Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hols & Aber 2011


We're off on holiday for a couple of weeks. We plan to be spend a week in Carmarthen and then head for the EMW Aberystwyth Conference. I'm due to speak on 'Responding to Tragedies' at Monday evening's Prime Time meeting for over 45's (although it should be pointed out that I won't have reached that age until later in the week). 

For holiday reading I hope to finish a couple of books I've had on the go for a little while, Persian Fire, by Tom Holland and Bread of Heaven: The Life and Word of William Williams Pantycelyn,  by Eifion Evans. I've been asked to review the latter for Affinity's Foundations with a September deadline, so I'll have to get cracking. Should I get through those two I hope to make a start on Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, by David Bentley Hart. 

God willing I'll post some reports of the Aber Conference when we return home. Live blogs would be even more incomprehensible than ones I've tried to spend a bit of time tidying up.  

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Personal Tribute to John Stott (1921-2011)

John Stott passed into the presence of Christ on 27th July. A 'good man and full of years', he was ninety years of age.

Preacher

Stott was renowned as a preacher, writer and Evangelical leader. I only once heard him preach. I had just begun my studies at the London Theological Seminary in October 1988. On the first Sunday of my time in London I headed off to Westminster Chapel for the morning service. R. T. Kendall was the Minister back then. My attendance at the Chapel was probably more of a homage to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, than a desire to hear RT, but there we are. In the evening I went to All Souls, hoping that John Stott would be preaching, and he was. I can't remember his text, but more than twenty years later I can still recall the gracious authority with which he preached. The thrust of his message was that Jesus welcomes all who will come to him, whatever their social status, gender etc. After the service I joined the queue of people who lined up to speak to him. I told him that I was studying at LTS and that I came from Wales. In his rather posh accent, he said, "Ah, from the Principality!" and indicated that he had a place in Wales. This bothered me at the time, as I wasn't keen on the English having holiday homes in the Land of my Fathers. 

Stott helped to spearhead the recovery of expository preaching amongst Evangelical Anglicans. He did for gospel men in the Church of England what Lloyd-Jones was doing for Nonconformists. He was a gifted preacher of the Word and faithful pastor of God's flock at All Souls. He could have become a Church of England bishop, but he preferred to devote himself to his ministry of preaching and writing. 

Writer

I can't recall how many books by John Stott I have read. But two of the most influential titles for me as a young believer with a burgeoning interest in theology were by Evangelical Anglicans, Knowing God by Jim Packer and The Cross of Christ, by John Stott. Stott's work on the cross was his magnum opus, a masterly exposition and defence of the biblical teaching on the atoning death of Christ. Stott's many commentaries in the Tyndale and Bible Speaks Today series have enriched my preaching ministry. His exegetical skill, theological nous and thoughtful application of the biblical text are often just what the pastor needs in sermon preparation. 

Leader

As a leader, Stott helped to stimulate Evangelicals to think about the application of biblical truth to the public square, founding the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. On the international stage, he was influential in the Lausanne Movement for World Evangelisation. Controversially Stott clashed with D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at the 1966 Evangelical Alliance meeting on Evangelical Unity (see here). Stott used his position as chairman to urge delegates not to follow the Welsh preacher's call for Evangelicals to leave their denominations and come together as a fellowship of Evangelical churches. At the 1967 National Evangelical Anglican Conference at Keele, Stott argued that integration rather than separation was the way ahead for Evangelical Anglicans. This ecumenical trend was given further impetus with the 1977 Nottingham Statement of the NEAC, which declared "Seeing ourselves and Roman Catholics as fellow-Christians, we repent of attitudes that have seemed to deny it." (Section M). Stott caused some justifiable consternation in the Evangelical world when he cautiously espoused conditional immortality rather than the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked in Essentials, a dialogue with the liberal theologian David Edwards. 

Stott's misguided policy of Evangelical integration and his dalliance with conditional immortality are a reminder that great, gifted and godly men are not infallible. However, Evangelicals in the UK and beyond have reason to thank God for the preaching, writing and leadership of John R. W. Stott. I certainly do. 

Calvin on the power of pastors to fire and fulminate

Titus 2:15

Here is the supreme power with which pastors of the Church, 
by whatever name they are called, should be invested— 
 namely, to dare all boldly for the word of God.

Compelling all the virtue, glory, wisdom, and rank of the world
 to yield and obey its majesty.
To command all from the highest to the lowest,
 trusting to its power to build up the house of Christ
 and overthrow the house of Satan.

To feed the sheep and chase away the wolves; 
 to instruct and exhort the docile. 
To accuse, rebuke, and subdue the rebellious and petulant,
 to bind and loose.

In fine, if need be, to fire and fulminate, 
 but all in the word of God.

(Versified by Guy Davies. From Institutes of the Christian Religion Book 4:8:9 - here).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Herman Bavinck on Creation


I recently finished reading Bavinck's treatment of the doctrine of creation (Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation, Baker Academic 2006, p. 473-507). Very helpful it was too.

Bavinck's treatment of creation is rooted in his doctrine of the Trinity. Indeed, he states that "If God were not triune creation would not be possible (p. 420)". The triune God is the communicating God. The Father communicated the full image of God to the Son. If God was unable to communicate himself to his Son he would be even less able to communicate himself to the creature.

Creation was a concerted act of the Trinity. The Father made all things by his Word and through his Spirit. The unity in diversity of the created order is testimony to the unity in diversity of the one Creator God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The divine goal in creating the universe was the glorification of his own name, Romans 11:36.

The eternal God made the world not in time but with time. Time is the necessary form of the finite. The finite creation is in the process of becoming, while the infinite God is pure being. Creation entailed no change in God. He did not become active in making the world with the implication the he was inactive before the creation. Even without the creation God was not idle. He is pure actuality with an infinite fullness of  communicative life in his triune being. The act of creation involved no effort on God's part and did not exhaust his power or wisdom. "He can act while He reposes, and repose when He acts (p. 428)."

Although Bavinck's four volume dogmatics were originally published in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, Bavinck's theology is remarkably up-to-date. He wrestles with the relationship between ancient near eastern literature and the Genesis account, still very much a live issue today. He does not neglect to address the theory of evolution. Detailed attention is given to the challenge of the science of geology to the Bible's depiction of the creation of the earth.

Bavinck's handling of Genesis 1 is interesting. Without positing a "Gap Theory", which he rejects, he holds that "the creation of heaven and earth in Genesis 1:1 and the unformed state of the earth in Genesis 1:2 are anterior to the first day." The work of the six creation days is that of separation and adornment. Day one did not include the original act of the creation of all things out of nothing (p. 478-480).

On day four (Genesis 1:14-19), Bavinck argues that the appearance of the lights in the heavens, "does not imply that the masses of matter of which the planets are composed were only then called into being, but only that all these planets would on this day become what they henceforth are to be to the earth (p. 481)." This anticipates the view of Edgar Andrews. The scientist suggests that Genesis is using phenomenological language at this point rather than depicting the moment when the sun, moon and stars came into existence. (See Who Made God?, EP, 2009, p. 106).

What of the theologian's view of the six days of creation? He rejects an attempt to co-ordinate the days Genesis 1 with lengthy geological periods. Not for him either what would nowadays be called the "framework hypothesis" that sees the creation days in terms of ideal or logical order rather that chronological sequence. So, he's a "twenty-four hourer" right? Not exactly. Bavinck holds that it is "not likely" that the divine actions depicted in each of the six days of creation took place within the span of a few hours. Rather, what we have here is the "workdays of God", or "the time in which God was at work creating (p. 500)". This does not amount to "theistic evolution", but an assertion of the singularity of the six days of creation.

Bavinck regards estimates of the age of the earth amounting to millions of years as "fabulous" - by which he means not "wonderful" but "incredible" (p. 490). But, he admits the Bible provides no exact data as to the age of the earth (p. 506). Changes to the planet made by the Great Flood need to be taken into account when it comes to understanding the geological  strata.

The dogmatician was aware of developments in the scientific world. But he was not willing to reinterpret the Bible to harmonise its teaching with naturalistic views of  origins. Indeed, he thinks that theologians are misguided when they constantly yield ground in an effort to co-ordinate biblical teaching with scientific theories,
As the science of divine and eternal things, theology must be patient until the science that contradicts it has made a deeper and broader study of its field and, as happens in most cases, corrects itself. In that matter theology upholds its dignity and honour more effectively than by constantly yielding and adapting itself to the opinions of the day. (p. 507) 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Faith Cook on John Bunyan and Christian Warfare


Once a year our Ministers' Fraternal at Bradford on Avon is open to pastors' wives. On Wednesday we had the privilege of hearing Faith Cook speak on John Bunyan and Christian Warfare. Having enjoyed her excellent biography of the Puritan preacher (reviewed here), I was very much looking forward to hearing what she had to say. Here are some brief notes. 

Faith Cook began by expressing her appreciation of Bunyan and his writings. Her biography was "debt of gratitude" to the Bedfordshire pastor. A brief outline was given of Bunyan's life and times before addressing what we might learn from him concerning the fight of faith. 

In the devil we have an enemy who is out to destroy our faith. We see something of the intensity of Bunyan's battle with the evil one in his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. After his conversion Bunyan came under sustained attack from the devil. Some suggest that he was mentally ill during this period, but this is to misunderstand his experiences.

The devil had several lines of attack: 

1. Confused doctrine

Satan suggested that Bunyan had no faith. To prove otherwise he proposed to work a miracle. He considered trying to command that water gathered in puddles in the road dry up, and where the road was dry that it become wet. Before working his "miracle" he thought that he had better pray. Then he though better of his scheme.

The devil had Bunyan question whether he was one of the elect. He was too late for grace.

He began to have doubts concerning the truth of Christianity.  How did he know that the Bible rather than the Koran was God's Word? Perhaps all ways lead to God? Horrible blasphemies entered his mind. He wondered whether he was possessed by the devil.  

2. Confused understanding of grace

Bunyan thought he was too far gone in sin to be saved. 

3. Confused understanding of the law

He became legalistic, abandoning bell ringing and playing the violin. violin. He dared not pick up a pin without fear of sinning. The usually talkative Bunyan grew silent and withdrawn. He was cured by reading Luther's commentary on Galatians, a work "most fit for a wounded conscience". Luther's emphasis on justification by faith in Christ apart from the works of the law was just what he needed. 

4. The unforgivable sin

Bunyan was repeatedly told to "sell Christ". Wearied and miserable under the weight of with this constant attack he agreed to sell his Lord. Then the devil told him that he has lost salvation. Like Esau there was no way back for him.

Bunyan received counselling from his pastor John Gifford, which helped him. But lasting relief came from Jesus himself. Bunyan saw that Christ was his righteousness. He had no need to fear condemnation. 

Soon after he began to preach. His ministry was informed by his own experiences of temptation and deliverance. He said, "I preached what I smartingly did feel". 

Why did the Lord allow Bunyan to suffer the onslaughts  of Satan?

1. Assurance

He understood that great sins are met with great grace.

2. Help for others who were tempted

While in prison for his faith Bunyan began to write. His first book was on the subject Grace and Law Unfolded penned in the light of his own experiences. In Pilgrim's Progress he also helps those who are troubled by legalism. Mr. Legality misleads Christian, sending him to Mt. Sinai. He is put on the right track by Evangelists who pointed him to the wicked gate and the Cross. There burden of Christian's sin was removed. 

3. He details our weapons

a) Claim the promises, e.g. Isaiah 44:22. Apollyon was defeated by Christian quoting the promises. Christian and Hopeful escaped from Doubting Castle using the key called promise.

b) Use devil's weapons against him. If he says that your prayers are cold and worthless, agree and pray until you are on fire for the Lord. If he says you are too bad a sinner to hope for mercy, agree saying, "I am  Manasseh, Saul of Tarsus, the chief of sinners, yet 1 Timothy 1:15". 

c) Stand in the power of Holy Spirit

d) Avail yourself of the blood of Christ that cleanses from all sin. 

The fight is relentless. In The Heavenly Footman, Bunyan bids us to run for heaven. When we are weary and worn out with the battle, Jesus will carry us. In the Palace Beautiful, Christian was asked what he would should he fail. He pointed to the Cross where he first  found forgiveness, his coat symbolising the righteousness of Christ, and his scroll, that reminded him of where he was going.

In his Holy War, Bunyan takes up the theme of how Emmanuel conquered Mansoul. But that was not the end of the struggle. The fight against sin and Satan continues to the end. Mrs. Cook quoted from Rudyard Kipling's poem, The Holy War

Even on their deathbeds believers face temptations. Heaven will be the sweeter for those assailed by doubts and fears in the face of death. As with Christian and Hopeful, the struggle against the foe will have been worth it, 
Now I saw in my dream, that these two men went in at the gate; and lo, as they entered, they were transfigured; and they had raiment put on that shone like gold. There were also that met them with harps and crowns, and gave them to them; the harps to praise withal, and the crowns in token of honor. Then I heard in my dream, that all the bells in the city rang again for joy, and that it was said unto them,
“enter ye into the joy of your lord.”
I also heard the men themselves, that they sang with a loud voice, saying, 
“blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the lamb, for ever and ever.” 
Now, just as the gates were opened to let in the men, I looked in after them, and behold the city shone like the sun; the streets also were paved with gold; and in them walked many men, with crowns on their heads, palms in their hands, and golden harps, to sing praises withal. 
There were also of them that had wings, and they answered one another without intermission, saying, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord. And after that they shut up the gates; which, when I had seen, I wished myself among them.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams by Mike Higton


Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams
Mike Higton, SCM Press, 2004, 174pp

One of our church members refers to the current Archbishop of Canterbury as "The Wizard". Maybe the moniker has something to do with the fact that Rowan Williams is a proud member of the Gorsedd of the Bards. After all, Merlin was reputed to be a Druid sorcerer. Another factor might be Williams' beardy appearance. His looks conjure up an image  of an ancient Druid high priest. But it's not just that. It seems that many ordinary Christians find his utterances as comprehensible as druidic mumbo-jumbo. And when they do grasp his meaning, the response tends to be, "What? Did he really say that?" His controversial remarks on the place Islamic law in the UK legal system are a case in point. 

Anyway I thought I should try and get to grips with the teachings of Rowan Williams to find out what makes the current Archbishop of Canterbury tick, besides dressing up like Merlin. So, I ordered Mile Higton's book from Amazon. Higton offers a sympathetic reading of Williams' theology. The writer is not, as far as I can tell, an Evangelical in his theological bent. His  approach is not to offer an assessment of the Archbishop's teaching from an Evangelical standpoint. His aim is simply to give his readers a guide to understanding key aspects of Williams' thought. 

As the title acknowledges, Williams' theology is notoriously difficult to understand. He's an academic after all, and Higton admits that "there are times when Williams' writing is unduly complicated, moments when it is weighted down with unnecessary jargon, or arguments which turn out to have twists and riffs that are purely decorative" (p. 4). But, contends the writer, the Archbishop's teaching is also difficult in a good way. The Gospel itself faces us with difficult challenges and demands. Hence the book's title, A Difficult Gospel

So, how does Rowan Williams understand the gospel? It is all about God's "disarming acceptance" of fallen humanity in Jesus Christ. In his life, death and resurrection as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. To encounter Jesus is to encounter the God who is love. His "disarming acceptance" crucifies of our selfish desires and demands that the followers of Jesus offer unconditional love and acceptance to others. 

It is not easy to discern, at least from Higton's account, the exact relationship in Williams' thought between the fact that Christ "died for our sins" and the "disarming acceptance" of God. The cross is described as "the form which judgement God's judgement takes", but there is nothing approaching a penal substitutionary understanding of Christ's atoning work in these pages. However, Williams is robust on insisting that the resurrection of Jesus entails the empty tomb. As the man says, without the empty tomb there is no Gospel (p. 49-50). True, but without penal substitutionary atonement there isn't much of a Gospel either. 

Evangelicals sometimes refer to Williams as a "Liberal". But this is an overly simplistic labelling of the Archbishop. Few Liberals would hold so firmly to the biblical revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit as disclosed in Scripture and confessed by the Church. Higton offers an informative discussion of Williams' trinitarian theology in  Chapter Two, The Source of Life. But this does not mean that the Archbishop is a card-carrying Evangelical. Hardly. In his doctrine of Scripture Williams denies that the Bible represents the mind of God, "[T]he revelation of God comes to us in the middle of weakness and fallibility." (p. 65). For Williams Christ is the touchstone for the Bible (p. 65). Difficult texts such as Psalm 137 or Revelation 2:23 are to be reinterpreted in the light of the revelation of God's love in Christ. Of the latter text Williams says that "We aren't called to believe and endorse [it]." This is troubling as the words at least purport to be the direct speech of Jesus, Revelation 2:18. Who is this Christ to whom we appeal as the "touchstone" for the Bible if not the Jesus disclosed in Holy Scripture? As Donald  Macleod points out, writing on Karl Barth's doctrine of Scripture, "there can be no other Christ behind and above the Scriptures, no word behind the written word, casting the church into doubt, enveloping her in a cloud of uncertainty and raising the possibility that the Christ of Scripture is not the real Christ or the final Christ." 

The writer devotes an interesting chapter to Williams' reflections on Childhood and Adulthood, which is worth a read. When it comes to ethical issues, Williams struggles to accept that a Christian could believe in a nuclear deterrent, a matter which is not directly addressed by the Bible. On homosexuality, which is directly addressed in Scripture, he thinks that despite the witness of texts such as Romans 1, "a homosexual relationship might be one which instead of inherently obstructing the Christlike development of those involved in it, can like a heterosexual relationship, show Christ to the world." (p. 146). It is that kind of statement that leaves ordinary Christians understandably baffled by Williams' pronouncements. No amount of theological wizardry can magic away the Bible's insistence that sexual intimacy is for heterosexual marriage alone and that sex outside of that context is wrong. 

Yes, Williams' theology is "difficult" in a number of ways. His thought often is complex and hard to grasp. As Archbishop of Canterbury he has the difficult task of trying to stop the Anglican communion from falling apart. He has disillusioned Liberals by failing to make the case for a change in attitude towards homosexual relationships in the Church. Evangelicals are rightly suspicious of his privately held views on the issue. Meanwhile Anglo Catholics are crossing the Tiber and converting to Rome. But the greatest difficulty is that Williams' theology is not sufficiently governed by the authority of Scripture. This enables him to make his preconceived understanding of Christ the standard by which even biblical truth is judged. His extrabiblical Christ is a figure of wax who can be reshaped to suit fashionable opinion so that homosexual relationships "show Christ to the world". If faithfulness to Scripture counts for anything, the Archbishop's thinking on this matter is not just difficult, it is impossible. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Believer and the Judgement Seat of Christ


I hope you would agree that the following two statements are true: a) The believer is justified by faith alone. b) The believer will be judged according to his works. Agreed? Good. After all, Scripture teaches both. Have a look at Galatians 2:16 and 2 Corinthians 5:10.  So, there we have it. We are justified by faith and we will be judged according to our works. End of post.

But hang on a minute. Justification means that in advance of the Day of Judgement God has declared the believer righteous on the basis of the finished work of Christ. We stand acquitted before God with no fear of condemnation on Judgement Day, Romans 8:1. How exactly does that fit with what the Bible says about the Christian being judged according to his or her works?

1. Justification on the basis of works

N. T. Wright attempts to resolve the issue by saying that justification in the present anticipates God’s future verdict on the believer on the basis of a life of good works. He cites Romans 2:13 as evidence for his claim[1]. But in this text Paul is not teaching that anyone will actually achieve justification by works. He wants his readers to understand that simply having and hearing the law of God (as with the Jews) won’t put anybody right with God. The law must be obeyed. The trouble is that no one has obeyed the law. Both Jew and Gentile are subject to the judgment of God on account of their sin, Romans 3:9, 19-20.

But Wright is not simply advocating justification by works, as if we could save ourselves by our own efforts. The thing is that for him justification is not so much about the sinner’s right standing before God, as the true identity of the people of God. Because we believe in Jesus, God declares that we belong to his people. The evidence that we belong to his people is a life of Spirit-enabled good works. And so Wright can say,

The Spirit is the path by which Paul traces the route from justification
by faith in the present to justification, by the complete life lived, in the
future.[2]

Do you see what Wright has done? Justification is no longer by faith alone. Future justification is “by the complete life lived”. In putting it like that Wright has undermined what the Bible says regarding justification apart from works, Romans 3:28, 4:5, Galatians 3:10-14[3]. We are justified by faith alone. God declares the believer righteous before him solely on the basis of the obedience and blood of Christ. That’s it. Granted, those who have been united to Christ for justification have also been called to live a life of good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). But future justification is not on the basis of good works. The sinner is justified and only ever will be justified because of what Christ has done for us, not because of what the Spirit is doing in us.

Judgement according to works does not mean justification on the basis works. More on that later.

2. Justification by faith and the Day of Judgement

So, what is the relationship between the believer’s present justification by faith and the Day of Judgement?

The New Testament makes the contrast between what is true of the believer presently “by faith” and what will be true of him “by sight”. Consider 2 Corinthians 5:7[4]. Now the believer is “justified by faith”. On the day of judgement the Christian will be “justified by sight”, or visibly justified.

What does that entail? Although justified by faith, the believer still dies. The body or the “outer man” does not yet partake of the benefits of saving union with Christ. Visible justification will consist of the believer being bodily raised from the dead. Paul contrasted Jesus’ condemnation by the Jewish rulers (Acts 13:27-29) with the fact that “God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 13:30). Christ’s resurrection is described as his justification in 1 Timothy 3:16[5]. There is a tight link between Christ’s resurrection/justification and that of the believer, Romans 4:25, 8:33-34. Now we are justified by faith. We shall be publicly and visibly declared righteous at the resurrection. This is the “hope of righteousness by faith” (Galatians 5:5).

‘Justification’ necessarily brings with it the resurrection from the dead, and nothing less. The display of God’s saving righteousness in the resurrection of Christ anticipates the end of history, when he will triumph over the world in bringing his ‘sons’ to glory.[6]

Christ will raise his people from the dead at the last day. Their resurrection will involve their final justification, “whom he justified, these he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). As Richard Gaffin concludes,

believers in union with Christ, will appear at the final judgement as already resurrected bodily... they will appear there as already openly justified.[7]

With that in mind the believer can look forward to the Day of Judgment with joyful hope and bold confidence.

3. Judgement according to works

Where does the fact that the believer will appear before the judgement seat of Christ already justified leave “judgment according to works” (2 Corinthians 5:10, Revelation 20:11-12)?[8]

1)      Good works are the evidence of genuine justifying faith

While the believer is justified by faith alone, the faith that alone justifies does not remain alone. Faith works by love (Galatians 5:6). Faith without works is dead (James 2:26). On the Day of Judgement God will assess the presence of true saving faith according to the evidence of good works. That is the searching message of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, Matthew 25:31-46. The fact that we are going to be judged according to our works calls for sober self-examination lest our faith be found spurious before the judgement seat of Christ, Matthew 7:21-23. 

2)      On the day of judgement the Lord Jesus will evaluate our service and stewardship

James warns, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” Paul reminds Timothy of his accountability to the Lord Jesus Christ, 2 Timothy 4:1-5.  In 1 Corinthians 3:5-17 the apostle urges Christian workers to build wisely on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Our efforts will be tested by the fire of God’s judgement. Be sure to build for eternity, doing God’s work in God’s way. Faithful service will be amply rewarded, 1 Peter 5:4

3)      On the day of judgement the Lord Jesus will reward believers for their labours

Clearly all believers will enjoy the blessings of eternal life and resurrection glory in the new creation. But Scripture also seems to suggest that the Lord will bestow special privileges upon those who have served him faithfully.[9] Look up Matthew 25:14-30. The faithful servants who wisely invested their master’s money were rewarded proportionately (see also Luke 19:11-27).

Now, we must insist that these rewards are gifts of grace. They are not earned on the basis of merit. We could do no good apart from Christ, John 15:5. Yet, the Lord delights to acknowledge the loving service of his people. We are not told what form these rewards will take. Perhaps those who have served most faithfully will be granted higher privileges in the new creation? We don’t know. One thing’s for sure, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). 

Let every believer so live as to hear the words of the Master saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:23).*

* A draft article for Grace Magazine



[1] What St Paul Really Said, Tom Wright, Lion, 1997, p. 126-127.
[2] Paul: Fresh Perspectives, N. T. Wright, SPCK, 2005, p. 148. See John Piper’s interaction with Wright on this point in his The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, Crossway, 2007, p. 103ff
[3] I am aware that for Wright “works of the law” mean Jewish identity markers such as circumcision rather than an attempt to earn salvation by works. See The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, Cornelis P. Venema, Banner of Truth, 2006, p. 169ff for a cogent response.
[4] Compare the “inner man/outer man” contrast in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. See By Faith Not Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, Richard B. Gaffin Jr. Paternoster, 2006, p. 80-108.
[5] The word is sometimes translated “vindicated in the Spirit” (NIV, ESV), but KJV/NKJV accurately translate, “justified [dikaioo] in the Spirit”.
[6] Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification, Mark A. Seifrid, IVP/Apollos, 2000, p, 76
[7] By Faith Not Sight, Gaffin p. 99.
[8] See The Gospel of Free Acceptance, Venema, p. 257ff.
[9] See The Promise of the Future, Cornelis P. Venema, Banner of Truth, 2000, p. 405-419. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Amazing Providence


I take Saturdays as my day off. I know that many pastors have a day off on Monday to recover from the labours of the Lord's Day. But I have a wife and two teenage children, so I like to take Saturday off to spend time with the family. We live about 10/15 minutes drive away from Longleat Safari Park. Every other year we buy Passport Tickets that enable us to visit the attraction as many times as we like during the season. A month or so ago we drove round the Safari Park and saw the lions and tigers etc. One rainy Saturday we had a look round Longleat House. Amongst other things the house has on display the blood-spattered top worn by Charles I when he was beheaded. The blood of the "Man of Blood". Last weekend we had a wander around the Hedge Maze. 

The maze is a rather large affair, covering around 1.5 acres and it is easy to get lost in all its bends and twists. Each member of the family took it in turns to take the lead, but we couldn't find our way to the viewing tower that dominates the maze - and the exit. At one point we just kept going round and round in circles. Frustratingly, every way we turned we kept coming back to exactly the same spot. Then I had a flash of inspiration, or rather I remembered something that an old friend told me. He said that the maze is set out so that if you consistently turn to either the left or right (I won't tell you which), then you'll make it to the viewing tower and find the way out. 

We managed to get back to the starting point and tried out my scheme. Even if turning left (or right as the case may be) didn't seem like the right thing to do, that's what we did. And we made it. The photo above was taken from the highest platform of the viewing tower. When we were lost, the maze seemed totally random and utterly confusing. We could see no rhyme or reason to it. But there was a plan. It did make sense. My friend advised me well. From the perspective of the viewing tower it was perfectly clear. Just keep on turning left, or was it right and you're home. 

Why am I telling you all this? Well, as we were wandering round the maze, I began thinking about how life can sometimes seem rather confusing, full of dead ends and seemingly meaningless twists and turns. Things don't always pan out as we expect and we might be tempted to wonder whether there is any purpose to life all. But God has a plan. Through what may appear to us the random maze of this life, he is working his purpose out. A hymn came to mind. It was David Charles' wonderful meditation on the providence of God, especially the final verse, 

Great providence of heaven -
What wonders shine
In its profound display
Of God's design:
It guards the dust of earth,
Commands the hosts above,
Fulfils the mighty plan
Of his great love


The kingdoms of this world
Lie in its hand;
See how they rise or fall
At its command
Through sorrow and distress,
Tempestuous storms that rage,
God's kingdom yet endures
From age to age.

Its darkness dense is but
A radiant light;
Its oft-perplexing ways
Are ordered right.
Soon all its winding paths
Will end, and then the tale
Of wonder shall be told
Beyond the veil.
David Charles, 1762-1834

Thursday, July 07, 2011

This is all my Calvinism

Charles Simeon

I had a conversation with an Arminian yesterday. We covered the usual ground concerning divine sovereignty and human responsibility.  Trading biblical texts didn't get us anywhere. My Ephesians 1:4 was met with his Matthew 11:28. I believe that it is possible to hold to election and the free offer of the gospel, but my friend didn't think so. I tried another tack. I asked him whether when he was converted it was,  a) because he had freely chosen to be saved, or b)  because God saved him? Predictably he opted for b). In his case God had to wonderfully save him else he never would have chosen to become a Christian. Did acknowledging this point turn my interlocutor into a convinced Five Point Calvinist. Er, no. We parted on friendly terms with him still an Arminian. Ah well. Can't win 'em all. But our exchange put me in mind of a dialogue between the young Charles Simeon (1759-1836) the ageing John Wesley (1703-1791).

CS: Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?

JW: Yes, I do indeed.

CS: And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?

JW: Yes, solely through Christ.

CS: But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
John Wesley

JW: No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.

CS: Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?

JW: No.

CS: What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?

JW: Yes, altogether.

CS: And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?

JW: Yes, I have no hope but in Him.

CS: Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.

Interesting isn't it, that as with my Arminian friend, Wesley's theology broke down when it came to his own personal experience of the grace of God? With the Calvinist, his theology explains his experience. Head and heart cohere around the truth that salvation is of the Lord. With the Arminian, wrong-headed belief is contradicted by his actual experience of salvation. Note this impeccably Calvinistic account of conversion in Charles Wesley's famous hymn, And Can It Be? 
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
In his essay, What Is Calvinism? B. B. Warfield reflects, 
The Calvinist is the man who is determined to preserve the attitude he takes in prayer in all his thinking, in all his feeling, in all his doing... Other men are Calvinists on their knees; the Calvinist is the man who is determined that his intellect, and heart, and will shall remain on their knees continually, and only from this attitude think, and feel, and act. Calvinism is, therefore, that type of thought in which there comes to its rights the truly religious attitude of utter dependence on God and humble trust in his mercy alone for salvation.
That is all my Calvinism.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Some thoughts on Anselm's Monologion: Reason and Revelation


While I've read up on medieval church history, my first hand acquaintance with the scholastic writings of the period is quite limited. In an endeavour to rectify this lacuna I'm making way way through the Oxford World's Classics edition of Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works. The collection includes Monologion, Proslogion  and Anselm's most famous work, Why God Became Man. I've just finished Monologion. Admittedly this doesn't make me an instant expert and guide to Anselm's thought, but here are some reflections on what the theologian intended to be a "model meditation".

In his Prologue Anselm explains that he wrote the Monoligion in response to requests from his fellow monks at the Abbey of Bec. They wanted him to set down on paper a meditation on the essence of the divine. They made one important proviso, "that nothing whatever be argued on the basis of the authority of Scripture, but [by] the constraints of reason concisely to prove and the clarity of truth clearly to show... the conclusions of distinct investigations." (P. 5 - all quotes from OWC edition).

Initially Anselm tried to excuse himself from such an onerous task, but his friends prevailed upon him to put pen to paper. As requested he attempted to proceed on  the basis of the "constraints of reason" rather than the authority of Scripture. But this does not mean that in the Monologion human reason is the sole source and authoritative standard of Anselm's meditations. He was no freethinking rationalist. Indeed, the theologian claimed that what he wrote was not inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Fathers, especially the "Blessed Augustine" (p. 6).

Anselm argues from first principles concerning the supreme essence without appealing to the text of Scripture. But it is evident that his main assumptions concerning the supreme essence are in fact derived from the Bible. He maintains the Creator/creature distinction and even sets out an elaborate doctrine of the Trinity. However, it is difficult to see how he would have derived a doctrine of the Trinity from the "constraints of reason" had not his thinking already been subject to biblical revelation. That is the key flaw in Anselm's methodology. He should not have accepted the proviso "that that nothing whatever be argued on the basis of the authority of Scripture".

To use an Anselmian phrase theological meditation is a work of faith seeking understanding of God's self-revelation in nature and Scripture. It is as well to be upfront about that rather than try and pretend that one's conclusions are derived simply from the dictates of human reason. Rational thought processes are an important tool in understanding the meaning and coherence of biblical revelation, but without revelation reason has nothing with which to work.

In attempting to prove the existence of the supreme essence and say things about the divine being without resorting to Scripture, Anselm gives reason too high a place in his theological method. The finite human mind cannot know the infinite God unless the infinite One reveals himself to us. Towards the end of his meditation Anselm writes, "It is patently obvious, therefore, as can be, that the rational creature is made for this purpose: to love the supreme essence above all other goods... So it is quite clear, as a result, that what the rational creation ought to do, is put all  its will into becoming conscious of, understanding and loving the supreme good." (P. 74). However, becoming conscious of, understanding and loving God is not something that human beings can accomplish of their own will. Not even unfallen Adam could simply choose to know his Maker. He was subject to God's sovereignly-bestowed general and special revelation. If that is the case with human beings before the fall, it is certainly true of man in sin, Romans 8:7, 1 Corinthians 2:14. Fallen humanity does not strive for, but rejects and suppresses the true knowledge of God, Romans 1:20-21, 28.

As a true Augustinian Anselm would no doubt have granted that sin has darkened the mind of fallen human beings. But he does not say as much in the Monologion. The impression is given that human beings may know God by the "constraints of reason". It needs to be made clear that we need supernatural enlightenment if we are to know the one true and living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 1 John 5:20. 

Monday, July 04, 2011

Deadlines

From July's News & Views, West Lavington Parish Magazine. 

If you are reading this, it is only down to the kind generosity of the editor. I’ve been contributing regularly to this magazine for long enough to know that the deadline for copy is the 20th of each month. However, it suddenly dawned on me that it was the 22nd and I hadn’t submitted my article. Cue some hurried bashing away at my computer keyboard and a note of humble apologies to the estimable Mr. Hodges.

If I feel a little embarrassed at my oversight, then just imagine Harold Camping's emotional state. He’s the American preacher and radio broadcaster who confidently predicted that the world would end on 21st May. As I’m writing this on 22nd June, I think we can safely conclude that Camping got it wrong. His deadline for the end of the world was missed. I said imagine how the poor man feels, but it seems that he has little capacity for embarrassment. Camping has now issued a revised prediction that the world will end on 21st October. Some people will never learn.

Jesus had quite a bit to say concerning his return in glory, but he refused tell us the date of that great event. Take this verse for example, “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:42). Doesn’t Mr. Camping have that verse in his Bible? Scripture is absolutely clear that Jesus is coming again, but absolutely unclear as to when. God alone knows the deadline and we can be sure that the Lord Jesus will not be late.

Christians believe that Christ became man and entered our world in order to die for our sins. Through faith in him we may be forgiven and put right with God. When Jesus comes again he will judge the world, defeat the power of evil and bring his people home to be with him for ever. There will be no missing that deadline. It is for us to be ready and waiting for his return, whenever that may be.