Monday, November 30, 2009

FIEC for a New Day: Resolved

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

Friday, November 27, 2009

FIEC for a New Day

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Preaching on Hell

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Church Website

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Alister McGrath interview

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Charles Hodge on the Spirit working apart from the truth

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Synod of Dort

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

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

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

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

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

Total Depravity

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

Unconditional Election

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

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

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

Limited Atonement

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

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

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

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

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

Irresistible Grace

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

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

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

Perseverance of the Saints

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


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

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

Jesus as the true Israel in the Gospel According to Matthew

St. Matthew by Caravaggio
Time and time again, the First Gospel bears witness to the fact that Jesus is the true Israel. He is the seed of Abraham and David, Matthew 1:1-17. The exodus is reenacted when he returns from Egypt to the Promised Land, Matthew 2:13-15. His temptation for forty days in the wilderness echoes Israel's temptations during the forty wilderness years, Matthew 4:1-11. Jesus is the Servant of the Lord who brings light and salvation to the nations in a way that Israel failed to do, Matthew 12:18-21 cf. Isaiah 42:1-4, 18-20. In the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus recapitulates Israel's history and as he does so, fulfils Israel's destiny.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Richard Gaffin Study Day: The Resurrection in the Theology of Paul

Session 3: The Resurrection in the Theology of Paul: An Overview

Paul's "theology" is God's word: 1 Thess 2:13, and is to be received as such. The centre of Paul's gospel is Christ's death and resurrection: e.g., 1 Cor 15:3-4. The death and resurrection of Christ are mutually dependent in the salvation of sinners. The cross only saves because Jesus is risen. He was raised from the dead because he died on the cross for our sins, Romans 4:25.
The resurrection of Jesus has been the subject of relative neglect in Reformation theology. In general the church in the west has tended to think of salvation in terms of being saved from the guilt of sin. Hence the overwhelming emphasis on the cross at the expense of the resurrection. Often the bodily resurrection of Jesus is only mentioned in the context of an evidentialist defence of the facts. But Paul's focus is on the soteriological significance of the resurrection. It was good to hear Gaffin make this point as I've long felt this to be the case.
1. The unity between the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of believers

1 Cor 15:20: Christ the "firstfruits". The firstfruits were offered to God as a part of the whole harvest. The resurrection is one great event in two episodes. Christ the "firstfruits" guarantees the ingathering of the whole resurrection harvest.
1 Cor 15:12-19 stresses the inseparable bond between Christ and the resurrection of his people.

Col 1 : 18: Christ the "firstborn". He is supreme over death and able to save his people from the power of the grave.

2. The believer's resurrection as a present reality

In Eph 2:1-3 those who are dead in sin "walk according to the course of this world". In Eph 2:10, believers walk in good works. What makes the difference? They have been raised with Christ, Eph 2:5-6: the new "walk" (Col 2:12-13; 3:1; Rom 6:1ff.; Gal 2:20)

3. Summary
There are three factors in Paul's theology of the resurrection. 1) The resurrection of Christ. 2) The present resurrection of the believer's "inner self". 3) The future resurrection of believers.
The distinction between "inner self" and "outer self " is made on the basis of 2 Cor 4: 16. Better than talking about a present "spiritual" resurrection and a future "bodily" resurrection. As for Paul, "spiritual" means of the Holy Spirit, not immaterial, 1 Cor 15:44. The believer will never be more resurrected that he already is in the core of his being.

4. Conclusions and expansions

a) The resurrection and Christ

It is significant primarily for his humanity, not his deity, "by man" (1 Cor 15:21); "the last Adam," "the second man" (1 Cor 15:45, 47)

In Paul's teaching Christ was "raised," not "rose". He is the passive object of God's resurrection power. A different emphasis is found in John 2:19-22 & 10:17-18. In Paul the resurrection is not so much a proof of Christ's deity as the vindication of the incarnate Son who suffered and died for sinners.

The Holy Spirit: At his resurrection Jesus became "the life-giving Spirit" 1 Cor 15:45. This is Paul's commentary on Pentecost cf. 2 Cor 3: 17 & Rom 1 :3-4.
b) The resurrection, the Holy Spirit and the Christian

- (the future) 1 Cor 15:44: the "spiritual" body
- (the present) the Christian life: Rom 8:9-11; Phil 1 :6
c) The resurrection and the creation: Rom 8:19-23
In discussion we reflected on the way in which the resurrection of Christ tends to be neglected in Reformed systematic theology. In the traditional schema, discussion of the atonement is followed immediately by treatment of the application of redemption as if we could be saved by a dead Christ (see here). Also the believer's present "inner" resurrection is not often emphasised because of the focus on the ordo salutis. It would be better if the organising principle of Reformed soteriology was union with Christ. Only in that context should the ordo be discussed - as per Calvin in the Institutes. It is worthwhile noting that the final chapter of Book III of the Institutes is devoted to the resurrection of the body - Christ's and ours (see here).
In these notes I've only put a little meat on the bones of what Gaffin had to say at the Pastors' Forum. For more see his excellent Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul's Soteriology, (P&R). It was a real privilege to listen to Gaffin's lectures. His careful attention to Scripture and exegetical rigor in the mold of John Murray make him an exemplary theologian and teacher. He doesn't simply regurgitate great dollops of Reformed theology, he is a truly biblical systematic theologian.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Exiled Revamp

I've given the blog a little makeover. The main difference is the use of a picture of the old (but still used) Severn Bridge in the header. Concerned American readers sometimes contact me to ask why I'm an "Exiled Preacher". I tell that that it is simply because I am a Welshman living in England, on the "wrong" side of the River Severn. The river separates England from South Wales where I was born and bred. In the photo the sun is setting in the west, disappearing behind the mountains of my homeland. Its a symbol of the hiraeth or homesickness that Welsh people feel when living away from the Land of our Fathers. But the "Exiled" bit also has has spiritual significance. Christians are "elect exiles of the dispersion" (1 Peter 1:1 ESV). Our home is not the wilderness of this fallen world, but the heavenly Canaan. We look foward to the coming of the new creation, where in resurrection glory we shall enjoy the sweetest communion with our Triune God and all his people for all eternity. William William's hymn quoted below gives a marvellous sense of the hiraeth that the believer feels in his heart as he contemplates the glory to come. He speaks for all "elect exiles",
A PILGRIM in a desert land,
I wander far and wide,
Expecting I may some time come
Close to my Father’s side.

Ahead of me I think I hear
Sounds of a heavenly choir,
A conquering host already gone
Through tempest, flood and fire.

Come, Holy Sprit, fire by night,
Pillar of cloud by day;
Lead, for I dare not take a step
Unless Thou show the way.

So prone am I when on my own
To stray from side to side,
I need, each step to Paradise,
My God to be my guide.

I have a yearning for that land,
Where the unnumbered throng
Extol the death on Calvary
In heaven’s unending song.

William Williams, 1717-91;
tr. by Robert Maynard Jones (Bobi Jones), 1929-

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Richard Gaffin Study Day: Christ in the Old Testament

Session 2: Biblical Theology and Hermeneutics Interpreting the New Testament in the Light of the Old Testament: Christ in the Old Testament

Luke 24 Christ in the Old Testament
44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

25 And he said to them, "0 foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Does the Old Testament reveal Christ? Some conservative scholars (like Peter Enns, see here?) believe that Christ cannot be directly found in the Old Testament. When New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament with reference to Christ they were finding things in the text that were alien to the original meaning. Jesus' teaching here in Luke 24 calls that view into question. He taught that the Old Testament was about him.
The setting for Luke 24:44-49 is that in his resurrection body, Jesus has entered his state of exaltation, but he has not yet gone to the place of exaltation - at the right hand of the Father. What we have here in these verses is typical of Jesus' teaching during the 40 days between his resurrection and the ascension. This is an an extremely succinct account of that happened further. The vantage point in the passage is that of the resurrected Jesus. He is the same Jesus who was crucified, but he is different. Note, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you" (vs. 44). Jesus is no longer with his followers in the same way as prior to his resurrection.
This is a time of teaching, verses 44-47. In his teaching Jesus recapitulates what he said to his followers while he was still with them, vs. 44. In that period the focus of Jesus' teaching was the Gospel of the kingdom. Now Jesus shows that his message was the substance of the Old Testament, "that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." (vs. 44).
What is the scope/circumference of the teaching? Jesus said, "everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms". This is further unpacked in - verses 44-45. See also what Jesus said earlier to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, - "27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. " (v. 27) .
Does this mean that Jesus was speaking of all the things in the Old Testament than concerned him in the sense of a narrow range of directly prophetic material? Or did he mean that all things in the Old Testament had to do with him without exception? Gaffin opted for the second option. The whole of the Old Testament scriptures are ultimately about Jesus. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Christ is "the consent of all the parts [of the OT], the scope of the whole" (WCF 1 :5).
Verses 46-47 provide the focus/centre of the teaching, "it is written": Christ's death and resurrection (messianic suffering and glory) and world­ wide gospel preaching. This is what the Old Testament is all about: "Everything about me": Jesus' death and resurrection and the gathering of the church as a people who repented from sin on believing the gospel. In the Old Testament you cannot have Christ without his church. No promise was made to Israel that was not fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Where is this teaching found in the Old Testament? Not in one single verse, but in the whole as Christ is "the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole". The Old Testament without remainder is anticipatory and prophetic of Christ. He is inherent in the original meaning of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is to be understood in its redemptive-historical sense. Jesus is central to the revelation of the triumph of God in Scripture from Genesis 3:15 onwards.
Other passages in the New Testament back up this view. We have the apostolic preaching in Acts 3:18, 24 & 26:22-23.
Also 1 Peter 1:10-12
1. Salvation in Christ is the preoccupation of Old Testament revelation.
2. The prophetic message is unified by the one Spirit speaking through each of them.
3. The focus of the prophets is on the suffering and glory of Christ, vs. 11.
4. The Old Testament witness in its intention and focus was written for the new testament people of God, vs. 12. The Old Testament with its focus on Christ is for us.
Christ in the Old Testament - two extremes to be avoided.
Is Christ in every sentence of the Old Testament? Yes and no. It is wrong to restrict references to Christ to scriptures that are clearly messianic, like Psalm 16 or Isaiah 53. It is all about Jesus. But this does not mean that we have to go searching for hidden allegorical meanings that point to Jesus in every verse. It is not like the "Find Wally" books for children ("Find Waldo" US). But every Old Testament passage is about Christ when understood in a redemptive-historical context - covenant, kingdom etc. The tragic story of the decline and fall of Israel reveals that Jesus meets Israel's need. The Old Testament people of God were saved by believing in what Christ would do for them. The New Testament people of God are saved by believing in what Christ has done for us. But it is the same Christ who saves under both covenants. The Old Testement from beginning to end is about Jesus, John 5:46.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Filling up the Afflictions of Christ by John Piper

Filling up the Afflictions of Christ:
The cost of bringing the gospel to the nations in the lives
of William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson and John Paton
John Piper, IVP, 2009 126pp

Millions of people have yet to hear the gospel of salvation. The work of worldwide mission is far from over. But reaching the lost for Christ is a costly affair. As Jesus said, the grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die in order to bear much fruit (John 12:24). Paul was conscious that in the sufferings of his ministry he was filling up what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ (Colossians 1:24). This does not mean that the apostle was attempting to supplement Christ’s atoning work. But he knew that God’s love for the nations is revealed as his people undergo suffering for the sake of the gospel.

This is the great principle that John Piper seeks to illustrate in the lives of William Tyndale the Bible translator, and pioneer missionaries Adoniram Judson and John Paton. He tells the moving story of how these men were willing to suffer hardship and even death to bring the message of God’s grace to the nations. Each man is a powerful example of Christian courage, self-sacrifice and fortitude in the face of seemingly overwhelming opposition and hardship. I defy any reader not to be deeply affected and challenged by Piper’s brief, yet gripping accounts of their lives. Tyndale, Judson and Paton knew what it was to die to themselves in order to serve Christ and win others for him. That is why their ministries bore much fruit. Are we willing to do the same in the great work of reaching the unreached with the good news of Jesus in our day?

*An edited version of this review will appear in a forthcoming edition of Protestant Truth.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Richard Gaffin Study Day: Biblical and Systematic Theology

I was really looking forward to hearing Gaffin at the Pastors' Forum, having appreciated his writings, especially the seminal Resurrection and Redemption, (P&R). It was well worth the trip across the Severn Bridge to Maesycwmmer to listen to the veteran WTS theologian. Here are some sketchy notes together with some thoughs of my own on what he had to say in the first session.
Session 1: Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology

I. What is Biblical Theology?

All revelation is divine self-revelation. Revelation falls into two categories, general revelation in creation and providence and special revelation. Special revelation is a redemptive-historical process. It includes verbal and nonverbal or deed revelation. Scripture is God's word: the record of redemption history. The focus of the written word on is on God's mighty acts, narrating and explaining what the Lord has done. Now that the work of redemption has been accomplished, biblical revelation has ceased. That does not mean that God no longer reveals himself to us. He speaks through his living and active word, the Bible.

"Biblical Theology" gives careful, methodical attention to the actual history of redemptive revelation. Its focus is the history of special revelation.

While it is true that Geerhardus Vos is the father of Reformed Biblical Theology, the church throughout its history has been aware of the historical character of biblical revelation. Calvin was especially sensitive to redemptive-historical concerns.

II. What is Systematic Theology?
Systematic Theology is topical in its nature nature, paying attention to different subjects in the biblical account of the history of redemption such as the doctrine of God and salvation. It treats Scripture as a completed and unified whole, asking, "What does the whole Bible say about this topic?" It is systematic not because the biblical data in its raw state is disorganised and therefore needs to be set out in a more orderly fashion. (A slight dig at Charles Hodge). Systematic theology proceeds on the assumption that underlying the diverse voices of Scripture there is a redemptive-historical unity and systemic harmony of truth, a "pattern of sound words", 2 Timothy 2:13. Systematics is not about erecting abstract systems unrelated to the biblical text. It must proceed from sound biblical-theological exegesis.
There is the biblical warrant for systematic theology in Scriptures such as Hebrews 1 :1-2. This text tells us 1) Biblical revelation is historical, God spoke "at various times". 2) In biblical revelation there is diversity in unity. Diversity: God spoke "in various ways". Unity "God spoke". 3) Christ is the end point of redemptive history and the manifestation of God's eschatological purpose, "in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son".
III. The relationship between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology
Biblical theology is the historical and systematic theology is topical. Thesis: "Biblical Theology the indispensable servant of Systematic Theology". This is the case because biblical theology enables systematics to treat the topics of Scriptural revelation with an appropriate feel for the redemptive-historical nature of the Bible. Texts should not be isolated from their biblical-theological context. Gaffin's emphasis is helpful because systematics often fails when it comes to biblical exegesis. In some forms systematic theology can seem little more than a dollop of Reformed doctrine followed by string of proof texts - see John Murray on this deplorable tendency here. Biblical theology follows the plot-line of God's self-revelation in Scripture. Systematic theology is about plot analysis, analysing the roles of the different actors and events in the great drama of redemption. With Gaffin speaking of theology in terms of and drama, I would have liked to have asked him what he makes of Kevin Vanhoozer's theodramatic proposals (see here), but didn't get the chance. Ah well.
Preachers need a good grasp of systematic theology that is informed by the fruits of biblical theology to given us a Scripturally enriched vision of the whole counsel of God. Biblical theology will give us a sense of Bible's redemptive-historical flow and make us sensitive to the distinctive contribution of diverse voices of Scripture. Systematic theology helps us to see how biblical truth hangs together to form a coherent and harmonious whole, a "form of sound words".
Reports on sessions 2 & 3 on 'Christ in the Old Testament' and 'The Resurrection in the Theology of Paul' to follow.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Evangelicals and Catholics Together: On the Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life

Evangelicals and Catholics Together have produced a joint-statement, Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life. ECT continues on the assumption that Evangelicals and Roman Catholics as those who "accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ". We wish that this were the case, but there has to be real concern that the Roman Catholic negation of justification by faith alone tends to detract from the gospel of grace and obscure the way of salvation.
Now to the statement itself. The opening section attempts to set out the common ground between Evangelicals and Catholics on Mary. Then unresolved differences are spelt out under the headings of, A Catholic Word to Evangelicals and, An Evangelical Word to Catholics. On the whole disagreements are faced honestly rather than fudged. The Evangelicals explain on the basis of Scripture why they do not accept Roman Catholic dogmas such as the Perpetual Virginity, Immaculate Conception, Bodily Assumption and Invocation of Mary. However, the Evangelical signatories seem open to further special revelation on Marian teaching saying,
"As a safeguard against the temptation to idolatry and because this pattern of piety is not found in the New Testament, most Evangelicals today do not include prayers to Mary and the saints in their worship and personal devotions. At the same time, we acknowledge that the sovereign Lord may choose to reveal himself in extraordinary ways whenever and however he wills." [Emphasis added].
What is the last sentence in that quote supposed to mean in the light of Evangelical commitment to sola Scriptura? Yes, we are open to the Spirit giving us more light from the Word, but that does not entail the revelation of new doctrines like the 'Bodily Assumption of Mary' which are not found in the Bible. The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks for all Evangelicals when it says,
"The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." (WCF I:X).
On this issue the Evangelical signatories have conceded too much in the direction of Roman Catholic thinking. That quibble aside, and it is a serious quibble, there is much that is helpful in what the Evangelicals have to say on Mary and her role in redemptive history. Overreacting against the extravagance of Roman Catholic Marian teaching Evangelicals have sometimes failed to give due consideration to Mary. She is indeed 'blessed among women' as the mother of our Lord. We should admire and imitate her faith and love. All Christians need to give careful heed to her admonition concerning her Son, "Whatever he says to you, do it." (John 2:5). The Evangelicals note that the Reformers seemed to have a much 'higher' view of Mary than their theological heirs and successors.
Surprising as it may seem, this document is able to highlight a considerable amount of common understanding between Bible believing Evangelicals and traditional Catholics on Mary. But even as this joint-statement demonstrates, with all the best ecumenical will in the world, serious disagreements remain. In a sense, the big issue is sola Scriptura. Shall we view Mary in the light of the witness of Scripture alone, or will we supplement what the Bible says with the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church? On that point, Evangelicals and Catholics are not together.
I believe that dialogue between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics is a worthwhile exercise. But the Evangelicals often seem to be the ones conceding ground. As ever Rome wants unity on its own terms. Writing in The Guardian, Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung despairs of this tendency, exposing the Vatican's ecumenical skulduggery. Evangelicals should take note.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Richard Gaffin at the Pastors' Forum

The next Pastors' Forum Study Day is coming up this Thursday, 5th November. The speaker will be Rev. Prof. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia). I've long admired Gaffin's work, especially in the fields of union with Christ and the resurrection of the body, and the relationship between biblical and systematic theology.
Here's the programme for the day:
09.30 Registration & Refreshments
10.00 Welcome, Introductions and Devotions.
10.15 Richard Gaffin - "What is Biblical Theology & how is it related to Systematic Theology?"
11.00 Coffee
11.20 Richard Gaffin - "How to interpret and preach the OT in the light of the NT"
13.00 Lunch
14.00 Richard Gaffin - "The resurrection in Paul."
15.40 Close.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Return to Rome by Francis J. Beckwith - A Protestant response: part 3

In the previous two parts of this review series I gave attention to the key issues that led to Beckwith deciding to return to the Roman Catholic Church, namely sola scriptura (here) and justification by faith alone (here). In this final post I will reflect on whether its is meaningful, given his rejection of key Evangelical teachings for Beckwith to designate himself an 'Evangelical Catholic'. Of course, in a sense, the writer is free to call himself what he wishes. My only concern is whether his self-designation is meaningful.
Evangelical and Catholic?
It is in the last chapter of the book that Beckwith addresses the issue of his identity as an 'Evangelical Catholic'. Quite rightly he points out that 'Evangelical' has its origins in the biblical word, Evangel meaning 'Gospel' or 'Good News' (p. 128). But does Beckwith as a Roman Catholic still hold to the biblical Gospel? Now, there is a huge amount of common ground between Evangelical Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church. Both groups hold to the doctrine of the Trinity as set out in the historic creeds, we agree that Jesus is a divine person with a human nature in accordance with the definition of Chalcedon, we confess together that Jesus was born of a virgin, died for our sins, and rose again from the dead and so on. But there are important differences between Evangelical Protestants and their Roman Catholic counterparts.
The crucial difference is over the issue of whether we are saved through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. For all that Roman Catholics may say about the good works of the saints being grace-enabled, any talk of human "merit" tends to undermine the gracious character of salvation. According to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, "no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification...". However, the Catechism goes on to say that, "Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life (see here)." Note, "we can merit for ourselves and for others...the attainment of eternal life". Should the faithful fail to merit the attainment of eternal life, then after death they will have to spend time in purgatory, where they will purified from remaining sin before entering heaven. Time in purgatory can be shortened through the meritorious works of others such as prayers for the dead, penance, and the Eucharistic sacrifice (see here).
The Roman Catholic doctrine of "merit" suggests Christ's obedience and blood are not sufficient to save his people from sin. While salvation is initiated by grace, the full reward of everlasting life is dependent on the meritorious good works of the believer. Any such idea is contradicted by countless Scriptures, Ephesians 2:8-10, 2 Timothy 1:8-10, Hebrews 9:13-15. The Gospel is good news because God justifies the ungodly freely by his grace, Romans 1:16-17, 3:24-26, 4:5. Good works are the believer's grace-enabled response to the transforming power of grace. They do not help to "merit" everlasting life. We are saved by grace alone in Christ alone. Christians will certainly be judged by Christ according to their works (2 Corinthians 5:10). The Lord will hold his people to account for their actions. But the believer will stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Romans 8:31-34). It is because they are justified by faith in Christ alone that they will be welcomed into the eternal inheritance of the saints.
I submit that because official Roman Catholic teaching undermines the Gospel of salvation revealed in Holy Scripture that it is not meaningful for Beckwith and other Roman Catholics to label themselves "Evangelical Catholics". In the words of Paul, the gospel of Roman Catholicism is a "different gospel" (Galatians 1:6-7). Indeed the Council of Trent explicitly anathematises justification by faith alone, a doctrine that lies at the heart of Evangelical theology (see here). In terms of church history the designation "Evangelical Catholic" is hard to swallow. Evangelicalism as a movement has its roots in the Protestant Reformation. In church-historical terms, Beckwith may as well call himself a "Protestant Catholic".
Beckwith left the Roman Catholic Church in his teenage years and became an Evangelical Christian because Rome could not satisfy his spiritual longings at that time. Despite his being elevated to the position of President of the Evangelical Theological Society, he returned to Rome for basically the same reason. It is pretty sad that Evangelicalism apparently failed to offer sufficient theological vision and spiritual depth to feed his soul. I submit that the wider Evangelical world needs to return to the deep riches of the historic Reformed faith. Perhaps there are some encouraging signs of this happening in the States (see Colin Hansen's Young, Restless, Reformed here and also have a look at Hansen's piece on Evangelical and Catholics in Christianity Today here). I am grateful to Francis Beckwith for entering into a friendly dialogue with me (here, here and here) as he picked up on my reviews.