Monday, July 28, 2008

Approaching justification

How should we study the doctrine of justification?

With full recongition of the holiness and justice of God, of our own guilt and inability to be justified by our own works, and with the sure hope that in Christ God has provided a perfect righteousness and a full atonement for sin. We need the clear knowledge that by faith alone, resting and relying on Christ alone, God will freely pardon all our sins and accept us as righteous in his sight.

Any other approach to this great subject, any pathway that reflects an academic detachment, or that places the stress on our own ability, is spiritually disastrous.

How should we study justification?

On our knees. But with our eyes lifted away from ourselves and toward Christ.

Herman Bavinck puts it so well:

To correctly assess the benefit of justification, people must lift up their minds to the judgment seat of God and put themselves in his presence.

When they compare themselves with others or measure themselves by the standard that they apply to themselves or among each other, they have some reason perhaps to pride themselves in something and to put their trust in it.

But when they put themselves before the face of God and examine themselves in the mirror of his holy law, all their conceit collapses, all self-confidence melts, and there is room left only for the prayer: "Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you" (Job 4:17-29; 9:2; 15:14-16; Ps. 143:2; cf. 130:3), and their only comfort is that "there is forgiveness before you, so that you may be revered" (Ps. 130:4).

If for insignificant, guilty, and impure persons there is to be a possibility of true religion, that is, of genuine fellowship with God, of salvation and eternal life, then God on his part must reestablish the broken bond, again take them into fellowship with him and share his grace with them, regardless of their guilt and corruption.

He, then, must descend from the height of his majesty, seek us out and come to us, take away our guilt and again open the way to his fatherly heart. If God were to wait until we--by our faith, our virtues, and good works of congruity or condignity--had made ourselves worthy, in part or in whole, to receive his favour, the restoration of communion between him and ourselves would never happen, and salvation would forever be out of reach for us.

This is why so much depends on the benefit of justification, and it is rightly denominated the article on which the church either stands or falls. For the fundamental question that arises in this connection is this: What is the way that leads to communion with God, to true religion, to salvation and eternal life: God's grace or human merit, his forgiveness or our works, gospel or law, the covenant of grace or the covenant of works?

If it is the latter, if our work, our virtue, our sanctification is primary, then the believer's consolation ends, and they remain in doubt and uncertainty to their last breath. Then Christ is violated in his unique, all-encompassing, and all-sufficient mediatorial office, and he himself is put on a level with other humans, with ourselves. Then God is robbed of his honor, for, if humans are justified on the basis of their works, they have reason to boast of themselves and are, partly or totally, the craftsmen of their own salvation.

Herman Bavinck, RD Vol. 4, p. 204-5

Forgiveness is not natural

Here is Bavinck on justification:

" it we understand that gracious judicial act of God by which he acquits humans of all the guilt and punishment of sin and confers on them the right to eternal life.

Certainly there can be no peace of mind and conscience, no joy in one's heart, no buoyant moral activity, or a blessed life and death, before the guilt of sin is removed, all fear of punishment has been completely eradicated, and the certainty of eternal life in communion with God fills one's consciousness with its consolation and power.

But this benefit--the complete forgiveness of sin--is so immense that the natural human intellect cannot grasp and believe it."

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation, p. 179

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reflections on pastoral ministry

My friend David Strain is about to take up a pastorate in the US. As the Strain family prepare to leave these shores David has written the following reflections. They are both honest and searching, and I found them a really valuable read. I hope that you benefit from them too:

So after almost five years of life and ministry in London my family and I have departed London City Presbyterian Church, for a short time of vacation with family in Scotland before moving on to serve at Main Street Presbyterian Church in Columbus Mississippi.

Here are some lessons I hope I have begun to learn through my time in London:

1. In ministry in a local church, always prioritise spiritual change over structural or organisational change. Without the former who can bear the latter?

2. The gospel really is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. Ministers can’t save anyone. Grasping this truth is the only thing that keeps me climbing the pulpit steps.

3. Churches turn corners spiritually when they pray together. If they don’t, generally speaking, they won’t.

4. Ministry never clashes with family time unless ministers let it. It is vital to keep on plugging away at getting the balance right.

5. In Britain in general, and in the Free Church of Scotland in particular, we suffer from ADD (Affirmation Deficit Disorder). I hope that it has been good for my pride to serve in a context where affirmation does not come easily.

6. While single sermons can have great power to effect change, nothing compares to the drip feed effect of sustained exposure to the teaching of whole books of scripture over a period of years. A huge change in my thinking after 5 years in London has been to expect, as the ordinary pattern, incremental spiritual growth in people through a steady diet of gospel truth over the long haul, rather than cataclysmic life transformation through a single sermon.

7. Being a pastor is not an inoculation against spiritual decline in my own soul.

8. It is vital that I guard against becoming a sermon factory, churning out a manuscript in time for the Sunday deadline. The nurture of my own soul is almost as important to the welfare of my family and my flock as it is to myself.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Peter Enns leaves Westminster Theological Seminary

The administration and Prof. Peter Enns wish to announce that they have arrived at mutually agreeable terms, and that, as of 31 July, 2008, Prof. Enns will discontinue his service to Westminster Theological Seminary after fourteen years.

The administration wishes to acknowledge the valued role Prof. Enns has played in the life of the institution, and that his teaching and writings fall within the purview of Evangelical thought. The Seminary wishes Prof. Enns well in his future endeavors to serve the Lord.

Prof. Enns wishes to acknowledge that the leaders of the Seminary (administration and board) are charged with the responsibility of leading the seminary in ways that are deemed most faithful to the institution’s mission as a confessional Reformed Seminary.

Prof. Enns expresses his deep and sincere gratitude to the Lord for his education and years of service at Westminster Theological Seminary.

(HT: Green Baggins)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Global ministries and the local church (1)

The speed and ease with which teaching is placed in the public domain creates particular challenges for Christians and local churches.

International ministries are not a new phenomenon (one thinks here of the distribution of Spurgeon's sermons), but technological advances do mean that we are able to access the preaching of the most prominent church leaders across the globe with an astonishing ability. Within our grasp are world class resources, and incredible buffet of Bible teaching. Time and space are transcended by technology.

But with this ability comes great responsibility. I don't think that I need to accent the benefical aspects of this profusion of riches that technology has brought within our reach. What ought to concern us is the wise use of these means, and how they relate to the primary means that God has given us for our growth in grace, the ministry and fellowship of the local church.

My guess is that our internal spiritual life is on the way to being reshaped by the availability of web based materials. The benefits seem obvious to us, the costs, however, are considerably more hidden.

Downloadable sermons remove the necessity of making the preaching ministry of the local church essential in Christian growth. If I so wish I can listen to the weekly preaching of a considerable number of preachers. Is this a good thing? Well the sheer riches of expository preaching on offer ought to do me a lot of good. However, should I not remind myself that on the whole I'm listening to this as a detached individual?

I don't mean by that a detachment from the desire to believe and obey the truth, I mean a detachment from the local church. I can easily listen to the preaching of the Word of God outside of the context of a congregation, a real life group of people at all sorts of levels of knowledge and maturity, with whom I am bound up in God's sight.

Preaching is a corporate act. Going to church is not like a trip to the movie theatre where I can listen in as an individual with no meaningful connection to the people around me.

God adresses his gathered people through his Word. We listen as he speaks to us of his covenant of grace. He takes us as his people, binds us to himself as "our God," renews us, and sends us out as his servants in the world.

There is an obligation to hear the Word, respond to the Word, and to apply the Word together, that downloadable preaching cannot even begin to touch. It actually fails miserably at this point, because it can never do what the ministry of the local church, ordained by God, is designed to do.

Am I making downloadable sermons the primary means of my growth to the neglect of listening to, believing and obeying, God's Word together with his assembled people? Am I dishonouring God and his church through bypassing the ministry of the local church in my pursuit of maturity?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Some current theological trends

At the end of August I'm giving an evening lecture on "Current Theological Trends" to a group of part time ministerial students. I have been asked to deal with the doctrine of Scripture, with particular reference to Peter Enns and Andrew McGowan, and the Federal Vision.

Whilst there is a wealth of material available on both subjects I would be interested in hearing from anyone engaging with these issues on the ground. Best to use the email address in the righthand sidebar.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A sympathetic and merciful High Priest

When we are tempted dark thoughts come to us about how God views ours temptations. We might begin to imagination that he despises our weakness ("surely if I was a strong Christian I wouldn't have these thoughts"). Or we might think that he is angry with us. We probably are troubled by the thought that he is distant and aloof, that somehow his help is far away.

These thoughts, however real they seem, are in fact a lie. Our Father reassures us that the Son of his love, whom he appointed as our Saviour, is able to help us when we are tempted.

Christ has been set apart and sent to be a merciful and faithful high priest. He has made atonement for our sins, removing the condemnation that we rightly deserve. Not only is this so, but he also knows what it is like to be tempted (see Hebrews 2:17-18).

It is not too much to say that he is full of sympathy for his tempted people. He knew the pressure of temptation in a way that we will never know.

I once watched the effects of the storm tossed waves as they battered the sea wall at Scarborough. At one point the wall had given way due to the relentless force of the waves. Sadly that is our experience under the force of temptation. We give way to the pressure, wave after wave of it, and sin against our Lord. Christ, however, knew the pressure of temptation to a degree that we will never know. Unlike us he never gave way, never gave in, never collapsed under the force of temptation. But he knew the power of temptation crashing against his soul.

As strange as it may seem, this sinless Son of God is the only one who can truly help us under the weight and power of temptation. He is filled with sympathy and mercy toward us, and he can help us (see Hebrews 4:14-16). When we do sin we need to know that he intercedes for us (1 John 2:1-2).

We should go to him, and we should pour out our hearts before him. Will you do so when you are tempted?

We are at times afraid of others knowing about the temptations that face us. We are afraid of what they will think of us, and of how they will regard us, we feel so ashamed. Don't be afraid to go to Jesus Christ. He is more holy than you can possibly imagine, and yet he is more merciful than your mind can take in. Know that God appointed him for you. Know that he is sympathetic, merciful, faithful, and able to save to the uttermost all who come to God through him because he ever lives to make intercession (Hebrews 7:25).

You can't deal with temptation, but he can help you. You can't deal with your sin, but he can by his death. Come to Jesus Christ.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Approaching God

The litmus test of our understanding and application of the gospel is in our approach to God. It is only at this point that our true conception of the divine majesty and holiness, our own depravity and uncleanness, of God's justice in condemning our sin and the sole sufficiency of Christ's work to save us, is revealed.

A diminished view of any of these truths, along with a diminished effect of them upon our souls, will leave us satisified to approach God on other terms than those of his gospel of free grace in Christ alone.

How we actually answer the following questions reveals a lot about our grasp of the gospel. What do I believe is necessary for God to receive me? For God to hear me? For God to accept me?

Stated positively, only the obedience and blood of Christ, the perfect sacrifice of himself in our place, can satisfy the demands of divine justice and reconcile us to God. Because of his perfect and sufficient sacrifice for sin (which we benefit from by resting and relying on Christ alone), we are assured that all our sins and lawless deeds God will remember no more. Through Christ we have continual access to God, and may approach him with boldness and confidence, with full assurance of faith.

Stated negatively:

1. Moralism of any kind can never be the right way for sinners like us to approach a holy God. No acts of atonement that we make, no prayers or offerings, no repentance, can remove the guilt of our sin and reconcile us to God. It is Christ's sacrifice alone that brings us continually to God. In the words of the hymn "my guilty conscience seeks no sacrifice beside/his powerful blood did once atone and now it pleads before the throne"

2. Heightened emotional states are no safe basis for access to God. Music can have a powerful effect on our emotions, but it cannot form any part of our understanding of how we may draw near to God. Loose language about entering God's presence at this point is deadly. It makes us look to the acts of sinners in conveying the divine presence. If churches only understood the book of Hebrews and how it teaches us to draw near to God I'm sure that these errors would be swept away.

3. Mysticism is also a rival to the high priestly finished work of Christ for us. Mystical experiences are not to form the basis of our approach to God. In this way as techniques are offered for how to pray, the focus falls upon us and our actions and not upon Christ and his work.

The dangers of moralism, emotionalism, and mysticism, vie for our allegiance as the means by which we will approach God. They will always be more attractive and plausible to us in proportion to our own experiential grasp of Christ's person and work. To the extent that God has exposed to us our true moral guilt before him, and our utter inability to deal with our own sin, we will turn away from all human acts of morality, religion, techniques, feelings, music and mystical experiences as in anyway able to help us. Our only hope will be in Christ our great high priest, and in him we will find a refuge to make our hearts truly rejoice.

Essential Listening: American Pelagianism

Grab a coffee and listen to the latest program from The White Horse Inn.

Richard Baxter's guide to the reading of a book (or a blog)

When reading ask onself:

1. Could I spend this time no better?

2. Are there better books/blogs that would edify me more?

3. Are the lovers of such a book/blog as this the greatest lovers of the Book of God and of a holy life?

4. Does this book/blog increase my love to the Word of God, kill my sin, and prepare me for the life to come?

[From the Banner of Truth Magazine, July 1958]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism by Greg Beale

This new book by Greg Beale caught my eye. Published by Crossway, it will be available in late November and weighs in at 256 pages. Here's the blurb from Amazon:

Examines recent postmodern efforts to redefine the traditional evangelical view of scriptural authority and counters with sound logic that resoundingly supports inerrancy.

Due to recent popular challenges to evangelical doctrine, biblical inerrancy is a topic receiving an increasing amount of attention among theologians and other scholars. Here G. K. Beale vigorously and even-handedly examines the writings of one leading postmodernist, Peter Enns, whose writings challenge biblical authority. In resounding support of inerrancy, Beale presents his own set of formidable challenges to the postmodern suppositions of Enns and others, citing contradictions, dichotomies, oversights, and faulty reasoning.

This book repeatedly demonstrates the implausibility of compromise or striking a balance in the matter of inerrancy—not merely as a debate between academics, but as an issue that affects the entire body of Christ. How can the Bible be historically inaccurate while still serving as the authoritative word on morality and salvation? Beale concludes that it cannot, and his work will aid all who support biblical inerrancy in defending their position against postmodern attacks.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Christ's intercession for us

I'm preaching a short series of evening sermons on Christ as Prophet, Priest and King.

Whilst preaching last night on "Christ our High Priest" I read the following words by Louis Berkhof:
It is a consoling thought that Christ is praying for us, even when we are negligent in our prayer life; that He is presenting to the Father those spiritual needs which were not present to our minds and which we often neglect to include in our prayers; and that He prays for our protection against the dangers of which we are not even conscious, and against the enemies which threaten us, though we do not notice it. He is praying that our faith may not cease, and that we may come out victoriously in the end.
Perhaps this is a dimension of Christ's priestly work that we think of too little. And yet to know that he loves us so much and cares for us so well is simply beyond comprehension, and words seem so inadequate to express our thankfulness for such a great Saviour. The Belgic Confession, Article 26, captures something of the wonder of the Christian heart as it contemplates the intercession of Christ:
We believe that we have no access to God except through the one and only Mediator and Intercessor: Jesus Christ the Righteous.

He therefore was made man, uniting together the divine and human natures, so that we human beings might have access to the divine Majesty. Otherwise we would have no access.

But this Mediator, whom the Father has appointed between himself and us, ought not terrify us by his greatness, so that we have to look for another one, according to our fancy. For neither in heaven nor among the creatures on earth is there anyone who loves us more than Jesus Christ does.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

John Murray on necessary inerrancy

In reading John Murray's article "Inspiration and Inerrancy" (Collected Writings of John Murray 4: Studies in Theology, p. 25) I came across a helpful rejoinder to a recent criticism over the presumptive nature of inerrancy. Here's the criticism (from The Divine Spiration of Scripture):
The basic error of the inerrantists is to insist that the inerrancy of the autographa is a direct implication of the biblical doctrine of inspiration (or divine spiration). In order to defend this implication, the inerrantists make an unwarranted assumption about God. The assumption is that, given the nature and character of God, the only kind of Scripture he could 'breathe out' was Scripture that is textually inerrant. If there was even one mistake in the autographa, then God cannot have been the author, because he is incapable of error.

Notice, the argument is not that God, being all powerful, is able to deliver a perfectly autographic text. On that matter there is no disagreement between us, since I am happy to affirm God's sovereign power. Rather the argument of the inerrantists is that God is unable to produce anything other than an inerrant autographic text. In other words, I agree with the inerrantists that God could have brought into being inerrant autographic texts, had he chosen to do so, but I reject their argument that he must have acted in this way. (p. 113-4)

Perhaps the most striking problem with the rationalistic implication concerning inerrancy is that it limits God. It assumes that God can only act in a way that conforms to our expectations, based on our human assessment of his character. It assumes that whatever God does must conform to the canons of human reason...In opposition to these inerrantist assumptions, we must surely argue that God is free to act according to his will. (p. 118)
And here is John Murray's analysis of the issue:
To predicate verbal inspiration and infallibility of the Scripture is the same as to speak of its inerrancy. Something cannot be infallible if it contains error of judgement or representation.

We are not to suppose that some syllogism as the following:

God's Word is inerrant
The Bible is God's Word
Therefore the Bible is inerrant

is necessarily a priori and arbitrary, or that it involves our imposing upon Scripture preconceived canons and determines beforehand what is possible or impossible for God. The syllogism is based upon certain presuppositions which are derived from the Scripture, respecting God, the Bible, and God's Word. The fundamental presupposition of the syllogism is that God is truth and that he cannot lie. Who is to say that such a great tenet is arbitrarily a priori?

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Calvin 500 Blog

Yesterday marked John Calvin's 499th birthday. Thanks to Scott Clark for the head's up on the Calvin 500 blog. The photo is from a trip to Geneva back in 2005.

So next year is Calvin's 500th. It will also mark 400 years since the death of Arminius and the Latin publication of the Racovian Catechism, that poisonous publication of the Socinians.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Life of B. B. Warfield

More from the Riddleblog here. My friend Jeff Waddington sent me this picture of Warfield's handwritten graduation address from 1914.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Bible Overview

My friend Steve Levy has written a Bible Overview that will be published by Christian Focus this September. Details are here. You can pre-order at Amazon (UK) here.

Here are some commendations:

"That it is well written and easy to read is good for starters; but the heart of the situation is the sheer happiness of meeting someone who is so in love with the bible, so sensible in his approach..."

Richard Bewes

"That it is well written and easy to read is good for starters; but the heart of the situation is the sheer happiness of meeting someone who is so in love with the bible, so sensible in his approach..."

Alec Motyer

"My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will use this lively and stimulating book by Steve Levy to remove the veil from many minds."

Stuart Olyott

"Steve has a fever for the Bible and is desperate to infect you! Let him."

Dale Ralph Davis

Ligon Duncan on Covenant theology

I'd just like to recommend Ligon Duncan's two sessions on covenant theology over at Sermon Audio. Really helpful on lots of levels and a good place to start if covenant theology is somewhat new to you.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Themelios is back

Good to see that the theological journal Themelios is no longer in suspended animation. The iPaper version is available here. Themelios is now under the general editorship of Don Carson, and is under the banner of the Gospel Coalition.

The journal was previously under the ownership of RTSF/UCCF in the UK, my esteemed former employers. I had the privilege of working as the RTSF staff worker among theology students from 1998-2000 and then leading the UCCF campus ministry in Wales from 2000-2005.

(HT: Justin Taylor)

Reading Warfield

Now there's a thought. Where should you begin? Kim Riddlebarger has some excellent advice here.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Magic and Ministry

I've been listening to Sinclair Ferguson's reflections at 60. Loved his comment about pastoral ministry and seminary teaching. He said that when you are a seminary professor people look at you as if you are a magician sawing a body in half. But if you are a pastor, you are the body in the box.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Recovering the Reformed Confession

Scott Clark's new book will be available for pre-order soon, and is out in November. More details at the Heidelblog.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Easy listening: Reforming or Conforming?

The boys at Christ the Centre interview Gary L. W. Johnson about the forthcoming book Reforming or Conforming?

Easy Reading: Carl Trueman on Young, Restless, and Reformed?

Must reading from Carl here.

Loved the ferrets and the ending:

"There's a lesson here for those Reformed types who are always fretting about how their theological heritage can possibly speak to the present day: don't panic; God's truth is still powerful; just do what you are supposed to be doing. Machen's worrier children don't need to hammer their swords and spears into candlesticks and incense bowls. The old theology still speaks afresh to a new generation."

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Interview with Philip Eveson

My friend Guy Davies has interviewed Philip Eveson, the recently retired principal of London Theological Seminary.

The knowledge of Christ

Whilst re-reading an excellent essay on Old Princeton I came across this superb quotation from Charles Hodge:
"The knowledge of Christ," he argued, " not the apprehension of what he is, simply by the intellect, but also a due apprehension of his glory as a divine person arrayed in our nature, and involves not as its consequence merely, but as one of its elements, the corresponding feeling of adoration, delight, desire and complacency."
From Paul Kjoss Helseth "Are Postconservative Evangelicals Fundamentalists? Postconservative Evangelicalism, Old Princeton, and the Rise of Neo-Fundamentalism" in Erickson, Helseth and Taylor [eds], Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, p. 233