Monday, December 31, 2007

The Gospel-Driven Life Conference

At the start of the New Year millions of people will determine to transform their lives. They will be motivated by guilt, failure, peer pressure, pride, and a whole host of other motives. God has designed that we change through his transforming gospel, by grace alone, through faith alone. This really is good news.

Here's another conference worth knowing about, organised jointly by Westminster Seminary California and Ponte Vedra Presbyterian Church. Details can be found here. So if you live in or around Florida why not go along.

February 1-2, 2008


"The Gospel-Driven Life: Growing in Holiness by Living in Union with Christ."

This conference is based on Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." Many today think the Gospel is the message that "gets me saved." As a result, the Gospel is misunderstood as good news only for unbelievers, while believers proceed to live out the Christian life in their own strength and merit.

Westminster Seminary California professors Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, Dr. Michael S. Horton (who is also co-host of the White Horse Inn radio program), Dr. R. Scott Clark

463589-1181970-thumbnail.jpg and special guest Dr. R. C. Sproul will explore how the Gospel is good news for Christians, too. Together they will present why the person and work of Christ is the basis not only for the Christian's salvation but also for his life of sanctification. The Gospel-Driven Life from beginning to end is lived by grace through faith in Christ alone.

Our desire for The Gospel-Driven Life 2008 Conference is to call the church back to a Gospel-centered and thus Gospel-driven focus in every area of life and ministry.

From the beginning to end, the entire Christian life is lived by grace through faith in Christ alone. The Christian looks only and always to the Gospel and never to his performance as the basis for his right standing before God.

For more info on PVPC, please visit

Joined up thinking for the New Year

If you don't want to lose your nerve in the face of the postmodern challenges to the Church, and if you don't want to abdicate responsibility for reaching 21st century cultures, then maybe this conference is for you...

So whilst your thinking about New Year's resolutions, why not add one about attending a conference that will clear your thinking on contemporary issues, give you a solid grip on the role of the church in the world, and maybe stir you into right action?

Here's the blurb from the WSC website:

The claim of the emergent/emerging churches to represent a truly "missional" approach to ministry, witness, and evangelism is generating much interest and ink. This conference considers what it means to be Reformed and missional. We start with the conviction that Christ the Lord has established an institution (the church) and has given to it a mission to make disciples of all the nations. Without the church there can be no mission and where there is no mission, there is no church. Tough questions remain and this conference doesn't promise to have all the answers, but we hope to ask right questions about mission and ministry in our pluralistic age.

And the page to visit to find out all the information that you need to know is here.

Speakers include Mike Horton, Robert Godfrey, Scott Clark, Joel Kim, Julius Kim, and that great Welsh export Hywel Jones.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Who is responsible for dealing with false teaching in the church?

At the start of December a small group of us who organise a conference were evaluating comments made on the feedback forms. We had two plenary sessions on 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

Note that Paul, in his summary of the things of first importance, specifies:
  • The historic events: death, burial, resurrection
  • The meaning of those events: Christ died for our sins
  • The authoritative source where the meaning of the events is to be found: the Scriptures
In the first session we were taken to the Old Testament to see how and where penal substitution is explained. The first session was about arriving at a right understanding, an orthodox interpretation, of the death of Christ from Scripture.

In the second session the focus was on right practice, orthopraxy. Paul stresses the transmission of the gospel. It was preached and received. This gospel was the one in which the Corinthians were taking their stand, and by which they were being saved. Look at the exhortation to ongoing orthopraxy, "hold fast."

That exhortation was not given in a vacuum but with the clear and present danger of an attack on the future resurrection of believers in mind. This false theology would destroy the truth of the atoning death and glorious resurrection of Christ. As in Corinth, so today, the exhortation to "hold fast" needs repeating in the face of denials of penal substitution. And in our second conference session some of the threats to penal substitution and the people who are behind them were mentioned.

One of the more intriguing comments on the feedback forms concerned the appropriateness of this emphasis and information for church members. This was felt to be suitable material for church leaders, they would have been the appropriate audience. I beg to differ.

The apostle Paul did not preface his words in 1 Corinthians 15 with a "Now, I speak to those who oversee the church of God." Neither for that matter did he address his concerns about "another gospel" to the elders of the churches in Galatia. Of course there are specific instructions given to Timothy, Titus, and church elders, about their distinct responsibilities in dealing with false teachers. Nevertheless, Christ has seen fit to hold not only officers but the whole church accountable for dealing with error. We cannot draw the conclusion that it is no concern of the congregation.

Charles Hodge deals with this matter with typical clarity:
Most of the apostolic epistles are addressed to churches--that is, the saints or believers of Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia and Philippi. In these epistles the people are assumed to be responsible for the othodoxy of their teachers, and for the purity of church members.

They are required not to believe every spirit; but to try the spirits--to sit in judgment on the question whether those who came to them as religious teachers were really sent of God. The Galatians are severely censured for giving heed to false doctrines, and are called to pronounce even an apostle "anathema" if he preached another gospel.

The command to watch over the orthodoxy of ministers and the purity of members was not addressed exclusively to the clergy, but to the whole Church.
Charles Hodge "What is Presbyterianism?" in A. A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary, p. 407

O to grace how great a debtor

Is orthodoxy an easy thing to arrive at? Are we to congratulate ourselves if we submit to and believe the whole counsel of God? What is the role and significance of grace in accepting and continuing in the truth?

It is because of the grace of God not only that there is a gospel but that this gospel is received for what it truly is. Given that the world by its wisdom does not, and cannot, know God, we are clearly indebted to the grace of God if we have been given to understand, accept, and believe the gospel. It is the grace of God alone, and not our own natural powers, that can keep us from soul destroying errors and keep us satisfied with the truth in Christ. Whenever we reflect on our own belief of the truth we ought to give glory to God.

It is remarkable, and deeply encouraging, that John Owen continues to be read today. Recent reprints like Overcoming Sin and Temptation and Communion With The Triune God (both from Crossway) will do much good, and have been taken up with real enthusiasm (see the discussion here). However, although he ranks as one of the finest pastoral theologians in church history, Owen was also a first class polemicist.

He can not only help us today with how to live the Christian life, but also in the great and necessary work of defending the gospel and prosecuting error. Owen brings his massive learning, a titanic grasp of theology, an incredible knowledge of ancient and contemporary authors and issues, a mind filled with Scripture, the care of a pastor, and the humility of a child, to confront the great dangers that threaten to undermine and overthrow the truths of the gospel. When it came to fighting error he was, quite simply, the elite special forces.

If you have benefitted from his pastoral theology don't neglect his more polemical works. If you do neglect them you will not understand the man, and you will not be trained by a seasoned fighter in the art of godly warfare.

Here is John Owen facing the danger of the rise of Socinianism:
This I am compelled to say, that unless the Lord, in his infinite mercy, lay an awe upon the hearts of men, to keep them in some captivity to the simplicity and mystery of the gospel who now strive every day to exceed one another in novel opinions and philosophical apprehensions of the things of God, I cannot but fear that this soul-destroying abomination will one day break in as a flood upon us.
John Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, p. 42

Friday, December 28, 2007

Another Gospel

When it comes to tribute acts imitation may well be he sincerest form of flattery. When it comes to the gospel imitation is the deadliest form of deception.

Calvin had this to say about Galatians 1:
He calls it another gospel, that is, a gospel different from the true one. And yet the false apostles professed that they preached the gospel of Christ; but, mingling with it their own inventions, by which its principal efficacy was destroyed, they held a false, corrupt, and spurious gospel.

He charges them with the additional crime of doing an injury to Christ, by endeavoring to subvert his gospel. Subversion is an enormous crime. It is worse than corruption. And with good reason does he fasten on them this charge. When the glow of justification is ascribed to another, and a snare is laid for the consciences of men, the Savior no longer occupies his place, and the doctrine of the gospel is utterly ruined.

To know what are the leading points of the gospel, is a matter of unceasing importance. When these are attacked, the gospel is destroyed.

...he declares that the doctrine which he had preached is the only gospel, and that the attempt to set it aside is highly criminal. But then he was aware, the false apostles might object: "We will not yield to you in our desire to maintain the gospel, or in those feelings of respect for it which we are accustomed to cherish." Just as, at the present day, the Papists describe in the strongest terms the sacredness with which they regard the gospel, and kiss the very name with the deepest reverence, and yet, when brought to the trial, are found to persecute fiercely the pure and simple doctrine of the gospel.

Accordingly, Paul does not rest satisfied with this general declaration, but proceeds to define what the gospel is, and what it contains, and declares boldly that his doctrine is the true gospel; so as to resist all further inquiry.
Of what avail was it to profess respect for the gospel, and not to know what it meant?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Facing up to false teaching in the public square

What should be done about dangerous theological errors that are out in the open and freely available through old and new media?

Here are some suggestions:

1. The truths that are under attack should be articulated, once more, with clarity, on their own terms and without misrepresentation.

2. These truths should be given clear Biblical and theological defense.

3. Matters of history and historical theology, relevant to the specific doctrines under debate (true and false), should be put forward.

4. The errors in question ought to be carefully examined and written documents produced showing their demonstrable falsity.

5. Where necessary, depending on the nature and spread of the errors, new boundaries should be drawn up to exclude these errors from churches and Christian organisations.

6. Appropriate materials, in terms of readership, should be produced that promote the truth and prosecute errors. The promotion of truth will finally be the most important aspect of this work. When the names of heretics are barely discernible on their gravestones, the truth will still be alive and well.

7. Whilst it will be necessary to deal with error if it is a clear and present danger, the whole counsel must still be preached, churches planted, and the saints built up. As Calvin said "ministers have two voices, one for the sheep and one for the wolves." The one must not drown out the other.

8. Depending on the nature of the institution (local church, denomination, seminary, parachurch organisation), its agreed constitution, and its confessional commitments, further steps can and should be taken to deal with error.

John Owen was commissioned by the Council of State to refute Socinianism. The result of this was the publication in 1655 of Vindicae Evangelicae or The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined (Works of John Owen, Vol. XII).

The "preface to the reader" is addressed to those that labour in the word and doctrine in England, Scotland and Ireland. Owen defends the public manner of his address by stressing the danger posed by Socinianism:
It is about your great interest and concernment, your whole portion and inheritance, your all, that I am to deal with you.
The errors that Owen takes up and refutes concern the denial of the eternal deity of Christ and the nature of his atoning work (satisfaction by substitution). It is interesting to observe his comments on John Biddle the English Socinian:
The man is a person whom, to my knowledge, I never saw, nor have been at all curious to inquire after the place of his habitation or course of his life...It is not with his person that I have any contest; he stands or falls with his own master.
Public errors required public polemics proportionate to the dangers posed by them. It was the right thing to do to call on Owen to examine and refute these errors. It was also a good thing that Owen set out to deal with the theological issues at hand for the benefit of a wide audience.

How often is it the case that critics are censured for failing to pursue private discussions with those alleged to be in error when those very errors have themselves been promoted in the public square? The logic is somewhat disingenuous. If men will publicly attack inerrancy, justification, penal substitution etc. and make their teaching freely available in books and online materials, their views ought to be critiqued in the same way. Then again false teachers want freedom to promote their ideas and muzzles placed on those who oppose them.

The Defense of Penal Substitution

John Owen stands out as one of the greatest defenders of penal substitutionary atonement in the history of the church. His writings on this are a largely untapped resource that would serve us well as, once more, penal substitution has been subject to a withering assault on exegetical, theological, moral and historical grounds.

It is, however, doubtful whether any of today's deniers of penal substitution could match the malevolent impact made by Faustus Socinus' De Jesu Christo Servatore (written in 1578, published in 1594). The work can be read in Dutch and Latin but has never been translated into English. Packer has the following comment on it in his classic 1973 lecture What did the cross achieve? The logic of penal substitution (if you have never read this brilliant piece it is available here):
What the Reformers did was to redefine satisfactio (satisfaction), the main medieval category for thought about the cross. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?, which largely determined the mediaeval development, saw Christ’s satisfactio for our sins as the offering of compensation or damages for dishonour done, but the Reformers saw it as the undergoing of vicarious punishment (poena) to meet the claims on us of God’s holy law and wrath (i.e. his punitive justice).

What Socinus did was to arraign this idea as irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible. Giving pardon, he argued, does not square with taking satisfaction, nor does the transferring of punishment from the guilty to the innocent square with justice; nor is the temporary death of one a true substitute for the eternal death of many; and a perfect substitutionary satisfaction, could such a thing be, would necessarily confer on us unlimited permission to continue in sin.

Socinus’ alternative account of New Testament soteriology, based on the axiom that God forgives without requiring any satisfaction save the repentance which makes us forgivable, was evasive and unconvincing, and had little influence. But his classic critique proved momentous: it held the attention of all exponents of the Reformation view for more than a century, and created a tradition of rationalistic prejudice against that view which has effectively shaped debate about it right down to our own day.
Many of the arguments put forward by Socinus have resurfaced again and again in history when penal substitution has been under attack. Of Socinus' book Owen said that it was written with the greatest strength, subtilty, and plausibility of all of the productions that came from him and his followers.

Owen's counsel on the defense of the atonement is worth pondering:
I dare boldly acquaint the younger students in these weighty points of the religion of Jesus Christ, that the truth of this one particular, concerning the eternal justice of God indispensably requiring the punishment of sin, being well established...will securely carry them through all the sophisms of their adversaries, and cut all the knots which, with so much subtilty, they endeavour to tie and cast upon the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ.
John Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, p. 28

Of course, put like this, it seems obvious

You are what you read.

At the Heidelblog

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Son on the throne forever

Before this scene could be played on the stage there had to be a script and a cast.

God made a covenant with David, a royal grant, a covenant of unconditional promise. David would have a Son on the throne forever (2 Samuel 7:11-16). As Psalm 89:3-4, 27-29 records:

You said, "I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant,

'I will establish your line forever
and make your throne firm through all generations.' "

I will also appoint him my firstborn,
the most exalted of the kings of the earth.
I will maintain my love to him forever,
and my covenant with him will never fail.

I will establish his line forever,
his throne as long as the heavens endure.

In Matthew 2 it is not just any descendant of David whose birth troubles Herod and Jerusalem, but the birth of the Christ, the one born king of the Jews. How futile Herod's attempts are to destroy the one who would, by covenant promise, reign forever. Even though it appears absurd to oppose God and to fight against his king that is precisely what darkened hearts think they can do...and get away with (Psalm 2).

The script set down in the Old Testament not only spoke of his eternal reign but also of the supporting cast, the nations who would bow down and serve him. Psalm 72:5, 8-11, 15, 17 sets this down for the actors:

He will endure as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, through all generations.

He will rule from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

The desert tribes will bow before him
and his enemies will lick the dust.

The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
will bring tribute to him;
the kings of Sheba and Seba
will present him gifts.

All kings will bow down to him
and all nations will serve him.

Long may he live!
May gold from Sheba be given him.
May people ever pray for him
and bless him all day long.

May his name endure forever;
may it continue as long as the sun.
All nations will be blessed through him,
and they will call him blessed.

Right on cue the Magi arrive. The cameras are rolling and the production is a faithful rendition of what the Author and Director planned from eternity and scripted in salvation history.

Glory be to God that his Son is the hope of the nations and the King of all the earth. Blessed are all who take refuge in him!

Friday, December 21, 2007

CCTC, Christmas and the righteousness of Christ

There are an estimated 4.2m CCTV cameras in the UK. If you are out and about in a busy city centre you may well be viewed around 300 times in a single day. It is staggering to think that your movements and actions are being monitored, viewed, and recorded in this way. It makes it far more difficult to remain unseen in public, even if most of the time we are not conscious of the cameras.

In a crude way this human attempt to gain an omnipresent watchful eye on our behaviour does illustrate that point that life is lived before God. Nothing is hidden before his eyes. There are no secret recesses of thought or imagination free from his gaze. The holy God knows all our thoughts, desires, and actions. Even though we seek to hide them from others, especially in our futile attempts to mask our sinfulness and appear more righteous than we really are, God has total access to us.

The prospect of facing the justice of God for every careless word and action, every sin internally conceived and externally expressed, is too appalling for words. Because of this people will want the rocks and hills to fall on them. Remember, that he will not show favouritism in this regard (Rom. 2:1-12).

But God, to use the Pauline adversative, has total footage of another human life, like ours yet radically unlike it morally. This is not the life of a sinner, marked by corruption in every way. No, this life is marked by total purity. It is so hard for us to imagine, but one has lived free from regret, with an unstained conscience, with no pangs of remorse like ours. A life of complete obedience, of love to God and man. Externally and internally this life was one of holiness, a true life of integrity.

And this life was not lived hidden away in a perfect world, but in a world of pain, mistreatment, provocation and abuse. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived the life of a perfect man. Before God he lived that life for us. By God's grace that life of total obedience and righteousness is counted as ours. By faith alone God grants it to us. The record of our disobedience has not been erased but atoned for. Our need of righteousness has been met by the perfect obedience of Christ. This is what God gives, what he counts, what he reckons to us if we rest and rely on Christ alone.

To save us, the Son of God had to assume our nature. The Heidelberg Catechism expresses this so well:

Q 36. What benefit do you receive from the holy conception and birth of Christ?

That He is our Mediator,[1] and with His innocence and perfect holiness[2] covers, in the sight of God, my sin,[3] wherein I was conceived.[4]

[1] 1 Tim 2:5-6; Heb 2:16-17, 9:13-15; [2] Rom 8:3-4; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 4:4-5; 1 Pt 1:18-19; [3] Ps 32:1; 1 Jn 1:9; [4] Ps 51:5

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Un-inspiring Scripture

Do you think that theological professors live safely above the winds and waves that carry about the immature?

Think again.

Here is Al Mohler on Clark Pinnock's views of Scripture:

Some years earlier, Pinnock had redefined his understanding of Scripture. Theology professors have a good number of choices of Pinnock material to use in teaching the doctrine of Scripture. These include one volume that serves as a wonderful defense of biblical inerrancy (still in print) along with another volume that vitually takes it all back.

According to Pinnock's new understanding of biblical inspiration:
Divine inspiration should not be over-supernaturalized. There is no reason to deny that inspiration is at least in part a perfectly natural response to the need to perpetuate revelation, and that many of the people involved in writing Scripture depended upon the familiar Charisms enjoyed in the believing community even today. I think we have exaggerated the supernaturalness of inspiration.
Where does this leave Clark Pinnock? Too evangelical for the liberal mainline and too liberal for confessional evangelicals, Pinnock bemoans his consignment to a theological "no man's land," while beckoning both sides to join him in what he considers to be the middle ground.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. "Reformist Evangelicalism: A Center Without a Circumference," in Horton [ed.], A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times, p. 141

Where do you learn theology?

D. G. Hart refers to a thought provoking comment by Machen on theological ignorance in the church:

Machen thought that liberalism had spread to such a great extent in the church because of the theological ignorance of the whole church. In his classic book Christianity and Liberalism, he wrote "An outstanding fact of recent church history is the appalling growth of ignorance in the church...The growth of [such] ignorance is the logical and inevitable result of the false notion that Christianity is a life and not a doctrine; if Christianity is not a doctrine then of course teaching is not necessary."
Hart adds:
The church needs not only people with M.Div.'s and M.A.R.'s but, more importantly, people who know and love the catechisms of the various confessional traditions. In fact, one of the reasons why seminary graduates may have such a hard time finding an outlet in the church for what they have learned is that theology has become the exclusive domain of the seminary, with the congregation and home existing as bystanders.

Seminaries don't need more programs. They need more families and churches to do what they are called to do.
From D. G. Hart, "Overcoming the Schizophrenic Character of Theological Education in the Evangelical Tradition" in Michael S. Horton [ed.], A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times, p. 126

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Seeing justfication through the mists of error

It is a terrible thing when the mists of human error shroud the glory of Christ's obedience and blood for sinners.

The truth of justification is ever solid, sure, dependable, an anchor for the soul, the hope of those to whom the gospel has indeed come as good news of great joy.

The doctrine of justification is a different matter. It is subject to the corroding influences of wayward hearts, misrepresentation, reinterpretation, confusion, and misunderstanding. The doctrine, as received by the church, ever stands in need of clear definition, bold proclamation, and the reverent submission of lost souls before God who need to see in this truth the only hope of being able as sinners to stand before his judgment.

It must be preserved from human error and handed down from generation to generation. This is the responsibility that belongs to the church today and concerning which it must prove faithful. As it is handed down it must, by the grace of God, be received not merely in form but in its power, not by the mind only but as it touches the conscience, and with a wholehearted trust in Christ alone.

What the great Princetonian Charles Hodge affirmed in the 1840s must be confessed, believed and preached today, tomorrow, and until the Lord Christ our righteousness returns in glory:
The doctrine of the atonement for which we contend as the distinguishing and essential doctrine of the gospel, is:

1. That sin for its own sake deserves the wrath and curse of God

2. That God is just, immutably determined, from the excellence of his nature, to punish sin

3. That out of his sovereign and infinite love, in order to redeem us from the law, that is, from its demands and curse, he sent his own Son, in the likeness of sinful flesh, who in his own person fulfilled these demands, and endured that curse in our stead. That his righteousness, or merit, thus wrought out, is imputed to every one that believes, to his justification before God.

This is the doctrine of the church catholic, overlaid, corrupted, and made of none effect, in the church of Rome; disembarrassed, reproduced, and exhibited as the doctrine of the Reformation; in manifold forms since opposed or rejected, but ever virtually embraced and trusted in by every sincere child of God.
Quoted in Hart & Muether, Seeking a Better Country, p. 139

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Keep watch for the Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The classic fifties movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a very apt illustration for the way that heresies infiltrate orthodox, bible believing, gospel proclaiming churches and denominations. If you are unfamiliar with the film here's a plot summary from The Internet Movie Database:
Dr Miles Bennel returns to his small town practice to find several of his patients suffering the paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. He is initially sceptical, especially when the alleged dopplegangers are able to answer detailed questions about their victim's life, but he is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened...someone close to them is acting strangely as if they had been replaced.
With a little editorial licence let me adapt a line from the film:
There's no honesty. None. Just the pretense of it. The words, the gesture, the tone of voice, everything else is the same, but not the reality.
Churches are always combating error. There are blatant errors that announce themselves upfront. Invariably these come from outside of the church, one thinks of the arguments of a Richard Dawkins or a Sam Harris, and even though they may pick off a straggler here or there, their impact is negligible.

Within the church there are, at times, periodic flare-ups of aggressive errors. Even so their effect can be halted because the nature of the errors are just too blatant, at least provided that the church constituency that holds such teachers accountable has not itself already drifted. Of course this doesn't mean that considerable harm is not done, but it can mean that the gap between truth and error is much clearer and more obvious. This problem, however, is exacerbated when previously well known and well respected teachers begin to alter their theology in harmful ways.

The overt denial of significant Christian doctrines is never a matter that should be welcomed. Nevertheless, honesty when a man no longer holds to the truths that he once believed and preached is a good thing. Sadly this is not often the way that things turn out. False teachers are rarely willing, in the words of Dylan Thomas, to go "gentle into that good night."

Instead of there being a clear distinction between truth and error there is often a deliberate blurring of the two. As Paul warned the Ephesian elders, even from their own number men would arise speaking twisted things to draw disciples after them (Acts 20:30). The right response to this cloaking of error in the guise of truth is mental alertness. Error will not always be as obvious as we would like it to be. It will hide beneath orthodox words and phrases slowly reconfiguring their meaning and truth conveying reality.

False teachers, amazingly, can cling to the form of words set down in creeds and confessions even when they have departed from the original intended meaning of those words, and as they have been understood and received by churches down through the years. In this they may well be self-deceived as well as deceiving. We wish that it were not so, but we cannot say that we were not warned that we would face error in this way.

Don't expect the danger of an all out attack, like The War of the Worlds, to do the most damage to the church. The blood of the martyrs can still be the seed of the church. Expect the insidious threat of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers to do great harm to the cause of the gospel.

One way to safeguard the church is to use confessions of faith that don't just state the truth in minimalist terms but explain the truth in detail (as long as we remember that confessions of faith are not only there to serve a defensive role). Nevertheless, even elaborate defenses require men who love the truth to maintain them and to take great care that the gospel they love is believed, taught and confessed.

Hart and Muether, in their recent and very fine book Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, have an excellent example of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers:
The minister called to assist Andrews in Philadelphia was a recent immigrant from Northern Ireland, Samuel Hemphill, a man educated at the University of Glasgow and ordained by the Presbytery of Strabane, Ireland, specifically for pastoral work in America. Soon after his arrival in 1734, Andrews and other members of presbytery began to object to Hemphill's preaching. Not only had the influence of Enlightenment philosophy led him to express notions that were clearly Arian and Socinian, but ministers also discovered that Hemphill was plagiarizing his sermons.

The Synod of Philadelphia appointed a commission to investigate the matter, consisting of nine ministers, which included John Thomson and Jonathan Dickinson. Andrews, Hemphill's senior colleague at the Philadelphia congregation, led the charge by bringing six objections against the assistant pastor, which included denials of conversion, the merits of Christ, faith as a work of the Holy Spirit, and justification by faith. For all intents and purposes, Hemphill had been preaching Christianity as the culmination of the religion of nature, something accessible to all people with the exception of the sacraments and Christ's work.

Despite unanimity on Hemphill's errors, the case did raise questions about the effectiveness of creedal subscription as a means of maintaining the purity of the church. After all, the wayward pastor had subscribed to the Westminster Standards when ordained in Northern Ireland. Then when admitted to the Synod of Philadelphia he reassured his future pastoral colleagues that he had no reservations about the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
D. G. Hart & John R. Muether, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, p. 53

Friday, December 14, 2007

More good things to come

A year ago I decided that it would be helpful to interview some senior pastors and seminary professors on the issue of handling truth and error in the church. It would be fair to say that the result has exceeded my expectations.

I'm very grateful for the wise insights from the Word, church history, and practical experience of Geoff Thomas, Derek Thomas, Scott Clark, Carl Trueman, Mike Horton, Mark Dever, Tom Schreiner, Joel Beeke, Tom Ascol, Gary Johnson, Ron Gleason, Guy Waters, Iain D. Campbell, Conrad Mbewe, and Sean Lucas. If you missed any of them then check out the archives from April 2007 onward.

In the New Year I hope to post interviews with Pierced for our Transgressions author, Mike Ovey, Ligon Duncan on the New Perspective and justification, and one with Crossway editor Justin Taylor. After that I will wrap up the series with an interview on the Trinity (truth and errors, old and new) and one on Hell and annihilationism.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Old Testament saints saved by faith in Christ: Turretin on the unity of the covenant of grace

According to Turretin the Socinians, Remonstrants and Anabaptists held that the fathers of the Old Testament were not saved by the gratuitous mercy of God in Christ, the Mediator (God-man, theanthropo) through faith in him about to come.” (5th Q: I).

Turretin grants that there were differences in the administration of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament and the New but that it was the same in substance and essential parts. The issue is one of continuity of content:

Whether the same Mediator (Christ) in both; the same faith in Christ; promises of the same spiritual and heavenly blessings; the same way of reconciliation and salvation—the economy and administration only of the covenant varying. This our opponents deny; we affirm. (5th Q: V)

The question is not whether the fathers of the Old Testament were saved, whether their sins were pardoned, whether they had any hope of eternal life, whether Christ was predicted to them. Most of our adversaries do not dare to deny this. Rather the question is whether they looked to Christ and were saved in the hope of his coming. Whether promises not only temporal, but also spiritual and heavenly concerning eternal life and the Holy Spirit were given to them. And whether the same covenant entered into with us in Christ had already been contracted with them, although more obscurely and reservedly.

We maintain that Christ was not only predicted but also promised to the fathers and by his grace they were saved under the Old Testament no less than we are saved under the New; nor was any name given under heaven from which salvation could be hoped for (Acts 4:12) and that too according to the inviolable promise of the gratuitous covenant. (5th Q: VI)

Here are some extracts from his exposition and defence of the unity of the covenant of grace:

It is also falsely alleged that the words “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) refer only to the time in which Christ was manifested and cannot be extended to the past.

...since no salvation can be granted to the sinner without a mediator (and there is no mediator except Christ), it follows either that the fathers had no salvation or that they were saved by Christ. (5th Q: XII)

Peter testifies, “To Christ give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). Nor can it be objected that the faith of the ancients was general in God, not special in Christ (the Saviour), because the opposite is evident from many considerations.

(a) No faith can be saving unless founded upon Christ.

(b) He speaks of the faith by which they looked to God as their God (Heb. 11:16) and to heaven as their native country. Now this cannot be done without Christ.

(c) Of the faith by which they looked to Christ himself and preferred his reproach to all treasures (Heb. 11:26). (d) Not only a general but also a special command of faith in Christ is found in the Old Testament (Exod. 23:20-21; Deut. 18:18; Ps. 2:12; Is. 53:1, 5). If the faith of the ancients were not the same as ours, it would be improperly proposed for our imitation (Heb. 12:1, 2; Rom. 4:12). Paul could not argue with sufficient strength from the faith of the father of believers and his justification to ours (Gal. 3:6, 7; Rom. 4:16). (5th Q: XIV)

It cannot be objected:

(1) as to the promises concerning Christ in the Old Testament that they were indeed given to the fathers, but not for the fathers; rather for the believers of the New Testament, as the promises of the calling of the Gentiles were given to the ancients, but only for the time of the New Testament.

(a) It is absurd that the prophets should have given such promises to believers and that believers heard them and did not apply them to themselves. For they were oppressed by the same evils as others for whom they are supposed to have been made and equally in need of the same remedy. Since they were sent to the ancient people in order to sustain them in the hope of the Messiah about to come and of the salvation to be obtained through him, who does not see that such promises were given to the fathers for their consolation?
(b) The promises belonged to them in the same manner as the adoption, glory, the covenants, the giving of the law and the service of God (Rom. 9:4)

(c) If the promises did not pertain to them, they could not and ought not to have applied them to themselves, as was done by Abraham (Gen. 15:6), who also was justified in this way (Rom. 4:4); by Jacob (Gen. 49:18); by David (Pss. 16, 23, 40, 110, 118 and frequently elsewhere); by Isaiah (Is. 9:6-- “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”) and by the whole Israelite church (Is. 53:11). (5th Q: XVI)

Faith, knowledge and Christ

What is the relationship between doctrines and theological concepts and knowing God?

From time to time the knowledge of orthodox doctrine for salvation is criticized along the lines of "we are not justified by knowing about justification," or "we are not saved by right ideas." We are saved by Christ not doctrine. And stated like that who could disagree?

But this is a criticism that should not get a free pass. It is not the trump card that it is alleged to be.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the object of saving faith. But the Christ who saves us is never an "uninterpreted Christ." He is either rightly interpreted or wrongly interpreted.

How can he be the object of saving faith unless we know things about who he is and what he accomplished? A false faith would be faith placed in a wrongly interpreted Christ. Isn't that Paul's point about the super apostles in 2 Corinthians 11? They preached “another Jesus.” By a rightly “interpreted Christ” I mean that the Christ of the Bible and the apostles' proclamation is never separated for faith from what God has said about him (his person and his work).

Take away God's interpretation of Christ from our experience of him and you are left with either a mystical Christ, of whom we know nothing and whose name serves merely as a religious word, or a false Christ (and there are many in history who have fitted this description). Detach right ideas from Christ and his work and you are left either with nothing, or with a false Christ. There is no uninterpreted Christ. We need God's explanation of him in order for us to call on him.

When the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 records the apostolic testimony about the gospel that was universally proclaimed and believed, he stresses that this is the authorized interpretation of Christ. He gives the facts. That Christ died, was buried and was raised on the third day. He gives the meaning of those facts. That Christ died for our sins, and that without his resurrection from the dead we would still be in our sins. And he tells us where that meaning is authoritatively interpreted for us . Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. There simply is no other Jesus than this one. And since that is the case what we may say about him in the gospel is non-negotiable. It cannot and must not change. It is certainly not amenable to the whims of human thought and cultural adaptation.

And isn't that Paul's point in Romans 10?

Bavinck put it this way:

"Scripture does not give us data to interpret; it is itself the interpretation of reality, the shaper of a distinctive worldview."
Bavinck, Prolegomena, p. 354

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Heresy tastes like Turkish Delight

Heresy is attractive, deeply attractive. It is the truth we all want in the way we all want it. Heresy appears to allow us to have God, Jesus, and a gospel to tell that is really good news. Inevitably heresy comes loaded with gifts, benefits and selling points, and without costs, drawbacks, or small print. People who teach heresy don't present it as anything other than gospel truth. We should not underestimate the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in granting us to accept and believe the gospel and to submit to the authority of Scripture. Without his work whether we embrace atheism or heresy we will still not accept the things of God and come to a knowledge of the truth.
There are two obvious points of application from this:

1. We should never be satisfied with the sound of well known words and phrases. We need to be satisfied that the meaning of those words are filled with biblical content and established historic (confessional) use. It is all well and good hearing that someone believes in the substitutionary nature of the atonement and justification by faith, but history is littered with examples of teachers who meant by those terms quite different ideas. Orthodox words are the passports of heretics that enable them to move freely, and without suspicion, among churches.

2. We should never be so naive as to think that false teachers wear disguises as authentic as a Groucho Marx "spectacles-nose-moustache" combo. False teaching never seeks to pass itself off as false teaching but as orthodox, sound, biblical, authentic, gospel truth. It is amazing that preachers can change their theology quite radically and yet in the same breath say that they have always believed the gospel. The less convincing the disguise the more likely it will be that a reaction will be caused, a controversy flare up, and maybe the progress of error will start to slow down.

Just like that little boy Edmund who got into so much trouble because of the taste of Turkish Delight we too are prone to theological temptations that are coated in sugar. But of course, like Edmund, we ought to recognise that the problem too is in our own sinful desires that heresies simply pander to. After all the serpent has told us that we can be like God knowing good and evil.

Covenant confusion and clarity

More from Horton's Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ:
To embrace covenantal nomism as an appropriate system for the national covenant of Israel is, I have argued, properly to intepret the old covenant history. However, to embrace it as an appropriate system for answering the question as to how an individual is rightly related to God remains, as it has always been, a confusion of Abraham with Moses, which Paul relates as a confusion of Sarah with Hagar, freedom with bondage, Sinai with Zion, and law with gospel.

To put it differently, it is appropriate to treat the earthly promises (land, temple, kingdom) as conditioned upon the covenant people's personal obedience to the law, but fatal in Paul's view to treat the heavenly promises (the new creation, Christ, and his everlasting Davidic reign) as conditioned on the obedience of anyone other than Christ himself.

It is certainly wrong to characterize Judaism as mere legalism, much less the Old Testament as a religion of works-righteousness, but it is just as wrong from a Christian perspective to characterize synergism (covenantal nomism) as a legitimate description of the covenant of grace when it is as obvious from the Hebrew narratives as it is from their New Testament interpretation that the Abrahamic inheritance comes by grace apart from works, by promise apart from law.

Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, p. 50-1

Monday, December 10, 2007

Speaking of justification

We can talk about what it means to be right before God in sophisticated and unsophisticated ways, using technical theological terms or street level explanations.

In part of course this depends on who we are talking to, or writing for, and how well the terms being used are understood. Gone are the days of theological literacy among evangelicals where terms like "imputation," "justification" and "active obedience" were well understood. Granted, at some point we all had to learn them, and we shouldn't feel bad, or be made to feel bad, about our ignorance of the meaning of specific terms. My point is not about whether we were taught them as children or adults, but that these words were clearly inscribed on the coinage of the evangelical realm. Evangelicalism has, however, worn down these definitions and has either not bothered to mint new ones with the same inscription (through neglect) or accepted alternative currencies. To change the image, there has been a deforrestation of well understood and well used theological words for some time among evangelicals.

Along with this has come a failure to distinguish not only what was at stake in major historic debates but even what the debates themselves were really about. What were the Reformers reacting against? Well, we might say it was justification by works. The Reformers taught that justification was by grace and the Medieval Roman Catholic church taught that it was by works. If we think those were the terms of the debate we would be wrong. Rome did not exclude grace from salvation, or justification. In fact for Rome grace preceded works.

Being muddled about historic debates may not ordinarily be a costly thing, but in theology it can be. Instead of seeing three distinct, and mutually exclusive, positions on grace and works we could end up thinking that there are only two. The three can be summed up with the following anthems and explanations:

1. "We can do it, yes we can!" Pelagianism. Justification by works. If we are to be right with God then we will do it by raw, unassisted, obedience to law. Keep God's commands and you will be righteous in his sight and have eternal life.

"God helps those who help themselves." Semi-Pelagianism. Justification by works assisted by grace. If we are to be right with God then this cannot happen apart from God's grace. Grace is essential to salvation, and grace works in us (and we work by grace) in order that we might be justified. God will not withold his grace to those who do what lies within them.

3. "My friend will pay." Reformation theology. Justification by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone. We are not justified on the basis of our works, assisted by God or done out of raw human effort. We are justified through faith on account of the work of Christ, by his obedience and satisfaction. This is counted as ours and received by faith resting and relying on Christ.

If we imagine that the Reformation was about the conflict between views 1) and 3) we will certainly think that the Reformation is over and that there is no barrier to Christian unity today as evangelicals and the Roman Catholic church both teach that we are right with God because of his grace. Added this is the temptation to conflate the covenants so that there is no difference between their principles (grace and works, law and promise, "do this and live" and "it is finished"). What you then end up with is a distinction between initial and final justifcation that looks like 2) and is not represented by 3).

All of this is relevant for the current controversies about justification. Mike Horton has done a stellar job on this in his latest book Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ. Here are some more extracts:

On the New Perspectives, covenantal nomism, and the Reformation:
The attempt to exonerate Judaism from works-righteousness does not succeed, from a Reformation perspective, simply by showing that it is not Pelagian, since medieval theology was clearly not Pelagian either. (p. 40)

The position that Sanders has thus far described is remarkably similar to the position of the late medieval nominalism in which Luther was schooled and which he strenously rejected...According to this theology, no one deserves salvation in any strict sense, but God has decreed a covenant according to which those who do their best (assisted by grace) will attain final justification as if they had merited it.

Indeed "getting in by grace and staying in by obedience" admirably summarizes the covenantal nomism of the medieval system as it evolved especially in nominalism and become officially sanctioned at Trent. Baptism, the first justification, was by grace alone (an infusion of grace that wiped away original sin and filled the passive recipient with a transformed habitus), followed by various sacramental resources for co-operating grace, which (hopefully) would lead to final justification in the life to come.

Paul F.M. Zahl's comment is exactly right: "E.P. Sanders mistakes the 'semi-Pelagianism' of Second Temple Judaism for 'Pelagianism' and thus misunderstands Luther's critique of the Roman Catholic Church as well as Luther's grasp of Paul." (p. 41-2).

There is no "view from nowhere," even for biblical scholars, and the vista from which the NPP assays the horizon of Paul and Palestinian Judaism is well defined as covenantal nomism. It is a synergistic perspective that, for all of the important differences, unites Judaism, the medieval theology codified at Trent, and includes myriad Protestant attempts in the modern era all the way to the present moment. (p. 49).

Friday, December 07, 2007

Law & Gospel: Are we clear about the covenants?

Confusing law and gospel leads to soul destroying theological error. There is, however, no confusion in Scripture about this. The distinction is there in the text, it can be arrived at exegetically. Reformed theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not invent two systematic categories called the "covenant of works" and the "covenant of grace" and impose them on Scripture. No, as they looked at the texts that spoke of God's covenants they saw two different types of covenant. Horton helpfully summarizes it this way:

The deepest distinction in Scripture is not between the Old and New Testaments, but between the covenants of law and the covenants of promise that run throughout both.

The two covenant traditions are distinguished both in form and content. There is a covenant of law (the prelapsarian covenant with humanity in Adam as well as the Sinai covenant), according to which each and every person swears to personally fulfill the stipulations.

There is also a covenant of promise (including the promise made to Adam and Eve after the fall, to Abraham and Sarah, Noah, David, and the new covenant), according to which God swears to bring redemption through the promised heir (seed).

These two covenants traditionally are united by many bonds, yet always remain distinguished. As we will see, they come into sharp contrast only when the question is raised as to the justification of the ungodly.

Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, p. 17-18

Full of promise

I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of this book, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ by Michael Horton. It is the third part of a four volume project on covenant theology.

The book interacts with the New Perspectives on Paul, Radical Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the New Finnish Perspective.

Here's a taster:

Modern biblical scholarship has frequently shown itself equally capable of offering a central dogma from which all exegesis is deduced. In the NPP, this thesis can be covenantal nomism, Israel's exile and restoration, or Gentile inclusion. So the question is not systematic theology versus mere exegesis, but a matter of evaluating different accounts of the coherent patterns that we find in Scripture. (p. 5)

Biblical scholarship no less than systematic theology can engage in central dogma deductivism. (p. 6) was precisely from classic covenant or "federal" theology that many Christians recognized the redemptive-historical and eschatological character of revelation long before the advent of the New Perspective.

Barth's criticism of this covenant theology of the Reformed scholastics was not that it reduced the historia salutis to "timeless truths" as Wright suggests, but the very opposite; namely, that it represented "a theological historicism"...For these older theologians, as for Paul, the question is not whether to place justification in its covenantal, eschatological, and historical context. The real difference between classic covenant theology and its newer rivals is the actual content, not the field of horizon. (p. 7)

Simply to endorse the importance of this theme or to advocate covenant theology does not necessarily specify its content. When N.T. Wright, for example, champions "covenant theology," he sharply distinguishes his account from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century versions. Nevertheless, elsewhere Wright concedes, "Like many New Testament scholars, I am largely ignorant of the Pauline exegesis of all but a few of the fathers and the reformers. The Middle Ages, and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had plenty to say about Paul, but I have not read it." Classic covenant theology has therefore been, in my view, too lightly dismissed without serious firsthand evaluation. (p. 11-12).

The burden of this chapter [Sinai and Zion: Two Covenants] is to demonstrate that the basic lines of thought that underwrite the distinction between law and gospel and the specific types of covenant advocated in confessional Reformed theology can be sustained on exegetical grounds. (p. 12)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Interview with Sean Michael Lucas and free online lectures

Next week I will be posting an interview with Sean Michael Lucas, assistant professor of church history at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis. The seminary have made a number of courses available online for free with MP3s, transcripts, and lecture handouts. You can listen to David Calhoun on Ancient and Medieval Church History, or Reformation and Modern Church History. There is also Robert Peterson on Humanity, Christ and Redemption, and Spirit, Church and Last Things.

Here are some of the questions that I put to Sean:

What are the signs of spiritual and theological decline in a

Why do confessional denominations requiring subscription become
infected with error and change theologically?

Is there greater danger from openly, and aggressively, unorthodox
preachers in a denomination or from the people who want to keep
organisational unity?

Many evangelicals take a minimalist view of doctrinal statements.
What are the benefits of making use of a fuller confession?

Nevertheless fuller confessions don't prevent false teachers from
arising within and infiltrating churches. Why is this?

The lectures from Covenant Theological Seminary are available as part of Covenant Worldwide. The page to visit is here, and here is the purpose behind it:

Covenant Worldwide's mission is to provide ready access to grace-centered, high-quality theological training by minimizing the barriers of distance, cost, and language. This mission recognizes our part in stewarding the resources of theological education to the Church, which is growing most rapidly in areas of the world where ministry training is often least available.

Our hope and prayer is that no matter where God has stationed you in His Kingdom or how He has gifted you to serve, you will find that these resources encourage, strengthen, and equip your ministry and Christian walk.

Covenant Worldwide:

  • Offers free downloads of Covenant Theological Seminary courseware and study guide materials.
  • Encourages the sharing and distribution of its material for non-commercial purposes in order to serve and equip God's people throughout the world.

The courseware posted on this site comprises an assortment of classes from Covenant Seminary's master's degree programs. Their selection is designed to provide a broad, foundational knowledge of the Scriptures as well as guidance for engaging a variety of ministry contexts through the study of church history, doctrine and practice.

You may download, use and share courseware at no charge for non-commercial purposes. Lectures are in MP3 format, and study guides are available as PDFs. The lectures are currently available in English but are being transcribed to facilitate the translation of these materials into multiple languages.