Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Greatest Try Ever: Barbarians vs. New Zealand 1973

A short break from heresies to enjoy a great Rugby Union moment. This is, perhaps, the greatest try ever scored, in what was, in all probability, the greatest game ever played.

The "Magnificent Seven" involved in scoring that try were made up of six Welshmen and one Englishman. How thankful we were that John Pullin of England didn't drop the ball.

The commentator was the legendary Cliff Morgan who once said that he learned how to side-step opponents during a game in Llantrisant (my home town). A farmer had left his cows wander on the pitch so side-stepping was necessary to avoid the cow pats.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Unquenchable Flame: a book you won't want to put down

During my days in student work there were certain books that fell into the "must read" category. Quite simply books so good, so clear, so helpful, that they could shape the thinking of young minds with the truth of God's Word.

To that list I would now add The Unquenchable Flame: Introducing the Reformation (IVP) by Mike Reeves. In an Evangelical publishing world where we routinely get the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, this book shines like a jewel perched atop a dung heap.

Why is it a must read? For the following reasons...

1. It makes history live

Reader, dost though fear that church history is dull? Dost though entertain foolish thoughts about the boredom of reading about the past? Let thy fears be allayed. Stylistically, Mike Reeves does for Reformation history what Dale Ralph Davis' books have done for Old Testament narrative. The book abounds with creative descriptions of people, conflicts, debates, and controversies. A rollicking good read and a real page turner. The style will have you smiling and chuckling along.

2. It gets to the heart of the issues

In the space of 185 pages we get acquainted with religion before the Reformation, vivid portraits of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the Reformation in Britain, and the Puritans who, in Milton's words were about "reforming the Reformation" as well as wearing black and scowling (p. 145). In this short amount of space Mike Reeves has really packed in all the burning issues (at times quite literally) that rocked Europe five hundred years ago.

3. It shows that sound theology matters

The Christian world before the Reformation abounded with theology. The trouble was so much of it was bad. I've stood in the side chapel at St. Peter's Cathedral in Geneva and read the Latin text Post Tenebras Lux (After Darkness Light). That is what the Reformation was all about: a Bible in your own language, a faithful preaching ministry, and a message of acceptance with God based not upon ceremonies, sacraments and works, but upon the free grace of God in Jesus Christ:
...for if, as Luther argued, I am given the righteous status of Christ without that status being in any way dependent upon the state of my heart or life, then there is no place for a purgatory where I am made worthy of heaven or indulgences to speed me there. (p. 180)
And on this point a great gulf is still fixed between Protestant and Roman Catholic views of justification, even after a spate of recent attempts to narrow points of agreement and to work toward a jointly acceptable form of words. You can about right up to date conversations and tensions about this in Collin Hansen's recent Christianity Today article here.

Reeves shows that on justification by faith alone nothing has really moved on since the Regensberg conference way back in 1541. He concludes:
Thus, while attempts to foster greater Christian unity must be applauded, it must also be recognized that, as things stand, the Reformation is anything but over. (p. 180)
4. It is a recipe for revolution

And that, quite simply, because justification by faith alone ("Justification was what made the Reformation the Reformation" p. 171, "The Reformation was, fundamentally, about justification" p. 178) has been undervalued by evangelicals, and we are all the poorer for it. Forget about the New Perspectives and their implications for justification. The old perspective of the Reformers desperately needs to be understood today.

It is here that we have seen the triumph of the mealy-mouthed Erasmus over the spirit of Martin Luther. Let Reeves explain:
To modern ears, the debates of the Reformation sound like rather pernickety wars over words. Is it, we ask, really worth squabbling over whether justification is by faith (as Rome agreed) or by faith alone (as the Reformers insisted)? (p. 182)
That all depends on what is at stake. "They were hardly small concerns being debated," but issues of eternal consequence (p. 182). Where will I go when I die? How can I know? Is justification a process? Can it be lost? Will I go to purgatory? Can I confidently rely for my salvation on the finished work of Christ alone?

In a day when Christian belief is derided from without, and when doctrine has fallen on hard times from within, reading about the ideas that shaped the Protestant churches of Europe in the sixteenth century is a bit like sticking your head into a barrel of icy water. Bracing, a violent shock to the system, and a sure way to make you mentally alert.

Really, you should come away asking yourself "if these truths mattered so much to the Reformers back then, how come they seem to matter so little to many evangelicals today?" Well, like Luther, try standing before the holiness of God (p. 42-3). Like Zwingli, stand at the edge of death's abyss and stare into eternity (p. 64). Like Calvin, see if what you believe is really worth believing if you have to endure exile from your homeland for the sake of the gospel (p. 90-2).

The book, of course (for it says so on the cover), is all about introducing the Reformation. At the back you will find a short guide for further reading. Make good use of it.

The only thing that marrs the book is the reproduction in English of two foul words that came out of the mouth of Luther. Granted one of them is of King James Version vintage, but, nonetheless, this is a blemish and may, for some readers, like a blue bottle resting on a buttered scone, spoil the enjoyment.

For US readers the good news is that Broadman & Holman will be releasing the book on April 1st 2010 (I kid you not). UK readers can get it for a special offer price by clicking here.

So, as they say, tolle lege, take up and read.

Looking into eternity

In 1519 the plague hit Zurich and nearly carried Zwingli off with it. It was just as epochal for him as when Luther was almost hit by lightning fourteen years earlier: brought to the edge of death's abyss he was forced to look into eternity. Only, where Luther had prayed to St. Anne, Zwingli found he could only rely exclusively upon God's mercy.

When he recovered he was a changed man, a man on a mission to do something bold for God. Now he clearly saw that all trusting in created things, whether saints or sacraments, to be gross idolatry. He was going to lead peoples' hearts from idols to the God of mercy.
Mike Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame, p. 64

But it here

You know if you are truly Reformed if when you see "Google Images" you wonder if this is a papist conspiracy.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Colour-blindness about theology

Writing about the one of the "pressing dangers" facing the Church in 1884 J. C. Ryle wrote:
It consist in the rise and progress of a spirit of indifference to all doctrines and opinions in religion. A wave of colour-blindness about theology appears to be passing over the land. The minds of many seem utterly incapable of discerning any difference between faith and faith, creed and creed, tenet and tenet, opinion and opinion, thought and thought, however diverse, heterogeneous, contrariant and mutally destructive they may be. true and nothing is false, everything is right and nothing is wrong, everything is good and nothing is bad, if it approaches under the garb and name of religion. You are not allowed to ask, What is God's truth? but What is liberal, and generous, and kind?
Ironically I am colour blind and can't figure out whether the number in the picture is 13 or 15.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Remember, Remember..."The Unquenchable Flame: Introducing the Reformation" special offer

Mike Reeves' introduction to the Reformation, The Unquenchable Flame, is a rollicking good read.

Mark Dever says that it is "quite simply, the best brief introduction to the Reformation I have read."

Gerald Bray says that it "will stir the heart, refresh the soul and direct the mind towards a deeper understanding of our faith."

God willing I will be posting an interview with Mike about the book from 5th November.

You can read an extract from the book here. There is also a resource page here.

For some reason you will search in vain for it at the Westminster Bookstore, and at Monergism books.

But the good news for UK readers is that although the book is priced at £9, from 31st October until the end of November you will be able to get it from 10 of for £6.20 plus only £1 for postage. £7.20 is a good offer and it will be money well spent.

Just email with the code 'downflame', your address and phone number and they will send it to you. Celebrate Reformation Day by sending a copy to a friend.

The contents page looks like this:

Map of key places in the Reformation

Prologue: Here I stand

1 Going medieval on religion

The background to the Reformation

2 God’s volcano

Martin Luther

3 Soldiers, sausages and revolution

Ulrich Zwingli and the Radical Reformers

4 After darkness, light

John Calvin

5 Burning passion

The Reformation in Britain

6 Reforming the Reformation

The Puritans

7 Is the Reformation over?

Reformation timeline

Further reading

Tim Keller on Hell and the love of God

Here are some extracts from Tim Keller's article "The Importance of Hell."

Unless we come to grips with this "terrible" doctrine, we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross.

His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him he was experiencing hell itself.

But consider--if our debt for sin is so great that it is never paid off there, but our hell stretches on for eternity, then what are we to conclude from the fact that Jesus said the payment was "finished" (John 19:30) after only three hours? We learn that what he felt on the cross was far worse and deeper than all of our deserved hells put together.

And this makes emotional sense when we consider the relationship he lost. If a mild acquaintance denounces you and rejects you--that hurts. If a good friend does the same--that hurts far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you saying, "I never want to see you again," that is far more devastating still.

The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more tortuous is any separation. But the Son's relationship with the Father was beginningless and infinitely greater than the most intimate and passionate human relationship.

When Jesus was cut off from God he went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. He experienced the full wrath of the Father. And he did it voluntarily, for us.

Fairly often I meet people who say, "I have a personal relationship with a loving God, and yet I don't believe in Jesus Christ at all." Why, I ask? "My God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering on anyone for sin." But this shows a deep misunderstanding of both God and the cross. On the cross, God HIMSELF, incarnated as Jesus, took the punishment. He didn't visit it on a third party, however willing.

So the question becomes: what did it cost your kind of god to love us and embrace us? What did he endure in order to receive us? Where did this god agonize, cry out, and where were his nails and thorns? The only answer is: "I don't think that was necessary."

But then ironically, in our effort to make God more loving, we have made him less loving. His love, in the end, needed to take no action. It was sentimentality, not love at all.

The worship of a god like this will be at most impersonal, cognitive, and ethical. There will be no joyful self-abandonment, no humble boldness, no constant sense of wonder. We could not sing to him "love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all."

Only through the cross could our separation from God be removed, and we will spend all eternity loving and praising God for what he has done (Rev 5:9-14.)

And if Jesus did not experience hell itself for us, then we ourselves are devalued. In Isaiah, we are told, "The results of his suffering he shall see, and shall be satisfied" (Isaiah 53:11). This is a stupendous thought. Jesus suffered infinitely more than any human soul in eternal hell, yet he looks at us and says, "It was worth it." What could make us feel more loved and valued than that?

The Savior presented in the gospel waded through hell itself rather than lose us, and no other savior ever depicted has loved us at such a cost.

You can read the whole thing here.

Guy Davies reviews "Return to Rome"

My good friend Guy Davies has posted part one of his review of Francis Beckwith's Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic. Guy focusses upon the isue of sola scriptura. You can read it here. Stay tuned for part two.

The myth of non-doctrinal Christianity

A very penetrating thinker has observed:

"When you hear anyone say 'Away with creeds,' you know that what he really means is 'take mine.'"

Everyone has a creed. There is not a single exception. And we live according to what we really believe. How foolish then the prejudice against doctrine. Much of it is based upon ignorance.

Edward Roberts, quoted in Ligon Duncan (ed.), The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century vol. 1, p. 24

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The annihilation of hell (2)

More from my interview with Robert A. Peterson in Risking the Truth:

In your experience what has been the status of the doctrine of hell among church members and in the thinking of those training to be pastors?

I have been active in local evangelical churches for forty years and in the training of pastors for thirty. Unfortunately, in my experience, the doctrine of hell has been neglected among church members and even in the thinking of those training to be pastors.

The words of Lesslie Newbigin are truer today than when he penned them in 1994: “It is one of the weaknesses of a great deal of contemporary Christianity that we do not speak of the last judgment and of the possibility of being finally lost” (“Confessing Christ in a Multi-Religion Society,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 12 [1994]: 130–31, quoted in Carson, The Gagging of God, 536).

Part of the blame should be placed at the feet of evangelical pastors, whom surveys show have been slow to teach and preach what the Bible says about hell. My study of hell in the mid-1990’s brought me to repentance because I was personally guilty of such neglect.

My experience has been that if we can bring hell to evangelicals’ minds and hearts, if we can move it from being a passive to an active doctrine, then they will begin to pray about their lost friends and loved ones as never before. That in turn motivates them to share the gospel as the Holy Spirit leads. And that produces fruit in terms of spiritual growth in the lives of the evangelists and salvation for some of those evangelized.

1How should the doctrine of hell be preached?

It should be preached by pastors who have a deep sense of Christ’s redeeming them from hell (see Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Pastoral Theology: The Preacher and Hell,” in Hell under Fire, 219–37). Such pastors must prayerfully, lovingly, and faithfully share the message of Jesus, the Redeemer of the world, and his apostles that those who die in their sins will suffer “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46), even “the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9).

At times I have found it impossible not to weep as I speak of Christ suffering the pains of hell, of drinking the cup of God’s wrath for us, so that we do not have to do so. The Bible’s message of hell is a topic worthy of study, but in addition, it has to be something that moves us to action—to repentance, when we consider what our sins deserve; to prayer, out of compassion for the lost; to worship, when we consider what Christ endured to redeem us; and certainly, to witness, when we desire for others to know our great God and Savior.

The annihilation of hell (1)

It is easy to measure need and to be moved by compassion, or to stifle that response, by what our eyes can see. In a world marked by sickness, pain, greed, deprivation, and death, the needs of people, near and far, press themselves upon our vision.

But whether or not people need the gospel is not something that can be measured by what we can see. It is something that we have to be told. The need people have for the Saviour, because of the seriousness of their sin and its eternal consequences, is something that we must be taught by divine revelation. Our eyes cannot measure this need.

We see some of the devastating consequences of the Fall, but we do not see the full extent and true horror of sin in this life. Nor, for that matter, are we able to grasp these matters at all unaided by divine truth. Therefore, it is imperative that we take seriously every word of Jesus upon the subject of the eternal fire and the outer darkness.

One of the greatest impediments to taking the truth of eternal judgement seriously is our default position of making divine revelation in Scripture subservient to our own assessments of need. And as long as think that we can adequetly discern this by looking rather than listening we will annihilate the influence of eternity upon us.

We would do well, Bible in hand, to follow the practice of Rodin's The Thinker, sat above the gates of hell, meditating upon these weighty matters. To help us do that Monergism has a helpful page of articles and audio messages on hell. You can access them here.

In Risking the Truth I asked Covenant Seminary professor Robert A. Peterson, who has written extensively and helpfully on the subject of hell, some questions on this subject. Here is a short extract from what is a powerful, sobering, and thought provoking interview:

1Why has there been a willingness by some evangelicals in the last one hundred years or so to accept and embrace annihilationalism?

Though some annihilationists insist that the Bible alone has motivated their rejection of the historic doctrine, others admit that emotional considerations have played a part. Without judging the motives of individuals, my opinion is that the intellectual and emotional climate of our times has more to do with the move away from some historic doctrines, including that of hell, than many realize.

In an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is politically incorrect to hold that people who do not trust Christ as Lord and Savior, will suffer everlasting torment in body and soul. But that is exactly what the Bible teaches. (For a recent defense of exclusivism, the view that one must hear and believe the gospel of Christ in this life to be saved, see, C. W. Morgan and R. A. Peterson, Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (InterVarsity, 2008.)

Perhaps the candid response of one employee of an Evangelical publisher, when asked what she thought of a book featuring a debate between traditionalism and annihilationism, reflects the default mode of many: “I certainly hope that annihilationism is true!” It is not our place to hope that certain things are true with reference to the things of God. It is our place to humbly receive the Word that God has given. That means restraining our curiosity where the Word is silent. And that means believing and obeying God’s truth even if we don’t like it.

Two orthodox doctrines that became immediate targets for “liberated” human reason in the Enlightenment—original sin and eternal conscious punishment for the lost—are not my favorites. But the Word of God teaches them and so I am obligated to receive them as true and to live accordingly.

I am afraid that too many people today reach conclusions as to what they believe concerning the Christian faith on the basis of their feelings and desires rather than the teaching of Scripture. As J. I. Packer remarked some years ago, “If you want to see folk damned something is wrong with you!” Of course this is true, but Packer went on to say that some of God’s truth is hard and one such truth is the Bible’s teaching concerning eternal hell.

It seems to me that the hard words of D. A. Carson are correct: “Despite the sincerity of their motives, one wonders more than a little to what extent the growing popularity of various forms of annihilationism and conditional immortality are a reflection of this age of pluralism. It is getting harder and harder to be faithful to the ‘hard lines’ of Scripture” (The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism [Zondervan, 1996], 536.). But the Lord requires nothing less of us than, by his grace, to be faithful.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Christus Victor and Penal Substitution

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).
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.
Thus the Catechism holds together what ought never to be separated. Here we have the Godward dimension of the atonement (satisfaction) and the polemic dimension (conquest). The latter, however, is dependent on the former.

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 (1 Cor. 15:56). 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.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Packer on theological liberalism

Here are some lightly edited extracts from J. I. Packer's Latimer Studies booklet "A Kind of Noah's Ark? The Anglican Commitment to Comprehensiveness."

Although this booklet reflects on the theological situation in the Church of England, and that at a particular time, some of the following observations hold good for more contemporary movements. For although there have been several historic forms of liberal theology there is also a liberal mood or mindset:

First, the basis of all forms of this position is the hypothesis that no universally right way of thinking about God is given in Christianity.

Unable to accept what might be called a Chalcedonian view of Scripture (i.e. that it is fully human as well as fully divine, and fully divine as well as fully human), they have doubted both the reality of the Chalcedonian Christ to whom the New Testament witnesses and the propriety of reading Scripture as more than a rag-bag of traditions, intuitions, fancies and mythology whereby good men celebrated and shared their sense of being in touch with God - a contact occasioned for New Testament writers by a uniquely godly man named Jesus.

That prophets and apostles no less than creeds and churches can all be wrong on questions of reality and truth, is plank one in the liberal platform. Scripture and the Christian literary heritage are certainly stimulating, inspiring and effective in communicating God, but that does not make them true.

So the constant endeavour of the liberal fraternity from the start has been to go behind and beyond biblical witness to reformulate the faith in terms which to them, as modern men, seem truer, clearer and less inadequate (whether evolutionist, idealist, panentheist, deist, existentialist, Marxist; sociological, psychological, syncretistic; or whatever).

Certainly, for today’s liberals there are no fixed fundamentals; everything, not excluding the doctrine of God - indeed, some say, that first - is regarded as in principle open to review and change.

...liberals have no united platform or policy, for they hold in common the sifting, reshaping methodology which these negations entail. They agree only in what they are against; beyond this it is every man for himself.

Sykes notes that ‘a “liberal” theological proposal is always in the form of a challenge to an established authority, and thus necessarily implies a dispute about the appropriate norms or criteria for any theology whatsoever.’ He notes too that ‘it is impossible to be merely a “liberal” in theology one’s theology … will be liberal in as much as it is a modification of an already existing type’ - liberal catholic, liberal evangelical, or even liberal latitudinarian.

And he rightly stresses that any church in which liberals do their thing, querying the traditional and jettisoning the conventional, will have to endure real divergences of belief as some negate what others affirm and affirm what others cannot but negate.

[A]ll forms of liberalism are unstable. Being developed in each case by taking some secular fashion of thought as the fixed point (evolutionary optimism, historical scepticism, Marxist sociology, or whatever), and remodelling the Christian tradition to fit it, they are all doomed to die as soon as the fashion changes, according to Dean Inge’ s true saying that he who marries the spirit of the age today will be a widower tomorrow.

It is not always realised that the history of the past century and a half is littered with the wreckage of dead liberalisms. Though liberalism as an attitude of mind (going back at least to the Renaissance, if not indeed to the temptation of Eve) has persisted, and persists still, particular liberalisms have so far been relatively short-lived, and can be expected to continue so. Some liberals cheerfully acknowledge this and never treat their current opinions as more than provisional, anticipating that they may think differently next week.

A Few Good Men? Reforming the cult of the celebrity preacher (2)

In the previous post we took up the issue of appropriate and inappropriate assessments of leaders, and asked if are really willing to exercise godliness in this area. This involves confessing and practicing three important doctrines.

The doctrines in question concern the ascription of all glory to God, of all saving power to God, and of the final judgement of sinners and saints being exclusively in the hands of God.

The great irony of course is that these truths have been believed in, preserved, and defended by evangelicals. In their most theological forms it is Calvinistic evangelicals who have led the way in these matters.

But we sometimes speak better than we know, and at times what we perceive to be our strengths, upon closer examination, turn out to be areas where we are surprisingly weak. We are simply not as God-centred as we think we are.

By way of excessive adulation toward our favourite preachers, we may fix our attention upon the instrument in the hand of God and not upon the Lord himself. In the process of doing this we stress the most peripheral, inconsequential matters, about them.

Even our misdirected praise can be misdirected. We treat them no differently than we do pop stars, and fawn over their mannerisms and other minor details.

In order to recover ourselves from this we need to listen to Paul's session from his "Church leadership 101" course at Corinth entitled "Only God makes things grow" (1 Corinthians 3:4-9):
For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers.
The Puritan Richard Baxter, responding to the praise given to him for his voluminous writings, said that he was only a pen in the hand of God, and asked "what praise is due to a pen?"

Thanking God for his servants who have been the means in his hand of our conversion or growth in grace is not inappropriate. What is inappropriate is to confuse what the servant can do and what God alone can do.

When we confuse these matters and treat preachers as celebrities we are showing that we are not as God-centred in our hearts as we are in our words. Ask yourself about your expectations at a conference when an unknown "name" comes up to speak at one of the sessions and see if you are not already guilty of confusing the powers possessed by a servant with those reserved for his Master.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Few Good Men? Reforming the cult of the celebrity preacher (1)

If ever there was an area where individually and collectively evangelicalism stands in need of reforming it is in the area of the cult of the celebrity preacher.

Some years ago I had to write an essay comparing the ministries of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott. The answer required an evaluation of which one ought to have the most lasting legacy.

That is as provocative a question as one could wish for. How do you answer it without transgressing the apostolic warning in 1 Corinthians 4:5?
Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
If there is one thing that has been a constant refrain in my experience of evangelicalism, even in its more Calvinistic expressions, it is the inappropriate assessment of leaders.

On the one hand this shows itself in a misplaced adulation of successful, gifted, prominent preachers.

It also manifests itself in a disdain, or suspicion, toward leaders outside of a particular circle.

The ones we love are shielded from criticism and treated with great favour.

The ones we are less well disposed toward are subject to the kind of criticism that makes you wonder whether the final judgement has already been ushered in.

At times there is very little to distinguish evangelical thinking and behaviour toward famous preachers from the kind of hero worship found in sports fans or in political parties. And with an Isaianic admission, in this regard, I am a man of unclean lips.

Whether it is by an excess of praise, or a spirit of judgement unbecoming to mere mortals lacking in omniscience, both approaches reveal a fundamental fault in our spiritual perception of leaders.

They are, after all, opposing responses really being played out from the same vantage point. Both assume that from where we are standing, from what we already know, we may act as arbiters attributing praise or blame. We find it so easy to stray beyond our creaturely capacities.

All of which shows that there are three great doctrines that we have failed to come to terms with rigorously enough.

The evidence for that will not necessarily show up in our beliefs, for there they remain firm and intact, but in bending our thoughts under their sway in the life of the church.

The doctrines in question concern the ascription of all glory to God, of all saving power to God, and of the final judgement of sinners and saints being exclusively in the hands of God.

Ask yourself if you are really willing to exercise godliness in this area.

The Preacher as a Theologian

On Saturday I spoke at Bethlehem, Sandfields, on "The Preacher as a Theologian" and "Preaching our Theology."

Someone sent me the following comment about the first address.
I heard a story a little while ago of two people visiting a cemetery and one noticing that the headstone on a particular grave had the words "Preacher and theologian" on it. This led him to say to his companion "There must be two people buried in this grave".
As soon as we speak of God, or speak to him, we disclose our thoughts about who he is and how we relate to him. When we stand before a group of people and speak of God we are engaged in a theological task. Who is this God? How may we know him? What is the connection between our words about him and the reality of who he is? By what authority may we speak of and about him?

Preacher as a theologian? It's a no brainer.

My outline for the talk, much of which was drawn from the pastoral epistles, was as follows (I may put the meat on these bones in some future posts):

1. We must pursue the goal of doxology

2. We must resolve to live with integrity

3. We must maintain a commitment to orthodoxy

4. We must guard against the entrance of heresy

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God: Packer's address remembered (1)

On the 24th October 1959 J. I. Packer spoke at a meeting held at Westminster Chapel on the relationship between God's sovereignty and evangelism. This was a pre-mission meeting, held before an evangelistic mission organised by the LIFCU (The London Inter-Faculty Christian Union).

The address given on this occasion would later become the book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (IVP, 1961), following on from the highly successful 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God (IVP, 1958). Fifty years on Packer's words repay careful reading. UK readers can order it here. US readers can order it here.

Why was there a need to address this subject at all?

We begin by noting some of the historic roots.

The Original "Young, Restless and Reformed" Generation

1. Young...and Now Reformed

In the 1950s, in British evangelicalism, there had been a resurgence of Calvinism. Although Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones had been perhaps the only prominent preacher of the older Calvinistic theology of the Reformers and Puritans, that many believed had died out with Spurgeon, many students, graduates and young people were rediscovering the biblical theology of this older evangelicalism.

Iain Murray refers to this as "A New Generation and New Thought" in the second volume of his authorized biography of Lloyd-Jones, noting that in 1959 Lloyd-Jones "could speak of the 'tremendously encouraging fact' that 'there is obviously a new interest in Reformed literature and this seems to me to be true right through the world'" (The Fight of Faith, p. 225). Instrumental in this had been the emergence of the Banner of Truth Trust and the republication of older Puritan works.

There had been a remarkable stirring among younger people, a captivating rediscovery of the sovereignty of God in salvation. The impact of this is best captured by the words of the affectionately remembered Rev. Derek Swann. As a ministerial student he attended the third IVF Welsh Conference in July 1951 where Dr. Lloyd-Jones had spoken on "The Sovereignty of God."

The Doctor believed that there was an unusual openness to the truth among these young people. In his first address Lloyd-Jones had begun with a definition of divine sovereignty and reasons why this truth was so important. His second address was a lengthy biblical overview of divine sovereignty. His third address focussed on the grace of God in the plan of salvation and in the conversion of the individual.

Derek Swann wrote of the impact of these messages:
When Dr. Lloyd-Jones spoke on the sovereignty of God, many of us came to the doctrines of grace for the first time, myself included. He left the doctrine of the sovereignty in salvation to his last talk, having in the previous two talks laid down all the principles that he would apply in the final talk.

I accepted everything in the first two talks and had eventually to accept them in the third. I remember it was early in the morning in conversation with Gwyn Walters that the truth of election dawned on me. I was so overcome with the wonder of it all that I had to fight back the tears. For many of us since, election has been an affair of the heart as well as the head. (The Fight of Faith, p. 245-6)
And so the story would continue. It is idle to speak of the 21st century resurgence without acknowledging the gains of the post-WWII generation. Under God's sovereignty we owe a great debt to their faith, vision, preaching, publications, and institutional endeavours.

2. ...but Restless nevertheless

Along with the recovery of doctrine came the understandable effects of growing pains. The most enthusiastic believers would not always make the best advocates. Nor, for that matter, is it the case that having got hold of something true and vital that we are sufficiently mature and balanced enough to be able to hold that truth in the right way.

The immediate context for Packer's address, after a decade of widespread Calvinistic recovery, was one of an "unusual degree of controversy" (Murray, The Fight of Faith, P. 378). This is hardly surprising since the recovery of Calvinistic views of conversion and sovereign grace occurred in the context of an evangelicalism still influenced by the methodology and theology of Finney and Moody, and receptive to the visits of Billy Graham.

One strand of this local controversy was over the question of the need for any special measures in evangelism at all, and a re-thinking of the received wisdom about evangelistic techniques. Packer's address would press home the reality of God's sovereignty in salvation and the need for evangelism. We should be Calvinists and evangelists.

More on this later in the week

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Condemned King: Mark 15 and the doctrine of penal substitution

My article "The Condemned King: Mark 15 and the doctrine of penal substitution" is currently posted at Ref 21 and at The Gospel Coalition site. Here's opening paragraph:
In order to establish the doctrine of penal substitution we are not dependent on a few isolated proof-texts here and there in Scripture. The doctrine is woven indelibly into the very fabric of the account of the crucifixion, with numerous threads drawn from the Old Testament. Rather than instinctively looking to the gospels to provide the facts about the crucifixion, and to the letters to supply the meaning of those facts, we must turn to the Old Testament as the vantage point from which we are to survey the cross. Antecedent Scripture provides us with all the categories we need to understand the cross.
You can read the rest here

Trueman on Packer part 2

It seems that some folks are rather upset by Dr. Carl Trueman's description of J. I. Packer as "in some ways a failure." Try concentrating on the words "in some ways" rather than solely on the word "failure."

On the matter of the "lost leader" that non-conformists needed bear this in mind:

One commentator, in 1977, wrote of Packer’s diminished influence among evangelical Anglicans. They had, quite simply, moved on. This assessment is also given by his biographer Alister McGrath, “Increasingly, Packer felt he was a ‘pelican in the wilderness’. Nobody seemed to want him very much.” He was left with no institutional role in evangelical Anglican leadership circles. I think you have to understand Dr. Trueman’s comments against this historic background.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Evangelical Unity: An Appeal (extracts from the address given by Martyn Lloyd-Jones at the second National Assembly of Evangelicals, 18th Oct 1966)

This is a re-post from three years ago. Whether or not you agree with what Lloyd-Jones said, or with how John Stott responded, it is important at the very least to fairly represent the position that Lloyd-Jones was arguing for.

When we disagree with an argument it is all too easy to colour our representation of it with our own prejudices.

On the 18th October 1966 Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave an address on evangelical unity under the auspices of the Evangelical Alliance. The address was a plea for visible evangelical unity at the church level (instead of being exclusively through movements such as the IVF/UCCF). This call for putting gospel unity before denominational unity, and before the demands of a gathering ecumenism that fostered doctrinal indifference, was something of a watershed moment in British evangelicalism.

"How did they [19th Century evangelicals] meet these difficulties [catholicism and liberalism]? They met them by forming alliances, movements and societies."

"I am here to suggest that we find ourselves in a new situation, which has very largely been caused by the arising and arrival among us of what is known as the ecumenical movement."

"Can we deny the charge that we, as evangelical Christians, have been less interested in the question of church unity than anyone else?"

"Are we content, as evangelicals, to go on being nothing but an evangelical wing of a church?"

"Are you content with a kind of paper church, with a formula that people interpret in their own way, you being just an evangelical wing in this comprehensive, national, territorial church?"

"What is the Christian church? That is the question. You cannot discuss church unity unless you are clear in your mind as to what the church is. Now here is the great divide. The ecumenical people put fellowship before doctrine. We are evangelicals; we put doctrine before fellowship."

"What then is this true doctrine?...the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God; our assertion of the unique deity of the Lord Jesus Christ--yes, His virgin birth; the miraculous and supernatural; His atoning, sacrificial, substitutionary death; His literal, physical resurrection; the person of the Holy Spirit and His work. These are the doctrines which are essential to salvation; there is the truth that is to be preached, the message which is the first of the true marks of the church. And a church, surely, is a gathering of people who are in covenant together because they believe these things. Not only do they believe them, but they are men and women who have experienced their power. They are men and women who are born again and born of the Spirit, and who give evidence of this in their daily life. Surely that is the evangelical view of the church."

"So I say we must come back and realize that this is our basic view of the Christian church, and that what we need, above everything else at the present time, is a number of such churches, all in fellowship together, working together for the same ends and objects. They are one already in their views, in their faith, in their ideas, and they must not, as our general secretary so excellently put it, divide upon secondary, subsidiary, and non-essential matters."

"The church, surely, is not a paper definition. I am sorry, I cannot accept the view that the church consists of articles or of a confession of faith. A church does not consist of the Thirty-Nine Articles. A church does not consist of the Westminster Confession of Faith...A church consists of living people."

"You and I are evangelicals. We are agreed about these essentials of the faith, and yet we are divided from one another. We meet like this, I know, in an occasional conference, but we spend most of our time apart from one another, and joined to and united with people who deny and are opposed to these essential matters of salvation. We spend our time with them. We have visible unity with them. Now, I say, that is sinful."

"Let me therefore make an appeal to you evangelical people here present this evening. What reasons have we for not coming together? I think we ought to be able to give an answer to that question."

"Let me put it positively. Do we not feel the call to come together, not occasionally, but always? It is a grief to me that I spend so little of my time with some of my brethren. I want to spend the whole of my time with them. I am a believer in ecumenicity, evangelical ecumenicity. To me, the tragedy is that we are divided. Is it right that those of us who are agreed about these fundamental things should only meet occasionally and spend, as I say, most of our time when we are among others fighting negative battles, showing how wrong our own leaders are, and so on? Now you and I have been called to a positive task."

"There are great and grievous difficulties; I am well aware of them. I know that there are men, ministers and clergy, in this congregation at the moment, who, if they did what I am exhorting them to do, would have a tremendous problem before them, even a financial, an economic and a family problem. I do not want to minimize this. My heart goes out to such men. There are great problems confronting us if we act on these principles. But has the day come when we, as evangelicals, are afraid of problems?"

"And who knows but that the ecumenical movement may be something for which, in years to come, we shall thank God because it made us face our problems on the church level instead of on the level of movements, and really brought us together as a fellowship, or an association, of evangelical churches. May God speed the day."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Carl Trueman talks about J. I. Packer

Have a listen as Carl talks about his recent essay on Packer "An English Non-Conformist Perspective" in Timothy George [ed.], J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future. You can read some sample pages here.


It seems that some folks are rather upset by Dr. Carl Trueman's description of J. I. Packer as "in some ways a failure." Try concentrating on the words "in some ways" rather than solely on the word "failure."

On the matter of the "lost leader" that non-conformists needed bear this in mind:

One commentator, in 1977, wrote of Packer’s diminished influence among evangelical Anglicans. They had, quite simply, moved on. This assessment is also given by his biographer Alister McGrath, “Increasingly, Packer felt he was a ‘pelican in the wilderness’. Nobody seemed to want him very much.” He was left with no institutional role in evangelical Anglican leadership circles. I think you have to understand Dr. Trueman’s comments against this historic background.

I don't suppose that my following comments will make any sense unless you have watched the video clip. Perhaps they won't make any sense even if you have watched it.

I have heard Carl talk about some of these issues before, and he is surely right about the lack of a systematic theology from Packer. That said he has given to the church a remarkable written legacy. As a sixteen year old I heard Packer preach in Cardiff on the doctrine of hell. I have listened to the recording many times since then, and had no appreciation at the time of what I was listening to, or who Packer was. I must find a way to get that message from audio cassette to mp3.

I have yet to read Carl's essay and so have no idea about the connection between my comments and what he has written as they appertain to Packer and Lloyd-Jones. The break with Lloyd-Jones came in 1970 and not in 1966. Indeed this Sunday will mark the 43rd anniversary of that definitive moment in post-war British evangelicalism when Lloyd-Jones, the speaker, and John Stott, the chairman, publicly disagreed over evangelical policy on ecumenism at the Evangelical Alliance meeting.

The break between Lloyd-Jones and Packer, in 1970, came after the publication of Growing into Union. The book was written by four authors, two evangelicals and two Anglo-Catholics. But the positions advocated were representative of a common mind ("We are all four committed to every line in the book...and we are determined that no wedge be driven between us." I am referring to a footnote by Iain Murray in Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace and am not able to verify what has been omitted from this sentence).

Certainly from Lloyd-Jones' standpoint the parting of the ways was due to Packer's ecumenical commitment expressed in Growing into Union. Lloyd-Jones expressed his concerns to Packer in a letter dated July 7th 1970. Referring to a discussion about the book at the monthly ministers' Fellowship (the Westminster Fellowship) Lloyd-Jones wrote:
The general opinion there, without a single voice to the contrary, was that the doctrinal position outlined in the book cannot be regarded as being evangelical, still less puritan. The three of us [the free church members of the Puritan Conference committee] therefore feel, most reluctantly, that we cannot continue to co-operate with you in the Puritan Conference. To do so would be at the least to cause great confusion in the minds of all Free Church evangelical people and indeed a number of Anglican people.

This I feel sure will not come as a surprise to you as you must have known that the views expounded in the book concerning Tradition, Baptism, the Eucharist and Bishops, not to mention the lack of clarity concerning justification by faith only, could not possibly be acceptable to the vast majority of people attending the Puritan Conference.
Packer, of course, continued to follow this trajectory, culminating in the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together document, The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium, of which he was an endorser. That document contained the joint affirmation that "we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ," an affirmation notable for the omission of the Reformation's solas. This, above everything else, was surely the great failure.

It is somewhat ironic that the pursuit of a wider ecclesiastical unity, a pursuit that could never be fulfilled by a policy of temporarily suspending the practice of gospel essentials in order to achieve more visible agreement, has been the cause of the open divisions among evangelicals in the twentieth century.

Lloyd-Jones' letter also stressed something of Packer's literary failure that Carl noted in the video:
You have known throughout the years not only my admiration for your great gift of mind and intellect but also my deep regard for you. I had expected that long before this you would have produced a major work in the Warfield tradition, but you have felt called to become involved in ecclesiastical affairs. This to me is nothing less than a great tragedy and a real loss to the Church.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Great providence of heaven: Ruth and the sovereign purposes of God

I love the Scriptural realism and comfort of the Heidelberg Catechism. It boldly proclaims, on the basis of the Word of God, that our God is sovereign and good, being both Almighty God and a Faithful Father. Moreover "all things come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand" (HC 27).

There is much of God's goodness that we take for granted, much of his kindness that we respond to as if were the only proof of his providential rule. But his sovereign rule and providence are much greater than that.

In the book of Ruth we see God's providence on the macro and micro levels.
  • The harvest happens according to his will, "the LORD had visited his people and given them food" (1:6).
  • The birth of Obed too is under his sovereign will, "the LORD gave her [Ruth] conception, and she bore a son" (4:13)
Even the seemingly chance occurrence of Ruth being in the right field at the right time, what is delightfully referred to in chapter two as "she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz" (2:3), is also under God's providential guidance.

Yet there are also dark providences. Death, the grave, an uncertain future, bitterness, are all realities in the narrative. There would be no happy ending without these times of pain and sorrow. It is Naomi who gives voice to this sense of anguish, the hopelessness of the hand of the Lord being against her (1:13). She has felt deep wounds. And yet she still acknowledges that her God is sovereign (1:21).

From the vantage point of the end of the book it is clear that these mundane events have served the greater purpose of being part of that story of King David's history (4:17-22). Unknown to all the dramatis personae caught up in the sorrows and joys (1:13, 19-21; 4:14-16) is this greater divine purpose hidden from their view, but strong and sure and real and good and true.

There is, of course, an even greater vantage point from which to survey the struggles of life in the book of Ruth. As the first page of the New Testament is turned we see that God's purpose through this family, and this line, was to bring to realisation the coming of his Son into the world.
And Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king...and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. (1:5-6, 16-17)
There were great purposes of grace at work even during days of dark providences. There was a mighty hand guiding all events according to the counsel of God even when the coming of Christ appeared to hang by a thread, and rested on the turn of a conversation (1:7-17).

What should this evoke from us?
  • Deep and heartfelt thanks for the outworking of God's gracious sovereign plan in history that culminated in the incarnation.
  • Confidence in our covenant God and his providence. In the words of Heidelberg Catechism 28:
What does it profit us to know that God created, and by His providence upholds, all things?

That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.

What is stated so well in the Catechism was also movingly expressed by Sarah Edwards as she wrote to her daughter Esther on the 3rd April 1758 to break the news of the death of her husband Jonathan:

What shall I say: A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left to us! We are all given to God: and there I am and love to be.

Swine flu at the Hundred Acre Wood

This brought amusement to the Downes' household this morning

(HT: Tried With Fire)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Controversy, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing?

What happens when controversy rears its head and cracks in our unity appear?

Theological controversies invariably reveal that there are significant differences that people hold to on matters of doctrine, whilst the quarrelling parties both claim to stand for the orthodox position as understood both biblically and historically.

The long term wrangling over what constitutes essential evangelical doctrines is a case in point. Can you be evangelical and deny inerrancy, or justification by faith alone, or penal substitutionary atonement, or God's exhaustive foreknowledge, or the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, or eternal conscious torment in hell?

When an individual, or a party, wants to use the term evangelical but includes in that term views that are fundamentally opposed to beliefs directly essential to, or necessarily undergirding, an evangelical position then controversy is inevitable.

For controversy not to result would be the effect of an unstated but controlling theological principle that renders all doctrines essential to an evangelical position negotiable and effectively non-essential. That unstated position would itself show that a compromise on essential truths had already been made.

Even though controversy is inevitable is it desirable? The answer must be yes. For without controversy whatever unity that exists is as solid as the mist on an Autumn morning. It is merely a numbers and influence game, a fantasy and not a reality.

How can you stand for a unity that doesn't solidly exist upon matters of belief? Not only does the emporer have no clothes, but the empire is invisible too.

What is the point in having an agreed statement of essential beliefs that no one really adheres to because no one is willing to enforce it? If we have any concern for the truth we would surely want it to be made clear rather than being obscured by fog of meaningless ambiguous phrases.

Controversy, however, as most of us fear, can quickly become an ugly business. We can rapidly move the emphasis from what is right, to ourselves being right, or being seen to be right. Patient listening, charitable interpretation, and a desire for unity can be soon lost.

We are on a knife edge as we deal with these matters. Truth must not be traded, sounds words must not be emptied of their meaning, and compromise must not be the master of integrity. Desperate prayers for wisdom are to be top of the agenda, and we must think our way through these matters seeking understanding, light and clarity.

Perhaps this fear is what lies at the root of an unwillingness to engage in controversy even when there is an irreconcilable disagreement on matters of truth and error. We see the fraying tempers, the soured relationships, the carrying of tales and exaggerations, and we rightly feel that we want no part of that.

At this point we must distinguish between matters of orthopraxy in relation to the truth (the Pauline imperative to "hold fast" and "follow the pattern of sound words") and in matters of godly integrity (just read everything that Paul says to Timothy and Titus about how to be godly in the thick of a theological fight). We must distinguish between these two areas, and we must practice the truth in both of them without compromise.

Obedience in holding to the truth, and obedience in the practice of the truth, go hand in hand. But when error reaches a crescendo in the form of a false gospel then I must not think that bad attitudes among those who hold to the truth can be equated with the danger posed by heresy (Gal. 1:8-10).

That should not make me go easy on sins of bearing false witness, or pride (2 Tim. 2:24-26). The King is not honoured when I behave like this. But I would rather eat wholesome food served by a grumpy waitress than a meal laced with poison served by a seemingly sweet natured chef.

One of the benefits of controversy is the progress made from confusion to clarity. Luther made the following observations on the matter:

If heresies and offenses come, Christendom will only profit thereby, for they make Christians to read diligently the Holy Writ and ponder the same with industry...Thus through heretics and offenses we are kept alert and stouthearted and amid wrangles and battles understand God's word better than before.

William Cunningham's words are a fitting summary:
The uses of theological controversy are, to expose error, and to produce and diffuse clear and correct opinions upon all points of doctrine.

It is the church's imperative duty to aim at these objects, and controversy seems to be as indispensable with a view to the second as to the first of them. But it is an evil and an abuse, when the exposure of error is made to serve as a substitute for the realization and application of what is admitted to be true.
"The Reformers and the doctrine of assurance" in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 148

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Unmasking False Teachers: The reversal of the Scooby Doo ending

There is a simple format to the end of the show in Scooby Doo. The ghost or monster finally gets unmasked and you discover that it was the janitor or the mayor all along. And of course he would have got away with it if it wasn't for those pesky kids.

The story of false teachers is very opposite of that. They appear, not in their true identity, but wearing the mask of orthodoxy.

  • They masquerade as servants of righteousness, they are deceitful workmen disguising themselves as apostles of Christ, they are wolves in shepherd's clothing (2 Cor. 11:13-14; Acts 20:29-30).
  • As to their methods they are deceitful workmen, acting by the craftiness of deceitful scheming, and usuing plausible arguments to delude and trap their victims (2 Cor. 11: Eph. 4:14; Col. 2:4, 8).
It is the very opposite of what you expect to be the case. They appear to be like the mayor in Scooby Doo. It is only when they are unmasked at the end that you realise that it was a wolf all along. Isn't that what Jesus warned about?
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-16a)
Think about it.

The great privilege of consecutive expository preaching

When I started out in local pastoral ministry just over four years ago I had no idea just how enriching consecutive preaching through a book of the Bible would be. Of course I had hoped that it would be, but those hopes were jostling for space in my mind with anxieties about sustaining such preaching week in week out . Thankfully the congregation were not daunted when, after five weeks, we were halfway through the word "in" in Genesis 1:1.

The sustained study of the text in context, explained, proved, illustrated and applied to the varying needs of our hearers is a remarkable spiritual discipline. It has forced me to understand, interpret and explain the harder parts of Scripture that you can avoid if your preaching is topical. It has also made me realise something of the great riches of Scripture as new avenues of thought and the interconnectedness of God's written revelation opened up.

It is also the greatest way for our thoughts and lives as preachers to be moulded by the truth over a sustained period of time. Your soul can absorb more and more of a particular book, and do that within the warp and woof of local church life. What can compare with the Word of God coming into contact with and meeting the needs of people in the ups and downs of life? Quite simply it is a great privilege and one that I am deeply thankful for.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Editor of Foundations

As from this week I have been appointed as the new editor of Foundations, the Affinity theological journal. I will be taking over this role from Dr. Ken Brownell who has very ably edited the journal for a number of years. Although it is currently print based we will be reviewing the format of the journal. I'll keep you posted.

Here's the blurb:
Foundations is published by Affinity in April and October. Its aim is to cover contemporary theological issues by articles and reviews, taking in exegesis, biblical theology, church history and apologetics - and to indicate their relevance to pastoral ministry. Its policy gives particular attention to the theology of evangelical churches which are committed to biblical ecumenism.
You can learn more about the journal and download some items by going here.

In addition to this I will also be co-chairing the next Affinity theological studies conference. This will take place during the first week of February 2011 and will be on the doctrine of Scripture.

Loved as a Son, condemned as a sin-bearer

At the cross we see ourselves at our worst and God at his best.

We are powerless, sinners, ungodly, and God's enemies. God demonstrates his great love toward us by giving his Son, and by the Son assuming responsibility for our sins, and bearing their punishment. If Christ were not God then the cross would not be the demonstration of his love but a great act of compassion by a third party. The reality is that the cross is the self-giving of God; of the Father not sparing his own Son, of the Son giving himself for our sins, laying down his life for his sheep. We measure his love for us not by looking at our present experience, not by looking inwardly, not by looking at our circumstances, but by taking our eyes off of ourselves and gazing upon Christ crucified. As I said, at the cross we see ourselves at our worst and God at his best.

Here are words to meditate upon again and again from George Smeaton (1814-1889):
Jesus was visited with penal suffering because he appeared before God only in the guise of our accumulated sin; not therefore as a private individual, but as a representative; sinless in himself, but sin covered; loved as a Son, but condemned as a sin-bearer, in virtue of that federal union between him and his people, which lay at the foundation of the whole. Thus God condemned sin in the flesh, and in consequence of this there is no condemnation to us.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Risking the Truth: The Premier Radio Interview

If you so wish you can listen to my live interview with John Pantry on Premier Radio by clicking here and downloading the file. The interview lasts for 37 minutes. My thanks to Glenn Smethurst for editing the recording so that we don't have to listen to the traffic and weather reports.

We spend a bit of time discussing whether doctrine really matters and then I get to answer questions from callers. Being a Reformed Christian in the wider evangelical and Christian world is a bit like being the Tasmanian Devil. You are considered to be a rarity, a danger to livestock, and you can be easily caricatured.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The day I deliberately taught heresy

Back in the summer term of 2001 I was working with University and College Christian Unions across Wales. At that time we lived in Swansea, and as well as leading the team of workers in Wales, I got to spend some time with the Christian Union at Swansea University. I have very fond memories of that time, and some of the students from those years are among the finest young Christians that I know. I can't think of them without giving thanks for them.

One of my weekly privileges was to lead the Bible study for the hall/small group leaders (who in turn would teach others also). We had spent some time studying Amos and decided to study 1 John for the summer term.

It was either during the first or second session of the new term that I decided, in the car on the way down to the beach, to teach them some heresy. Not to teach them about heresy, but to deliberately teach them serious error as if it were solid truth. I thought it best to do it with subtlety. I didn't want to be too obvious about it. I also decided that the best point of entry would be to probe some areas of Christian experience where my dodgy ideas would get a sympathetic hearing. I decided to play on the sense of being defeated by sin and temptation and began to explain how John taught a higher spiritual dimension of Christian experience.

I talked. Pens were poised. Notes were taken. Some eager faces looked back at me. But, not actually being a heretic, I decided that I needed to thin out the plausibility of my teaching and to ham up the whole thing. In the end a discerning voice began to ask questions about my doctrinal lies and I confessed to being a deceiver. Trouble was, until I got to that point, at least one student suspended his questions about what I was saying because, well, I was saying it. And if I was saying it he didn't think it could be wrong, even though it didn't sound quite right.

I have thought over that incident several times.

1. Error often comes from a place where you least expect it to

It catches us unawares. It comes from people that we have grown to trust and in whose judgement we acquiesce. Our guard is down because we don't think we will need to discern what they are saying. Now, I am certainly not advocating an overly scrupulous, suspicious, cynical approach to listening to preachers. But nothing seems more obvious than the entry of intruders where no guard has been posted. And of course we rationalise it based not on what they say (where discernment should focus) but on who they are, and how we feel about them.

2. Error often comes in small percentages

That is what makes it so subtle. Not only may it come from an otherwise faithful source, but it may make up, at first, but a small part of an otherwise orthodox whole.

This is a further reason why it seems so plausible to us. But a few tiny drops of arsenic should not be swallowed even if found in a large, tasty looking cake. This too is a test of our discernment. What ought to concern us is not the perfectly acceptable ingredients that make up the rest of the food on offer, but the precise nature of the unwelcome additives. It is not their size that matters but their nature. I've eaten a cake with some added garlic and chilli seeds, but I would hardly have eaten one with pieces of broken glass of the same size in it.

Heading to London

Tomorrow I will be on the train heading down to London. I will be speaking at the International Presbyterian Church Ealing from Friday through to Sunday. The first two days are the "at home" church weekend away. Paul Levy (above) is the minister. He is a Welshman, living in exile. Ealing of course was the home of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and I believe also of John Owen. In fact they both died there.

My theme is "Truth Matters" and we will be looking at "Why the Gospel matters" (Galatians 1), "Why the Word of God matters" (2 Tim. 3) and "Why the local Church matters" (Acts 20). I'm also doing a seminar on covenant theology.

Following that on Tuesday morning I will be a guest on Premier Radio's Inspirational Breakfast talking to John Pantry about Risking the Truth. Tuesday afternoon will be taken up with the Affinity theological team meeting. We are planning out our next theological studies conference, on the doctrine of Scripture, for February 2011. Greg Beale, Carl Trueman, Daniel Strange and yours truly are the scheduled speakers, with a few more to come.