Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why we must get it right

There are real spiritual dangers that face us when we think about errors, heresies and false teaching. On the one hand there is a temptation to fixate upon them, to become preoccupied, and to be sidetracked from following the pattern of apostolic ministry. On the other hand it is all too easy, especially in a cultural atmosphere of tolerance, to treat soul destroying error with complacency. There are dangers to the objective content of our faith, and to the subjective shape and health of our faith.

Preoccupation with error can blind us to the presence of pride. Schaeffer warned against this in The Great Evangelical Disaster:
Thus whenever it becomes necessary to draw a line in the defense of a central Christian truth it is so easy to be proud, to be hard. It is easy to be self-righteous and to self- righteously think that we are so right on this one point that anything else may be excused— this is very easy, a very easy thing to fall into. These mistakes were indeed made, and we have suffered from this and the cause of Christ has suffered from this through some fifty years.
However, tolerance of error will inflict terrible damage to churches and to the cause of the gospel. Wayne Grudem has drawn attention to this with some quite sobering words in his contribution to Beyond the Bounds:
After reading such verses [2 Peter 2:1; Jude 3-4], we might wonder if any of us have the same kind of heart for purity of doctrine in our Christian organisations, and the same sort of sober apprehension of the destructiveness of false doctrine, that the New Testament apostles had in their hearts.

If we ever begin to doubt that false teaching is harmful to the church, or if we begin to become complacent about false doctrine, thinking that it is fascinating to ponder, stimulating to our thoughts, and worthwhile for discussion, then we should remind ourselves that in several cases the New Testament specifies that the ultimate source of many false teachings is Satan and his demons.
We must not only aim to be informed about error but also seek after God honouring responses in how we handle it. There must be a unified stress here on orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This is no more than what is expected in 2 Timothy 2:22-25:

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness

Monday, March 30, 2009

Taking error with apostolic seriousness

Every generation of the church needs to cultivate doctrinal discernment with regard to truth and error. Every generation of church leaders need to practice pastoral vigilance in the nurture and protection of the flock. God's Word on these matters must be understood and applied.

In this regard there are unchanging positive calls to preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:1-2), to teach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), to hold fast to the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-2), to follow the pattern of sound words (2 Tim. 1:13; 1 Tim. 4:6), to guard the good deposit (2 Tim. 1:14; 1 Tim. 6:20), to appoint faithful men able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2), and to teach disciples all that Jesus has commanded them to obey (Matt. 28:19-20).

These imperatives set the tone and direction of Christian ministry. They call for a wholehearted commitment to love the Lord our God, to be faithful stewards of the gospel, and to feed his sheep (Jer. 3:15; 1 Cor. 4:1-2; Titus 1:9; 1 Peter 5:2).

Alongside these positive calls are the unrelenting warnings about the presence of false teachers, and clear instructions about how to deal with them (Rom. 16:17-18; Eph. 4:14; 1 Tim. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 2:16, 22-26; Titus 1:11; 3:9-11; 2 Peter 2:1-3). These warnings are clothed in powerful images. False teachers are wolves, dogs, waterless clouds, fruitless trees, wild waves, wandering stars, and their teaching will eat up like gangrene (Matt. 7:15-20; Acts 20:29; Phil. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:17; Jude 12-13) .

It is required of church leaders that they keep a watch on themselves, their teaching, and the flock entrusted to their care (Acts 20:28, 31; 1 Tim. 4:16). They must have a solid grasp of sound doctrine, held with a clear conscience, and an ability to mix it with false teachers (1 Tim. 1:5, 19; Titus 1:9). Truth must be taught and those in error must be rebuked and their teaching refuted.

Scripture never soft pedals the true nature and effects of heresy. It regards the most virulent forms of error as soul destroying and insidiously evil (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:1-4, 12-15; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 2:25-26; 1 John 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7). Harold O. J. Brown underlined the seriousness of rejecting the true gospel and embracing a different one:

...just as there are doctrines that are true, and that can bring salvation, there are those that are false, so false that they can spell eternal damnation for those who have the misfortune to be entrapped by them.

Nevertheless, in God's providence, these errors have been the occasion of producing greater clarity in the articulation of the essential articles of the Christian faith. They have also provoked some of the most substantial responses to be found in the theological literature of the Church. Alfred North Whitehead, of all people, rightly remarked that “wherever there is a creed, there is a heretic round the corner or in his grave.”

Rather more positively, Martin Luther was right to say that “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.”

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fact, theory, and the death of Christ

Originally posted in January 2008:

It is impossible to think about the death of Jesus without holding to an interpretation of the meaning of his death. At a very crude level, our interpretation of it will either be natural or supernatural, it will limit the horizon of explanation to the actions of men or it will include along with the actions of men the plan and purpose of God.

Having made this choice we are then faced with either a divinely given interpretation, which we must then receive, or an interpretation (or set of interpretations) that are coloured by our cultural situation and personal preferences. If the latter, then the doctrine of the atonement will alters its meaning over time.

What we cannot avoid is having an explanation of the meaning of the cross at all. The moment that we contemplate this death we are confronted with words like "Christ," "sin," "atonement," "for," and even "death" itself. These words convey to us the meaning of the cross.

The following lengthy extract if from Gresham Machen's What is Faith? The passing of time has not altered the relevance of his observations. The tendency for man to separate what God has joined together, fact and theory, event and explanation, is still very much with us.

Machen makes some important points about this issue:
We can have the fact of the atonement, it is said, no matter what particular theory of it we hold, and indeed even without holding any particular theory of it at all. So this substitutionary view, it is said, is after all only one theory among many.

This objection is based upon a mistaken view of the distinction between fact and theory, and upon a somewhat ambiguous use of the word "theory." What is meant by a "theory"?

Undoubtedly the word often has rather an unfavourable sound; and the use of it in the present connection might seem to imply that the view of the atonement which is designated as a "theory" is a mere effort of man to explain in his own way what God has given.

But might not God have revealed the "theory" of a thing just as truly as the thing itself; might he not himself have given the explanation when he gave the thing?

In that case the explanation just as much as the thing itself comes to us with divine authority, and it is impossible to accept one without accepting the other.

We have not yet, however, quite penetrated to the heart of the matter. Men say that they will accept the fact of the atonement without accepting the substitutionary theory of it, and indeed without being sure of any theory of it at all.

The trouble with this attitude is that the moment we say "atonement" we have already overstepped the line that separates fact from theory; an "atonement," even in the most general and most indefinite sense that could conceivably be given to the word, cannot possibly be a mere fact, but is a fact as explained by its purpose and result...What we have really done is to designate the event with an explanation of its meaning.

It is impossible for us to obtain the slightest benefit from a mere contemplation of the death of Christ; all the benefit comes from from our knowledge of the meaning of that death, or in other words (if the term be used in a high sense) from our "theory" of it.

If, therefore, we speak of the bare "fact" of the atonement, as distinguished from the "theory" of it, we are indulging in a misleading use of of words; the bare fact is the death, and the moment we say "atonement" we have committed ourselves to a theory [MD: we are committed to a theory when we say death].

The important thing, then, is, since we must have some theory, that the particular theory that we hold shall be correct.
Gresham Machen, What is Faith?, p. 145-6

Thursday, March 26, 2009

False teaching makes us better students

It is hard to imagine how the spread of distorted views of the truths can bring any benefits. Luther thought differently:

“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.”

As the serpent deceived Eve

"I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning,
your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ."
(2 Corinthians 11:3)

From J. C. Ryle
"Now this 'subtility,' St. Paul tells us, is precisely what we have to fear in false doctrine. We are not to expect it to approach our minds in the garment of error, but in the form of truth...The wolf would seldom get into the fold if he did not enter it in sheep's clothing."

"Such is the simplicity and innocence of many Churchmen in this day, that they actually expect false doctrine to look false, and will not understand that the very essence of its mischieviousness, as a rule, is its resemblance to God's truth...He goes into the church, expecting in his simplicity to hear nothing but heresy from the beginning to the end. To his amazement he hears a clever, eloquent sermon, containing a vast amount of truth, and only a few homeopathic drops of error."

"What discerning eye can fail to see that many Churchmen expect unsound teachers to be open vendors of poison, and cannot realise that they often appear as 'angels of light,' and are far too wise to be saying all they think, and showing their whole hand and mind. But so it is. Never was it so needful to remember the words, 'The serpent beguiled Eve by his subtilty.'"
J. C. Ryle, Warnings to the Churches, p. 130-1

The depths of sin

Tell me what you think of sin and I can figure out what kind of Saviour and what kind of salvation you will believe in.
The truth is that our minds are corrupted by sin. Not just a little bit, but deeply, down to the depths as far as we can perceive, and beyond. And not just grossly, so that it is easy to figure out where we went wrong, but subtly, delicately, invisibly. If we think we know and appreciate how far we have gone wrong, we are still deceiving ourselves at this point also.

desperately need God to save us from a pit from which we cannot climb out.
Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science, p. 56

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tramadol and Preaching

Tramadol is a wonderful painkiller. Although it has taken my mind off the pain it is not a great help when I want to concentrate on a subject. Even so, there are one or two things that have got beyond my medicated haziness and have made me think.

The little that I have read from T. David Gordon I have found to be helpful, bold, and shrewd. He is a good writer. I particularly liked the following excerpt from his new book Why Johnny Can't Preach that I found over at Kevin DeYoung's blog:
Ministers [in our culture] are not at home with what is significant; ministers whose attention span is less than that of a four-year-old in the 1940s, who race around like the rest of us, constantly distracted by sounds and images of inconsequential trivialities, and out of touch with what is weighty.

It is not surprising that their sermons, and the alleged worship that surrounds them, are often trifling, thoughtless, uninspiring, and mundane...

The great seriousness of the reality of being human, the dreadful seriousness of the coming judgment of God, the sheer insignificance of the present in light of eternity–realities that once were the subtext of virtually every sermon–have now disappeared, and have been replaced by one triviality after another
Scott Clark also has a post on the book here.

As well as a brief review of the book Kevin also has some worthwhile posts on essential doctrines that are worth checking out:

Truths that transform, doctrines that damn (1)
Truths that transform, doctrines that damn (2)
Truths that transform, doctrines that damn (3)

Healing and Romans

I had an operation on Saturday to insert a plate into my wrist. It went well, and I saw the cut for the first time today. Seems to be healing nicely so I had a new plaster fitted, a nice red one. As I'm on strong painkillers, thinking clearly for any length of time is very difficult.

However, in a brief moment of lucidity I was really struck by this remark from Kim Riddlebarger:
Our fathers in the faith clearly understood the importance of the Book of Romans and we would be foolish to ignore their wise counsel. Luther thought understanding Romans so important to a healthy Christian life that he thought it should be memorized by every Christian. He also stated that Romans cannot be studied enough or too thoroughly.

John Calvin thought that the Book of Romans was the key to understanding the whole of Scripture, since in this epistle Paul quotes more verses from the Old Testament than any other book of the New Testament. If we understand the Book Romans, says Calvin, we will be able to see the big picture of the redemptive drama so that we can make sense of details and understand the more obscure passages of the Bible.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

My affinity with Richard Baxter (it is not theological by the way)

The Puritan Richard Baxter once had a load of books fall on him from a great height. I on the other hand, whilst reaching for some books at a great height, have managed to break my wrist in three places. Tomorrow I will be having a metal plate inserted into my wrist to solve the problem.

Now, ironically, all of this happened within an hour of my posting these words:
Most of us are more comfortable looking at doctrines neatly displayed in glass cases than in those moments when our eyes focus on the letters that read "Emergency Break Glass." But the real test of how much we truly understand and really believe them (and by doctrine I don't mean abstract ideas but God's written truth about himself, his purposes, us, and his world in which we live), is discovered not in a classroom but more likely in a hospital waiting room, or by the side of a grave.
So there I was, sat in the A & E department of the Countess of Chester, thinking of how much I needed to apply what I had just written.

How to do theology

Most of us are more comfortable looking at doctrines neatly displayed in glass cases than in those moments when our eyes focus on the letters that read "Emergency Break Glass." But the real test of how much we truly understand and really believe them (and by doctrine I don't mean abstract ideas but God's written truth about himself, his purposes, us, and his world in which we live), is discovered not in a classroom but more likely in a hospital waiting room, or by the side of a grave.

It is when we are under pressures of various kinds, when we are enduring trials, that we are forced to ask ourselves "Do I really believe this? Am I willing to trust, obey, and suffer for the sake of Christ?"

Are you willing to walk by faith and not by sight? Will you believe that he will never leave you and never forsake you? Can you trust that you live by promises and not explanations, that God designs your good although you are grieved by various trials? Will I be ashamed of Jesus and his words when I am under pressure to fit in with the moods, tastes, and acceptable standards of the culture?

Packer wrote the following gem about Luther's approach to doing theology:
When Martin Luther wrote the Preface to the first collected edition of his many and various writings, he went to town explaining in detail that theology, which should always be based on the Scriptures, should be done according to the pattern modelled in Psalm 119.

There, Luther declared, we see three forms of activity and experience make the theologian.

The first is prayer for light and understanding.

The second is reflective thought (meditatio), meaning sustained study of the substance, thrust, and flow of the biblical text.

The third is standing firm under pressure of various kinds (external opposition, inward conflict, and whatever else Satan can muster: pressures, that is, to abandon, suppress, recant, or otherwise decide not to live by, the truth God has shown from his Word.

Luther expounded this point as one who knew what he was talking about, and his affirmation that sustained prayer, thought, and fidelity to truth whatever the cost, became the path along which theological wisdom is found is surely one of the profoundest utterances that the Christian world has yet heard.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Risking the Truth: Interview with Ligon Duncan

I recently interviewed Ligon Duncan about justification, the New Perspectives on Paul, and the Federal Vision for the book Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church. The interview is informative, stimulating and pastorally astute. I think it is particularly valuable for pastors, elders and theological students. You can find the full list of contributors (including Greg Beale, Mike Horton, Mark Dever, Carl Trueman) here.

If you would like to read the full version then you will need to buy the book, but here are some extracts to whet your appetite:

[Martin Downes] When engaged in polemics it does not take too long before strong words can be spoken against your character. The great New Testament scholar Gresham Machen was often vilified and subject to personal attacks. Why does this happen and how should you handle it?

[Ligon Duncan] Expect it. Those who teach aberrant doctrine successfully are always, always possessed of two qualities – pride and intelligence. Both of these will often feature in their defense against critiques of their work.

Be determined to know their view (and to be able to articulate it) better than they know it themselves. If you cannot to state the position of your opponent, in your own words, in a way in which they can recognize themselves, then you do not yet understand your opponent’s position and you are not yet ready to enter into polemics with it. Following this counsel would, by the way, cut out 99% of theological discussion on the internet!

Refuse to take the insults thrown back at you personally. You are a servant of the word. And if a servant, you must be prepared to be treated like a servant. The only thing that matters is the glory of God, the vindication of the word, the upholding of the truth, the faithful proclamation of the Gospel and the good of souls. Let them cast what aspersions they may. You only crave the affirmation of One.

[Downes] Heresy is rarely presented in its true colours. Advocates always stress that their view is both biblical and pastorally beneficial. What principles should we follow to avoid being taken in by these schemes?

[Duncan] Ask yourself questions about their view of Scripture. Whether they claim to have a high view of Scripture or not, do their views tend to undermine the final authority of the Bible.

Ask yourself questions about their doctrine of God. Do their views tend to undermine some aspect of his sovereignty or trinity?

Ask yourself questions about their doctrine of Christ. Do their views tend to undermine his claims of full humanity and full deity, or compromise the sole sufficiency and absolute necessity of his saving work?

Ask yourself questions about their doctrine of sin. Do their views deny original sin, or tend to undermine or scale down the sinfulness of humanity?

Ask yourself questions about their view of the Gospel. Do they teach or imply a universalism? Do they compromise the sovereign initiative of God’s grace in salvation? Do they find ways to incorporate man’s deeds in his acceptance with God?

Ask yourself questions about their view of the church. Do they view the church as over the Bible or equal to the Bible, or do they realize that God’s word brought the church into being and thus rules over the church? Do they view the sacraments as justifying or sanctifying? Do they acknowledge that the church has both visible and invisible aspects (that is, that there is an external and internal aspect to the church, and that the church is both local and extended in space and time)?

Ask yourself questions about their view of the end? Do their views promote escapism and retreat, or triumphalism and worldliness? Do they believe in literal return of Christ? Do they believe in heaven/the age to come? Do they believe in the bodily resurrection and final judgment?

Ask yourself questions about their life. Do they show signs of humility or of spiritual pride? Do they bear the marks of the fruit of the spirit? Has their teaching made them more humble, Christ-exalting, Scripture-obeying, world-denying, Gospel-loving, people-serving, truth-treasuring and evidently submissive to proper spiritual authority.

Finally, (1) know your Bible; (2) know your church’s confession or statement of faith; (3) know about the heresies of the past (because Satan is unoriginal).

Roger Nicole and John Frame both offer good advice on how to engage in polemics.

[Downes] If the doctrine of justification by faith alone is still the doctrine by which the church stands or falls what are your hopes and fears for evangelicalism and for confessionally Reformed churches on this very point?

[Duncan] I do not fear and I am deeply concerned.

I do not fear. The Lord will build his church, and even the very gates of hell will not be able to resist the onslaught of the kingdom.

That being said, I am deeply concerned. The spirit of the age is compromise and defection. What is required of ministers in times of spiritual unfaithfulness and doctrinal downgrade and defection is steadfast, unyielding devotion to the truth. We must stand fast. And we must out-live, out-rejoice, out-love, out-preach, out-serve and out-die the false teachers and errorists.

And I am cautiously optimistic. Even in the short run. The so-called “young, restless and Reformed” crowd shows many evidences of resisting the “justification downgrade.” Hang in there, brothers!

Thank God for the Covenant of Grace

John Owen wrote the following on God's patience, forbearance and long suffering revealed in Christ:
In him the very nature of God is discovered to be love and kindness; and that he will exercise the same to sinners, he hath promised, sworn, and solemnly engaged himself by covenant.

And that we may not hesitate about the aim which he hath herein, there is a stable...foundation of acting suitably to those gracious properties of his nature held forth,--namely, the reconciliation and atonement that is made in the blood of Christ.
Communion with God, p. 85-6

This surely is the route to dealing with an unhealthy subjectivism. Owen would anchor our thoughts in God's objective revelation in Christ, in the objective terms of the covenant, and in the objective death of Christ for our sins.

And so we are called away from speculation, presumption, and confusion and to faith in the finished work of Christ for us, explained by God's Word, and refracted through the lens of the covenant. Hugh Martin was right to say that the voice of the gospel calls to sinners out of the covenant of grace.