Tuesday, December 30, 2008

At the Year's End (2): Words of encouragement and hope

Here are some of the quotations that have brought encouragement to me personally and in my ministry in 2008.

The accent in them falls heavily on comfort and hope in the midst of trials and sorrows. They are all brilliant, but the second one from John Owen is the key quotation. It provides the pastoral prescription of how and where to find true comfort.

Robert Murray M'Cheyne (from a letter to one bereaved, March 9th, 1843):
You will never find Jesus so precious as when the world is one vast howling wilderness. Then He is like a rose blooming in the midst of the desolation,--a rock rising above the storm.
Samuel Rutherford:
If there were ten thousand, thousand millions of worlds, and as many heavens full of men and angels, Christ would not be pinched to supply all our wants, and to fill us all.

Christ is a well of life, but who knoweth how deep it is to the bottom?

And in a letter to Lady Kenmure (on the death of her infant daughter, January 15th, 1629):
Ye have lost a child: nay she is not lost to you who is found to Christ. She is not sent away, but only sent before, like unto a star, which going out of our sight doth not die...but shineth in another hemisphere. Ye see her not, yet she doth shine in another country.

If her glass was but a short hour, what she wanteth of time that she hath gotten of eternity...Build your nest upon no tree here; for ye see that God hath sold the whole forest to death; and every tree whereupon we would rest is ready to be cut down, to the end that we may fly and mount up, and build upon the Rock, and dwell in the holes of the Rock.
And the following gem is also from Rutherford:
Grace tried is better than grace, and it is more than grace; it is glory in its infancy
Helpful words also from John Owen:
...when the conduit of Christ's humanity is inseparably united to the infinite, inexhaustible fountain of the Deity, who can look into the depths thereof? If, now, there be grace enough for sinners in an all sufficient God, it is in Christ.

And on this ground it is that if all the world should (if I may so say) set themselves to drink free grace, mercy, and pardon, drawing water continually from the wells of salvation; if they should set themselves to draw from one single promise, and angel standing by and crying, "Drink, O friends, yea, drink abundantly, take so much grace and pardon as shall be abundantly sufficient for the world of sin which is in everyone of you;"--they would not be able to sink the grace of the promise one hair's breadth.
John Owen, Communion with God, p. 61-2
Our beholding by faith things which are not seen, things spiritual and eternal, will alleviate all our afflictions,--make their burden light, and preserve our souls from fainting under them. Of these things the glory of Christ..is the principal, and in a due sense comprehensive of them all. For we behold the glory of God himself "in the face of Jesus Christ."

He that can at all times retreat unto the contemplation of this glory, will be carried above the perplexing prevailing sense of any of these evils, of a confluence of them all.

It is a woful kind of life, when men scramble for poor perishing reliefs in their distresses. This is the universal remedy and cure,--the only balsam for all our diseases. Whatever presseth, urgeth, perplexeth, if we can but retreat in our minds unto a view of this glory, and a due consideration of our own interest therein, comfort and supportment will be administered to us.
From the preface to the reader, "Meditations and Discourses on The Glory of Christ," in The Works of John Owen Volume 1, p. 278

Calvin on salvation in Christ:
When we see salvation whole,
its every single part
is found in Christ,
And so we must beware
lest we derive the smallest drop
from somewhere else.

For if we seek salvation, the very name of Jesus
teaches us that he possesses it.

If other Spirit-given gifts are sought--
in his anointing they are found;
strength--in his reign;
and purity--in his conception;
and tenderness--expressed in his nativity,
in which in all respects like us he was,
that he might learn to feel our pain:

Redemption when we seek it, is in his passion found;
acquittal--in his condemnation lies;
and freedom from the curse--in his cross is given.

If satisfaction for our sins we seek--we'll find it in his sacrifice;
and cleansing in his blood.
If reconciliation now we need, for this he entered Hades.
To overcome our sins we need to know that in his tomb they're laid.
Then newness of our life--his resurrection brings
and immortality as well comes also with that gift.

And if we also long to find
inheritance in heaven's reign,
his entry there secures it now
with our protection, safety, too, and blessings that abound
--all flowing from his royal throne.

The sum of all is this:
For those who seek
this treasure-trove of blessing of all kinds
in no one else can they be found
than him,
for all are given
in Christ alone.
Quoted in Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone, p. 7-8

And finally, Louis Berkhof on Christ as our High Priest:
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.

At the Year's End (1): We live by promises not explanations

A re-post from May 2008:

It is a great privilege to minister to people going through deep and dark waters. The apostle Peter in writing to the elect exiles of the dispersion gives us a masterly piece of pastoral theology to help us (pastors) in this regard as we minister to God's people (1 Peter 1:3-9).

The dominant note in the opening section is of rejoicing in the great salvation that we have in Christ.

There is a new birth by God's mercy into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1:3). The new beginnings found in conversion and the empty tomb are preparatory for the new creation. Peter uses the Old Testament language of "inheritance" to describe this future glory. Yet, unlike the promised land (itself a type of the new creation), this inheritance in heaven is "imperishable, undefiled, and unfading." This has been reserved for God's people (1:4).

Like the Puritan Richard Baxter we would do well to meditate on this life to come. Naturally we fear that we will not make it through the wilderness and arrive safely at our heavenly rest. So Peter reassures us. Weak, feeble and sinful as we are, by God's power we are shielded by faith (preserved by God's power so that we can persevere by faith) until we get there (1:5).

One appreciates the wisdom of the Westminster Confession on these matters (WCF 17:1, 3):
They, whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.

Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein:whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
With such great realities accomplished for us and in us, with grace now and grace to come (indeed grace forever) is it any wonder that we have joy in our Father? The tone of Peter's emphasis is captured in the Heidelberg Catechism Question 58:
What comfort do you receive from the article "life everlasting?"

That, inasmuch as I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, I shall after this life possess complete blessedness, such as eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man, therein to praise God forever.

But alongside this dominant note, there is another experience being played out in a minor key. We not only have joy in our salvation but also grief in our present trials (1:6-7).

God's people are not immune to life's sorrows. If only the grief that we feel was caused by persecution. But Peter says that there are "various trials" that grieve us (1:6). Peter provides some explanation of the purpose of these trials. He does not give us what we sometimes want, an exhaustive explanation of why things have happened to us. We live by promises, not explanations. God does not owe us explanations.

John J. Murray tells the story of a minister in the North of Scotland who suddenly lost his spiritually minded wife. As he prayed that night in the presence of his friends he said "If an angel from heaven told me that this would work for my good I would not believe him but because your Word says it I must believe it."

In the midst of this grief God is refining our faith so that our sin will be exposed and that we will forsake it and trust him as both Almighty God and our Faithful Father. Of course there is more to be said about suffering than this. Nevertheless Peter counsels God's people to see God's design in their trials. The impurities that remain in us are shown up so that our wholehearted trust in the Triune God will be purified. And in the midst of grief the preciousness of that faith, "more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire," will be shown for what it is (1:7).

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The right use of knowledge

Sound learning is not to be squandered on personal pride and promotion. This is an inordinate use of knowledge. Sound learning is to be used for the glory of the majestic God, that others may see and admire his glory in Jesus. This is to be done by setting forward clear views of the truth so that God's Word is received for what it is.

A true commitment to orthodoxy is intended to thrive in the atmosphere of faith and love, and it will do so when others are served by the teaching of the gospel. When Richard Baxter was commended for his writers he responded by saying that he was only a pen in God's hand, and what praise was due to a pen?

Calvin's words exemplify this commitment:
"God has filled my mind with zeal to spread his Kingdom and to further the public good. I am also duly clear in my own conscience, and have God and the angels to witness, that since I undertook the office of teacher in the church, I have had no other purpose than to benefit the church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness."
John Calvin, To the Reader (1559), Institutes of the Christian Religion
"Perhaps the duty of those who have received from God fuller light than others is to help simple folk at this point, and as it were to lend them a hand, in order to guide them and help them to find the sum of what God meant to teach us in his Word."
John Calvin, Subject Matter of the Present Work (from the French edition of 1560), Institutes of the Christian Religion

"As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God"

It is well worth reading Matthew Parris' article in The Times.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Jesus is both God and man

Happy Christmas

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

Monday, December 22, 2008

On hell

Rowan Williams was recently asked (in a pub in Cardiff as it turns out) "what is hell like?" His answer?

"Hell is being by yourself for ever."

I much prefer R. A. Finlayson's comment on hell and heaven:

"Hell is spending eternity in the presence of God."

"Heaven is spending eternity in the presence of God, with a mediator."

More on hell and the presence of God here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Family in Britain

If you are living in the UK you may be interested to read this paper on Families in Britain from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It is described as a analytical discussion paper rather than a policy document.

You can read Melanie Phillips comments on it here. The following is an extract from her article:

Now a government paper has acknowledged what some of us have been banging on about for years. Broken families and missing parents, it says, are bad for children and for the country.

Seven out of ten young criminals come from single parent homes that make up only a quarter of all families, it says, adding that step-families can also be difficult for children.

It has accepted that single parent families and step-families are not as good for children and the rest of society as families headed by married parents.

It says that seven out of ten young criminals come from single parent families, that children of single parents do worse at school, that two thirds of such families are poor, and a third of single mothers are depressed.

‘An absent parent can be associated with adverse material and emotional outcomes,’ the paper found.

Step-families, it found, produce outcomes for children ‘similar to those growing up in lone parent families’. Their children ‘show more psychological and behavioural problems than children in biological two-parent families’.

But astoundingly, it still says the evidence is ‘ambiguous’ and that the quality of ‘relationships’ matters more than their legal form. So it rejects the idea of any state support for marriage and married couples.

Instead, it says the solution for the breakdown of the family is yet more money for the poor and more counselling to encourage ‘quality relationships’.

This is just bizarre. It’s one thing to deny the evidence. But it’s quite another finally to acknowledge the evidence - and then to deny its inescapable implications. To say that the quality of relationships matters more than their legal form is nonsense on stilts.

The quality of the relationship depends upon its legal form - because it is more likely to be inadequate, abusive and break down altogether if it is anything other than marriage.

Indeed, it is precisely the substitution of the meaningless notion of ‘relationships’ for marriage that lies at the core of this disaster.

The onslaught against marriage and the bedrock principles of our society, aided and abetted by the Labour government, has not merely done untold damage to individuals and to society, it is also bleeding us dry.

The cost to the Exchequer of the crime, ill health, poor employment and achievement records and so forth resulting from epidemic family breakdown is vast and ultimately insupportable.

Quite simply, through its anti-family policies the state has been subsidising the destruction of society.

Judging from its reaction to its own published paper, this most ideological of governments is set to continue to do precisely this - even though it now demonstrably knows that this is the case. Just how rational is that?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The unravelling of the evangelical evangel

Perhaps the best term to describe much of contemporary evangelicalism is "Broad-church pietism." It is no longer the case, if it ever really was, when evangelicalism was understood through the primary doctrines of substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, and biblical authority.

Sinclair Ferguson made the following comment:
Fifty years ago, to be an evangelical implied a deep commitment to the great creedal verities of historic Christianity. But it also included certain distinctive views about the nature of the work of Christ and how the blessings of salvation are received.

At the heart of these lay the authority of Scripture and the twin convictions that the death of Christ involved penal substitution, and that the beginning of the Christian life was marked by justification by faith alone.
You may be interested to read this thoughtful essay by Michael Horton:

To be or not to be: The Uneasy Relationship between Reformed Christianity and American Evangelicalism

The painting, by the way, is by Manet. It is part of the collection of Impressionist works held at Cardiff Museum.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

For us men, and for our salvation

This Sunday evening I will be preaching from 1 Peter 1:10-12 (What the angels long to look into).

Grudem makes the point in his commentary that this is a verb in the present tense, and that it signals a strong desire. It is interesting that this comment by Peter follows on from his description of the Christ-centred ministry of the prophets, focussed in the Messiah's sufferings and glory.

What do they long to look into?

We can say it is this, they long to look into the person of Jesus and his great work of saving his people.

Of how he as the God-man suffered for his people.

Of how he saved them at the cross by shedding his blood.

Of how he calls them to himself by the sound of the gospel and the work of his Spirit.

Of how he gathers them, guards them, sustains them in faith, makes them more pure and holy like himself, and keeps them believing.

Of how he comforts them in their sorrows, cleanses them when they fall into sin and restores them when they return to him.

Of how he doesn't abandon them in death but has given them a living hope through the resurrection.

Of how he perfects their souls at death and will raise and transform their bodies on the last day.

And of how he will welcome them into his everlasting kingdom to endlessly enjoy God forever.

We can also say this, they long to look into something that wasn't for them.

The holy angels have no sins to be forgiven, they need no Saviour. It is a solemn thought that God did not send a Saviour for the angels who disobeyed and fell. Peter says in his second letter that they await judgement (2 Peter 2:4). The Son of God, says the writer to the Hebrews, does not help angels, but us (Hebrews 2:14-16).

If they long to look into these things, how much more should we for whom the Son of God took on flesh and blood, and for whom he suffered in agony and rose in glory?

Our thoughts must be filled with the glorious person and work of of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Three cheers for Calvin's Institutes

Lig Duncan gives ten reasons to read the Institutes in 2009

Derek Thomas strikes up the band in praise of the theologian's theological masterpiece

Iain D. Campbell tells us how he found the Institutes when he was all at sea

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How I need to learn

Preachers and theological teachers encounter two great problems every day.

The first problem is to think of God without doing so on our knees.

Should we handle sacred Scripture without depending upon its very author as we seek to understand it? It is possible, but always harmful, to think upon the being, persons, and wonderful works of the triune God, and not be so awestruck that we breathlessly cry:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?"

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (Rom. 11:33-36)

Possible, of course, but inevitably harmful. This disposition of the heart is not merely desirable, it is essential. Scripture should subdue us, move us, and thrill us. Do you not find that when God and his works are spoken of in Scripture there is an atmosphere of adoration and praise? Should I then think great thoughts about God and not worship him?

The second problem is to speak of God without doing so, so to speak, on our knees. We ought to feel our insufficiency and not merely assent to it. Sometimes I know that I assent to this truth but have acted as if I was sufficient for the task. I need to remind myself that only the gospel by the power of the Spirit can bring the dead to life and build up the living. Can you ever be a competent exegete and expositor without being a deeply prayerful man?

I have found the brief prayer of Charles Hodge helpful:
"Teach me, that I may teach others also."
And that of Hilary of Poitiers
We look to Thy support for the first trembling steps of this undertaking, to Thy aid that it may gain strength and prosper. We look to Thee to give us the fellowship of that Spirit who guided the prophets and apostles, that we may take their words in the sense in which they spoke and assign its right shade of meaning to every utterance.
(Quoted in Douglas F. Kelly, Systematic Theology Volume One, p. 50)

We three kings

Here's a post from 364 days ago:

Matthew 1-2 tells the story of three kings. These kings are not however the ones known in the West, from the eighth century on, as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. The visitors from the East were Magi, not kings. No, Matthew 1-2 tells the story of King David, King Herod and King Jesus. They are the three kings in the narrative.

King Herod may well be the king of Israel but he acts like Pharaoh king of Egypt. Joseph must flee Israel for Egypt, and later return there just as Moses did in Exodus 4. There is a great reversal theme in Matthew 2 as Israel and Egypt swap identities, and as we realise that Israel is a nation under judgment.

This reversal theme extends itself to the Magi. The wise men and magicians of the nations always come off badly in the Bible in comparison to God's people. Witness the court of Pharoah in Genesis 41 and the inability of the magicians to interpret his dream. It was God who gave Joseph the understanding of the dream. Fast forward to the contest between Moses, Aaron and the magicians, and the same story is told.

This unfavourable comparison continues with Daniel in Babylon. Again we see that God gives his people insight. The magicians, sorcerers and enchanters are unable to gain access to Nebuchadnezzar's undisclosed dream (Daniel 2:1-11). Daniel, however, seeks God and God, in his mercy, reveals the dream and the interpretation. No wonder that Daniel then confesses that to God belong wisdom and might, for:

he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
he reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him.

What does this have to do with Matthew 2 and the Magi? The situation has now been reversed. The pattern established in Scripture has been turned on its head. We find Gentile magicians behaving like Israelites, and Israelites behaving like Gentiles. The Magi have more insight, more wisdom, and they come to worship Christ the King.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Exodus reloaded

With Christmas approaching here is something from last year:

Here are some notes from the cutting room floor. I'm preaching on Matthew 1-2 next Sunday.

Every Christmas in the UK there are a number of classic films that are shown. Without fail we get treated to the likes of The Wizard of Oz, It's a Wonderful Life and The Sound of Music. There are two other movies that almost always get shown, The Italian Job and The Great Escape. There was of course a remake of The Italian Job a few years back, but really how could it possibly compare to the classic original? Remakes rarely ever live up to original productions.

We are clearly meant to read Matthew 2 as something of a remake of earlier events. From 1:18-2:23 we are presented with five blocks of material that fulfill Old Testament patterns and prophecy.

Included among them is the calling of God's son out of Egypt. The reference from Hosea 11:1 (Matt. 2:11) looks backward to the Exodus and is the pattern for what will happen to Jesus, the true Israel as he retraces the nation's steps by being called out of Egypt and later as he is tested in the wilderness.

This is a remake of the original story that far outweighs and eclipses the deliverance by Moses. Unlike God's son Israel, Jesus will not prove disobedient in the wilderness. He will perfectly obey the Father and fulfill all righteousness on behalf of his people.

The connections between the Exodus and Matthew 2 go even deeper. Matthew presents us with Herod, a Jewish king, behaving just like Pharoah slaughtering the baby boys.

Then there is The Great Escape. It struck me that there is a verbal allusion in Matt. 2:19-21 to Exod. 4:19-20:
Matt. 2:19-21 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead." And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.

Exodus 4:19-20 Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, "Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead." So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt.
What a reversal! The king of Israel plays the part of Pharoah, and the land of Israel has become like the land of Egypt. Both reversals would seem to imply impending judgment.

And then of course we have the Magi fulfilling toward Christ exactly what Psalm 72 said that the nations would do. The Saviour is born, the true everlasting king from David's line. To make it clear that Jesus, unlike all of his royal ancestors, is the Saviour-King, the Magi are there worshipping him.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Law Is Not Of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant

This new volume is due out in January 2009

Here's the blurb:

Is the Mosaic covenant in some sense a republication of the covenant of works? What is the nature of its demand for obedience, since sinful man is unable to obey as God requires? How in turn was the law to drive Israel to Jesus? This book explores these issues pertaining to the doctrine of republication - once a staple in Reformed theology - a doctrine with far-reaching implications for Paul’s theology, our relationship to Old Testament law, justification, and more.

"This anthology argues that the Mosaic covenant in some sense replicates the original covenant with Adam in the garden, and that this notion is neither novel to nor optional for Reformed theology. The authors locate it within the fabric of federal theology in its Reformation and post-Reformation development, and more importantly, they demonstrate how it is firmly embedded in the flow of redemptive history. Finally, they explain why a thin and merely soteric Calvinism, without the support of federal theology, cannot withstand the challenges to Reformed orthodoxy today. While varying among themselves in their expression of this "republication thesis," these authors together make a compelling and coherent argument with rich historical, exegetical, and theological insights."

- John Muether

(HT: Feeding on Christ)

Agnus Victor: Ovey, Sach and Reeves discuss the Cross

Thanks to Rosemary Grier for drawing my attention to the Table Talk discussion on the Cross with Mike Reeves, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sachs (the latter two along with Steve Jeffrey are the authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions).

This is a great discussion about penal substitution, Christus Victor, the character of God and the good news, and the pastoral implications of all these truths.

Below is a bottom end of an overly long post from yesterday.

Penal Substitution and Christus Victor

The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism views the atoning work of Christ as dealing with the satisfaction made for all our sins (penal substitution) and his redeeming us from all the power of the devil (Christus Victor). When Scripture explicates how Christ conquers the devil, the reality of which is anticipated in the proto-evangelium (Gen. 3:15), it views the power of the devil as the power of deception and accusation. Our legal position before God, in view of Adam's breaking of the covenant of works (Gen. 2:15-17), and our own sins, has rendered us guilty, cursed, and under the sentence of death (Rom. 6:23).

How does Christ redeem us from the power of the devil? By dying for us (1 Peter 3:18). By taking our curse and punishment (Gal. 3:13). By enduring the wrath of God (Rom. 3:25-26). By taking the full penalty of the law (Gal. 3:10).

The legal accusations of Satan are silenced by the blood of the Lamb that has brought us forgiveness for all our sins (Col. 2:13-15; Eph. 1:7; Rev. 12:10-11; Rom. 8:1, 33-34!). How has Christ conquered Satan? By his active and passive obedience, by making atonement and justification. And now without God's law to condemn us, Satan has no power to accuse us. What truth then will he seek to overthrow with all his might? The truth that the blood of the Lamb saves, the doctrine of penal substitution.

The Lamb slain saves us. The Lamb slain silences Satan's accusations. It is seeing this connection that will stop the pendulum from swinging from penal substitution to Christus Victor. As Henri Blocher argued, in a much neglected essay, these doctrines are seen in the biblical proportions and glory together. It is really Agnus Victor, not what is commonly understood as Christus Victor, that best explains the conquering of Satan.

Two important interviews: Beale and Peterson

Risking The Truth: Interviews on Handling Error in the Church will be out sometime next year. In addition to the interviews with Mark Dever, Mike Horton, Carl Trueman, Tom Schreiner and a host of others, there will also be interviews with Greg Beale on inerrancy and with Robert A. Peterson on evangelicals and the doctrine of hell.

Pastoral Refreshment Conference

My dear friend Marcus Honeysett runs a Pastoral Refreshment Conference each year. I'll let him explain it:

The annual Pastoral Refreshment Conference aims to provide a place for sustenance of heart and family life, for developing intimacy with the Lord and close bonds of fellowship with others in leadership.

The conference provides a setting for leaders, pastors and partners to seek God together for the on-going refreshment of life and ministry. There is a lot of prayer and worship , inspiring preaching and a safe environment in which to be yourself. Seminar subjects in recent years have included: Grace, Marriage and Ministry; Looking after your Spiritual Life; How to Love Your Church and Leading with a Forgiving Heart. All with a strong ethos of experiencing the grace of God together.

Publicity will be available shortly for Pastoral Refreshment Conference 2009, which will take place from 4-6th February in the lovely surroundings of Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire.

You can read more here and download talks from previous years.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rethinking reactionary theology: Reflections on Christus Victor and Penal Substitution

I really enjoyed reading Justin Taylor's interview with Michael Wittmer author of Don't Stop Believing: Why living like Jesus is not enough. There is a review of the book by Tim Challies here. The diagram above fascinated me, and I will look forward to reading the book.

This part of the interview caught my eye:
JT: You write that “The history of theology is a story of pendulum swings. The church pursues one line of thought until it reaches an extreme, and then, like the pendulum on a grandfather clock, swiftly swings to the other side.” Can you give a few examples?

MW: This pendulum swing shows up in nearly every chapter of Don't Stop Believing...We emphasized penal substitution at the exclusion of the other atonement theories (e.g., I don’t remember hearing much about “Christus Victor”). Now some are over-reacting and accepting every theory of the atonement except penal substitution.
When I read this my mind was drawn to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism (italics added):
What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.
The Catechism holds together what Wittmer notes evangelicals have sometimes separated. Why is this?

1. In is to be expected that when a doctrine is under attack not only will there be an appearance of new books and articles defending it, but there is also a mood that one senses at conferences and that you hear in preaching of lines being drawn and sides taken.
  • There is the didactic desire to articulate the doctrine under attack clearly, so as to rescue it from misrepresentation.
  • There is also the pastoral desire to make sure that our listeners are themselves personally clear about their own understanding and embracing of the doctrine.
  • Then there is the polemic and apologetic desire to engage with errors and to win over the wayward and those holding to contrary views.
The net result of this is that there is a perceived emphasis on a particular doctrine that looks very much like an imbalance. This does not mean that there is a real imbalance in the way that one's overall theology is constructed and practiced, but for a time the contested doctrine takes the central place. And the greater the perceived threat the more we should expect this to be the case.

2. A lack of historical awareness is a significant issue. If our main diet of reading is dominated by the most recent books on particular doctrines we will deprive ourselves of access to the centuries of thinking that has preceded those works.

Of course good contemporary books that also deal with important thinkers and controversies in church history can become a significant entry point into the literature of the past. John Stott's The Cross of Christ is a good example of this. Reading this book as an undergraduate introduced me to Anselm's Cur Deus Homo and the aberrant views of Mcleod Campbell, as well as several other figures.

A lack of familiarity with what our forefathers believed and what they rejected is detrimental to the church today. One wonders whether we are better innovators than inheritors.

3. Sinclair Ferguson made the perceptive comment that most listeners to expository preaching would benefit more from it if they had a framework in place, a theological frame of reference, that would help them to understand and better assimilate and retain what they hear.

It should not be lost on us that the Protestant Reformation which unheld the authority, clarity and sufficiency of the Word, also saw a significant emphasis on the need for churches to confess the faith and to catechise members in doctrine, piety and ethics.

The very comprehensiveness and thoroughness of these confessions and catechisms are themselves a safeguard against swinging pendulums. However, a minimalist approach to doctrine arguably builds up the kinetic energy of the pendulum.

How is this related to Penal Substitution and Christus Victor?

The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism views the atoning work of Christ as dealing with the satisfaction made for all our sins (penal substitution) and his redeeming us from all the power of the devil (Christus Victor). When Scripture explicates how Christ conquers the devil, the reality of which is anticipated in the proto-evangelium (Gen. 3:15), it views the power of the devil as the power of deception and accusation. Our legal position before God, in view of Adam's breaking of the covenant of works (Gen. 2:15-17), and our own sins, has rendered us guilty, cursed, and under the sentence of death (Rom. 6:23).

How does Christ redeem us from the power of the devil? By dying for us (1 Peter 3:18). By taking our curse and punishment (Gal. 3:13). By enduring the wrath of God (Rom. 3:25-26). By taking the full penalty of the law (Gal. 3:10).

The legal accusations of Satan are silenced by the blood of the Lamb that has brought us forgiveness for all our sins (Col. 2:13-15; Eph. 1:7; Rev. 12:10-11; Rom. 8:1, 33-34!). How has Christ conquered Satan? By his active and passive obedience, by making atonement and justification. And now without God's law to condemn us, Satan has no power to accuse us. What truth then will he seek to overthrow with all his might? The truth that the blood of the Lamb saves, the doctrine of penal substitution.

The Lamb slain saves us. The Lamb slain silences Satan's accusations. It is seeing this connection that will stop the pendulum from swinging from penal substitution to Christus Victor. As Henri Blocher argued, in a much neglected essay, these doctrines are seen in the biblical proportions and glory together. It is really Agnus Victor, not what is commonly understood as Christus Victor, that best explains the conquering of Satan.

Denying penal substitution

I came across the following comment on the rejection of penal substitution in Hugh Martin's commentary on Jonah first published in 1870. Martin is setting out to show the relationship between Jonah's experience as a type and its fulfilment in the work of Christ:
Now the bringing out of the analogy, in this respect, will be helpful in showing that the death and resurrection of Christ constitute a proper, real, perfect and proven satisfaction to the justice of God for the sins of His people;--a doctrine, which almost all the theological heresies of the present day are, with more or less subtlety and refinement, labouring to overthrow. (Martin, Jonah, Banner of Truth, p. 207)
I find the explanation offered by the late Harold Brown for the presence of the same errors across the centuries and in different cultures compelling: the presence of the same truth tends to produce the same reactions.

I have a brief article on B. B. Warfield's assessment of the flight from penal substitution at the turn of the twentieth century available here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Praying for understanding

An absolute gem from Calvin quoted in Doug Kelly's Systematic Theology Vol. 1 (p. 58):
When we come to hear the sermon or take up the Bible, we must not have the foolish arrogance of thinking that we shall easily understand everything we hear or read. But we must come with reverence, we must wait entirely upon God, knowing that we need to be taught by His Holy Spirit, and that without Him we cannot understand anything that is shown us in His Word.

Monday, December 08, 2008

If you are really there God, why don't you prove it?

Recently, as a church, we have put on a series of events under the title "If you could ask God one question what would it be?" (inspired by the Christianity Explained course). Last month the question was "If you are really there God why don't you prove it?" We have been inviting friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues, and local people to consider the Bible's answer to these questions.

The audio for "If you are really there God why don't you prove it?" is available here.

The talks lasts for twenty minutes and is followed by an open question time.

The next one up is "God, why do you allow so much suffering?" The audio for that will be available soon.

Putting God to the test

From Doug Kelly's newly released systematic theology volume 1:
From beginning to end, it must clearly be recognized that the only way humans can properly test truth claims to ultimate reality must be in the light of who that ultimate reality is and how He acts and speaks.

The supreme reality makes himself known as the personal God, and hence the supreme truth he reveals at its very heart partakes of His personal reality and is, for that reason, what the Greek Church Fathers call autousia (that is, 'self-existence' or 'self-evidence').

That is to say, the supreme truth of the personal God does not depend on anything outside itself to validate itself, for why should that which is ultimate be dependent on that which is subordinate for its power to convince?
Douglas F. Kelly, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The God Who Is: The Holy Trinity, p. 15

Why not order it for Christmas here or here.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Real sorrows and real comfort

"Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."

Revelation 21:3-4

They say of some temporal suffering, "No future bliss can make up for it," not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.

C. S. Lewis

...we wait upon that great day of the Lord with consummate eagerness so that, as happy people, we will most fully acquire and will thoroughly enjoy throughout eternity all of those things promised by God in Jesus Christ the Lord.

Belgic Confession Article 37

58. What comfort do you receive from the article “life everlasting?”

That, inasmuch as I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, I shall after this life possess complete blessedness, such as eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man, therein to praise God forever.
The Heidelberg Catechism

Friday, December 05, 2008

God to the rescue

Be glad that this is true:
He was not conceived in the womb of Mary for those who had done their best, but for those who know that their best is "like filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6)--far from good enough--and that in their flesh dwells no good thing (Rom. 7:18). He was not sent to be the source of our good expereinces, but to suffer the pangs of hell in order to be our Saviour.
Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone, p. 17

This is an extract from the chapter "Santa Christ?" The first two chapters of In Christ Alone are available online here. (HT: Scott Clark)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

More dangerous than Dawkins

When it comes to undermining the truth, false teachers are more dangerous than Richard Dawkins. I mean who would ever believe that an angel of light is really the devil (2 Cor. 11:13-14)? Amazing what can be done with a little camoflage, and amazing what can be done to a naive audience.

Here is a pastorally astute observation from Millard Erickson:
"...it is important that evangelicals ask not only for the formulas of belief but for the actual content of those formulas or expressions.

Sometimes lay persons are so conditioned to respond to particular expressions to which an emotional conditioning has been attached that they fail to determine the real meaning.
In a day in which meaning is thought by some to reside, not objectively in the words and expressions themselves, but in the person who receives them so that its meaning is what it means to the recipient, this concern is especially appropriate."
Millard Erickson, The Evangelical Left, p. 6

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Greg Beale on the exegetical basis for inerrancy

Jim Hamilton reports on Greg Beale's Crossway lecture at ETS:

Beale argued that Inerrancy is not a scholastic theological deduction made by interpreters of the Bible, but rather that it is an exegetical observation of a theological deduction that at least one biblical author has already made within the text of the Bible itself. Citing the logic of innerancy:

  • God is true and trustworthy, and he never lies, deceives, or makes mistakes.
  • The Bible is God’s revelation of himself.
  • Therefore the Bible never lies, deceives, or makes mistakes.

Beale argued that John has already made this argument and drawn this conclusion for us in the book of Revelation. The gist of Beale’s argument went like this:

Revelation 3:14 presents Jesus identifying himself as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness.”

Later in Revelation an angel commands John to “Write,” and then the angel declares to John, “These are the true words of God” (Rev 19:9).

Later still in Revelation the one “who was seated on the throne” commands John, “Write this down, for these words are faithful and true” (Rev 21:5).

And again we read in Revelation 22:6 that an angel says to John, “These words are faithful and true.”

From this string of verses, Beale argued that John has presented to his audience the very logic of inerrancy:

  • Jesus is the faithful and true witness, revealing what God has given him to show his servants.
  • John is commanded to write the faithful and true words of God.
  • Therefore the words that John has written are also faithful and true.

Beale then argued that based on the inter-textual connections between Revelation 3:14 and Isaiah 65:16, and based on the claims made in other texts in the Bible (such as Ps 119:137-42, and cf. Ps 119:103 with Rev 10:9-10) this logic is not limited to the book of Revelation.

I thought the presentation was compelling, and in my view it adds to the evidence supporting the position that the inerrancy of the Bible is not some foreign theological abstraction imposed on the Bible from the outside. Rather, Beale has demonstrated that the inerrancy of the Bible is an inductive, exegetical conclusion that arises from the claims the Bible makes about itself.

Twice on a Sunday?

Some stimulating words from Iain D. Campbell:
Ultimately, the issue is not so much about our views of church, but about our views of Christ. He commands us in Scripture not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. He promises to be present in the assembly of his people, where as few as two gather in his name. He promises to enrich his people through his Word and by his Spirit.

If that is the case, then we ought to put a premium on such occasions. While contemporary culture squeezes religion out, by putting pressure on families and on children to be involved in many different activities on the Lord’s Day, there ought, surely, to be something non-negotiable about gathering for worship with the people of God week by week.

Sinclair Ferguson is reputed to have said at a recent conference, in response to the very question about why evening worship is necessary on the Lord’s Day, that if an attractive girl asked a boy to meet her at a particular hour, he would be there. The Bible offers us something better than that: the one who is the chief among ten thousand asks poor sinners to meet him at a particular hour, as he promises to be present in the gathered assembly of his people.

It is a foolish person who passes up a golden opportunity to meet with the risen Lord. Which is why I shall shout loud that Christians should worship together twice on Sundays. At the very least.
Read the whole post here.

Of course if you really want to be Reformed you need to have some preaching services every day.

Boring, irrelevant and untrue: How OT scholarship has been a disaster for the church

You really must read this Ralph Davis article over at Ref 21 ("Why is the Old Testament shut out of the church?"). That's the same Dale Ralph Davis who writes the OT commentaries that are worth their weight in gold. And "Boring, irrelevant and untrue" is a fair summary of the last two hundred years of unbelieving, church emptying, soul destroying, OT scholarship.

Here's a snippet to what your appetite:
Scholarly Barrenness

I don't care if many beg to differ, professional study and teaching of the Old Testament has largely killed the Old Testament for the church and wrecked it for hundreds of theological students. I speak especially of the so-called higher critical position regarding the OT. (Now don't accuse me of being anti-intellectual; in fact, I think that any MDiv grad from an evangelical seminary should know the critical position(s) regarding especially the Pentateuch, should know--and be able to refute--the criteria scholars have used to carve up the canonical text. A little time with Kenneth Kitchen or R. K. Harrison is time well-spent).

We have had about 150 years of this anti-supernaturalist scholarly study of the OT and it has produced results as cold as concrete and as appetizing as stewed okra.

Let me give examples.
Here's a commentary on Exodus 14:5--the first part of the verse speaks of 'the king of Egypt,' while the 2nd part refers to him as 'Pharaoh' and so 'there can be no doubt' that the verse is 'composed of two different sources.' Naturally, we find that very moving. Or go to Exodus 34:6-7; this commentary says that Yahweh's self-proclamation here ('Yahweh, Yahweh, a God compassionate and gracious...') is 'out of place' and is 'an addition which is made up of customary, stereotyped phrases.' Here is the crucial, climactic, consoling self-revelation of Yahweh, brimming with theological profundity and devotional power--and Martin Noth never heard it. The Fountain of living waters overflows and Noth spends eight lines of critical hogwash on him.

Or here is a commentator on 1-2 Kings. At 2 Kings 2:23 we read of Elisha going up to Bethel, where apparently the incident of the bears tearing up 42 lads occurs. But this commentator says there is nothing in the narrative itself to suggest that this happened at Bethel except that introductory comment that Elisha had gone up to Bethel. This amounts to saying that the text says this occurred in Bethel but we can't be sure because the next two and a half verses don't mention Bethel--no landmarks like the Bethel Moose Lodge, I suppose--so we really can't be sure it happened in Bethel. One could forgive such nonsense were it not for worse stuff.

The same commentator, writing on 1 Kings 8:27 (where Solomon prays, 'But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!'), tells us this verse must be deleted as 'secondary' and that it looks like a 'marginal comment which later found its way into the text.' Leave aside the critical issue. Even if he were right on that (and he's not), how can he ignore, how can he pass by without any comment the massive, head-throbbing theology of that verse?

On and on it can go. You can find out, for example, that 1 Samuel 3 may not be a prophetic call but an 'auditory message dream theophany,' and then like Lucy in Peanuts you think: Now that I know that, what do I do?

And so theologs tend to give up on the Old Testament. If it involves such complex, intricate analysis by the high priests of whatever the reigning German-geschichte is, then surely it is 'too complicated for me for bother with.' Use a psalm or two for funerals and a quote from Amos for Social Justice Awareness Sunday, but otherwise forget the OT. Mainstream critics may mock evangelical use of the OT, but they have not given us any help.

Unbelieving biblical interpretation cannot nurture life--it cannot even arouse interest. It is worse than lethal--it is boring.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Liberalism with a new lick of paint

In my contribution to Reforming or Conforming? I argued that in several ways the emergent/emerging church agenda resonates with the theological liberalism of Machen's era. Affinity, with permission from Crossway, published an edited version of my chapter here.

Michael Witmer, in his ETS paper, makes the case that many of Brian McLaren's new ideas find their provenance in the liberalism that Machen confronted here.