Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Particular Baptists and Calvinistic Methodists on the Covenant of Grace

John Eilas (1744-1841)
Hanserd Knollys (1599-1691)

Chapter VII of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the Savoy Declaration (1658) is devoted to 'God's Covenant with Man' (see this tabular comparison). The two confessions are not identical at this point. The wording  is different here and there. Savoy omits quite a bit of Westminster's paragraph 5 and the whole of paragraph 6. But they have quite a lot in common. Both both the Presbyterians and Congregationalists were Paedobaptists, holding that the children of believers should be baptised. An essential element of Paedobaptist theology is that just as Abraham's offspring were to be circumcised, so the children of believers should not be denied the new covenant sign of baptism. 

That is why Westminster and Savoy say that the covenant of grace was 'differently administered' during the era of the law to what is now the case under the gospel (VII:5). In other words, the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants were administrations of the covenant of grace, as is the new covenant. Under all the various administrations the children of covenant members were to receive the sign of the covenant and either be circumcised (under the law) or baptised (under the gospel).  

The trouble with that is under the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants, simply being a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh did not make a person a true believer in the coming Messiah. Paul says as much in Romans 9:6-13. How, then could the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants be administrations of the covenant of grace, when, according to both Westminster and Savoy, the covenant of grace was between God and the elect, who would most certainly be saved?
the Covenant of Grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. (VII:3).

The framers of the Second London Baptist Confession (1689) denied that the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants were administrations of the covenant of grace. Rather, they were 'steps' under which the covenant promise of salvation was revealed until it was fully made known under the new covenant.

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 (VII:3). 

Accordingly, baptism is only for those who were ordained unto life and have been savingly engrafted into Christ, the evidence of which is their profession of repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Chapter XXIX 2LBCF). 

Now, eyebrows might be raised at the idea of 'Calvinistic Methodism', thinking that Methodists were Arminians like John Wesley. But George Whitefield was both a Calvinist and a Methodist. So too were his Welsh counterparts, Daniel Rowland and William Williams. Second generation Welsh Calvinistic Methodists left the Church of England and formed their own church grouping. Their leaders such as John Elias and Thomas Charles were very much Calvinist in doctrine and Methodist in spiritual vibrancy. Their confession of faith reflects that. 

What I want to highlight here is how the Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists (1823) resembles the Second London Baptist Confession more than it does Westminster or Savoy in its treatment of covenant theology. Chapter 13 is entitled, 'Of the Eternal Covenant of Grace'. The confession says that the promises of the covenant of grace are given to 'Christ and his seed' and under this covenant this 'seed' will receive eternal life. That could not be said of all Abraham's natural descendants and regretfully, neither is it true of all children of new covenant believers. The final paragraph of Chapter 13 says,

God in his own time reveals this covenant through the gospel to all his people, and, by bringing them to approve and embrace it, brings them into the bond of the covenant, and into actual possession in their own persons of its grace, gifts, and privileges. The covenant of grace was revealed by degrees, and under various dispensations; but the gospel dispensation is the last and most glorious. This covenant is free, sure, holy, advantageous, and eternal.

Note the way in which the penultimate sentence seems to echo the emphasis of the Second London Baptist Confession. Contrary to Westminster and Savoy, the covenant of grace is not said to be 'differently administered' over time, but 'revealed by degrees, and under various dispensations: but the gospel dispensation is the last and most glorious'. That is more or less the equivalent of the 2LBC's  'revealed... by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament'. Quite how on this basis the Calvinistic Methodist fathers still went on to affirm infant baptism in Chapter 37 of the confession, I am at a loss to know. 

My point is that few would doubt that the early Welsh Calvinistic Methodist churches were part of the Reformed family. Their confession placed them in the mainstream of Presbyterian and Reformed thought. Particular Baptist teaching on the covenant of grace sprang up from within the Reformed churches, especially the Independents in the seventeenth century. But they saw with greater clarity that the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants could not simply be identified with the covenant of grace. They were 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12) in which the covenant of grace was progressively disclosed. 

All agree that the covenant of grace is with God and his elect people in Christ and made effective by the Spirit. The genius of the Particular Baptists was to follow the biblical logic of that position to say that  baptism should therefore only be administered to believers on profession of faith, who are then admitted to the membership of a local church. Doctrinally speaking, we are indeed Reformed Baptists. But that in itself is not sufficient, we also need something of the life and fire of the old Calvinistic Methodists. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The cost of living (Jesus' Way)

Here’s where I embarrass myself by writing an article on what the government needs to do to fix the cost of living crisis. Basically, they have to make sure that stuff is cheaper, and that people have enough money to pay for the stuff they need. I think that just about covers it. Agreed?

Whether Liz Truss or Rishi Sunack wins the Conservative leadership election, their success as Prime Minister will rest on coming up with  policies that address the cost of living crisis. Especially when it comes to fuel and food. It can’t be right that some people in our society will have to choose between heating and eating come the chilly winter months.

Jesus spoke about the cost of living too. According to the economics of the kingdom of God the gift of eternal life can’t be bought, but it will cost you everything. It can’t be bought because salvation is by God’s free grace, not our efforts. That’s why he sent Jesus to die for our sins so that all who believe in him may be forgiven and have the hope of glory to come.

While grace is free, it is not cheap. People may quite like the idea of eternal life, but strictly on their own terms. Well, no. Jesus wants disciples who will follow him, not consumers who just want what he has to give. The Lord Jesus challenged his would-be followers, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” He urged people to count the cost of discipleship saying, “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” If we would truly live, we must die to self and follow Jesus. That’s the cost of living his way.

*For the July edition of local parish magazines. 

Friday, July 08, 2022

Pastors, bodily training is of some value

In one of the Bible's Horrible Histories moments Eglon the tubby tyrant is put to the sword by Ehud the left-handed judge. See Judges 3:12-30 for the lowdown. When Ehud stabbed the King of Moab in the guts with his sneakily concealed blade we are told, "And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the excrement came out." (Judges 3:22). Nice. 

Now, I don't think this episode is in the Bible first and foremost to shame us into keeping ourselves in trim. But it does seem that mention of Eglon's weight is meant to tell us something about his character. Similarly, when Eli fell backwards off his chair on hearing the Philistines had captured the ark of the covenant, we are told, "his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy." (1 Samuel 4:18). Eli and his sons had previously been accused of, "fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?’" (1 Samuel 2:29). 

Gluttony is condemned in Proverbs 23:20-21, 28:7. According to Paul a distinguishing mark of "enemies of the cross of Christ" is that, "their god is their belly" (Philippians 3:19). Meanwhile, among the fruit of the Spirit is "self control" Galatians 5:23). While Paul urged Timothy to "train yourself for godliness", he also admitted, "bodily training is of some value" (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Too right. 

A recent government report revealed that around three quarters of those aged 45-74 in the United Kingdom are overweight or obese. Being overweight leads to a range of other serious health problems. According to a report in thebmj, "Covid-19 death rates are 10 times higher in countries where more than half of the adult population is classified as overweight". 

The answer to question 73 of The Baptist Catechism on the sixth commandment ("you shall not kill") spells out what is required in that commandment, "The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life (Eph. 5:28,29) and the life of others". That's why self control in diet, plus regular bodily exercise aren't optional lifestyle choices for followers of Jesus, but a matter of obedience to the Lord.

Now, the reasons why people become overweight are complex. Physical exercise isn't a possibility for people with debilitating illnesses that severely limit their movement. We know that. But in general terms regulating weight is about eating sensibly and taking regular exercise. Elders/overseers should model a life characterised by self control (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8). How can we preach to others on that virtue (Titus 2:2, 5, 6, 12) when self control is conspicuously lacking in us?

Perhaps all this is easy for me to say as I've never had to battle with being overweight. My teenage nickname was 'Ribs the Mod' because I was skinny and a mod. Shortly after getting  married in my mid 20's I went up a waist size from 32" to 34", but I've remained that size until now (mid 50's). If I did one of those 'before and after' photos, all you'd notice is I now have less hair than 10 years previously. In fact few things bring out the Pharisaic 'older brother' in me than the hearty congratulations elicited by 'after diet' snaps, "‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving [slimming] for you and never disobeyed your orders [rarely ate biscuits]. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.'" (Luke 15:29). 

You want to know the secret of the 'Davies Diet & Exercise Regime'? Sorry to keep you in suspense until the end of the post. Here it is. Eat less stuff as you get older and your metabolism slows down. Rarely eat between meals. Spurn biscuits. Mostly. Enjoy a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veg. Have a bit of a workout with some reps & a spin on an exercise bike most days. Go for a decent walk with your wife on your day off. Climb a mountain every now and again. Because bodily training is of some value. 

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

The labourers are few

The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 
therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest 
to send out labourers into his harvest.
(Matthew 9:37-38)

I don't know of a church of any size that complains they have too many workers for what they are trying to do. The activities of larger (100ish) and middle-sized (50ish) fellowships are often staffed by a core of dedicated members, while others don't get so involved. The problem is even more acute when it comes to small churches (25 or less). If a small congregation has a pastor he is going to have top help out with a whole lot of stuff, especially if his fellow church officers have full time jobs on top of their church responsibilities. Yes, he must prioritise 'prayer and the ministry of the word', but not to the neglect of  pastoral visiting, youth work, taking school assemblies, admin, taking a turn on refreshments duties and so on. Plus, pastors should be active and engaged member of their local communities, serving as school governors, or whatever. 

Being a small church often means only having enough people to keep a modest programme of organised activities ticking over. You can forget about whizzy new initiatives featuring the latest evangelistic fad. OK, the toddler group or children's work could be ditched to make room for a new thing, but that would probably alienate those who attend the toddler group, or whose children enjoy coming to Friday Club. And so the church withdraws into ever decreasing circles, losing touch with the very people who may come to a 'new thing' if invited. Sometimes just managing to keep going with the help of God is an achievement in itself. 

Especially when you are labouring away in an unfashionable market town in the South West of England. Many Evangelical Churches within reach of a Uni seem to be packing them in. Ditto those based in multi-ethnic communities. Where you have a predominantly white British demographic such as in Wiltshire, not so much. It's not as if people in the South West are by and large 'too posh to pray' types for whom the eye of a needle is a tad on the narrow side. There are pockets of real deprivation in the South West that go unnoticed by tourists sampling the local delicacies (pasties, cream teas, Wiltshire ham and scrumpy). See this article by Rakib Eshan,  It's grim down South.  The stats for my home town of Westbury, Wiltshire can be found here:  Westbury Community Area

The hardest nut to crack when it comes to education England is the underperformance of disadvantaged white British children. The achievement gap between white British 'Pupil Premium' kids and others from more affluent homes was wide enough before the pandemic. Due to school closure it is now a mighty chasm. I would venture to suggest that a similar nut needs cracking when it comes to evangelising the UK. But there are limits on what smaller churches can do in terms of running organised activities to reach their local communities. We need help. But unlike in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers there is no sign of  Gandalf and the Riders of Rohan charging down the valley to join us in the fight. 

Evangelicals tend to avoid living and working in places like Westbury, Wiltshire. Evangelicalism is largely middle class and the middle classes often pursue careers that require a degree. Blue collar towns don't offer much in the way of those kind of jobs. But unless Evangelical Christians are prepared to live in towns such as Westbury they are not going to be able to engage with their neighbours and work colleagues in the area. Sometimes they do move here, but then attend a more middle class church elsewhere. The trouble is, it's unlikely the people they have got to know will travel with them to a nearby town or city if invited to a meeting. Small townies tend to be 'somewheres' with a strong sense of place, rather than 'anywheres'. That is even more true for villagers. And so while smaller churches are steadily tapping away at the nut and tiny fissures may appear, cracked it isn't 

If you want to be part of a rapidly growing church plant, or an overnight church revitalisation programme, small town ministry probably isn't for you. Things tend to happen slowly in small towns. Westbury has been waiting for a bypass for decades. Similarly it can take many years for a church to break down barriers and win people's trust. Even when that does happen the impact may not be seen in terms of extra folks attending services on a Sunday. The people most open to the gospel may not be a family with a professional dad and a stay at home mum and their young children, but an older couple whose advanced age and health problems militate against them coming along to meetings. It may have take years of pastoral care and meeting their practical needs before they become open to faith in Christ. 

That said, at least Westbury has a Grace Baptist Church, which is twinned with a fellowship in the village of West Lavington (see here for the Providence & Ebenezer website). Warminster, a few miles down the A350 has no Independent Evangelical or Grace Baptist Church at all. It would be great to see one planted, but who's going to do that? 

What's to be done, then? Small churches in small towns or in village locations need to keep on keeping on, doing what they can with the resources available to them. We are told, "let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up." (Galatians 6:9). Yes, we need more workers too. Jesus said, "The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest." (Matthew 9:37-38). Above all we need a mighty outpouring of the Spirit upon gospel churches of all sizes in these days, "Revive your work, O Lord in the midst of the years!" The hammer of the word in the power of the Spirit can crack any nut. 

By the way, I've noticed that church leaders serving hard up communities often have a thing with wearing hats. Mez McConnell has his beanies. Steve Kneale is seldom seen not sporting a baseball cap. Not to be outdone, here's one of me wearing a bucket hat.