourselves

The task of preaching is not simply to give doctrinal instruction to the church, but to enable the people of God to understand and feel the truth of Scripture in order to practice it. Preaching will not be a lecture. It will be a living engagement between the preacher and the congregation. The preacher is to think and feel his way into the text so that his preaching becomes a living performance of the message. This does not mean that the preacher "play acts" his sermon. But he must reflectively apply the sermon to himself before he preaches it to others. The preacher will be dramatically involved in the proclamation of the gospel. He will think it, feel it, live it. How can a man preach effectively on the love of God at Calvary if he has no theological understanding of the cross as an atoning sacrifice? How can he preach the sufferings of Christ without being emotionally involved? As Bunyan once put it, "I preached what I smartingly did feel." How can a man preach a message of forgiving love unless his life is shaped by the gospel? Preaching should be an enactment of the drama of redemption - a revelatory event where God's Word is proclaimed to his people in the life-transforming power of the Spirit.

This is what John Owen had some searching things to say on this,
Preaching in the demonstration of the Spirit, which men so much quarrel about, is nothing less than the evidence in preaching of unction... No man preaches that sermon well to others that doth not first preach it to his own heart; for unless he finds the power of it in his own heart, he cannot have confidence that it will have power in the hearts of others. It is an easier thing to bring our heads to preach than our hearts to preach. To bring our hearts to preach is to be transformed into the power of these truths: or to find the power of them, both before, in fashioning our minds and hearts, and in delivering them, that we may have benefit; and to be acted with zeal for God and compassion for the souls of men. A man may preach every day in the week and not have his heart engaged once.

2. We should preach to the saints because we love them and have prayed for them

The task of the pastor-teacher is to preach the Word, but that is not our only task. It is not even our main task, Acts 6:4. Love the people. Engage in pastoral visitation. Get to know your people and let them see that you care for them. Let your preaching be informed by what you know of your people with all their trials and temptations. But don’t use what you have found out in a pastoral visit as ammunition for Sunday’s sermon. If you do that they won’t open up to you again. The people of God will let you get away with a lot, Sundays when the sermon falls flat etc, if they know that you love them and that you pray for them. Like Paul, may we be able to say, “the love of Christ constrains us”. 2 Cor 5:14.

3. We should seek to be as interesting and engaging as we possibly can

While I have emphasised that we must preach biblical doctrine, I don’t mean that we should serve up unreconstructed dollops of Berkhof. Our preaching should be accessible and engaging. Work out a clear and easy to follow structure. Include stories, anecdotes and illustrations not for their own sake, but to illuminate the truth. Even use humour when appropriate. Unless we are engaging our people so that we keep their attention, we aren’t doing them any good at all. Maintaining eye contact will help. Don’t read your sermon verbatim. Look ‘em in the eye and preach!

4. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to preach to the saints

In our preaching we must consciously depend upon the work of the Holy Spirit. As Spurgeon ascended the pulpit steps at the Metropolitan Tabernacle,  he repeated the words of the creed, “I believe in the Holy Ghost”. It is not enough simply to expound God's Word. If preaching is to do anything, the Holy Spirit must be at work in both preacher and congregation. This is why the New Testament does not see preaching simply in terms of an accurate declaration of the truth, but a Holy Spirit empowered event (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 1 Thessalonians 1:5, 1 Peter 1:12).

The Spirit's empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His presence makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power.

That is what we need when we preach the Word of God to the people of God.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Preaching to the Saints (3)

In this extract from my talk on Preaching to the Saints, given at the PTS Preachers Conference on Saturday 16th October, we're looking at point II. What we should preach to the saints.

4. Preach the whole counsel of God

Under this heading (see hereI suggested that some truths call for special emphasis. Here they are:

1) Behold your God!

Preach God not as the conclusion reached after examining the evidence, but as the basic presupposition of your ministry. "In the beginning God" - Genesis 1:1. That is the starting point for Christian preaching, Isaiah 40:8. Preach God in his love, wisdom, justice, sovereignty, omnipotence etc. It was said of George Whitefield that he made God seem big.

If we are to preach as specifically Christian preachers then we must preach God the Trinity. This means more than simply marshalling the “proof texts” to give our people ammo to fire against "Jehovah's Witnesses". We need to expound what its means to have fellowship with the Triune God. Look at John Owen on Communion with God for help on how to do this. Read the Epistle to the Ephesians and see how Paul's thought is so deeply trinitarian. Draw on the creedal heritage of the church as you preach the Trinity, confessing that in the one being of God there are three persons and that the three persons share the same divine essence.

The external acts of the Trinity are undivided so everything that God does in the world is an act of the Triune God. The Father created all things by his Word through his Spirit. Redemption too is the work of the Trinity. But this does not simply mean that the Father planned salvation, which was accomplished by the Son and is applied by the Spirit. The Son and Spirit were also involved in planning salvation. When the Son became Man, he was sent into the world by the Father, being born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Spirit. At the cross the Son offered himself to God by the eternal Spirit. Penal substitutionary atonement does not involve "cosmic child abuse", because if the Father gave his Son to the suffering of the cross, then the Son also loved us and willingly gave himself for us. In the application of redemption, we are not only to think in terms of the work of the Spirit, but that the Father unites believers to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Baptism, the Christian initiatory rite is Trinitarian, Matthew 28:19-20. Prayer is fellowship with the Triune God, Ephesians 2:13. Glory will involve seeing God the Father, being forever with Jesus the Lord in the resurrection power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Behold your God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

2) Union with Christ

Consideration of the ordo salutis or the order of salvation is one of the staples of Reformed systematic theology. Salvation is described as a "golden chain" with one link in the redemptive process leading inevitably to another. Thus it is held that regeneration logically precedes faith and it is on believing in Christ that the sinner lays hold in justifying grace and so on. This is all well and good, but the impression can be left that salvation is received in well ordered, yet discrete bits and pieces.

While Paul sketches out something like a traditional ordo salutis in Romans 8:30, the ordo in this sense is not the organising principle of his theology of salvation. The apostle is far more interested in the historia salutis, that is in salvation accomplished by the death and resurrection of Christ. The central feature of Paul's theology is that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. Salvation is received not in discrete bits and pieces, but whole and entire on the believer's union with Christ crucified and risen. This is the organising principle of Paul's concept of salvation. Richard Gaffin writes, "The central soteriological reality is union with the exalted Christ by Spirit-created faith. That is the nub, the essence of the way or order of salvation for Paul."

On being united to Christ by faith the believer receives what Calvin called the double benefit of justification and sanctification. It is in him that we are declared righteous and set apart to God as holy. This is why Rome is wrong to suggest that justification by faith alone leads to antinomianism.

When it comes to election, Calvin made much of the fact that we were “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” Ephesians 1:4. The Reformer counselled those who were doubtful of their election not to look within for signs of grace, but to look to Christ as the “mirror of our election”.

But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life". (Institutes III:24:5)
What we say about living the Christian life in our preaching must always be in the context of the believer’s union with Christ. In grammatical terms this is all about understanding the relationship between the indicative and the imperative. The indicative is a statement of truth – it indicates or describes something, “The water in the swimming pool is clear and warm”. The imperative issues a command, “Jump in the water and have a swim.” As Gresham Machen said, “Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative...[it] announces, first a gracious act of God.”

Look at how Paul works this out in Colossians 3:1, 3:3. The believer has died with Christ to the old life of sin and has been raised with him to a new life of holiness. That is the “triumphant indicative” describing the reality of our position in Christ. But we can’t leave it there. The indicative gives rise to the commanding imperative: because you are dead to sin and alive to God – “Therefore…”, Colossians 3:5.

Notice that we are not told that we must die with Christ and be raised with him. That is not something we can do. God does that for us as he unites us to Christ by the Spirit. But as those who are dead to sin and alive to God, believers must put sin to death and bring holiness to life.

Our union with Christ in his death and resurrection gives rise to the essential pattern of the Christian life, which is that of mortification (putting to death) and vivification (bringing to life). “You died” (Colossians 3:3) “therefore put to death” (Colossians 3:5). “You were raised” (Colossians 3:1) therefore bring holiness to life (Romans 6:11-13, 22). Alternatively, Paul speaks in terms of "putting off" sin and "putting on" holiness, Colossians 3:8, 3:12.

Setting the Christian life in this context means that we must always emphasise that the dynamic for holy living is the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Apart from him we can do nothing. It is only by abiding in him that the believer will bear fruit to the glory of God. The Christian life is a gospel-driven life, Romans 6:11ff.

3) Church life

One of the hallmarks of our culture is rampant individualism. However, in being united to Christ as individuals, we also become members of his body the church. It is in the church that the means of grace are administered to enable believers to grow. It is in the church that our gifts are identified and then used for the building up of the saints.

Calvin had some very harsh things to say about those who cut themselves off from church life,
when the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard, and the sacraments are not neglected, there…the face of the Church appears without deception or ambiguity and no man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions, or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity. For such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his Church, that all who alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion... Therefore there is the more necessity to beware of a dissent so iniquitous; for seeing by it we aim as far as in us lies at the destruction of God’s truth, we deserve to be crushed by the full thunder of his anger. (Institutes IV:I:10)
The Westminster Directory of Public Worship states,

When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having prepared theirn hearts thereunto) ought to all come, and join therein; not absenting themselves from public ordinances through negligence, or upon pretence of private meetings
Preach the importance of belonging to a local church and of serving the Lord in that context. A believer who does not belong to a congregation of the saints is an anomaly. Sheep belong in a flock. To disrupt the unity of the church is to fail to walk in a way that is worthy of the Lord, Ephesians 4:1-6. A concerned minister once told R. B. Jones, principal of Porth Bible School, about a somewhat fractious church in South Wales. The fellowship had suffered division after division and one man had left the church and was meeting on his own. R.B. quipped, "The Lord help him if he has a split!"

4) Resurrection hope

The ultimate hope for the believer is not to die and go to heaven. The overwhelming emphasis of New Testament eschatology is not on life after death, but on what happens after life after death, namely the resurrection of the dead, John 6, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4.

Preaching the resurrection hope will inspire believers to serve the Lord,  1 Corinthians 15:58, It will enable the saints to face suffering with joy, Romans 8:18-22, 2 Cor 4:13-18. Point the people of God to their final home in the new creation, 2 Peter 3.

Preach the whole counsel of God, but preach the truth in a biblically proportionate way, giving special attention to the stand-out truths of biblical revelation.

5. The applicatory emphasis of our preaching should be as varied as Scripture

2 Timothy 3:16-17. Don't think of yourself as having a “warning ministry” or as a “devotional preacher”. Ask what is the drift of the text on which you are preaching? What is God saying and doing in the passage? If it is "Remember Lot’s wife" then issue a warning. If it is "love one another", then press the command. If it is the example of Christ, e.g. John 13, then urge that the saints follow their Master. Let the application flow naturally from the the communicative action of the text, then your application will carry divine authority.

Practice discriminating applicatory preaching. Preach to old and young, rich and poor, new converts and seasoned saints. The cocksure need to be humbled and the doubters brought to assurance.

6. Preach the gospel to the saints

They need to hear the good news of what God has done in Christ to rescue people from sin. The gospel is the basis of all we do and say. And it is dangerous to take the gospel for granted. When we take on arguments of unbelievers on a Sunday, we are equipping our people to give a reason for their hope in work on a Monday morning.

7. Beware of hobby horses and strange fixations

Expository preaching will help to deliver you from always harping on about your favoured doctrines, but not necessarily. Don’t be a single-issue preacher. If your big thing is Bible translation, or whatever view you hold on the millennium, then be careful not to bring your obsessions into the pulpit every time you preach.

If in your sermon prep you are struck with a dazzling insight into the text that no one has ever seen before – Matthew Henry, William Hendrickson, Don Carson, etc, it might be because it isn’t there to see. Be a little cautious before you share your “insights” with an unsuspecting congregation.

Some knowledge of the history of Christian doctrine will help you to avoid preaching heresy unawares. I mean who wants to face the accusation having Nestorian tendencies? Oh, and if you have ever said that "Jesus became a human person", the you do have Nestorian tendencies, see here.

So, this is what we should be preaching to the people of God: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Preaching to the Saints (2)

Here is the second excerpt from my talk on Preaching to the Saints, given at the PTS Preachers Conference on Saturday 16th October.

II. What we should preach to the saints

1. Preach systematically

Not everyone reading this is in a settled pastoral ministry, so this might not apply to you. But for those of us who are, I believe that we should preach systematically through books of the Bible. Scripture is not a random jumble of odd texts, it is in the form of Books from Genesis to Revelation, and our preaching should reflect that. This was the method of John Chrysostom, Augustine, Calvin and Puritans, etc. What I’m commending is not a series of running commentaries on Bible books, but expository preaching. Each message must be each a stand alone sermon in which the text is explained and applied. One of John Murray’s students asked him, “Is it right that a sermon should have once main point?” Murray replied. “At least one.” I’m reading through Tony Blair’s A Journey at the moment. Early in the book he recalls the formative experience of hearing Tony Benn give a speech,

…there was a thread that ran throughout the speech. There was an argument. Sometimes there was digression and the thread was momentarily obscured, but always he returned and the thread was visible one more.
A sermon should have a thread, an argument, one big point that drives the whole message forward. Jay Adams says that we should be able to summarise the main point of our sermons in a snappy ten word sentence. Preach expository series on Books of the Bible. But make sure that what you are doing is expository preaching, rather than simply giving a Bible study.

2. Even one-off sermons should be expository.

Our preaching should model a careful and responsible reading of the biblical text. People should not be amazed by the things that we bring out of the text like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. The truth we proclaim should arise obviously from the text we are trying to expound. We should not try to fit all of the “Five Points of Calvinism” into every verse. I once heard a message on John 3:16 in which the speaker spent most of his time trying to prove limited atonement. I'm sure that when properly understood John 3:16 does not contradict the definiteness of Christ's atoning work, but surely that's not the main point of the verse. If text emphasises definite atonement – e.g. John 10:11, Eph 5:25, then preach definite atonement. But the text teaches the bigness and sufficiency of the cross, then preach that truth without embarrassment, 1 John 2:2.

3. Give the people a varied diet

Don’t just stick to the Epistles or the Gospels. I like steak and chips, but wouldn’t want to eat it every day. Variety is the spice of life. In the Bible we have narrative, poetry, prophecy, proverbs and epistles. Faithful preaching will reflect the polyphonic variety of Scripture, taking the differing biblical genres seriously. Messages based on biblical narratives should preach those narratives. The shape of the narrative must be allowed to affect the shape of the message. I once heard a preacher comment on another man's sermon, "I listened to 'so and so' preaching on David and Goliath - he mentioned it once." No doubt the preacher derived some neat, timeless principles from the text, but did he capture the richness of God's communicative action in 1 Samuel 17?

4. Preach the whole counsel of God

According to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preaching is “theology on fire”. If that is the case, preachers need to be on fire for theology. Some training courses for preachers simply focus on Bible handling skills. Preachers certainly need to be able handle the Bible with exegetical accuracy. We also need to be able to construct a sermon with a clear structure, attention grabbing illustrations and telling application. But without theology the message will be all style and no substance. We need to get to grips with biblical doctrine – and have a good grasp of what Paul called “the whole counsel of God” Acts 20:27.

Now, the relationship between preaching and theology, especially systematic theology may not always be immediately obvious. Charles Hodge defined systematics like this, "the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation". But theological study is not simply a matter of investigating the raw materials of biblical revelation in order to draw up an neat and tidy system of truth. Theology, even systematic theology should always be preachable and practical.

John Frame proposed a better understanding of systematics saying, "theology is knowing God, and theology is the disciplined study of God." He is critical of Charles Hodge’s method suggesting that "Hodge didn't have a very clear idea of why we need theology." We need theology says Frame, "for the sake of people. Theology is the application of the Word by persons to the world and to all areas of human life." True theology is applicatory. It enables the people of God to live out the Word of God in the present day context. Similarly John Murray,

Since the Bible us the principal source of revelation and since the Bible is the Word of God, systematics is the discipline which more than any other aims to confront us men with God's own witness so that in its totality it may make that impact upon our hearts and minds by which we shall be conformed to his image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness of the truth.
 In his The Drama of Doctrine Kevin Vanhoozer argues that the purpose of theology is to enable the people of God to play their roles in the great drama of redemption. He wants to restore the link between doctrine and practice or theology and ministry so that the ‘pastoral lamb lies down with the theological lion’. He says,

…doctrine, far from being unrelated to life, serves the church by directing its members in the project of wise living, to the glory of God. Christian doctrine directs us in the way of truth and life and is therefore no less than a prescription for reality.
So, preachers should aspire to be preacher-theologians, men who have a coherent grasp of biblical doctrine and who know how to apply the truth of God to the people of God. Reading the great works of theology will help us to be better preacher-theologians. Read Calvin’s Institutes, John Owen on Communion with God, make a start on Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. In understanding be men! Preach the truth in all its vast dimensions.

But while we should preach the Word in all its grandeur and depth, and hold nothing back that will be profitable to the saints, there are some truths that call for special emphasis. But that's for another post...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Preaching to the Saints (1)

Here is an excerpt from my talk on Preaching to the Saints, given at the PTS Preachers Conference on Saturday 16th October.

The phrase, “Preaching to the converted” suggests that something is rather pointless. But preaching to the saints is far from pointless. In fact it is an absolutely necessity, 2 Timothy 4:1-5. In this series I want to look at: I. Why we should preach to the saints, II. What we should preach to the saints, and III. How we should preach to the saints

I. Why we should preach to the saints

There is more to preaching that simply imparting biblical information. The purpose of preaching is not simply to inform but transform. But how can we do that when all we have at our disposal is words? We need to remember that words are very powerful things, especially in the hands of God. The Bible gives us God's authoritative "speech acts". Speech act theory teaches us that words are not just words. We do things by speaking. With the exchange of words we enter into a marriage relationship. With words we may insult people or encourage them. Words do things. They are "speech acts". In terms of speech act theory, God's words in Scripture are the biblical locutions. These locutions - or units of speech have an illocutionary purpose. God does things by his words - he enters into a covenant relationship with his people, makes promises, utters warnings or issues commands. By the Spirit these illucutions are given a perlocutionary power. They actually effect something. Promises are believed, warnings heeded and commands obeyed. In our preaching we must seek to discover and proclaim God's communicative action in Scripture. God's Word is not just "words". Once proclaimed, the Word of the Lord will not return to him void, but accomplish what he pleases (Isaiah 55:11).

Bearing this in mind I want to reflect critically two current approaches to preaching; the exemplary and salvation-historical models. Both have strengths but neither is sufficient in and of itself.

Exemplary preaching stresses that practical and applicatory value of Scripture. This is, of course very important. The Bible itself uses its characters as practical examples of what to follow or avoid – “Consider the patience of Job”, “Remember Lot’s wife”. But at its worst, the exemplary method can reduce the Bible to a set of moral tales. The gospel-based dynamic for Christian living is neglected for the sake of “being practical”.

The redemptive-historical school seeks to locate particular texts within the grand sweep of Scriptural revelation. This approach has value because texts not understood in isolation from the bibles’ essential plot line. But redemptive-historical preaching sometimes has difficulty with the exemplary and practical nature of Scripture. The effect of this is that preaching may become little more than an exercise in biblical theology. This may inform believer's minds. But it falls short when it comes to practical application. In our preaching, we need to show the people of God how they are to live in the light of the gospel. Doctrine must direct practice.

By preaching, the people of God are enabled to play their roles in the drama of redemption in accordance with the biblical script. In our preaching we must bridge the gap between redemptive-historical metanarratives and the Bible's exemplary and practical teaching. It is in the light of what God has done in Christ as revealed in Scripture that believers are to model their lives on the biblical examples and obey the Lord's commands. This approach reflects the structure of many of the New Testament epistles, where a doctrinal opening section is often followed by practical exhortation and application - see Ephesians & Colossians. John Owen rightly argued that preaching

is appointed as the great means of working the souls of men into a likeness and conformity unto the Lord Jesus, or the changing of them into his image. It is appointed for the refreshment of the weary, and consolation of the sorrowful, and making wise the simple.
In the power of the Spirit, our preaching will do more than instruct and exhort. It will transform the people of God into the image of Christ. The ascended Christ has gifted the church with pastor-teachers for this very reason Ephesians 4:12-16. That is why we should preach to the saints.

Kevin Vanhoozer said,

The world is filled with therapists and managers. What the church needs now is people who can (1) articulate from the Bible the truth about God, the world, and ourselves in terms that are faithful to the Bible and intelligible in the contemporary context (2) exhort their congregations to say and do things that corresponds to the truth of Jesus Christ as attested in the Bible

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In his hands are the deep places of the earth

Who could fail to have been moved by what was undoubtedly the good news story of 2010? I am talking, of course about the dramatic rescue of thirty three Chilean miners. Seventeen long days passed until it was discovered that they were all alive, 622 metres below ground. In total the men spent sixty nine days underground before emerging from the darkness into the arms of their loved ones.

On leaving the escape capsule in which he was winched to the surface, Jose Henriquez dropped to his knees and thanked God for his rescue. The Baptist preacher had requested Bibles for each of his workmates. He led them in times of prayer at twelve noon and six o’ clock in the evening. Their prayers were certainly answered.

Did you notice when watching the news coverage that the miner's t-shirts were emblazoned with a biblical text? It was Psalm 95:4, which reads, "In his hands are the deep places of the earth". Even well below ground the men were cheered by a sense of God's presence and love, Psalm 139:7-12.

The rescue was a triumph of hope over despair. The Chilean rescue team kept on searching for the miners until they found them. They then cut an escape shaft through solid rock so that all thirty three men could ascend from the darkness below, their eyes blinking in the light.

This happy story is a wonderful picture of Christian salvation. God sent his Son, Jesus to seek and to save lost people from the darkness of death. Jesus "descended to the lower parts of the earth" (Ephesians 4:9). He entered our world as one of us and died on the cross to rescue us from sin and the grave. Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. After darkness, light, Ephesians 5:8.

* For November's News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine.

Friday, October 15, 2010

2010 Westminster Conference

You can download the conference brochure here.

Tuesday 7th December

THE ENGLISH REFORMATION TODAY: REVISE, REVERSE, OR REVERT?

GARRY WILLIAMS

What are we to make of the revisionist rewriting of the history of the English Reformation? Can we now conclude that the causes that necessitated the Reformation in the sixteenth century no longer merit separation from Rome? What would it mean not to revise or reverse, but to revert to the English Reformation? How can we learn from the English Reformation despite the obvious distance in time and difference in circumstance?

PURITAN ATTITUDES TOWARD ROME REVISITED

GUY DAVIES

Some Evangelicals have suggested that the old controversy between Rome and Protestantism has been all but resolved. It might seem like a retrograde step to look to a more bitterly sectarian age for help on engagement with the Roman Catholic church today, but Guy Davies will suggest that the Puritans have something to teach contemporary Evangelicals on the serious and abiding nature of the doctrinal differences between Rome and Evangelical Protestants.

THE 1611 ENGLISH BIBLE: AN UNLIKELY MASTERPIECE

DAVID GREGSON

With the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603, a new version of the Bible was proposed. Many translators were involved in ecclesiastical politics; the language looked backward; the monopoly acquired in the seventeenth century was through flawed theological prejudice and for commercial reasons. David Gregson considers these factors, and shows how the 1611 English Bible has nevertheless become accepted as a masterpiece of amazing longevity.
 
Wednesday 8th December
 
REPENTANCE AND SOLA FIDE: VARIOUS REFORMED APPROACHES

SAM WALDRON

The Bible teaches that there are two things people must do to be saved. The Reformed tradition, committed from its beginning to justification sola fide, has also taught the necessity of repentance. Sam Waldron will survey some of the Reformed approaches to those truths in sometimes uneasy tension, suggesting an approach to repentance which maintains its necessity for salvation while safeguarding sola fide.

DOOMED FROM THE START? THE EDINBURGH CONFERENCE OF 1910

DANIEL WEBBER

A sense of expectation attended the World Missionary Conference of 1910. Many participants believed that the Church was on the brink of the global expansion of Christ’s cause. One hundred years on, this event is more readily remembered as the forerunner of the establishment of the World Council of Churches. Daniel Webber will investigate these events and their outcomes and consider whether the conference’s aspirations were not doomed from the start.

ANDREW BONAR

MALCOLM MACLEAN

Andrew Bonar is best known today for the memoirs and remains of his friend and colleague, Robert Murray McCheyne. They began their ministries during a period of divine blessing, but Bonar lived long enough to see a vast change in the spiritual outlook of the church in Scotland. He maintained a fragrant Christian character and an effective pulpit ministry despite the general decline. There are many lessons from his work that are useful for Christian leaders today.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Remythologizing Theology by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Review Part 4)

Divine communicative sovereignty and human freedom

Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship
by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 539pp
(Review series Part 4)

One of the big issues for Christian theology is the relationship between the sovereignty of God and human freedom. If God is indeed sovereign and everything that happens is according to his eternal purpose, how can human beings be regarded as free actors in his world? The problem is exacerbated if God is regarded primarily as the First Cause and his relationship to the creation is construed primarily in terms of cause and effect. When applied to human beings it can sound as if humans are little more than cogs in the machine of the world. This is where Vanhoozer’s communicative theism comes in. For him, God is not so much the First Cause, as the Author of creation. His relationship with the world is personal and communicative, not simply causal. He enters into a dialogical relationship with human beings. But this does not mean the God and humans are equal dialogue partners. God is the sovereign Creator and we are his creatures. He writes the script in which we live, move and have our being. Yet as those who bear the image of God, human beings are capable of entering into genuine dialogue with their Maker. As the Author of our being and life, God does not coercively override the freedom of his human image bearers. Rather, our freedom to be human is only perfected in communion with the triune Lord God. Human freedom in this context is not the freedom of self-determination, but the freedom to say “Yes” to the divine address, Psalm 27:8.

But what happens when the dialogical relationship between God and human beings is disrupted because of sin? In the ultimate act of divine communicative action, the Author entered the theatre of the world and became a man to bring us back to himself. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God communicates his light, life and love to sinners through Jesus Christ. It is  Jesus the Son who sets us free from sin so that communion with God may be restored. However, not everyone receives the Word and accepts the salvation he accomplished, John 1:11. The Holy Spirit enables us to receive Jesus Christ by making the Holy Scriptures that testify to him internally persuasive. Again, this is not an act of coercion, but liberation.

The Author completes heroes, not be forcing them into a mold, but by releasing them so that they freely respond to the word that simultaneously constitutes them. The purpose of the gospel is to persuade, yes, but in persuasion is truth, goodness, and beauty. The Author’s word is furthermore a liberating word that sets the captive free (Gal 5:1). Accordingly, where and when the Spirit ministers this word, there will be freedom indeed: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). (p. 366).
This involves more than the Spirit simply addressing the persuasive words of Scripture to the human mind. Due to the noetic effects of sin, the mind is closed to the truth of the gospel and heart is hardened against the Lord. Which brings us to a discussion of the effective call as an expression of the communicative action of God. The effective call is to be distinguished from the general call of the gospel. As its name suggests, this call actually effects something, namely that God calls the sinner to salvation in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, John 6:44-45. But the language of effect should not be understood as an act of causation on God's part that rides roughshod over the human personality. In the text just cited the Father draws his people to Christ by teaching them. Those who learn from the Father come to Jesus. The effective call is not an act of divine manipulation, but the effective communication of grace,

The effectual call is the Spirit’s ministering the word in such a way that hearers freely and willingly answer God by responding with faith. Remember Lydia: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). God’s calling is his restoring and reorienting those spiritual and cognitive capacities taken captive to an unclean spiritual and cognitive environment. (P. 374-375)
Those who have been effectively called to faith in Christ by the Spirit’s ministry of the Word are free to enjoy dialogical communion with God. Prayer is the human response to God’s prior word of grace and salvation. Through prayer the believer gladly consents to the will of God in which there is perfect liberty. What we pray for must be determined by the Scriptures, “In praying the Scriptures, we pray as Christ taught us, in Christ’s name, with Christ’s body, for Christ’s coming.” (p. 385). In answer to their scriptural prayers God conforms his people to the image of Christ by the communicative presence of the Holy Spirit.

In his attempt to develop an account of divine sovereignty and human freedom that is based on the communicative action of the triune God, Vanhoozer has avoided depicting human beings as mere puppets in the hand of an omnipotent deity. Neither is it the case that God is robbed of his sovereignty in order to make space for human freedom. God is indeed all-powerful and absolutely sovereign, but his power is not coercive or manipulative. He enters into a dialogical relationship with human beings in order to perfect human freedom in communion with himself. Where sin has disrupted that communion, Vanhoozer envisages salvation in thoroughly Augustinian fashion. God saves by effectively calling the sinner to union with Christ through the Spirit’s infallibly persuasive witness to the word of the gospel. Rather than the sovereignty of God compromising human freedom, according to Scripture it is only through the sovereign grace of God that sin-enslaved human beings can be truly made free. (See Westminster Confession of Faith 10:1, here).

In the final part of this review series I plan to have a look at Vanhoozer's proposals on divine impassibility and wrap the series up with some concluding thoughts on Remythologizing Theology.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bread and grape juice?

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom." (Matthew 26:26-28).
In discussing the Westminster Confession's teaching on the Lord's Supper, Robert Letham adds this footnote, which calls into question the practice of many Evangelical churches,
we note that the elements appointed by the Lord Jesus are "bread and wine" and that the right to determine these rests with him alone, and not with the temperance movement  of the nineteenth century. While Jesus changed the water into wine, the temperance movement changed wine into grape juice concentrate [or Ribena]. No one has any right to change the elements of the Lord's Supper, any more than water may be replaced in baptism by orange juice. To do this is to usurp the authority of Christ. (The Westminster Assembly: Reading its theology in historical context, P&R, 2009, p. 351, n. 76).

Thursday, October 07, 2010

PTS evangelistic leaflet: Who is Jesus?

The Protestant Truth Society has produced a couple of evangelistic leaflets written by yours truly. A number of churches use the leaflets in their door-to-door, open air and literature distribution activities. Here is an excerpt from Who is Jesus? a 10 page leaflet priced 15p, with the possibility of a discounted cost for bulk orders:

I suppose that most people would agree that Jesus Christ is the most famous and influential person in history. He lived on our planet for only 33 years, yet countless millions of people have been and are fascinated by him. The faith he founded - Christianity - has spread throughout the earth and is still changing people’s lives today.

But who is this man, who was born about 2000 years ago? He has been the subject of whole libraries full of books, yet his mysterious glory defies human analysis. Artists have been moved to honour him, but his greatness cannot be captured on canvas. Composers have written some of their greatest masterpieces in homage to Jesus but his majesty demands music the like of which we can never imagine. Poets have ransacked the whole range of human language yet their words have failed to fully express the elusive splendour of Jesus of Nazareth.

So, who is this Jesus? What can we know of a man who lived so long ago? Records of Jesus and his early followers exist in ancient Jewish and Roman texts. But the fullest and most accurate depiction of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus is found in the Bible.

Unto us a Child is Born

The origins of Jesus’ human life are supernatural. He was born of a virgin. Mary, his mother was told by an angel:

"The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God." (Luke 1:35)

But Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of his mother was not the beginning of his existence. As the Son of God, he eternally existed eternally with God. John opens his gospel with these thought provoking words about Jesus as the Word of God:

"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." (John 1:1)

The Bible teaches that the Son of God, equal to God in power and glory became man.

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

That is why, when he was born people came to worship him. Wise men from the East sought him out and offered him their costly gifts. Poor shepherds visited the Babe "and returned glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).

Jesus entered fully into our humanity. He became a real flesh and blood human being. As the old Christmas Carol put it "tears and smiles like us he knew”. In Jesus, God knows what it is to be human.

To request samples or place an order contact the PTS Christian Bookshop.  

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Christmas ET - reaching everyone

The famous Band Aid Christmas single asked, “Do they know it’s Christmas?” Come December people living in the United Kingdom will hardly be able to avoid knowing that it is Christmas time. The shops will be packed with punters buying presents for loved ones. Seasonal lights will illuminate darkened High Streets. Christmas trees will adorn many a home and piles of hot mine pies will be hungrily devoured. To top it all a rather rotund chap with a snowy white beard and bright red clothes will suddenly become rather ubiquitous. His booming laugh will echo all around, “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

They’ll know it’s Christmas alright. But will they know the true message of Christmas? That’s another story. And it’s our job to tell the story of the Saviour’s birth. The only hope for lost men, women, boys and girls is that they come to believe in Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.

There are many ways in which we can go about making Jesus known at Christmas time. Churches will hold special services where carols are sung and the good news of Christ’s coming is proclaimed. We will certainly be doing that. But, sadly it is often the case that only a small proportion of people in our communities will attend such events. For the past few years members of the local FIEC and Grace Baptist Churches have gathered in Trowbridge High Street to sing carols and declare the message of Christmas. We hope that these occasions have been a good witness to the gospel. But we can only reach those who happen to be passing by at the time. Churches nationwide will no doubt engage in other activities along these lines and I’m certainly not knocking such efforts. May the Lord use them all to his glory! But if we want to reach virtually every home in a village or a certain part of town, then there’s nothing for it but literature distribution.

In recent years the churches I serve, Peknap Providence Church, Westbury and Ebenezer Baptist Church, West Lavington have delivered the special Christmas Evangelical Times to homes in our area. This edition of the paper is always jam packed full of well-written evangelistic messages, thought-provoking articles on aspects of biblical apologetics, and moving personal testimonies to God’s life-transforming grace. A blank space is left on the front page for Churches to display contact information and the times of their Christmas events.

We usually order 1000 copies per church. It takes a bit of effort to organise the distribution of the papers, but members and friends of the churches are usually more than willing to take a pile of ET’s for posting in their assigned part of the village or town. As yet we have not had an influx of people coming along to our Christmas services as a result of delivering the December edition of Evangelical Times. But we persist in sowing the seed of the word, looking to the Lord to make this venture fruitful for the salvation of lost sinners.

Do they know the message of Christmas? I’m afraid that many don’t. But it is our prayer that everyone who receives a copy of Evangelical Times this December and takes the time to read it will come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

If your church hasn’t distributed Christmas ET’s in the past, why not give it a try this year? Who knows whether the God of all grace will use this means to draw people in your area to new life in Christ by the power of his Spirit? After all, as the angel Gabriel said to Mary at the Annunciation, “with God nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1:37).

Order bulk copies of the ET Christmas issue before 5th November and take advantage of discounted prices. Scroll down the Evangelical Times website for details.

* This article appeared in the October edition of ET.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The True Image: A hymn

God's image true, his very form,
took servant's shape, of woman born.
He stooped so low, nailed to a cross,
His visage marred, his beauty lost,
For our transgressions pierced.

By man came sin and loss and grief,
by Christ the Man came our relief.
Our lost and hopeless dying race
redeemed by free and priceless grace,
Last Adam cursed for us.

The Son of God in weakness came,
he took our flesh and bore our shame.
But by the Holy Spirit's breath
he rose again, defeating death,
the Son of God with power.

Lord of the living and the dead,
now crowned on high the Church's head.
He rules the world with iron rod
till all that breathe submit to God,
And praise his highest name.

Sung to St. Margaret, the tune which usually accompanies O love that wilt not let me go.