Pages

Friday, May 20, 2022

No, Jesus could not have sinned, but he was genuinely tempted

Contrary to what John Stevens said in his tweet, I believe that Jesus was impeccable. Not only was he without sin, it was impossible for him to sin. Yet I also insist that Christ was not impervious to temptation. He 'suffered, when tempted' (Hebrews 2:18), experiencing the full force of Satan's attacks. How can both those points be true? 

1. The incarnate Son was a divine person with a human nature 

At the incarnation the Son of God took a human nature into union with himself. That personal union is unbreakable. For Jesus to have sinned his human nature would have needed to be able to detach itself from the person of the Son, for the Son as God cannot be party to sin.

The human nature of Jesus cannot act independently of the Son, for it is his human nature. Speaking abstractly, Christ's human nature is impersonal. It his no personhood of its own. But speaking concretely of the incarnate Christ, his human nature was in-personal. It existed in union with the person of the Son from the moment of its conception by the Holy Spirit in Mary's womb.  With that in mind we do not say that the human nature of the Son died for our  sins, but that the Son of God died for us in the mode of his human nature.

That is why Christ cannot sin according to either nature; divine or human. The two natures are united in the person of the Son. To say otherwise and suggest that the human nature could act independently smacks of Nestorianism, the idea that the incarnate Son was an alliance of two persons, divine and human, rather than a divine person with a human nature. 

Donald Macleod cites W. G. T. Shedd to this end, saying, 'When the Logos goes into union with a human nature, so as to constitute a single person with it, he becomes responsible for all that this person does through the instrumentality of this nature... Should Jesus Christ sin, the incarnate God would sin.' (The Person of Christ, IVP, 1988, p. 230). Similarly, Oliver Crisp spells out the logical implication of holding that while Christ was sinless, he could have sinned, 'In short, if Christ really could have sinned - but did not - then he must have been able to choose to sin as the God-Man. (God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology, T&T Clark, 2009, p. 134). 

2. The Father promised the incarnate Son the help of the Holy Spirit 

Jesus was conceived in the virgin's womb by the power of the Spirit so that the nature he assumed might be fully human and yet without sin, Luke 1:35. Also, the Father promised his Son the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit to enable him to accomplish the work of redemption, Isaiah 42:1, 61:1, Luke 3:21-22. The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus to live in obedience to the Father's will, that he might offer himself without blemish to God, Heb 9:13-14. 

It is inconceivable that Jesus could have sinned, as that would have constituted a massive failure in the work of the Spirit of God whom Christ received without measure from the Father. Not only the indissoluble union of Son to his human nature, but also the inseparable operations of the Trinity stand against the idea that Jesus could have sinned.

3. What the Son could not do as God he could do as man, but not sin

The incarnate Son did many things that God in himself could not do. That is the point of the incarnation. For human beings to be saved it was necessary for the Son to become man to suffer and die in our place. It fully consistent with God's character for the Son to become man to redeem us by his blood. Indeed, the cross is the great revelation of God's justice and love, Romans 3:25-26, 5:8. But it would have been inconsistent with God's character had Jesus sinned. God is love, but he also light and in him there is no darkness at all, 1 John 1:5. Again, Donald Macleod this time in his own words, 

We may link the subject 'God' with many predicates. The Son of God may suffer, be tempted, may be ignorant and may even die. But we cannot link God with the predicate 'sin'. God cannot in any situation or for any purpose commit a transgression of his own will. He absolutely cannot be guilty of lawlessness. (The Person of Christ, p. 230). 

4. The the incarnate Son needed no capacity to sin to be truly human 

In the original article tweeted by Stevens, Matthew Corey asks, "What kind of humanity is Jesus redeeming if there is no capacity for sin?" (Unionized Perfection). This assumes that having a capacity to sin is a mark of authentic humanity. Presumably resurrected and glorified humanity will be incapable of sinning. That does not mean that in saving us God rescues us from being human, rather than redeeming humanity from its fallen state.  As Robert Letham points out,
If the quintessence of being human is found in heaven and consists., among other things, in freedom from the possibility of sinning, it follows that impeccability itself does not undermine the humanity of Christ in his state of incarnate weakness prior to the resurrection. (Systematic Theology, Crossway, 2019, p. 525)
Jesus was the 'Word made flesh' (John 1:14). He came, said Paul 'in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin' (Romans 8:3). The flesh he assumed was weak and mortal like ours, but it was the flesh of the Son of God and so was incapable of sinning for the reasons already given. Corey questions, 'If Jesus has no capacity for sin how was able to “become sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21).' But this it a category mistake. Paul was not saying that Jesus  "became capable of sinning for us" by virtue of his incarnation. Rather, he 'who knew no sin' bore the judicial penalty of sin on behalf of his people that 'so that in him we might become the righteousness of God'. Similarly in Romans 8:3, driving idea is the judicial condemnation of sin in Christ's flesh, not that he had a capacity for sin, 'by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh'. 

Robert Letham concludes his discussion of whether it possible for Jesus to sin saying,  'that since a sinful condition is not essential to human nature, the argument that impeccability undermines the reality of Christ's humanity and the genuineness of his temptations fails.' (Systematic Theology, p. 526). 

5. The incarnate Son was impeccable, but not impervious to temptation

The incarnate Son was impeccable from the moment of his conception. But that does not mean he was impervious to temptation, Luke 4:1-13, Hebrews 2:18. Adam was so made that it was possible for him not to sin, but he did sin. For Jesus it was not possible to sin, but that does not mean his temptations were like water off a duck's back. We do not find him resisting the devil by saying, 'You must be joking, I'm the Son of God and therefore impeccable, don't you know?' 

Jesus 'suffered when tempted' (Hebrews 2:18), combatting the evil one by wielding the sword of the Spirit (Matthew 4:4). While Satan sought to tempt Christ by appealing to his unique divine identity, 'if you are the Son of God...' (Matthew 4:3, 5), Jesus responded as one who had 'taken the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men' saying, 'Man shall not live by bread alone...', (Matthew 4:4). The incarnate Son 'learned obedience through what he suffered' (Hebrews 5:8) in the arena of temptation. Satan did did his worst, but 'full of the Holy Spirit' (Luke 4:1), and in humble dependence on the Father, Jesus vanquished the foe. As Hebrews insists, in Jesus our great High Priest we have 'one who was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin'. (Hebrews 4:15). Kevin Vanhoozer reflects,

There is no necessary contradiction between Jesus being "open" to temptation and the certainty of never sinning. The temptation was no sham, for it is precisely because Jesus resisted temptation that he could "feel" its full force. He was impeccable yet subject to real temptation in the way that an invincible army is subject to real attack. (Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 432. 

Could Jesus have sinned? No, but 'because he has himself suffered when tempted, he is able help those who are tempted.' (Hebrews 2:18). 

Monday, May 09, 2022

Ten Points on Reformed Baptist Federal Theology

1. God made a covenant of life with Adam, whom he appointed federal head of all humanity. This was a covenant of works, under which if Adam obeyed the Lord he and all in him would live for ever and enter God's Sabbath rest. If Adam disobeyed, he and all in him would die under God's judgement. (Gen 2-3, Rom 5:12-21, 2LBC 7:1).

2. God made a covenant of grace with his elect people, who were chosen in Christ for salvation before the foundation of the world and redeemed by his blood in the fullness of time. The covenant of grace is made effective by the power of the Spirit, (Ephesians 1:3-14).

3. The Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants were not administrations of the covenant of grace. They were 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12) in which the covenant of grace was progressively revealed 'until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament' (2LBC 7:3).

4. The old covenant (the collective name for the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants) was not a republication of the covenant of works. The law 'was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made'. (Galatians 3:19). The law also served as a rule of life for Israel, setting out their covenant obligations to the Lord. In her idolatrous disobedience Israel broke the covenant and brought upon herself its terrible curses, Leviticus 26:14-39. Unlike the covenant of works with Adam, for Israel there was a way back to God from the dark paths of sin, Leviticus 26:40-45. The Lord's deliverance of his people from captivity was typical of the greater exodus accomplished by the redeeming work of Christ (Jeremiah 23:7-8, Luke 9:31, Colossians 1:12-14).

5. Abraham was the federal head of the Abrahamic covenant in whom blessing was received (Genesis 12:2-3, 17:1-8). Moses was the mediator of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 20:18-21, 33:12-17), of which David and his royal line served as federal heads. As went the king, so went the people for good or ill, (1 Kings 9:4-9).

6. While the old covenant foreshadowed the covenant of grace, it was only in the new covenant that the covenant of grace was fully enacted. (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Colossians 2:16-17, Hebrews 8, 9:15-22). Christ is both mediator and federal head of the new covenant, (1 Timothy 2:5-6, Romans 5:12-21).

7. During the Old Testament period people were saved by faith in the Christ who was yet to appear as mediator of a new and better covenant. (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15). Under the new covenant people are saved by faith in Christ who has come and accomplished the work of our redemption (Galatians 2:16, Ephesians 2:8).

8. The old covenant was with Abraham and his offspring, which is why all males descended from the patriarch were circumcised. But not all who belonged to Israel through descent from Abraham and circumcision believed and were saved (Romans 9:6, 27). Only a godly remnant knew 'circumcision of the heart' of which circumcision in the flesh was a sign (Deuteronomy 30:6, Romans 2:28-29).

9. As the historical enactment of the covenant of grace the new covenant is between God and the elect in Christ. The law is written on the hearts all new covenant people of God by the Spirit of Christ (Jeremiah 31:33, 2 Corinthians 3:3). All who believe in Jesus belong to the Israel of God, whether Jew or Gentile. Baptism is the sign that believers have been savingly united to Christ by the Spirit. (Galatians 3:27-29, 6:16). That is why according to the New Testament baptism invariably follows repentance and faith, and is linked to church membership. (Acts 2:38-39, 41-42).

10. As federal head of the new covenant, Jesus takes us not back to the beginning, but to the end of the road that Adam had to walk. (Herman Bavinck). In fact, we receive more in Christ than we ever would have had in Adam. For the riches of God's grace and the depths of his glory are only fully revealed in Jesus, the last Adam, Romans 5:21, 1 Corinthians 15:42-49, Ephesians 1:7-10, Colossians 1:27. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Banner of Truth Minsiters' Conference 2022

I first attended the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference as a student at the London Seminary from 1988-90. The academic year began in October, so I guess my first conference must have been April 1989. Back then I was young enough to attend the Youth Conference over the weekend and then stay on for the Ministers' event from Monday to Thursday. 

The conference used to be held on the campus of Leicester University. There was something special about 'Banner' in the 1990s and early 2000s. Some of the speakers were marvellously helped and the presence of God seemed near. Al Martin with his 'fire & fury' awakened us. Stuart Olyott pointedly called us to ministerial zeal and faithfulness. One year Sinclair Ferguson gave three addresses on sanctification. Outstanding examples of theology on fire, practically applied. Plus, Ted Donnelley at the height of his powers spoke on the temptation of Jesus. Donnelley's ministry was characterised by the exegetical insight of a biblical scholar, wedded to the pathos of a pastor's heart. Then there were gripping biographical papers by Iain Murray on the likes of Archibald Brown and Geoff Thomas on Howell Harris. There were giants in those days. At least that's how it seemed to me. 

The pandemic put paid to the 2020 & 21 Banner Ministers' Conferences, so it was good to be back in Yarnfield Park Conference Centre, Staffordshire for the 2022 event. I enjoyed catching up with old friends, many of whom I hadn't seen since 2019. Nice to bump into some new people from the UK and beyond too. The programme of speakers and subjects can be found here. I was especially helped by Conrad Mbewe's (featured above) three addresses on 1 John 1, exploring various aspects of communion with God. Robert McCollum Jr preached on what Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:45-52) has to teach us about communion with God exemplified and experienced. Those were the highlights for me. 

I didn't buy any books this year, but that doesn't mean I returned home without anything to read. The confessional Baptist publisher Broken Warfe  had several titles on display in the exhibition room, including the ones pictured below, by Samuel D. Renihan. Both books had been on my 'wish list' for a while and I was grateful for the freebie review copies.   

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Growing old gracefully

No, this is not an autobiographical article. It was prompted by reading a thoughtful piece in the Sunday Times the other weekJeremy Clarkson on growing old and his fear of death. He's 'only' 62, which is older than me, but not exactly what you might call geriatric. That’s not how it seems for Clarkson, though. He is definitely feeling his age. And then some. The writer laments the effects of the passing of time. Knees need replacing and ears boosting with hearing aids. Eyes grow dim and you can’t remember where you put your spectacles. ‘We are all dead men walking’, he laments. Faced with increasing weakness of body and mind, the writer is not cheered with the hope that at death he will be going to a better place, “I know I’m going to be in a hole where I shall rot. And I shall be there for ever”. More a case of growing old grumpily than gracefully.

Jeremy Clarkson has had a hugely successful career as a TV presenter, journalist and author. Millions tuned in to watch him, Richard Hammond and James May on BBC’s Top Gear, before the team made the move to Grand Tour on Amazon Prime. The presenter’s Clarkson’s Farm was also a big hit, with Season 2 in the offing. Most weeks Clarkson has not one, but two columns in the Sunday Times. Yet his movingly honest reflections on the ravages of time put me in mind of a sobering passage in the Bible's book of Ecclesiastes. With unblinking realism the author reviews his many life achievements and concludes, “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

Clarkson is grappling with the fact that death deprives us of our achievements and stops us fulfilling our dreams. But is nothing left when we reach the autumn of our days than to rage against the dying of the light? The Christian faith puts a different perspective on things. Paul writes, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” The believer’s inner life is being rejuvenated by the power of God’s grace, even as their bodies are wearing out with age. The Christian has hope in the face of death, that although their bodies will rot in a hole, their spirits will be present with the Lord in heaven. Beyond that, we look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. By the grace of God it is possible to grow old gracefully, with hearts full of hope rather than despair.  

*For the May edition of various local parish magazines 

 

Monday, April 04, 2022

The NHS, a case of bad theology?

"The NHS is the closest thing the English have to a religion"
(Nigel Lawson) 

The other week the wife and I headed to the Land of My Fathers to watch Wales v Italy at the Principality Stadium. It seemed obvious that Wales would win that game of rugby, but Italy didn't read the script. They snatched victory with a brilliant try in the closing minutes of the match. Before the game we went for a wander around Cardiff city centre. At the Cardiff Castle end of Queen Street stands a statue of Nye Bevan, the Labour heath secretary who set up the National Health Service in 1948. If Lawson was right, the religion of the English was founded by a Welshman. 

I was reminded of the words of Mrs Thatcher's Chancellor on reading a column by Matthew Syed (@matthewsyed) in The Sunday TimesWe must challenge our leaders when they lazily deify the NHS. In the article the author reflected on the Ockenden report into failings at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. The report detailed 1,592 incidents of poor care between 2000 and 2019. At least 201 babies and nine mothers might have survived if they had been given better medical treatment. 

Syed argued, "the problem within the NHS is not institutional but theological. In short, we have deified this organisation for so long that it is no longer amenable to rational reform." Because the NHS has been accorded almost divine status. its actions are deemed almost beyond criticism. Those who do complain about poor practice are all too often shunned rather than listened to so that lessons might be learned. Syed's prescription was to target the 'theology' of NHS-worship, "its time to secularise the NHS". If the problem with the NHS is one of bad theology, however, the solution is not no theology, but good theology. 

Porcelain gods
Last Friday we went to see Paul Weller in concert at the Guildhall in Portsmouth. One of the songs he performed was Porcelain Gods from the album Stanley Road. Weller knew what it was to be a 'pop idol'. His band, The Jam often topped the charts in the late 1970s and early 80s and attracted a loyal following of young mods. Weller blindsided fans, not to mention fellow band members Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler by splitting The Jam in 1982. He went on to form the highly successful  Style Council, but by 1989 his creative juices seemed to have run out.  His record label rejected his latest offering and the Style Council were no more. Weller was the rock god who fell to earth, not knowing whether he could resurrect his career and start again. That is the background to Porcelain Gods. Weller sang,

How disappointed I was
To turn out after all
Just a porcelain God
That shatters when it falls

The song is a recognition that the singer was all too human and breakable, a 'porcelain god'. Any worship offered to Weller the pop idol is therefore misplaced. And so it is with any human individual or institution. Those who 'clapped for carers' during the pandemic might be excused for feeling similarly disillusioned when they read the shocking findings of the Ockenden report. For all the undoubted good it does, the NHS is not a fitting object of worship and should not be treated as such. There is only one who is worthy of worship, that is God our Creator. He is perfect in his being and flawless in his ways. That is true of no one else, not even the NHS. Criticism of the health service is not sacrilege. It is the necessary prelude to much-needed reform.  

Good pessimism 
Another theological problem highlighted by Syed is a kind of Pelagian attitude that shapes how the NHS views itself. Healing the sick is a definite good, but that does not mean everyone involved in the world of medicine is morally perfect, or that every aspect of the NHS deserves to be championed as 'world class', when clearly it is not. Witness the damning Ockenden report. The fact is that NHS managers and medical practitioners are not exempt from the effects of 'original sin'. We are all morally flawed. Donning a stethoscope is no cure for that. 

Syed thinks that secularism is the answer, but one of the most distasteful things about Christianity according to 'Enlightenment' thinkers was the very idea of 'original sin'. David Hume and others rejected the Bible's pessimistic view of human nature. They believed that human beings were capable of discovering the truth by reason alone and on that basis decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. It was a kind of secularised Pelagianism. Pelagius taught that it was possible for human beings to achieve moral perfection by their own efforts. Augustine of Hippo argued strenuously against Pelagius. According to Augustine, his views constituted a denial of the seriousness of sin and the need of salvation by the grace of God. 

Augustine-style pessimism about human nature is both realistic and healthy. It protects us from thinking our own actions are always beyond criticism and that it is only others who are capable of doing wrong. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, "The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart." Given that is the case, robust systems of oversight and accountability need to be put in place as a safeguard against wrongdoing. The institutional Pelagianism of the NHS militates against that, which is why whistle-blowers are often ostracised and patient concerns are all too frequently ignored. According to the Ockenden report, “There was a tendency of the trust to blame mothers for their poor outcomes, in some cases even for their own deaths.” Tragic.  

Secularise the NHS?
Secularising the NHS won't necessarily help matters. But good theology may be of some service in  pointing us to the one true and living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is no 'porcelain god' who cannot bear the weight of our worship. Theology also bears witness to the unique worth and value of human life, created in the image of God. That is why the sick should be cared for, rather than discarded. The 'Golden Rule' laid down by Jesus is the foundation of medical ethics. We should care for others as we would like to be cared for, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them" (Matthew 7:12). But regarding NHS staff as 'Angels' who are incapable of getting things badly wrong is a denial of reality. Strong Augustinian antibodies are needed to destroy the virus of institutional Pelagianism.  

Friday, April 01, 2022

A time for war, and a time for peace

The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven’. The Preacher then lists fourteen pairs of opposites from, ‘a time to be born, and a time to die’, to ‘a time for war, and a time for peace’. Few thought we would see another ‘time for war’ in Europe. It’s horrifying to see images of bombed out cites and to hear stories of lives lost and bodies maimed.
 
Times like this bring out the best in people. Neighbouring countries have welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees.  The United Kingdom is also doing its bit to provide a safe haven for people fleeing the horrors of war. Millions of pounds have been donated to charities providing aid to those left with nothing who remain in the conflict zone.
 
But war also puts on display the worst in human nature. The fact that there is war at all is bad enough. The cruel targeting of civilians by Russian forces only makes it worse. The idea that such barbarity was a thing of the past in Europe has sadly been proven wrong. 

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman propounded the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.” He claimed “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” Well, they had branches of the fast food outlet in both Moscow and Kyiv. It seems Ronald McDonald hasn't forever silenced the din of battle after all. It will take more than global capitalism to do that. 

This ‘time for war’ is a shocking reminder of the terrible reality of sin. Sin is rebellion against God our Maker, the bold defiance of his law. God’s law calls us to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’, not hate them, steal from them, or take their lives. God will deal justly with all who break his good commands, whether in times of war or peace. 
 
This April we celebrate Easter, the time when Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world. His death in our place satisfied God’s just demands and revealed the depth of his love for us. Jesus paid the price of sin so that all who believe in him may be forgiven and be put right with God. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead tells us that the powers sin and death have been defeated. The Bible holds out the hope that when the Lord Jesus comes in glory, ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’ Then there will be a ‘time of peace’ for ever.

* For various local parish magazines 

Friday, March 25, 2022

Human Nature from Calvin to Edwards, by Paul Helm

Reformation Heritage Books, 2018, 282pp, 

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones would often say that the truth of God’s word should be presented to the mind in order to inflame the heart and move the will to action. In speaking like that the preacher was using the language of ‘faculty psychology’. The ‘faculties’ of the soul describe its intertwining functions and powers, such as the mind, the affections and the will. That does not mean the soul is composed of various bits and pieces. Most proponents of faculty psychology believed that the human soul is a simple entity that cannot be divided into discrete parts as can the body.

Early Christian thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo drew upon the views of Plato and Aristotle when formulating their doctrine of human nature. Reformers John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli followed in their wake. The old Greek philosophers knew nothing of original sin or the resurrection of the body, however, so their ideas had to be modified in the light of biblical teaching.

The focus of Helm's study is on the ‘faculty psychology’ of Puritan writers. He cites the views of numerous Puritans on the relationship between body and soul, the faculties of the soul and moral agency. The teaching of familiar figures such as John Owen and John Flavel is discussed, as well as less well known writers like William Pemble. The book demands careful reading, as each author quoted had a slightly different perspective on the matters under consideration. Helm’s discussion of the conscience in Puritan writings is especially illuminating.

John Locke critiqued traditional faculty psychology, preferring to emphasise the actions of the undivided self over and against differentiated powers of mind, heart and will. Helm provides evidence of Locke’s influence on Jonathan Edwards’s work, The Religious Affections. But Locke’s objections did not spell the end of faculty psychology. The insights of our Puritan forebears continue to cast light on human nature as created by God, affected by sin and redeemed by grace. 

Paul Helm blogs at Helm's Deep

*Reviewed for the April 2022 edition of  The Banner of Truth Magazine

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

May we pray to the Holy Spirit?


I once heard a preacher say  that prayer should ordinarily be addressed to God the Father. Arguably, he said, we may pray to Jesus, but we should probably not pray to the Holy Spirit. The preacher conceded that John 14:13 may give us good grounds for praying to Jesus, plus Stephen's example in Acts 7:59-60. Paul makes calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ the hallmark of belonging to his people (1 Corinthians 1:2), so I think we may safely conclude that doing so is perfectly fine. Prayer to the Holy Spirit, though, where's that in the Bible? 

Rest assured I have a perfectly serviceable 'proof text' for you, but before we come to that, please allow me to introduce Dr John Owen and his great work On Communion with God. You'll find it in Volume 2 of his Works, published by the Banner of Truth Trust. Although various standalone versions are also available, if you prefer. In On Communion with God, Owen meditates on how the believer may have distinct communion with each person of the Trinity. One of his driving thoughts is that communion with any one divine person necessarily involves the other two. Inseparable operations and all that. 

Our preacher's text was Matthew 6:9, 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name'. It is true that prayer is ordinarily addressed to the Father in the name of the Son and by the presence of the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 2:18. But the Father we address is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father's only begotten Son. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and Christ, (Romans 8:9), who proceeds from the Father and the Son. When we 'hallow' the name of 'our Father', we are also 'hallowing' his Son and the Holy Spirit. 

Why? Because holiness is an attribute of God's being, which is possessed equally, fully and without division by all three persons of the Trinity. As Owen says, "The divine nature is the reason and cause of all worship; so that it is impossible to worship any one person and not worship the whole Trinity." (p. 268). Our Puritan divine gives attention to the text cited in the previous paragraph, Ephesians 2:18:
Our access in our worship is said to be "to the Father;" and this "through Christ," or his mediation; "by the Spirit," or his assistance. Here is a distinction of the persons, as to their operations, but not as their being or object of worship. For the Son and the Holy Ghost are no less worshipped in our access to God than the Father himself; only, the grace of the Father, which we obtain by the mediation of the Son and the assistance of the Spirit, is what we draw nigh to God for. So that when, by the distinct dispensation of the Trinity, and every person, we are led to worship (that is, to act faith on or invocate) any person, we do herein worship the whole Trinity and every person, by what name soever, of the Father, Son or Holy Ghost, we invocate him. (p. 269)

In worshipping or praying to the Father, we are also worshipping and praying to the Son and the Holy Spirit, for the Son and Spirit are one being with the Father. Reflect also on the great trinitarian benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14. 'Grace' is appropriated to the Lord Jesus Christ, 'love' to God [the Father] and 'fellowship' to the Holy Spirit. But grace is also the grace of God (Romans 5:15) and of the Spirit (Hebrews 10:29). God's love is commended to us in the death of his Son and poured into our hearts by the Spirit (Romans 5:8, 5). Fellowship with the Spirit is also fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3). With that in mind, it is no more problematic to offer worship to the Holy Spirit, or pray to him, than it is to worship and pray to the Father, or the Son. 

Indeed, Owen goes on to argue that we should offer distinct praise to the Holy Spirit for his work in our lives, as we rightly give glory to the Son for redeeming us by his blood, Revelation 1:5-6. We should also pray to the Holy Spirit "for the carrying on the work of our consolation, which he hath undertaken, lies our communion with him. John prays for grace and peace from the seven Spirits that are before the throne, or the Holy Ghost, whose operations are perfect and complete." (p. 271). Owen gives directions on how the believer may do just that in the following pages.

Theologically speaking then, prayer to the Holy Spirit is part and parcel of our communion with the triune God. But I promised you a proof text. Let me take you to Ezekiel's vison of the valley of dry bones. When Ezekiel prophesied to the bones they came together and were covered with flesh, but there was no life in them (Ezekiel 37:7-8). Then the Lord told Ezekiel to speak to the breath that the slain may live. The breath came and raised them to life, 'an exceedingly great army' Ezekiel 37:9-10. The 'breath' or roach in Hebrew is none other than the Spirt of the Lord, Ezekiel 37:14, compare Psalm 33:6. Israel's national  'resurrection' after the Babylonian Captivity is a picture of the resurrection of believers by the power of the Spirit, Romans 8:11. If Ezekiel could speak to the 'Spirit of life' (Romans 8:2, 10), so may we. Besides, as Owen points out, in Revelation 1:5-6, the Spirit is invoked as the source of grace and peace alongside 'him who is and who was and who is to come' [the Father] and Jesus Christ. 

While the usual order in prayer is to the Father, in the name of the Son and by the Spirit, this is not a stereotypical formula in Holy Scripture. We may also call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and seek the aid of the Holy Spirit in prayer. 

Come, Holy Spirit, like a dove descending,
Rest Thou upon us while we meet to pray;
Show us the Savior, all His love revealing,
Lead us to Him, the Life, the Truth, the Way.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

 William Collins, 2007, 200pp

Last autumn my wife and I enjoyed a week's holiday in the Cotswolds. Our base was the historic town of Tewkesbury. Little did we know when we booked to stay there some months earlier, that in late October 2021 Tewkesbury was to become the Covid hotspot of England. Infection rates had skyrocketed. Thankfully, we managed not to catch it. 

Plague aside, staying in Tewkesbury was convenient for visiting Cotswoldy hotspots such as Bourton on the Water and Stow on the Wold. The town, boasting an Abbey and battlefield site, was also handy for a quick drive to nearby Cheltenham, where we saw Dune in the cinema. It's not too far from Stratford on Avon, either, or 'Shakespeare country' as the Warwickshire Tourist Board likes to call it.

We've been to see I don't know how many Shakespeare plays over the years. In fact on our first date we went to see Kenneth Branagh's Henry V. Worked for us. A local amateur company, Shakespeare Live  stages an outdoor performance for a week in early July.  Well timed for a wedding anniversary night out. We've seen a few plays at Shakespeare's Globe in London. Who knew the Bard was woke before his time, with a penchant for gender fluidity so complex that he had women playing men's roles and even women playing men who were playing women? Box Tale Soup do an excellent Twelfth Night with puppets. And then there are the various films and TV versions, most recently The Tragedy of Macbeth with Denzel Washington in the title role.

But apart from a basic smattering of facts, I didn't know much about William Shakespeare himself. On our day trip to Stratford on Avon we booked a boat trip on the River Avon and a visit to Shakespeare's Birthplace. It was fascinating to look round the exhibits on display in the visitor centre and explore the playwright's childhood home. On our way out we passed through the gift shop and I was possessed by the sudden urge to buy a Shakespeare biography. As you might expect there were several on the shelves, but I opted for this one by Bill Bryson. Although I'd heard of the author this was the first book I had read by him.

Turns out that apart from a basic smattering of facts little is actually known about the world-renowned figure of English literature. Scholars don't have a clue what he was up to for huge chunks of his life. The only access we have to his inner thoughts and feelings is through his poems and plays. They don't necessarily represent his personal feelings or views on life. We can't be sure what he looked like, or even how his name should be spelled. By way of contrast we have a wealth of information from various reliable sources when it comes to the life and teachings of Jesus, who walked among men some 1500 years before Shakespeare, (see here).

Bryson carefully sifts the established facts of Shakespeare's life from the stuff of myth and legend. He sets the writer against the backdrop of his times and offers a brief analysis of his key poems plays. All is done with the lightness of touch and good humour for which the author is renowned. In a final chapter, Claimants Bryson briefly, but devastatingly critiques the claims of those who believe that an ordinary fellow like William Shakespeare could not possibly have written the great works associated with his name. 

Making Covid-stricken Tewkesbury our base probably wasn't such a bad idea for trying to understand Shakespeare's life and times, which were characterised by wave after wave of population decimating plague. 

Friday, March 04, 2022

Spring is Sprung


'Spring is sprung, the grass is riz
I wonder where the birdies is'

Well, it all depends on what you mean by Spring. Astronomers insist that Spring begins on 20 March. All to do with the Earth’s orbit in relation to the Sun. Meanwhile Meteorologists date the start of Spring from 1 March, when the weather gets a little warmer after the chill of winter. That still doesn’t solve the mystery of ‘where the birdies is’, but there we are.

It’s been a mild winter overall, although drew to an end in a stormy rage. Spring will certainly welcome. It’s a joy to see the daffodils in bloom and to know that lighter evenings are on the way. There are also hopeful signs that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, with brighter days ahead.

The annual round of the seasons is testimony to the faithfulness of God. As it says in the Book of Genesis, ‘While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

Spring is the season when Christians celebrate that Jesus is risen from the dead. The long dark winter of the world is over. By his death on the cross and resurrection from the tomb Jesus broke the power of sin that reigns in death. Spring is sprung. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Jesus offers this abundant life to all who hear his voice and come to him, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”*

* For March editions of various local parish magazines/newspapers 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Mosaic Covenant: a covenant of works?

"This covenant [of grace] is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament" (Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689, chapter 7:3)

Samuel Renihan (@Petty_France) recently tweeted a ten point summary of Thomas Goodwin's view of the Mosaic Covenant. I've reproduced the list below. Goodwin's stance bears more than a passing resemblance to that of his fellow Independent and good friend, John Owen. Owen's understanding of the Mosaic Covenant was highly influential in Particular Baptist circles. Renihan has dealt with this at length in his excellent, From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704), Regent's Park College, 2018. In essence Goodwin, Owen and many Particular Baptists held that the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works that was subservient to the covenant of grace. This line of thought is certainly compatible with the Second London Baptist Confession, but it is not explicitly taught in that document. 

In his more recent The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant And His Kingdom, Founders Press, 2019 or Broken Warfe (UK edition), Renihan make this distinction between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, "In a covenant of works, when obedience has been rendered, blessings promised are enjoyed. Conversely, in a covenant of grace, after promises have been received, laws are introduced." But on that basis, was the Mosaic Covenant really a covenant of works? Did the Lord redeem Israel from Egypt and promise them the land of Canaan on the basis of obedience rendered? I think not. 

The Mosaic Covenant was a further elaboration of the Abrahamic Covenant especially formulated for Israel's life in the Promised Land, Exodus 3:1-8. The law was given to Israel as God's redeemed people, Exodus 20:1-2. It was as such that Israel entered into a solemn covenant with the Lord and promised to obey him, Exodus 24:3. The covenant was ratified by the shedding of blood without which there is no forgiveness of sins, Exodus 24:6-8, Hebrews 9:18-22. 

Should Israel renege on their covenant obligations they were threatened with exile from the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 28). But that does not make the Sinai Covenant a covenant of works. Unlike with Adam, there was a way back for Israel from the dark paths of sin, Leviticus 26:40-45. 

But neither does this mean that the old covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace, as taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter VII:V). It was not. For one, the covenant of grace is with Christ and his elect people. The old covenant was with Abraham and his descendants, but 'not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel' (Romans 9:6). Among the people of Israel only a remnant were chosen by grace for salvation through the coming Messiah, Romans 11:5). The Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants were 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12) wherein the covenant of grace was revealed, "until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament". 

With those thoughts in mind I will offer a brief comment on each of Goodwin's points on the Mosaic Covenant as summarised by Renihan. 

1. It was a promulgation of the covenant of works - no. The Mosaic covenant was not a republication of the covenant of works with with Adam. Life in the Promised Land was not granted to Israel on the basis of their righteous obedience, Deuteronomy 7:6-8, 9:5. Neither was it an administration of the covenant of grace. It was a 'farther step' in the revelation of salvation promised in Christ. 

2. It was based on a redemption other than Christ's - yes, the exodus, which typified Christ's redemption, Colossians 1:12-14.  

3. It had a Mediator other than Christ - yes, Moses, who foreshadowed the work of Christ as mediator of the new covenant, Hebrews 3:1-6. 

4. It offered a sanctification other than Christ's - 'I am the Lord who sanctifies you' (Leviticus 20:8). Israel was set apart as God's holy nation by virtue of the Lord's electing love and redeeming power. Israel's holiness was to manifest itself as the nation was devoted to God in obedience to his commands. These commands included ceremonial rules such as the food laws of Leviticus 11 and regulations concerning bodily discharges in Leviticus 15. But Israel was also called to pursue an inward holiness that was only possible by the work of the Spirit, Psalm 24:3-6, Ezekiel 36:25-28. Israel's role as a 'holy nation' to the Lord was a shadowy picture of the sanctifying work of Christ by the Spirit under the new covenant, 1 Peter 1:1-2, 14-19, 2:9-10. 

5. It gave a justification other than Christ's. What does this even mean? Under the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants justification was by faith in the promised Christ, Gen 15:6 (Romans 4:1-5), Psalm 32 (Romans 4:6-7). The Law and the Prophets of the old covenant bore witness to the righteousness of God apart from the law by faith in Christ, Romans 3:21-22. 

6. It promised an earthly life and inheritance. Yes, which was typical of the eternal inheritance of the saints, 1 Peter 1:3-5. 

7. Unregenerate Jews could keep the covenant. No, to do that their hearts needed to be circumcised,  Deuteronomy 10:12-16, 30:6. That was only the case for a godly remnant, which was why Israel as a whole broke the covenant and was exiled from the land. The unregenerate could not live up to the law's demands and stood condemned for their disobedience (Romans 8:3a, Galatians 3:10-11). By way of contrast the new covenant was 'not of the letter, but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.' (2 Corinthians 3:6).

8. It was typical of the covenant of grace. How is this compatible with point 1? The Mosaic covenant is typical of the covenant of grace only because it was graciously made with Israel as a covenant of promise. The types and shadows of the old covenant point to Christ, the antitype and substance, Hebrews 8:5-6, Colossians 2:16-17. 

9. It was subservient to the covenant of grace. Yes. Its function was to prepare the way for Christ and then get out of the way once the mediator of a new and better covenant had come, Galatians 3:23-25, Hebrews 8:13.  

10. It was "truly, and toto genre, differing from" the covenant of grace. Yes, because a promise is different from its fulfilment, a type is different from an antitype and a shadow different from the substance. The temporary old covenant was indeed different from the eternal covenant of grace which was finally and fully disclosed in the new covenant.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Children of Abraham: A reformed baptist view of the covenants, by David Kingdon

 
Grace Publications, 2021 edition, 256pp

Christmas Evans the Welsh Baptist preacher began his Christian life as a believer in infant baptism. He was outraged when he came across Baptists who contradicted his views. Evans set out to prove them wrong by reading the Bible from cover to cover and making a careful note of all the many references to the baptism of babies he discovered in holy writ. To his great disappointment he found none. Evans became a Baptist. The strength of the peadobaptist position, however, is not in its advocates' ability to produce killer proof texts in support of their position. Which is just as well. The case for infant baptism, rather, rests on elaborate biblical-theological arguments. Essentially it's all about the relationship between the old and new covenants, which is where David Kingdon rightly concentrates his considerable firepower. 

Paedobaptists hold that there is one overarching covenant of grace that is administered in different ways in the various biblical covenants. Under the old covenant, covenant membership was for Abraham and his offspring. Following on from that, paedobaptists contend that children of believers are also children of the covenant and should therefore be baptised. That is exactly the point that Kingdon sets out to dispute. 

Reformed Baptists certainly agree that there is one overarching covenant of grace. That covenant was first announced in the promise of Genesis 3:15 and was revealed with increasing clarity and fulness in the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants. They were not, however, administrations of the covenant of grace, the author argues. They were 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12). The covenants that God made with his people in the Old Testament period were earthly types and shadows of the blessings that would be granted under the new covenant. 

People were saved during the Old Testament period through faith in the promise of grace effected by Christ in the new covenant. In that sense the Saviour's death retrospectively atoned for the sins of old covenant believers, Romans 3:25-26, Hebrews 9:15. It was on that basis that 'Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness' (Romans 4:3, citing Genesis 15:6). 

While it was true that all of Abraham's descendants were to be circumcised, not all of his offspring believed in the promise of salvation through Abraham's offspring, the Messiah. The Lord gave the Promised Land to the people of Israel, but not every inhabitant of the Land looked beyond it to the eternal inheritance of the new creation. In fact, it seems that only a remnant in Israel experienced the circumcision of their hearts to which circumcision in their flesh was but a sign, Deuteronomy 30:6, Romans 2:29). 

It is with that in mind that Paul could say, 'not all who are descended from Israel are Israel' (Romans 9:6). Belonging to God's covenant people by natural descent from Abraham was part and parcel of the earthly and temporary character of the the old covenant. That has now become obsolete since the Messianic offspring of Abraham has come, Galatians 3:16. Membership of the new covenant people of God is on the basis of 'believe and belong' whether Jew or Gentile, not natural descent (Galatians 3:29, 6:15-16). That is why baptism is only for those who have repented of their sins and believed in Jesus, for they alone are in Christ, Galatians 3:27. 

The old covenant distinction between outward membership of the people of God by descent from Abraham plus circumcision, and inward membership by circumcision of the heart and faith in the coming Messiah has been rendered null and void under the new covenant. In Jeremiah's promise of the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34) all new covenant members of the people of God know the Lord, all have the law written on their hearts and all have their sins forgiven. Those things were only true for a godly remnant in Old Testament Israel. 

John the Baptist recognised the 'believing remnant' principle. The Baptist warned that Jewish people should not rest in the fact that they were descended from Abraham and circumcised, Matthew 3:9. He did not baptise the children of baptised adults, only repentant sinners who were waiting for Messiah to be revealed, Matthew 3:10-11. Christian baptism similarly is upon repentance and faith in accordance with the consistent witness of the New Testament, Acts 2:38-40, 8:36-38, 9:17-18, 10:44-48 etc. Church membership is for those who have made a credible profession of faith and have been baptised, Acts 2:41. 

David Kingdon originally published this work in 1973. This edition includes fresh maternal on the ministry of John the Baptist and the newness of the new covenant. Kingdon argues his case well, interacting throughout with representatives of the infant baptist tradition. In line with the Independent divine, John Owen, some Reformed Baptists have held that the old covenant was a republication of the covenant of works. Here Kingdon rightly lays stress on Paul's teaching that God's covenants with Israel were 'covenants of promise' that bore earthly and temporary witness to the spiritual and eternal blessings of the new covenant that are ours in Christ. 

Convinced paedobaptists will find much to chew on in his book as the writer calls into question some of their most cherished assumptions and points out weaknesses in their key arguments. Baptists will be helped to see that our position is rooted in sound theological reasoning as well as the plain teaching of the New Testament. As the author convincingly demonstrates, baptism is only for those who have repented of their sin and believed in Jesus Christ for salvation. Grace Publications are to be congratulated for publishing this revised and updated edition of Children of Abraham

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Hypocrites!

 

 

As I write Sue Gray hasn’t yet delivered her verdict on the Downing Street lockdown parties. It would be foolish of me to try and speculate on what the fallout will be once her findings have been published. Once thing’s for sure, the appearance that lockdown rule makers were also rule breakers has left a bitter taste in people’s mouths. No one likes a hypocrite.

Some of Jesus’ harshest words were levelled against hypocrites, “they preach, but do not practise. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Seven times in Matthew 23 Jesus thunders, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

The scribes and Pharisees styled themselves as righteous embodiments of God’s law. They were quick to condemn anyone who fell short of their high standards. But Jesus removed their masks to expose all the dishonest ways in which they tried to wriggle out of doing what God required. The scribes and Pharisees were careful to give away tenth of their garden produce, but neglected to practice justice, mercy and faithfulness. Jesus accused them of “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel”.

Jesus had every right to denounce hypocrisy. He is the one preacher who always practiced what he preached. As for us, there is something of the hypocrite in us all. We are quick to condemn others when they behave badly. But do we always and without exception live up to our own noblest principles? The Golden Rule laid down by Jesus teaches, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them”. It would be a very brave or foolhardy person to insist that they have always treated others as they wish to be treated themselves.  Never an unkind remark, never an irritable response?

It is only right that those who imposed harsh lockdown rules on others should be held to account if they broke them. “Woe to you, hypocrites!” But let’s not forget our own hypocrisy. We are all sinners who have fallen short of what God requires. All is not lost, however. The Christian faith teaches there is hope even for hypocrites. God offers mercy and forgiveness to everyone who believes in Jesus who died on the cross for our sins. 

* For the February edition of various local parish magazines.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Humanity: Created and Re-created, by David McKay

Christian Focus, 2021, 113pp, paperback

‘What is man?’, asks the psalmist. We will only begin to know the answer to that question if we understand what it means to be human in relation to God. This is exactly what this pocket guide sets out to do. McKay’s treatment is concise and straightforward without ever being superficial. He sets modern day concerns such as identity politics and transgenderism in clear biblical perspective, drawing upon the insights of Reformed covenant theology.          

Human identity

There is a lot of talk these days about human ‘identity’. For some their fundamental identity is tied up with their gender, sexuality, race, or political views. As David McKay shows, our true identity is not one that is made up by us, but one that is handed down by God. Our Triune Lord created human beings in his image as male and female. That fact bestows great dignity and worth on every human person. 

Ruined humanity

Recently Headmistress Katharine Birbalsingh got herself into spot of bother on Twitter when she suggested that due to ‘original sin’ children need rules and sanctions to keep them in line (see here). Cue predictable outrage at the idea that children might be morally flawed. But the Christian doctrine of original sin insists that all are sinners before God. McKay gives attention to humanity Ravaged by Sin. Man was created to live in a covenant relationship to his Maker. Adam represented the human race in the Covenant of Works. When Adam fell into sin, humanity fell with him. Adam’s sin was imputed to the whole human race. All are born with a sin-corrupted nature. Death reigns over all in Adam.

Redeemed humanity

But God has raised up a new representative for humanity in Jesus, the mediator of the Covenant of Grace. United to him, our sins are atoned for so that we may be forgiven and put right with God. In Christ believers are set apart as God’s holy people and adopted into his family. McKay could perhaps have said more about the corporate aspects of union with Christ in the life of the church.  

Renewed humanity

Finally, redeemed humanity will share Christ’s glory, gaining in him more than we ever lost, or could have had in Adam. God’s new humanity will bear the image of the last Adam in resurrection glory. Only then will the full answer to the psalmist's question, ‘What is man?’ be revealed. 

An excellent treatment of a timely theme.

*An edited version of this review was published in The Banner of Truth Magazine, January 2022