Friday, October 16, 2020

Who’s in charge of this Covid-stricken world?

I don’t know about you, but I’m becoming weary of doom-laden Covid Press Conferences. The other week the Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance and the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty teamed up for a rather sombre double act. With the use of various slides they set out the prospect of a second spike in Coronavirus infections over the autumn/winter period. The following day a newspaper cartoon pictured the event. Vallance is shown saying, “If we look at the next slide...”. A frightening image is summoned of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wreaking havoc.

The picture is borrowed from the Bible’s Book of Revelation. In Chapter 6 four horses and their riders are described. The white horse and its rider are a symbol of military conquest. The red horse and its rider signify war. The black horse and its rider are a picture of famine. Finally, a pale horse and its rider are seen, ‘And its rider’s name was Death and Hades followed him’. You can, perhaps, see where the cartoonist was coming from.

The hoofbeats of these Four Horsemen can be heard thundering throughout human history. They certainly seem to be on the move at the moment. Yet they are not pictured in the Bible to drive us to despair. Our political leaders may be struggling to get to grips with the pandemic, but that does not mean the world is running out of control. In Revelation chapters 4 & 5 the apostle John is given a vision of God’s throne room in heaven. He sees God place the responsibility for fulfilling his purposes into the hands of a Lamb who was slain and is now alive. This ‘Lamb’ is an image of Jesus.

The most basic confession of the Christian faith is, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. The throne room of the universe is not empty. He who shared our weakness in becoming man and dying for our sins has been exalted to God’s right hand in glory. The forces of death and destruction will not be allowed to prevail. There will be a new heavens and a new earth where ‘death shall be no more’. The believer is able to look to the future with hope because the Lamb is in the midst of the throne.  

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom by Samuel Renihan (review part 2)

Founders Press, 2019, 217pp

See here for part 1 and part 3 of this review series. 

The Kingdom of Christ

The Covenants of Redemption and Grace 

Christ came proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and was himself the King who inaugurated God's saving reign. As with the earlier biblical kingdoms, covenants formed the legal basis upon which God dealt with man in the kingdom of God. Renihan gives attention to the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace. The idea of the Covenant of Redemption is largely deduced from Isaiah's Servant Songs, where the Father and the Son make commitments to each other concerning the redemption of human beings from sin. The Holy Spirit is said to be 'everywhere present' in this covenant (p. 154), but he doesn't seem to be doing very much. This is a common feature in many accounts of the Covenant of Redemption, which tend to be bininatrian, rather than trinitarian in focus. The Spirit's role in this pre-temporal 'covenant' needs to be developed more fully. Partly for that reason Robert Letham prefers to speak of the eternal Trinitarian counsel, rather than a Covenant of Redemption, Systematic Theology, p. 431-438).  

According to Renihan the blessings of the Covenant of Redemption are bestowed upon sinners through the New Covenant of Grace. While the Covenant of Grace was disclosed in promissory form under the Old Covenant, it was not promulgated, or legally enacted until Christ had completed his mediatorial work, Hebrews 8:6, 9:11-15, 24-26. The types and shadows of the old then gave way to the substance of the new. The blessings of the New Covenant were detailed in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (see also Hebrews 8:8-13). These numerous blessings flow from union with Jesus Christ, the federal head of the covenant. They include justification, regeneration and sanctification, adoption and preservation, and resurrection and glorification. 

Unlike the Old Covenant, which Israel broke through her disobedience, the New Covenant cannot be broken because it is based on the obedience of Jesus Christ on behalf of his people. Even our saving response to Christ's work is bestowed by grace. Under the Old Covenant there were many physical descendants from Abraham who did not follow his faith and obedience. They were Israel according to the flesh, not according to the promise (Romans 9). The New Covenant abolishes any such distinction. Membership is not based on physical descent, but God's electing grace brought to realisation through saving faith in Christ, 2 Timothy 1:9, Ephesians 2:8-9). Covenant blessings are bestowed not on the grounds of our obedience, but due to the oaths the Father solemnly swore to his Son (Hebrews 6:13-20). 'We rest and rejoice in his faithfulness.' (p, 175).

The New Covenant and the Kingdom of God 

In the Covenant of Redemption the Father covenanted a Kingdom to his Son on completion of his redeeming work. Under the New Covenant of Grace that Kingdom is in turn covenanted to Christ's people. This is made explicit in Luke 22:29, which the author translates as, "And I covenant unto you, as my Father covenanted unto me, a kingdom." (p. 176, original emphasis). The Lord's Supper anticipates the consummated kingdom of God, where all of the Lord's people will gather in the new creation under God's gracious reign for all eternity. 

The people of the Covenant of Grace are those who were given to the Son by the Father in eternity according to his electing love. For them the Son shed his blood. His redeeming work is applied to them by the Holy Spirit. They constitute a new humanity in Christ, their federal head, the last Adam. The New Covenant completely reverses the corruption and condemnation of the broken Covenant of Works. Indeed, we are given more in Christ than we lost in Adam. In Christ we look forward to 'an eternal life of glory and perfect communion with God.' (p. 178). 

Israel and the Church 

Where does all this leave Israel, the Old Covenant people of God? They clearly had the unique privilege of belonging to the 'covenants of promise', according to which Christ would be born of the seed of Abraham and David. The great tragedy for Israel was that when Jesus came, only a remnant received him as their Messiah and in him the rich blessings of the New Covenant. Paul seems to hold out the hope that ethnic Israel will be recovered for the gospel once the 'fulness of the Gentiles has come in' (Romans 11:25). God is able to graft his people back into the covenant community when they turn to Christ in saving faith (Romans 11:23). 

The apostle reasons that if Israel's 'failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more their will their full inclusion mean!' (Romans 11:12). Renihan understands the promise, 'all Israel will be saved' (Romans 11:26) to mean that the 'fulness of Jews and Gentiles' will be saved (p. 191). But by 'Israel' Paul consistently means ethnic Israel in Romans 9-11, 'my kinsmen according to the flesh' (Romans 9:3). There is good reason to think that Paul holds out the hope that there will be a great turning to the Lord among ethnic Israel before the Christ returns. 

The Law and Grace 

Speaking of Israel, as pointed out in part 1 the author regards the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants as covenants of works, (p. 98). The blessings of life in the land of Canaan were certainly dependent upon Israel's obedience. But Renihan distinguishes these covenants from the Covenant of Works in Adam. For Adam and us in him there was no way back to God after being expelled from Eden apart from God's promise of a deliverer, Genesis 3:15. Under the Old Covenant, however, the sacrificial system provided a means of atonement for sin if the people of returned to the Lord in genuine repentance and looked in faith for the coming Messiah. 

Contrary to what the writer says here, under the Mosaic Covenant the Lord did not simply require a civic obedience that 'an unbeliever could render' (p. 111). Israel was called to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart' (Deuteronomy 6:4), yet it was only as the Lord circumcised their hearts that Israel could obey that command (Deuteronomy 30:6 cf. Romans 2:28-29). When Israel rejected the way of faith in the promise and spurned their covenant obligations, the law became a code than condemned rather than a guide for life. 

All biblical covenants are 'based on grace, yet regulated by law.' (Robert Letham, see part 1). Yet, as Renihan argues in line with the Particular Baptist tradition, the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were not in themselves administrations of the Covenant of Grace. They had different federal heads in Abraham and David, and different members; physical descendants of Abraham, only a remnant of whom trusted and obeyed. The blessings of the Old Covenant were earthly and temporal, concerning life in the Promised Land. Christ mediates a better covenant enacted on better promises (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15).

Christ is the 'Lord our righteousness' (Jeremiah 23:6). He fulfilled the legal obligations of the Covenant of Works on behalf of his people. The types and shadows of the Old Covenant have also been realised in Christ, yet the moral law continues to apply to the Christian. But for them it is not merely an external code written on tablets of stone. The law is written on their hearts by the Spirit and is fulfilled by love (2 Corinthians 3:3, Romans 13:10). 

The Consummated Kingdom

In Christ the mystery of God's eternal purpose is revealed on the stage of history to the praise of his glorious grace. Those who are united to Christ by faith belong to his kingdom which finds visible expression in the church. Only those who show evidence of regeneration and profess faith in Christ may take their place as members of the church of Jesus Christ. Church membership should therefore be guarded through godly church discipline. Traitors to the covenant who turn from faith in Christ show that they never truly belonged to him and have no place in the church that bears his name. The sacraments of the kingdom are 'visible words', tangible expressions of the gospel. As such baptism and the Lord's Supper are only for those who have been savingly united to Christ by the Spirit. 

These signs are a foretaste of the heavenly realities of the consummated kingdom, in which the blessings of the New Covenant will be enjoyed when the King returns as judge of all humanity. Those who have rejected King Jesus will be raised to everlasting punishment. The people he came to save will be raised to life everlasting, a spotless bride for whom the bridegroom gave himself in love. They shall live in his presence in the new creation, where they shall gaze upon the glory of the Lamb and worship him for ever. 

In the final part of this review series I will attempt to offer a constructive appraisal of Renihan's work. 

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Harvest Thanksgiving


Imagine living in a country where you venture to the local supermarket, only to find the shelves empty of products you wanted to buy. No carrots, or fresh meat, no bread or milk, no hand sanitiser or soap, and above all, no toilet paper. Well, you don’t need too vivid an imagination to envisage what that might be like. Just the ability to remember how things were in the UK back in March and April of this year.

The shortages weren’t the result of disastrous crop failures, or the collapse of supply chains. It was panic buying. Some people shoved more fresh produce into their shopping trolleys than they could possibly eat, with the result that mounds of fruit and vegetables were binned. What a waste. You will probably remember the video posted online by a tearful nurse asking people to ‘just stop’ their panicked purchasing. After a busy hospital shift she was unable to get hold of the basic goods she needed for her family.

 Things are better now, thankfully, but what happened back in the spring gave us a glimpse into what life is like in some countries when famine or disaster strikes. It was a reminder not to take a plentiful supply of everyday produce for granted. Harvest Time give us an opportunity to pause and give thanks to God, the ‘giver of every good and perfect gift’.

He not only gives us food and drink, but satisfies the deepest needs of our souls. Jesus warns us of the danger of seeking satisfaction merely on a material level, “Do not labour for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” Our hearts will only be satisfied in knowing God through Jesus. That is why he came into the world to die for our sins and be raised to life. As he said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

Harvest Services Sunday 4 October

Providence Baptist Church 10.30am 

Ebenezer Baptist Church 4.30pm 

Livestreamed Evening Service, 6.00pm 

See our Providence & Ebenezer website for info on attending our Harvest Services.