Friday, July 31, 2009

The return of the native

We'll be off on holiday tomorrow, with a week in Carmarthenshire followed by the Aber Conference. The main speaker this year is Joel Beeke. More details here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Undercover Revolution by Iain Murray

The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain,
by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, 104pp
Iain Murray proposes an interesting thesis in this little book. He claims that that fiction writers did more to undermine Christian faith and values in Great Britain than atheistic scientists. He is not suggesting that reading fiction is wrong per se, but that certain late 19th/early 20th century novelists used the genre to attack biblical Christianity. As Murray points out, in 1870 religious books were at the top of the best seller list, with fiction at number five. By 1886 fiction had knocked religion off the top spot. Novelists were in a position to influence the thinking of the masses. Murray singles out Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Hardy for special attention.
Stevenson was the son of godly Scottish Presbyterian parents. In early life he gave some indications that he was a sincere and committed Christian. But all of that was to change when he went to Edinburgh University and fell in with a bad crowd. He also became infatuated with a married women, Frances Sitwell, who would later divorce her husband to marry Stevenson. The novelist became acquainted with other literary figures who had turned their backs upon the Christian faith such as Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine and and Edmund Gosse. Murray is not suggesting that Stevenson openly advocated unbelief in his novels. We are not to think of Long John Silver as a fifth columnist for the new atheism. But the writer's personal life testified to his unbelief. Amongst his atheistic friends he would mock the faith he once professed. He became alienated from his father, who continued to give financial support to his erring son. In his autobiographical Memories and Portraits, Stevenson caricatured the Christianity of his family as joyless and austere. But unbelief hardly gave the novelist happiness and contentment. Given to hard drink, he died on a South Sea island at the age of 44.
In Stevenson's case, unbelief was an open secret amongst his literary chums. It is difficlt to know how influential were his views upon the reading public. With Thomas Hardy the case is more clear cut. Hardy was the son of a Dorset builder, yet he became one of England's best known writers. Such was his fame that his remains (minus his heart which was buried in Dorset) were interred in Westminster Abbey. Murray is incorrect to say that Thomas was his parents' only son. As well as sisters Kate and Mary, he had a younger brother, Henry, who carried on the family business as a builder/stonemason.
As a young man Thomas Hardy came under the influence of Henry Moule, the evangelical vicar of Fordington. When revival broke out under Moule's ministry in 1855, Hardy seems to have been affected. While training as an architect he began to study the New Testament in the original Greek and was a regular church goer. But like Stevenson, this early piety was not to last. By 1866 he no longer accepted many of the key teachings of the Church. Reading the liberal theology of Essays and Reviews and the writings of the agnostic Thomas Huxley helped to unsettle his beliefs. On attempting to make a living as a writer, he became acquainted with Leslie Stephen and his atheistic fellow-travellers.
Hardy's unbelieving world-view can be clearly seen in his writings. He rejected divine providence in favour of a fatalistic vision in which his characters such as Henchard, Tess and Jude were subject to blind forces that seemed intent on their destruction. Claire Tomlain gives a helpful discussion of this strand in Hardy's writing in Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, Penguin, 2007 - see chapter 15, Blighted Star. Also, Hardy attempted to push the moral boundaries in his novels. He attacked the church and questioned the value marriage in Tess of the D'Urbevilles and Jude the Obscure. His rather bleak view of married life was informed by his own unhappy marriage to Emma Gifford, who complained that the only women that her husband truly loved were his fictional heroines. It is easy to see how Hardy's atheistic stance could have rubbed off on his readers, helping to create a climate that was hostile to Christian faith and morality.
Next up, Murray considers a coterie of novelists and writers who rejected the Christian faith including H. G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Virgina Wolfe and Bertrand Russell. A glimpse at the personal lives of these writers shows that while unbelief may promise freedom and fulfilment, it cannot deliver. The brave new world without God was characterised by loneliness, selfishness, broken marriages and a feeling that life was ultimately pointless. Apart from God the greatest achievements and accolades are but vanity and grasping for the wind. Yet it was the outlook of these unbelieving writers that helped to shape the broken society that is modern Britain.
Murray is aware that more work needs to be done in this area if his his case is to be proven. He could have mentioned the novelist George Eliot, whose faith in Christianity evaporated as she read and then translated The Life of Christ by the liberal theologian David Strauss. The publication of D. H. Lawrence's infamous novels further undermined basic moral standards in the UK and opened the floodgates for sexually explicit literature.
But the secular novelists with their bitter antagonism to the gospel are not given the last word. The book concludes with a ringing affirmation of the historicity of the Christian faith. Is Christianity Fiction? asks Murray. No, he replies. It is the life-transforming truth of God concerning his Son, Jesus Christ. Men reject the Christian message not because of a lack of evidence for the claims of Christ, or because "modern knowledge" has made the gospel untenable. Unbelief is a matter of the heart, not the head. Unless God conquers our unbelieving hearts and draws us to Christ for salvation, we remain in a lost and hopeless condition. "The preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God". (1 Corinthians 1:18). Only the truth of the gospel can really set us free.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Blogging in the name of the Lord, Series 6 "Box Set"

Here is a special edition "box set" of Blogging in the name of the Lord Series 6. Five Christian bloggers took a turn in the "hot seat":
These aren't strictly Blogging in the name of the Lord interviews, but you might also like to have a glance my recent conversations with:

Monday, July 27, 2009

Risking the Truth by Martin Downes

Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church,
a series of interviews edited by Martin Downes, Christian Focus, 2009, 247pp
You emerge from the darkness, eyes blinking. Before you there are two chairs, black leather. A fierce spotlight illuminates the scene. Seated on one chair is the Interrogator. His job is to question the “guests”. One by one they file in to face the man who wants to get at the truth at all costs. You get to watch and listen from the shadows. You take it all in. The Interrogator fires a question. The man sitting opposite him carefully ponders his answer before speaking. He knows what’s at stake. This is Risking the Truth. The question master is Martin Downes and his “guests” are a wide range of theologians, church historians and pastors. Some hail from the UK, others from the States and one from Africa. They share a common commitment to Reformed theology, but each is his own man with his own way of putting things, his own insights and experiences.

In reading this book you get to eavesdrop on a series of conversations ranging around the theme of handling error in the church. You don’t think that’s important? Think again. Error kills. Heresy, defined as ‘teaching that contradicts saving biblical truth’ has the capacity to damn people to hell. Am I being alarmist? Yes, in the same way that the Old Testament prophets raised an alarm against the false prophets who cried, “Peace, peace!” where there was no peace. Also the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ warned the churches about false teachers who would pervert the gospel and lead many from the truth.

But how are we to deal with error when it rears its ugly head? This is the big question that drives Downes as he quizzes his top notch interviewees. Taking their turns in the hot seat are Carl R. Trueman, Derek Thomas, Iain D. Campbell, Conrad Mbewe, Joel Beeke, Michael Ovey and others. The answers elicited from the contributors evidence a clear grasp of Reformed theology, sound biblical wisdom, and real life experience of handling people who have been in danger of drifting from the gospel.
Special attention is given to some specific erroneous teachings. Opposition to penal substitution is clearly refuted in the light of Scripture. The ‘New Perspective on Paul’ and ‘Federal Vision’ are weighed in the balance and found wanting. Biblical inerrancy is robustly defended by Greg Beale. In a sobering chapter, Robert Peterson argues against annihilationism in favour of the eternal punishment of the wicked. The errors of Roman Catholicism are indexed and rejected. But this is no ‘Horrible Book of Heresies’ where false teaching is sensationalised and set forth in the most lurid colours as a perverse form of entertainment. There is a seriousness and thoughtfulness about these conversations that is welcome and appropriate. If you are looking for pat answers, you won’t find them here. Neither will you find misguided expressions of heresy hunting zeal. Heresy isn’t something “out there” that we can safely keep at arms length. The best of us is liable to fall prey to false teaching if we are not careful. A common theme in the interviews is the need for each of us to keep a close watch on ourselves and our teaching. This applies especially to pastors. A question that recurs again and again is, ‘What are the signs of spiritual and theological decline in a minister?’ The varied answers prompt watchfulness and self-examination. For instance, Sean Michael Lucas responds by saying, ‘the root of ministerial decline is the loss of genuine communion with the Triune God that is rooted in Scripture.’

The pastoral orientation of these interviews is especially helpful. Calvin is cited to the effect that the minister has two voices, one for teaching the sheep and another for warding off wolves. Advice is sought on how pastors may best keep the flock from error. Familiarity with heresy and the orthodox response to false teaching has value. However, we must not become professional controversialists. The best way to guard ourselves against heresy is not to obsess over errors old and new, but to be steeped in the truth of Scripture. We will be able to spot false doctrine a mile off when we are thoroughly familiar with the true biblical teaching. For that reason, pastors should major on the positive exposition and application of Scripture in the life of the church. The historic creeds and Reformed confessions are also an important safeguard against error. We neglect our confessional heritage at our peril.

Pastoral wisdom is needed to distinguish between a wrongheaded believer whose doctrine is a bit confused and those who deliberately teach heresy. People in the first category need to be patiently corrected and brought to a better understanding of the truth. Those in the second camp must be dealt with more firmly. We must speak the truth in love, but if false teachers persist in their views, they must be subject to church discipline, lest their errors spread like a cancer.

Contending for the faith once delivered to the saints is a matter that concerns every believer. But pastors will find it especially profitable to lurk in the shadows as the Interrogator questions his “guests”. The conversational format of the book adds to its value. “As iron sharpens iron so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend”. (Proverbs 27:17). Each interview is distinctive and fresh. While some questions recur in each conversation, others are specially addressed to the subject’s area of expertise. The interviewees are not identikit Calvinistic clones. They are individuals who bring their own styles and personal experiences to bear in their responses. There is something of a Presbyterian bias amongst the contributors, but a few Baptists and an Anglican are also given a say. The book began life as a series of interviews on Martin Downes’ blog ‘Against Heresies’. Some of the contributors, notably Carl Trueman warn that blogging has its dangers. That may be so. But this set of edifying conversations shows that at its best theology blogging may be of benefit to the church.
As Downes acknowledges, being against heresies is not enough. Jesus rebuked the doctrinally discerning church at Ephesus for losing her first love and called her to repent and do the first works (Revelation 2:1-7). Cold orthodoxy is not the antidote to heresy. May our hearts burn with love for Christ as we arise to defend his truth.
Highly recommended. Well, what are you waiting for? Don't risk the truth. Go and buy a copy now.
* As seen on Ref21. An edited version of this review will appear in the next edition of Protestant Truth.
Order 'Risking the Truth':

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Good News Partnership at West Wilts Show

The Good News Partnership is a group of six local Grace Baptist and FIEC churches. For the last two years we have been working together to share the good news of Jesus with the people of West Wiltshire through street evangelism and open air preaching. In pooling our resources for the sake of the gospel we believe that we can be more effective than simply doing our own thing. The inspiration for the GNP was reading Geriaint Fielder's book, Grace, Grit and Gumption, the story of the Forward Movement of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church. The Forward Movement was set up at the end of the 19th century to reach ungodly English speaking immigrants who entered Wales in droves at the time of the Industrial Revolution. The Movement pioneers were bold open air preachers. Seth Joshua and other Forward Movement preachers were powerfully used in the 1904/05 revival. See here for a preview sample.
In a new venture the Good News Partnership bought a marquee (on Ebay!) and booked a pitch at the West Wilts Show in Trowbridge (Thursday 23rd - Saturday 25th July). In our 6 x 3 meter tent we have a range of Christian books for sale, arts and crafts for kids and a display of church info. We've been handing out a specially produced leaflet and copies of John Blanchard's Ultimate Questions. The churches take it in turns to man the stand.
As part of the Good News Partnership organising group, I helped to man the stand yesterday morning. The Penknap/Ebenezer churches I serve were on duty in the afternoon, so I spent the full day at the show. We had some good sunny spells, but when it rained, it poured.

We got off to a good start with a conversation with Andrew Murrison, the Westbury MP. He listened well as we gave a biblical perspective on the ills of society - how only God can turn things around. I've written to him several times in the past and had one or two conversations with him about Christian things. He always seems ready to listen to a Christian viewpoint. Please remember him in your prayers.

We had countless conversations with different individuals throughout the day. We were able to talk to parents/grandparents about the gospel while their children were in the marquee doing crafts. Most were willing to chat about the gospel and take literature. The rain worked for us as we were able to offer some activities in the dry! We engaged others in conversation as they walked past the stand. A Jewish stallholder from London was very open to thinking about Jesus. He had been impressed by seeing practical Christian love in action. I told him that my good friend Ben Midgely, pastor of North Bradley Baptist Church, was a Jew who believed in Jesus. Ben was standing nearby, deep in conversation with some other visitors to the show.

Most people I talked to said they believed in some kind of god. Several had rather confused ideas about Jesus. But some had a clearer understanding of Christ and the gospel. Quite a few people professed to be Christians who for various reasons had stopped going to church. I told them of the importance of belonging to a church and was able to point them to a fellowship in their area. The specially produced Good News Partnership leaflets were well used. We must have handed out scores of them. Many Ultimate Questions were also given away.

In all it was a very encouraging day as believers worked together to spread the Good News at the show. Please pray that God will cause the seed that has been sown to bear fruit as the Holy Spirit brings people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

An interview with Garry Williams, director of the John Owen Centre

GD: Hello Garry Williams and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

GW: I became a Christian aged 17 through studying RS A Level, which I took by ‘chance’ as my third subject, on a whim really. But we studied John’s Gospel verse by verse and the Reformation, so I came to a clear understanding of the Gospel through the course, and was then challenged at a more personal level in confirmation classes run by one of the teachers. So from the start of my Christian life my walk with the Lord has gone hand in hand with theological study. I was a teacher briefly myself, then did four years of theological research, taught at Oak Hill College for ten years, and have just started as Director of the John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary. I’m married to Fiona and we have four children.

GD: What exactly is the John Owen Centre and how does it relate to the London Theological Seminary?

GW: The JOC is an activity of LTS which the Board set up ten years ago. Where LTS provides an initial two year course for pastors and preachers, the JOC is briefed to provide ongoing study opportunities for ministers in the midst of their ministry. So far it has done this through a Westminster Seminary ThM programme in historical and systematic theology, through its bi-annual conferences, and in study groups.

GD: What is your vision for the John Owen Centre as its newly appointed Director?

GW: Obviously to continue the excellent work that has been done so far. This will mean encouraging more ministers to take the ThM programme and maintaining the present Hebrew and reading groups and conference plans. But I also think that we need to extend the range of our activities to make them accessible for more ministers. Our strap-line is likely to be (it isn’t finalized yet!) ‘Theological refreshment for pastors’. This sums up the aim: to refresh pastors in their ministries by deep engagement with the teaching of Scripture, and thus to enrich their ministries among the Lord’s people for his glory. The ThM programme does this really well, but not every minister has the time, money, or qualifications to take it. So I aim to develop other more easily-accessed activities alongside it. Specifically, I plan to run a lot of study days. These will be one-off days of serious theological teaching on a subject, the kind of material that a seminary would offer in a third or fourth year, but without the protracted commitment. I plan to keep the groups small and to repeat the days a number of times and in different places. Also we are going to offer formal study breaks for ministers who have time set aside for study and I will be providing mentoring for their studies. Anyone interested in finding out about what we are offering can sign up for news by emailing

GD: How may pastors benefit from studying for an ThM in historical theology?

GW: Really the ThM is a formalized opportunity to read the giants! The formalized aspect of it means that the reading is done carefully and in the light of the latest research, and it provides an obvious structure and discipline for the study which can help to make sure that it happens. Someone on the ThM is going to spend a long time reading some of the giants of Puritan and Reformed theology. How could that not benefit a pastor? And they will be doing it with some of the world’s experts on the subjects, namely the lecturers from Westminster Seminary. These are men who are academically rigorous but whose priority is the ministry of the Gospel.

GD: What does contemporary evangelicalism have to learn from Puritans like John Owen?

GW: A great deal indeed. I think that as a ‘movement’ (for want of a better word) we are very seriously disconnected from the riches of our past, and this means that we are often stumbling around trying to work out things that were worked out long ago under the Lord’s providence. The Puritans plumbed so many of the depths of God’s word that we have not. It is as if someone has already built a computer and we don’t know it, so we are fumbling around trying to figure out how to make the first microchip. Our acquaintance with the Puritans is also often very selective, focusing on their spirituality, which is obviously a really good thing to learn from, but then forgetting some of the more sophisticated theology that lay behind it.

GD: Who has had the biggest influence on your theological development?

GW: Different people in different ways. There were key moments when I have come to particular convictions under the influence of particular teachers or friends. I abandoned Arminianism as a sixth-former when Richard Fletcher-Cooke, one of my RS masters, handed me a list of passages that showed me that the Bible teaches predestination. I became a five point Calvinist as a student after ten minutes of having my Amyraldianism elegantly dismantled by David Field, later to be a colleague at Oak Hill. In terms of methods, Oliver O’Donovan my DPhil supervisor had a massive impact on me. He rarely showed much interest in me reading secondary literature and encouraged a philosophy of ‘few books, but good’. This left me firmly convinced that the classic are classics for a reason and that we almost always gain more from first-hand engagement with them than we do from those who write about them.

In terms of figures from history, I think the first answer must be Calvin. As a student I was fed largely (thought not exclusively) on a diet of liberal theology and was taught nearly no systematics. But in the middle of it I spent days in the library reading the Institutes and found there a luminous arrangement of the Bible’s teaching. And of course preaching at church had a formative effect on me, especially the ministry of St Ebbe’s in Oxford. There weren’t always people involved: I discovered Reformed Scholasticism by accident by finding a volume of Turretin’s Institutes in a bookshop in Woking (I bought it for the cover and the weight not knowing at the time what it was). My main influences now would be Edwards for the importance of the heart and the affections, Turretin and Owen for the role of reason under Scripture, and men like Thomas Blake and Witsius for the covenant as the key to the Bible.

GD: You have written on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Why do you think that this teaching is so important?

GW: For so many reasons. Key of course is that the Bible teaches it and so we must too if we are to honour the Lord Jesus and rightly proclaim his saving work. Spiritually, clarity on the atonement grounds our assurance of the Lord’s forgiveness and favour – without it we are left with the burden of sin, which we know is intolerable. Theologically, it goes with the doctrine of God’s justice – if we redefine the atonement we are usually redefining the nature of God.

GD: Why do you think that the doctrine has become so unpopular in some supposedly evangelical circles?

GW: What we see often with a denial of penal substitution is a wholesale rewriting of a series of the more (humanly speaking) uncomfortable doctrines. Penal substitution is a glorious description of the love and mercy of God, but it also entails a belief in the retributive wrath of God, and that is always hard for people to accept. This is where the link to the doctrine of God is so important: the pressure often arises to redefine the atonement because a different god is wanted. This is obviously not the case for every critic of the doctrine, but many critics themselves rightly make the connection to the doctrine of God.

GD: Do you hope to publish a book length treatment of penal substitutionary atonement?

GW: Indeed, I hope not posthumously. I hope that it will be a biblical, historical, systematic work framed within a classic Reformed covenant theology.

GD: This year marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth. If you had to specify the three key insights of Calvin's theology what would they be?

GW: Our utter dependence on God.
God’s sovereign fatherly goodness to his people.
The significance of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ.

GD: In the light of your experiences teaching at Oak Hill College, what do Evangelical Anglicans and Evangelical Nonconformists have to learn from each other?

GW: What an interesting question!

I think that evangelical Anglicans have been very strong in two areas: evangelism and training of different kinds. Of course many non-conformists have been too – your questions invites me to generalize. On evangelism: I mean by this that the Anglicans have sought to provide accessible contexts in which non-Christians can hear the Gospel, and they have preached it to them boldly. This explains a lot of the remarkable growth of Reformed Anglicanism over the last thirty years. Anglican evangelistic outreach welcomes people in an environment that is up-to-date and friendly. Unless the Lord intervenes in an extraordinary way, we need to get to the point of having sustained contact with people to tell them the Gospel, and we are in danger of just looking as if we come from another world. It is the Gospel which must offend. A concern for how we present ourselves does not mean that we have ceased to look to God to work and to trust in him: divine sovereignty can never excuse an indifference to the means that we use. Nor do I mean that issues of style are free from theological considerations, which they are not. But much of the style that we cling to is not theologically grounded. I am focusing here of course on reaching the younger generations, but if we do not do so then our churches will soon close. Many Anglican churches have been very effective in reaching out to the sports club, the local university, the workplace, the young mums. On training: the Anglicans have been deliberate and proactive about passing on the Gospel to a new generation of ministers, about identifying them, training them informally and formally, and deploying them. I do think that in some cases this has resulted in men being encouraged into ministry who should not have been, but on the other hand the shortage of non-conformist pastors is not found among Anglican churches – some evangelical Anglican students now struggle to find churches because there are so many of them for comparatively few churches.

The Anglicans on the other hand have clearly sometimes, perhaps often, displaced their emphasis on evangelism so that it fulfils a function that was not intended for it by becoming the primary factor in governing what the church does on the Lord’s Day. Or, in some cases, not even on the Lord’s Day at all because if Wednesday church will be easier for people to attend so they can play sport on a Sunday, then it can just be moved to fit around the sport. Clearly evangelism must be a factor in ordering church services, but not the primary factor. This is pragmatism carried too far, and it can happen because there is a vacuum for the pragmatism to fill created by a low understanding of the church and sacraments, and by a view of preaching that reduces it to being a talk or just ‘someone explaining the Bible’, rather than an encounter with the living God on his resurrection day. I say a ‘low’ view of the church. It is often said that evangelical Anglicans don’t have an ecclesiology, but this is surely wrong. It is just that it is a very low ecclesiology, by which I don’t mean the kind of low ecclesiology that one should have (one opposed to an Anglo-Catholic highness), but simply a low view of what the church is in its gatherings.

This is where I think the Anglicans can learn from the strengths of the Nonconformists. Nonconformity seems to me to be more clear on the dignity and weight of the church, and on the fact that preaching is very different from lecturing and just explaining a passage. There is often much more of a sense of occasion about a Nonconformist service, as if something very serious is about to happen. There is a right kind of reverence: not cold stuffiness, but warm seriousness. And there is more affection, in the formal theological sense of the term. There is more of the heart, with preaching aimed at evoking the affections as well as stimulating the mind. This strength goes with I think a generally deeper acquaintance with the heritage of Reformed theology and practice among Nonconformists that fosters such a view of the church and of the affections. Nonconformity is much more self-consciously Reformed in its heritage than Anglicanism. Indeed, some evangelical Anglicanism is self-consciously not Reformed in some quite strong ways. To some evangelical Anglicans elements of the Reformed tradition, elements that are taught in Scripture, come as a real surprise, and are sometimes greeted with intense scepticism, even determined opposition (for example the Lord’s Day, the role of the law in the Christian life, effectual atonement, Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper, covenant theology). Put simply, the strength of Nonconformity is simply that it is often more Reformed (by which I mean more of course biblical). This grounds its higher ecclesiology (again, in the right sense of ‘higher’).

Somewhere between these two there must be a healthy combination. I would love to see a combination of Anglican evangelism and training with non-conformist seriousness about the church and the heart, and an embrace of full-orbed historic Reformed theology.

As I said, these are all generalizations contradicted by endless exceptions, and having pontificated I must now go and remove the very large log from my own eye!

GD: If time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you most like to meet, and what would you say to them?

GW: Probably Jonathan Edwards because I find him fascinating as a man and I think I would gain a lot from meeting him and observing him that goes beyond what we find in his books. I think I’d have very little to say: I’d keep my mouth shut and listen and soak it all up!

GD: Care to name your top three songs or pieces of music?

GW: They change, but I love Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues for the piano and Bach’s sonatas and partitas for the solo violin, and I am enjoying getting to know Bob Dylan.

GD: What is the most helpful work of theology that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...

GW: Samuel Petto’s seventeenth-century work on the Mosaic covenant (The Difference Between the Old and New Covenant) has been a real thrill. Petto argues a very nuanced case for the Sinai covenant being in some carefully defined ways a republication of the covenant of works, the covenant that God made with Adam. This issue has a big impact on how we fit the story of the Bible together, on the relation between Adam, Israel, and Christ, and it involves close exegesis of passages such as Galatians 3. Petto has some very important things to say on it. I plan to make good use of him in a JOC Study Day on the subject!

GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

GW: I wouldn’t want to generalize: different problems are more acute for different parts of what is a quite fragmented and often diverse movement, even if we confine our view to the conservative end of the spectrum within just one country. I do think that our culture is going to become much more hostile to the Lord Jesus Christ quickly, as we see when the Bible becomes guilty of a hate crime. So I think that we will need to be much more on the front-foot in terms of apologetics and evangelism, taking the battle to an increasingly aggressive pagan world much as the early Christians did. We have more in common with the early church than we do with the Reformers in terms of our wider context in Britain today, and we need to learn from the way that they preached the Gospel so boldly among their neighbours and devastatingly exposed the vacuity of incoherent and unfounded pagan worldviews.
GD: Well, thanks for dropping by for this conversation Garry. May the Lord richly bless you in your new sphere of service at the JOC.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bill Dyer on the minister's prayer life

We had Bill Dyer, recently retired pastor of Pontefract Evangelical Church speak to us at today's Westcountry Reformed Ministers' Fraternal. He based his address on Acts 6:4. It was a very challenging and most encouraging talk. Here are some notes.
1. The absolute priority of personal, private prayer
In Acts 6 we see that the apostles delegated the task of aid distribution in the early church to the first deacons. The reason for their actions is given in Acts 6:4. They wanted to make prayer and the ministry of the word their great priority. Robert Murray M'Cheyne said, "If you want to embarrass a Christian, just ask about their prayer life." The Scottish preacher also stated, "What a man is before God on his knees, that he is and no more." We all know that prayer is vitally important, but sometimes Reformed believers are better at theorising about prayer than actually praying. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was of the opinion that "everything is easier than prayer." Of course he was right and pastors struggle with this just as much as any other Christian. In fact the first duty of a minister is to be a good Christian - a man of God.
Prioritizing prayer will mean that other time consuming activities like being involved in endless committees should be avoided. Busyness is the enemy of fruitfulness. We need to discipline ourselves to make time for daily prayer. Beginning the day in prayer will help to ensure that that our activities are directed and sustained by the Lord. Not that we should only pray in the mornings, all our work from pastoral visits to sermon preparation should be bathed in prayer. The effectiveness of everything we do is entirely dependent upon God's blessing.
Bible reading and meditation will help to stimulate a prayerful frame of mind. We can use other aids like 'The Valley of Vision', a collection of Puritan prayers and devotions complied by Arthur Bennett, Banner of Truth Trust. We should pray until we have a felt sense of the presence of God and be content with nothing less. Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey once astonished an audience by telling them, "This morning I spent one minute in the presence of Jesus - it took me twenty-nine minutes of prayer before I knew his presence."
Pulpit prayer demands thoughtful preparation and meditation. It is easy to become stale and predictable in public prayer. We should try and avoid using stock phrases and cliches. Our pulpit prayers will never be higher than our private prayers.
We should pray for all our people regularly and systematically. This is more easily accomplished when pastoring a smaller church. But even in larger fellowships, a certain number of members can be prayed for each day so that the pastor will pray for his whole flock once a month. We should bring special prayer requests before the Lord. If we have promised to pray for someone, we should do it! Also we must intercede for the unconverted who come along to church, that they might be saved.
Preachers encounter various difficulties when it comes to prayer. We can feel guilty because of the poor quality of our prayer lives. We should avoid only praying for our own church. Prayer for mission and the persecuted church aught not to be neglected. The living God whom we serve delights to hear our prayers. It is not so much that "prayer changes things", but that "God changes things in answer to the prayers of his people." In the realm of experience there is often a conflict between spontaneity and systematic prayer. We should aim at nothing less than communion with the Father through the Son in the presence of the Spirit when we pray. While petition is important, prayer must not be reduced to a "shopping list" of our people's needs.
2. Corporate prayer
The early church engaged in corporate prayer, with the result that they were filled afresh with the Holy Spirit, Acts 4:23-31. The task of pastors is to lead the churches they serve to be more prayerful. We need to seek God's guidance on how best to reach our communites with the gospel. We should pray for his blessing on the ministry of the Word, for spiritual growth in the church, for new leaders to be raised up etc. The importance of the Prayer Meeting needs to be stressed. Beyond the weekly Prayer Meeting we can encourage our people to meet at other times to call upon God for the outpouring of the Spirit upon all the activities of the church.
3. Prayer is wedded to the ministry of the Word.
Note the link in Acts 6:4. If our preaching is to be Spirit empowered and fruitful, the whole church needs to pray that pastors will be filled with the Spirit. Our preaching is an expression of our spiritual lives. If we would preach in the Spirit, we must walk in the Spirit and seek the Spirit's anointing on our ministries. A black preacher once said, "I reads myself full, I thinks myself clear, I prays myself hot, I lets myself go." Bethan Lloyd-Jones said of her husband, "He was first of all a man of prayer and then an evangelist". For many today, preaching is little more than Bible teaching. Information is imparted, but lives and not changed. What we need is Spirit enlivened preaching that will be the means of saving lost sinners and transforming believers.
Bearing in mind the state of the world and the weakness of the church, we need God to work mightily among us. We must give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.
See here for a Minister's Prayer from 'The Valley of Vision'.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Ordinary Hero: Living the cross and resurrection by Tim Chester

The Ordinary Hero: Living the cross and resurrection
by Tim Chester, IVP, 2009, 221pp

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ lie at the very heart of the Christian faith. As Evangelical Protestants we preach that Christ died once and for all to save us from sin. We are also prepared to defend Jesus’ bodily in the face of unbelieving scepticism. But what impact should these gospel basics have on the life of the believer? As the subtitle suggests, this book is about living the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Chester has the gift communicating his ides in crystal clear prose, with a generous sprinkling of vivid illustrations and telling quotations. He avoids technical jargon, apart from “eschatology”, which he goes out of his way to define. This work is evidently the product of careful scholarship, but Chester’s style is wonderfully engaging and accessible.

The writer delves into the Scriptures, basing what he has to say on a sound and insightful handling of the biblical materials. Chester writes with a keen awareness of the theological dimensions of his subject. He makes a good, biblically reasoned case for penal substitutionary atonement. He points to the cosmic implications of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is the first fruits of the new creation. However, Chester is incorrect to state that while in the tomb, Jesus’ flesh was “rotting into dust” (p. 185). As Peter is careful to point out in quoting from Psalm 16 on the Day of Pentecost, Jesus’ flesh did not see corruption (Acts 2:25-32 cf. Paul's similar words in Acts 13:35-37). His dead body was preserved from the corrupting effects of death by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Chester thoughtfully applies his teaching. Readers are challenged not simply to understand what the Bible has to say on of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but to live in the light of these things. The once crucified and now risen Saviour calls us to take up the cross and follow him, whatever the cost. As those who are united to Christ by faith, believers experience the power of his resurrection in their lives. But that power is not given to us so that we may breeze triumphantly trough life without a care in the world. Resurrection power is power that enables us to serve and suffer for Christ’s sake.

The author is pretty culture-savvy, referencing contemporary films and music. He gives a penetrating critique of today’s materialistic society. If the consumer is king, little room is left for humility, self-denial and sacrificial service. Only by being ‘ordinary heroes’, living the death and resurrection of Jesus will we find true joy and purpose in life.

Many believers tend to think of the Christian’s final hope in terms of dying and going to heaven. But Chester paints a more biblical picture of the eternal sate. When Jesus returns, our bodies will be raised up and made like Christ’s resurrection body. We shall live forever in the new creation in the presence of the triune God and in the company of his people. With this hope in our hearts we are motivated to live for Jesus in this fallen world.

Everyone who wants to know more about what it means to be an authentic follower of Jesus should read this most helpful and challenging book. Buy it and by God's grace, live it. Check out this video, where Tim Chester talks about what it means to be an 'ordinary hero'.
* An edited version of this review will appear in a forthcoming edition of Protestant Truth.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Risking the Truth: an interview with Martin Downes

GD: Hello Martin Downes and welcome to Exiled Preacher. You have just brought out a book, Risking the Truth, Christian Focus Publications, 247pp. Summarise the contents of the book in a ten word blurb.

MD: Pastorally driven interviews on handling truth and error in the church.

GD: That was eleven words. Now, why the preoccupation with false teaching in the interviews?

MD: Actually they are not preoccupied with false teaching, even though the interviews are about that issue. They are really preoccupied with Christ, the gospel, the welfare of the church, the cure of souls, and therefore deal with how to handle false teachers and their ideas that obscure Christ and harm people.

On a personal level for eleven years now I have had an interest in heresy. I picked up, in a “health and wealth gospel” bookshop would you believe, The Cruelty of Heresy by C. FitzSimons Allison. That book opened up the moral and pastoral dimensions of heresy and helped me to see the subject in a new way. Heresy offers us something that we want, and offers it on terms that we find conducive. But heresies dishonour God, pander to our sinfulness, and are bad for our souls. Heresies are the narcotics of the theological world. Not all errors are heresies. Heresies are errors that are so bad they are soul destroying. I have a general interest in systematic and historical theology, and a particular focus on the concept of heresy. I want to explore these areas, think them through, and hopefully do some work that will be of benefit to churches.

There are three other concerns that drive me.

Firstly there is danger of not treating Jesus' warnings about false teachers seriously. That bothers me. His teaching on this should not be treated lightly.

Secondly too many Christians are naïve about false teaching because they fail to see that it dresses itself up as truth. False teaching gains acceptance because it hides under the use of biblical words and phrases but changes their meaning. It always appears to be plausible. We need to understand what the Bible says about the nature, effects, causes, remedies for, and antidotes to false teaching.

Thirdly, dealing with error is a pervasive biblical theme. Scan through the gospels, Acts, the epistles and Revelation, and you realise that this is a serious issue facing churches and Christians. I would even say that we are most likely to be confronted with demonic influences in the form of false teachers and teaching (see 2 Corinthians 11:3-5, 13-15; Ephesians 4:14 and 6:11; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 2:25-26; 1 John 4:1-3; Revelation 13:11). In the words of the Emperor in Star Wars “never underestimate the power of the darkside.”
GD: Have you ever felt drawn to erroneous doctrine? If so how did the Lord keep you from drifting from the truth?

MD: There was a time when my understanding of the grace of God in the accomplishment and application of the gospel was wrong and inadequate. But reading Ephesians 2:1-10, in the quietness of my room as a second year undergraduate, was an unforgettably humbling experience.

I was confronted with the truth that I owed my regeneration to God alone. He made me alive even when I was dead in sin. The grace of God in salvation was bigger than I had ever knew before and I had more to thank God for in saving me than I had previously understood. I also knew that I had to submit to this teaching from God's Word and not replace it with my own thoughts. So I escaped from an incomplete and erroneous view that at the time seemed reasonable to me. I came to agree with Jonathan Edwards' sentiment “absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.”

Beyond that I often pray, as Charles Hodge did, “teach me that I may teach others also,” and with John Owen, ask that the Lord would, in his infinite mercy, continually lay an awe upon my heart and keep me in captivity to the simplicity and mystery of the gospel.

GD: The book has a stellar list of contributors; Carl Trueman, Derek Thomas, Michael Horton, Joel Beeke etc. How did you persuade them to take part, did you send round a member of the Taffia to "make them an offer they couldn't refuse?"

MD: I started with men that I already knew (Geoff Thomas, Derek Thomas, Carl Trueman, and Scott Clark) and they helpfully suggested others. That was invaluable. Further down the line maybe it helped others to know who was already on board with the interviews. I should also add that all the contributors were generous with their time. With some of the subject specific interviews I had definite ideas about who should address them. Thankfully they all said yes.

GD: No doubt the Taffia heavies helped things along a bit. The book began as a series of interviews on your blog, Against Heresies. Did you have a view to publishing the conversations in book form when they were originally posted?

MD: Not at all. My original intention was just to post all the interviews online. Geoff Thomas, one of the early contributors, suggested the idea of putting the interviews into a more permanent form. I had for a long time appreciated the work and ethos of Christian Focus and have enjoyed working with them on this project.

GD: In his interview, Carl Trueman made some salient points on the dangers of theology blogging. What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for theological reflection?

MD: I can only speak from a personal perspective. I had already published several articles and contributed to a book before starting a blog. It helps to keep me writing, it is useful for finding an outlet for my specialist interest, and it is an easy way to develop material that hopefully will find an outlet elsewhere. So I use it as an extra medium for the kind of writing and theological reflection that I am already doing. I think it is possible to use the medium to inform and edify others, just as it can be abused by selfish motives. I always write as a public person. I never want to bring shame on my family and my church by misusing a blog. If you blog about theology always review your aims.

GD: What is the advantage of confronting the issue of false teaching in the form of a series of interviews?

MD: I think that it is a good and legitimate way to combine biblical reflection, theological insight, historical awareness and, crucially, personal involvement. That is why the book is about “handling” truth and error, you get a marriage of knowledge and experience. I have tried to set a pastoral agenda throughout.

GD: The overwhelming majority of interviewees are Presbyterian. Why the Presby bias, do so few Baptists and Anglicans have opinions on stuff?

MD: Well that wasn't intentional. I could give you a list of Baptists and Anglicans who were too busy to contribute to the book. Perhaps Presbyterians have too much time on their hands.

GD: A question you return to again and again is this: "Calvin said that ministers have two voices. One is for the sheep and one is for warding off wolves. How have you struck the right balance in this regard in your pulpit ministry?" Well, how about you?

MD: Guy there are three strands to my thinking on this subject.

1. I am committed to consecutive expository preaching, always striving to teach the text. I hope this reigns me in from riding hobby horses in the pulpit. So I deal with false teaching as it arises in the text (and as I have preached through Titus, 2 Timothy and Colossians on Sunday evenings the subject has come up a fair bit).

2. I am convinced that a thorough knowledge of, and delight in, the truth is far better for my people than filling their heads with a variety of errors and contemporary trends. I take it that Paul's approach in Colossians, where the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ is shown in widescreen, really is the best way to safeguard congregations. What believer will want to go after novelties when they have such a soul satisfying view of Christ?

I've also learned from the Westminster Directory of Public Worship to be cautious about “raising old heresies from the grave” and mentioning “blasphemous opinions unnecessarily.” I love to see the effects of sound teaching, taught from the Word and applied by the Spirit. By way of contrast it distresses me to see the effects and the spread of error. There have been occasions where I have spoken publicly and privately about particular issues. It is important to ask if an error is a clear and present danger to your people.

3. My reading and study is more comprehensive than my spoken public ministry. Pastors ought to read beyond and above the level we are teaching at, and have a grasp of the anatomy of theology and doctrinal diseases. When I started out in pastoral ministry I was given a helpful piece of advice. As a rule I should give five days a week to the local church and one day a week to the universal church. In that way there is an outlet for broader research and writing that hopefully will benefit others.

GD: A strong theme running through most of the interviews is the importance of creeds and confessions of faith for confirming believers in the truth and guarding against heresy. Presbyterians seem to be especially hot on this issue. How can we encourage Baptist churches to be more self-consciously confessional?

MD: I think it is a case of use it or lose it. Go back and read the 1689 Confession or the Abstract of Principles. Find practical ways to reintroduce them into the life of the church. Take 5-10 minutes during the morning service to explain an article, or a catechism question (state it, explain it, illustrate it, apply it). Start a class, recommend some good books on it, get kids learning it (get the Sunday school to make an audio CD for the church). Find ways to show its importance and relevance to prayer, worship, evangelism, Christian living etc. Every church should know where it stands theologically and should have that in a written form.

And don't forget the Heidelberg Catechism. Every Christian should learn at least the first question and answer. When you are lying in a hospital bed that's the truth you want to have stored in your memory.

GD: Martin Luther said that when it comes to contending for the faith we should fight for the truth that is most under attack at any given time. Where is the battle raging most fiercely today?

MD: We don't have the luxury of fighting only on one front. We must know the essential articles of the faith thoroughly, we must preach them constantly, and as Luther said about justification, beat them into our heads continually. All the major doctrines are continually being sniped at from somewhere, but in the current evangelical scene there is an untying of the bonds that connect us to the Reformation. The doctrine of God, Scripture, the atonement, justification by faith alone, final judgement, to name but a few are under considerable attack.

GD: John Newton advised a young minister that, "we find but few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it." How can we faithfully contend for the truth without becoming contentious bores?

MD: It is all too easy to forget that not only is the gospel about the grace of God but our reception of it is also by his grace. I have to keep on coming back to 2 Timothy 2:22-25, “The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone...correcting his opponents with gentleness.” God requires this kind of orthopraxy in his servants. Timothy must cultivate and display these attitudes and graces. But the key is what follows. The only hope for a change in these opponents is if God grants them repentance so that they come to a knowledge of the truth and escape the snare of the devil. If I keep this text in mind as I contend for the truth it will make me thankful, subdue my pride, and lead me to pray for my opponents. A passage like this is like having a behind the scenes DVD. There is a real spiritual battle going on.

GD: Do you regret not asking proper questions like, "If time travel were possible, who would you like to meet?" or "Care to share your top three tunes?" (Like in the famous 'Blogging in the name of the Lord' interviews - see MD's contribution here).

MD: Of course. Perhaps the next project is a sound track, Risking the Truth: Tunes to bash heretics by. Doubtless there would be some Wagner, Led Zeppelin and U2 (“Stuck in a moment”) on there.

GD: Put me down for one of those. What are the main lessons that you learned regarding handling error in the church as a result of doing these interviews?

MD: I particularly valued Iain D. Campbell's reference to John Kennedy's assessment of the ministers of his generation, “each one of them would have been distinguished as a Christian, though he had never been a minister,” and Iain D's comment about how it is possible “to preach orthodox doctrine with passion, and yet be cold in our love for God and his people.” I found that the answers that dealt with the pastor's role and responsibility spoke to my soul, challenged me, and spurred me on.

If I am to deal with error I must always seek to have an living, growing relationship with the triune God. For example, I can see justification by faith taught in the text, but I must know the reality of it in my approach to God, I must know that peace that it gives, I must watch that my heart does not seek after works righteousness and so open me up to forms of teaching that offer them to me as a way of acceptance with God.

GD: Why is being against heresies not enough?

MD: Because there is the danger of it being purely academic, an outlet for an argumentative personality, a way of showcasing the extent of our knowledge. It is all too easy not to be motivated by a deep love for God and his people, to be trigger happy, and not to be compassionate. Francis Schaeffer wisely said that we should “beware the habits we pick up in controversy.”

GD: Is a sample interview available on the internet for those who would like to get a flavour of the book?

MD: You can read Carl R. Trueman's very helpful interview at the Westminster Bookstore site by clicking on this link.
GD: Your conversation with Trueman was one of the best of the bunch. Well worthwhile checking out. But I guess that just about wraps things up for now, Martin. Thanks for dropping by for this little chat. Oh, and watch this space for my reivew of RTT, where I tell you what I really think of Downsie's new book.
Order Risking the Truth:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

N. T. Wright on schism in the Church of England

See here for Tom Wright's piece in the Times Online on why the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in the United States was wrong to vote in favour of the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Aside from the ecclesiastical politics, he makes a well argued case in favour of heterosexual marriage as the only biblically sanctioned context for sexual expression.
Also, see here for David Robertson's salient reflections on the Church of Scotland's decision to ordain practicing homosexuals.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A very rough guide to Calvin's theology: Glory!

If evangelicalism is to have a future as a movement that is faithful to the gospel then we need a good dose of Calvin’s theology. We must hold that the triune God of the Gospel is still mighty to save sinners by his sovereign grace.

I have but given you a very rough, sketchy and incomplete guide to Calvin’s life and thought. A little series of blog posts can but suggest something of Calvin's theology in all its grandeur and breadth. Contrary to popular misconception, there is certainly more to him than predestination. Calvin gives us invaluable insight into the nature of biblical revelation, the Trinity, and Christ in his offices of Prophet, Priest and King. His teaching on salvation through union with Christ, and the gift of 'double grace' in him, is especially helpful. What he has to say on living the Christian life is full of practical wisdom.

What I like above all else about Calvin and his theological vision is his utter God-centeredness. His focus is not on man and his abilities, but on God and his sin-conquering, life transforming grace. His theology is careful to give God all the glory for our salvation.

Glory to the Father for choosing to save a sinners like us! Glory to the Son for dying to redeem a save sinners like us! Glory to the Spirit for savingly uniting a sinners like us to Christ!

Calvin calls us to live for the glory of God:

Let this, then, be the first step, to abandon ourselves and devote the whole energy of our minds to the service of God. (Institutes III: 7: 1)

We are no to seek our own, but the Lord’s will, and act with a view to promote his glory. (Institutes III: 7: 2)

May we say together with John Calvin in the words of his family motto:

“I offer my heart to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely”

More stuff
Calvin: still hot at 500 an article in the Times on the "new Calvinists". Mostly on the Young, Restless, Reformed American scene. Why no attention to Calvinism in the UK? H/T David Ceri.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A very rough guide to Calvin's theology: Church

The fourth and final Book of the Institutes is devoted to The Holy Catholic Church. John Calvin was profoundly interested in church life. He worked tirelessly to reform the church in Geneva, seeking to establish the work on a more biblical pattern. He reformed her structure and worship in accordance with Biblical teaching. According to Calvin, a true church is defined by gospel preaching, the right administration of the sacraments, and loving discipline of the membership. Church members are to be born again people, visible saints, who exercise their gifts for the good of the body of Christ. The Reformation gave emphasis to the preaching of the Word as the means by which sinners are saved and the people of God built up as a kingdom of priests. But Calvin was realistic enough not to expect perfection in the visible church, which he distinguished from the invisible church, comprising of all God's elect.

Under the heading of the Church, I also want to say something concerning Calvin's thinking on Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Reformer disliked Luther's teaching on the Lord’ Supper. Luther argued that in being glorified, the humanity of Christ took on the property of omnipresence. Because of that his flesh can be with and under the bread and wine at the Supper. For Calvin, this view displayed a terrible misunderstanding of the communion of attributes in the Person of Christ, and compromised the reality of our Lord's continued incarnate life. But he also disagreed with Zwingli's doctrine, which made the Lord's Supper little more than a trip down memory lane. Calvin proposed that Christ is present at the Table by his Spirit. The Spirit compresses the distance between the believer and the flesh of the ascended Christ as we feed upon him by faith at the Lord's Supper.

Calvin believed that the children of believers as well as adult converts should be baptised. This is one area where we Calvinistic Baptist disagree with the great man. The New Testament everywhere insists that baptism follows faith. The children of believers are to be treasured and brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. But they are not to be baptised until they come to believe in Christ for themselves.

What of the relation between Church and Society? Calvin believed that it was the duty of the civil magistrate to uphold both tables of the law. It was this idea got Calvin into trouble in the Servetus case. Servetus was an anti-trinitarian heretic, who was arrested on visiting Geneva. He was sentenced to be burnt at the stake by the Genevan authorities. Calvin asked that he should be executed more humanely. But he nevertheless consented to the judicial killing of Servetus for the 'crime' of heresy. We should not try to exonerate Calvin for his role in this affair. He was a man of his time, yes. But his knowledge of the gospel of Jesus should have taught him better. This sorry episode reminds us that even our heroes have their blind spots. The powers of the state should not be used to suppress heresy. The church's weapon against false teaching is the sword of the Spirit. We must be willing to suffer and die for the truth, but never kill for it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A very rough guide to Calvin's theology: Resurrection

The location of the Reformer's treatment of the resurrection within the structure of the Institutes is important. The chapter on the resurrection is found at the end of Book III, which constitutes a massive exposition of, "The mode of obtaining the grace of Christ. The benefits it confers and the effects resulting from it." According to Calvin, the resurrection hope is the grand fulfilment of salvation in Christ. The goal of God's redemptive work is that the elect are conformed to the image of the risen, glorified Jesus. In placing his treatment of the resurrection at this point in the Institutes, Calvin emphasises that the resurrection of the body is the crowning benefit that believers will receive from the grace of Christ. This is "the prize of our high calling" (III:25:1.)
For Calvin, the resurrection of the body is a deeply practical doctrine. The Lord Jesus has conquered death. Even now, believers sit with him in the heavenly places. In the midst of life's trials and difficulties, we are to attend to the great Christian hope that, "When Christ who is our life shall appear, then shall you also appear with him in glory."(Colossians 3:4). This hope will steel us to stand firm in the faith, steadfast to the end. We are raise our eyes from the passing things of this life and to fix them on the risen Christ. Reflection on the resurrection hope is absolutely vital for growth in godliness,

"Wherefore, he alone has made solid progress in the gospel who has acquired the habit of meditating continually on a blessed resurrection." (III:25:1).

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Humanness of John Calvin by Richard Stauffer

The Humaness of John Calvin: The Reformer as a Husband, Father, Pastor and Friend,
by Richard Stauffer, Solid Ground Christian Books, 2008, 96pp.
It is fair to say that John Calvin is not the most well loved of the Protestant Reformers. He lacks the garrulousness of Luther with his table talk as free flowing as Wittenberg beer. Some have accused the Genevan Reformer of being remote, uncaring and inhuman. Richard Stauffer helps us to see that cold-Calvin was not the real Calvin. In the introductory chapter he refutes some of the vile calumnies levelled against Calvin's character by Catholics and Protestants like. Then we are given a glimpse of John Calvin as a husband, father, friend and pastor. The picture that emerges is one of a fully paid up member of the human race.
Calvin was a loving husband. He enjoyed a happy and close relationship with his devoted wife, Idelette De Bure. Calvin and Idelette had a son together, but little Jacques did not survive. In a letter to Viret, his fellow-Reformer Calvin gives free expression to his grief tempered by a touching faith in God, "Certainly the Lord has afflicted us with a deep and painful wound in the death of our beloved son. But he is our Father he knows what is best for his children." (p. 42). On being insensitively reproached for his childless state Calvin responded, "The Lord gave me a little son and then he took him away." (p. 43). After eight years of marriage, Idelette also died. Calvin wrote to his old friend Farel,
"this great sadness...would have broken me had He not extended his hand from on high; He whose service includes the relief of the broken, the strengthening of the weak, the renewal of those who are tired." (p. 45).
Despite his reputation for being a little remote and tetchy, Calvin had a huge capacity for friendship. He maintained some friendships from childhood years into adult life. Two of his closest friends were Viret and Farel, with whom he shared the highs and lows of the Reformation cause. Calvin chided Farel when at the age of sixty nine he married a much younger women. But this did not break their friendship. Calvin even urged restive members of Farel's church to bear with their pastor as the old warrior looked for the comforts of married life. Calvin also extended the hand of friendship to men with whose opinion on theological matters was different to his own, amongst them Luther's deputy, Philip Melancthon.
Calvin served as a Minister of the Gospel for twenty seven years of his life. His preaching and teaching ministry is well known, but he was also a loving pastor. He comforted his flock in their afflictions and made practical provision for refugees in Geneva. He wrote movingly to comfort those facing death for the sake of their faith. Calvin had great breadth of spirit. He worked tirelessly to heal divisions in the Reformed churches. With all his abundant labours, trials and afflictions for the sake of the gospel, Calvin could have been forgiven for reviewing his ministry with some satisfaction. But as he faced death we find him asking his colleagues to forgive his many faults. He saw himself as a wretched sinner whose only hope was in the Father of mercy.
If you want to get to know John Calvin, the very real human being behind the legend, this gem of a book is a great place to start.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A very rough guide to Calvin's theology: Liberty

Calvin has a reputation (perhaps not altogether undeserved) of being a little tetchy and austere. Let us redress the balance (after all it is his 500th birthday today) with a brief consideration of the Reformer's view of the Christian life of liberty. Calvin believed that God, in his creation and providence has showered mankind with many gifts. We are to receive these gifts with joy as tokens of God's goodness. Calvin emphasised that all Christians are called to wholeheartedly serve the Lord, whatever their line of work. But while this life is not to be despised, we are driven by the sufferings of this world to long for the joys of everlasting glory in our heavenly home.

The Christian is a free man. The basis of Christian liberty is our justification by faith alone. The believer is free from the accusations of the law of God, having been justified by grace through faith in Christ. The Epistle to the Galatians is the great charter of Christian liberty, Galatians 5:1. Paul teaches that believers have been freed from the ceremonies of the law such as circumcision. We have also been liberated from the curse of the law in Christ who was made a curse for us. The law reveals the way in which Christians should live, but it cannot condemn us:

"For when the conscience feels anxious as to how it may have the favour of God...if brought to his judgement seat... the requirements of the law are not to be brought forward, but Christ, who surpasses all the perfection of the law, is alone to be held forth for righteousness." (Institutes III:19:3.)

We are not free to sin because we have been called by the grace of God to righteousness and holiness. But we do have freedom when it comes to adiaphora or things indifferent. This is a very important point,

"The knowledge of this liberty is very necessary to us; where it is wanting our consciences will have no rest, there will be no end of superstition." (Institutes III:19:3).

Within the bounds of modesty and self-control, believers are fee to eat, drink and wear what they please. Calvin taught this against a background where Roman Catholic traditions like eating fish not meat on Fridays were observed by many people. Such matters are adiaphora - the Christian is free to do as he pleases with regard to such issues. We are not bound by the traditions of men. Calvin ridiculed those who had scruples over eating good food and wearing comfortable and attractive clothing.

"If he hesitates as to a more genial wine, he will scarce drink the worst with a good conscience; at last he will dare not to touch water if more than usually sweet and pure. In fine, he will come to this, that he will deem it criminal to trample on a straw lying in his way." (Institutes III:19:7.)

Now, Christian liberty is to be used responsibly. We are not to abuse our freedom by offending the conscience of the weaker brother. On the other hand, we must not to yield to Pharisaical types who would seek to rob us of our true freedom in Christ. Christian liberty is one of the precious fruits of the gospel. Perhaps on this, the 500th anniversary of Calvin's Birth on 10th July 1509 it would be in order to raise a glass of genial wine in honour of the great man.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A very rough guide to Calvin's theology: Election

Not all are brought to saving faith in Christ. Why is it that some believe and others do not? This brings us to a discussion of Calvin's doctrine of predestination. Some are under the impression that predestination was the the main theme in his theology, but this is not the case. He doesn't even begin to discuss the doctrine until he nears the end of Book III of the Institutes. For Calvin presestination was not a matter of cold logic. He was convinced of it because he found the doctrine in Scripture, especially in Romans 8 and Ephesians 1. But he did not allow the doctrine to dominate his theology. The Reformer dealt with the election in a biblically proportionate way. Calvin taught that God has chosen to save some fallen human beings, simply on the basis of his free grace and love. He has chosen not to save others. They will suffer God’s just wrath for their sin. But how can we know if we are among the elect? We cannot peer into God's hidden decree of salvation. Calvin advises us to look to Christ, whom he describes as 'the mirror of our election'. If we are united to him by faith, then we can be assured that we were chosen in him before the foundation of the world.

"First, if we seek for the paternal mercy and favour of God, we must turn our eyes to Christ, in whom alone the Father is well pleased (Mt. 3:17). When we seek for salvation, life, and a blessed immortality [we must go to him], since he alone is the fountain of life and the anchor of salvation, and the heir of the kingdom of heaven. Then what is the goal of election, but just that, being adopted as sons by the heavenly Father, we may by his favour obtain salvation and immortality? How ever much you may speculate and discuss you will perceive that in its ultimate object it goes no farther. Hence, those whom God has adopted as sons, he is said to have elected, not in themselves, but in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:4); because he could love them only in him, and only as being previously made partakers with him, honour them with the inheritance of his kingdom."

It is foolish, harmful and dangerous to contemplate election apart from Christ. We know that we are elect by believing in him and contemplating him,

"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 engraft 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).

Calvin's Christ-centred doctrine of election helps to save the Christian from despairing of ever knowing if his name is written in the Book of Life.
*Portrait by Oliver Crisp.

A very rough guide to Calvin's theology: Union with Christ

One of Calvin's key theological achievements was recognising the importance of the New Testament's teaching on union with Christ. He dismissed the medieval teaching on the value of human merit in salvation, insisting that God owes sinners nothing. Salvation comes through God graciously uniting us to Christ by his Spirit. In Christ believers receive the 'double benefit' of justification and sanctification. Justification and sanctification are conceptually distinct. Justification is God's declaration that a sinner is righteous in his sight on the basis of Christ's finished work, received by faith alone. Works don't come into it. In sanctification God sets us apart for himself and calls us to live to a holy life. By virtue of the believer's union with Christ, we are both justified and sanctified (Romans 5&6). It is impossible to have the one aspect of salvation apart from another. This pulls the rug from under the Roman Catholic charge that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is detrimental to good works. The faith which alone saves does not remain alone. As Paul said, faith works by love (Gal 5:6), or in the words of James, faith without works is dead (2:17). Let us then look to Christ and him alone for both justification and the transformation of our lives,

"In summary, [says Calvin] since in Christ all kinds of blessings are treasured up, let us draw a full supply from him, and none from any other quarter." (Institutes II:16:19).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A very rough guide to Calvin's theology: Jesus

Next we focus attention Calvin’s teaching on the Son of God. His conception of the person of Christ was in full accord with historic Christian orthodoxy. We can benefit from the welcome clarity that he brings to this most important of subjects. Calvin stressed that when the Son became man, he did not stop being God. In his humanity, the Son was finite, subject to the restrictions of time and place. While in his deity the Son was infinite, eternal and omnipresent, upholding all things by the word of his power.

Calvin enables us make sense of certain Scriptures that speak of Christ in his suffering and exaltation in ways that at first glance seem to be a little baffling. Scripture sometimes speaks as if the Son’s divine nature suffered on the cross, 'Lord of glory' was crucified (1 Corinthians 2:8), or the church was purchased by God's blood (Acts 20:28). Also that the exalted Jesus “fills all in all” – Ephesians 1:23. What are we to make of such texts? Did the divine Son really die? Does the human body of the human Jesus really fill all things? Calvin discusses such Scriptures in terms of the communion of attributes in the Person of Christ. This does not mean that divine attributes are communicated to Jesus’ humanity or the other way around. His divine nature did not become human and his human nature did not become divine. The Person of the Son of God died in his human nature – that is why the Bible can say that the Lord of glory was crucified. The ascended Christ fills all things not because his humanity is now omnipresent, but because he is the exalted Son of God.

Calvin considers the work of Christ in terms of his biblically assigned offices of prophet, priest and king.

As our prophet, Christ gives us the saving knowledge of God as he speaks to us by his Word through the Holy Spirit. The prophetic Christ continues to instruct and guide the Church, Acts 3:22-22-23.

Jesus is our great High Priest, Hebrews 2:17. As both God and Man he is the only mediator between God and men. As our high priest Christ offered himself to God on the cross to atone for the sins of his people. We know forgiveness and peace with God by his blood. The risen Christ ever lives to make intercession for us. Through Jesus we draw near to God and enjoy fellowship with him.

Christ is our King, Revevaltion 19:6. As the risen Lord he is Head over all things for the Church, Ephesians 1:22 & 23. We are subject to his gracious rule.

As Prophet, Priest and King, Jesus is a complete Saviour. He deals with our ignorance of God as our Prophet. He atones for our guilt as our Priest. He subdues and conquers our sin as our King.