Saturday, January 26, 2008

Revealed! Amillennialism is the root of theological evil!

Scott Clark has a slot called "Saturday is for Seminary," well here is my own version, "Saturday is for Satire" or perhaps "Sarcasm."

Here are two delightful quotes from a "ministries" website. I'll change the name to protect the guilty:
"Dr.---------" observed that as churches turned from a premillennial doctrinal view of prophecy to an amillennial/covenant position, they lost their sense of purpose and direction. Evangelism and mission programs declined and disappeared. Over time, the local church died of its own making, largely due to their change in understanding of the role of Israel, prophecy, and the church.
That's exactly what happened in my own country Wales. The theological colleges were infected with amillennialism and the decline set in. Or was it liberalism that caused the decline? I'm a bit hazy on my church history. And of course the great Welsh preachers Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris, through whom thousands came to faith, were known for travelling all over the land with their end times charts. And is it not well known that Princeton Seminary dissuaded countless numbers of zealous preachers from going overseas by using the old "covenant theology mind trick"?

And this is full of insight too:

Many churches lack sufficient background to counter the challenges by movements, such as the purpose-driven church, the emerging church, post-modernism theology, Replacement Theology, etc., all are the result of the amillennial view of history.
Didn't Don Carson say something similar in Becoming Conversant with the Emergent?

So there you have it. And don't by the book in the picture above, the author is clearly a very deluded individual. He's probably into emerging church too.

Fact, "theory" and penal substitution: Machen on the meaning of the cross

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. If the latter, then the doctrine of the atonement 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's takes this dangerous distinction to the woodshed:
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, January 24, 2008

The Seven Habits: 4. They refuse to reject what are ultimately man made ideas

Heresies cannot be attributed to God's revelation. They must come from outside of revelation and take over. Like a cuckoo they are the wrong egg in the wrong nest that pushes out what really belongs. Heresies realign the teaching of Scripture and gain control. They are, quite simply, another gospel. As Hilary of Poitiers helpfully put it:
Heresy lies in the sense assigned, not in the word written. The guilt is that of the expositor, not of the text.
There are two common ways in which heresies displace orthodox doctrines. The one is the substitution of truth with error without changing the words used to convey the truth. The other is the choice of method that filters what God's revelation is permitted to teach. These approaches work in tandem.

When an alien world-view is decorated with Christian terminology the result is heresy. G. P. Fisher articulated the intrusive nature of heresy into the thought world of the Bible:
When Christianity is brought into contact with modes of thought and tenets originating elsewhere, either of two effects may follow. It may assimilate them, discarding whatever is at variance with the gospel, or the tables may be turned and the foreign elements may prevail. In the latter case there ensues a perversion of Christianity, an amalgamation with it of ideas discordant with its nature. The product then is a heresy.
As far back as Tertullian's day this was recognised. Concerning the connection between Christianity and pagan philosphy he wrote "the same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved." Similarly Hippolytus of Rome noted that:
It now seems to us that the tenets of both all the Greeks and barbarians have been sufficiently explained by us, and that nothing has remained unrefuted either of the points about which philosophy has been busied, or of the allegations advanced by the heretics.

And from these very explanations the condemnation of the heretics is obvious, for having either purloined their doctrines, or derived contributions to them from some of those tenets elaborately worked out by the Greeks, and for having advanced (these opinions) as if they originated from God.
We see this impulse at work in the New Testament. When Paul states the things of first importance to the Corinthians he includes the atoning death and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-3). The chapter, however, is taken up with the resurrection and not the cross. Paul does of course explain that believers would still be in their sins, which the cross is said to have dealt with, but he mentions this as a logical consequence of the denial of the future resurrection of believers (1 Cor. 15:17).

Given that the future resurrection of the just and the wicked is an Old and New Testament doctrine, the denial of the resurrection is the intrusion of an alien doctrine into the body of Christian belief. The incompatability of this foreign element is demonstrated by Paul's logic. This heretical belief effectively unravels the very fabric of Christian truth.

Were this not enough we ought also to mention that a method that regards reason as an arbiter of what ought to be believed, or a radical biblicism that demands that doctrine be stated in a certain way to qualify for Christian belief, is also injurious to the whole counsel of God. The source of this criteria is alien. A course is then set that acts as a canon within a canon. Human wisdom becomes the determiner of divine revelation. James White has a helpful comment on this tendency in his book
The Forgotten Trinity:
When men approach God's truth with a haughty attitude, they often decide that particular elements of that truth are not "suitable" to them, so they "modify" the message of the faith to fit their own notions. Since the Trinity is the highest of God's revelations concerning himself, it is hardly surprising to discover that many groups deny it...An unwillingness to worship God as God has revealed himself lies behind every denial of the Trinity that appears down through history. We want a God we can fit in a box, and the eternal, Triune God does not fit that mold.

The Seven Habits: 3. They appeal to the worst aspects of human nature

[This is part three of my paper on the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Heretics given at the Eccentric Ministers Conference]

Heresies wouldn't get very far without being plausible and attractive. There must be some advantage in embracing heresy, something appealing to the mind, the heart, the will, the lifestyle, that makes them worth believing.

I suspect that each particular form of heresy and false teaching has elements that supply the motives for embracing them and rejecting orthodoxy. It is part of our task to figure out what these are in each particular case. Sometimes the appeal is crass, as in the health and wealth gospel, at other times it is more sophisticated.

Almost ten years ago I came across The Cruelty of Heresy by Fitzsimons Allison. Strangely enough it was in the reduced section of a health and wealth bookstore, glinting like a jewel in a dung heap. It has been the most stimulating book that I have read on the subject. Here's what he has to say:
We are susceptible to heretical teachings because, in one form or another, they nurture and reflect the way we would have it be rather then the way God has provided...heresies pander to the most unworthy tendencies of the human heart. It is astonishing how little attention has been given to these two aspects of heresy: its cruelty and its pandering to sin. (p. 17)
Fitzsimons Allison applies this insight to adoptionism and docetism. Adoptionism imagines a Christ who is like us only much more successful. This "Jesus" is top of the class and graduates to become the Son of God. This panders to our self-righteous, to our thirst to achieve our own salvation. Either that or, if we have a true sense of our own sinfulness, this "Jesus" crushes us by his unattainable achievements.

The docetic Christ was not truly a man but only appeared to be. This is theological escapism at its worst. This Christ matches our desire to flee from the trappings, reality, earthiness, and nitty gritty of life. Our humanity is simply too sinful for this spiritual Christ to partake of. Not only is this a bogus Christology it is also a damning verdict on the very goodness of creation.

This insight can help us understand why heresies spread. There is a saying that "heresies are the unpaid debts of the church." In other words, the reason for heresies should be laid at the door of the church that hasn't done its job properly. Perhaps it was a failure to teach the whole counsel of God, or a perceived harshness and lovelessness on the part of the orthodox that has driven people to buy into error.

This is sometimes given as a reason why people from fundamentalist backgrounds are attracted to Emergent church thinking. It certainly can lead to a lot of hand-wringing on the part of those who haven't deviated from the truth ("it is all our fault that those sincere seekers after truth have fallen into the pit of error"). Perhaps in some cases this holds true as a contributing factor. However, as a general law it should be discarded.

There is no logical reason why a reaction against a narrow or harsh orthodoxy automatically leads to the embracing of heterodox views (just as there is no justification for ungodly reactions if we are treated in ungodly ways). This is a false move. Heresies give us what we want.

The attraction of the psuedo-spirituality of the Colossian heretics and the legalism of the Judaizers in Galatia were not to be laid at Paul's feet as if his preaching (or that of Epaphras) was to blame. In Colosse the heady brew of legalism and mysticism that offered genuine fullness had "an appearance of wisdom" but was of "no value" (Col. 2:23). Mystical and ascetic channels to communion with God fitted better with the aspirations of the fallen human heart. Paul offered union with Christ and his finshed work instead. The Judaizers offered the road to self-righteousness and the escape route from persecution (Gal. 6:11).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Seven Habits: 2. They use the right words but change their meaning

The strange thing about heresy is that it attempts to pass itself off as good news. And often as thoroughly biblical good news. A key text here is 2 Corinthians 11:3-4:
But 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. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.
The words are right (Jesus, Spirit and Gospel) but each one is qualified. This is "another" Jesus and a "different" gospel. If you put your trust in this "Jesus" it will do you no good. He is not the authentic Son of God but a fake. Notice that the goal of the false teachers is to break the relationship that the Corinthian believers have with Christ (they are "betrothed to him" according to verse 1). Instead they will be brought into a new relationship with another "Jesus." Would this be obvious to them? Of course not. It is achieved through deceit and cunning. This is the Garden of Eden all over again. The goal of the heretic is a broken engagement to Christ. It is that vital, loving relationship that they seek to end. Never think that switching from one doctrine to another is a purely intellectual matter.

The preservation of orthodox words with substitute meanings has been a constant feature of heresy throughout church history. In Against Heresies Tertullian wrote that “their language resembles ours while their sentiments are very different.” Augustine made the same observation in his work A Treatise on Faith and the Creed:
It is underneath these few words, therefore, which are thus set in order in the Creed, that most heretics have endeavored to conceal their poisons. (Chapter 1)
Vincent of Lerins also noted this behaviour:
But that they may with more successful guile steal upon the unsuspecting sheep, retaining the ferocity of the wolf, they put off his appearance, and wrap themselves, so to say, in the language of the Divine Law, as in a fleece, so that one, having felt the softness of wool, may have no dread of the wolf's fangs. (Commonitorium chapter XXV)
More recently Francis Schaeffer wrote that "liberal theology is only humanism in theological terms." And again:
The new theology is simply modern thought using religious words...Historic Christianity and either the old or the new liberal theology are two separate religions with nothing in common except certain terms which they use with totally different meanings.
Rather than going quietly and opposing the truth clearly heretics have gone about their work with different interpretations of biblical words and confessional terms. By doing so they loudly proclaim that they are the orthodox ones, they have the right interpretations, and it is their opponents who are the heretics.

I have compared this to the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The host humans appear to be the same friends and neighbours that we have always known, but in reality they have been taken over. In large measure this explains why it is difficult to detect and expose heretics. Their camoflage is Christian vocabulary.

The Seven Habits: 1. Deliberately choosing heresy is an immoral act

The New Testament connects between truth with godliness, and error with immorality. Paul speaks in Titus 1:1 about the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness (cf. 1 Timothy 6:3), and in 2 Timothy 2:16 about irreverent babble that leads people into more and more ungodliness (cf. 1 Timothy 6:4-5). Although we should never be glad about it, the truth is that we are not surprised when a false teacher is further compromised by immoral behaviour. As G. K. Chesterton once said "heresy always affects morality, if it's heretical enough."

Heresy, however, does not only lead to sin, it is sin. Believing heresy is wrong not only mentally but also morally. Choosing to believe it is an act of the mind, heart and will that is against God and his Word. Heretics tell lies about God because they do not want to tell the truth. Of course there will always be some who believe error that have never been exposed to the biblical gospel. For others there will have been a choice exercised, rejecting one thing and embracing another.

Paul's reminder to the Corinthians about the gospel that he had preached to them, which they had believed, and on which they had taken their stand, also included the admonition to hold fast to the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-2). This ongoing act was a vital and necessary part of Christian obedience. It was orthopraxy in action. Not to hold fast would be an act of disobedience. Likewise, John admonishes his readers to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). I think that in the letter these idols are love of the world and false teaching. Embracing either of these would be a substitute for the true God. Embracing them would be to commit the sin of idolatry.

If we realise that the deliberate choice of heresy is itself an immoral act perhaps we will be less impressed by the apparent godliness of heretics. Heresy can come with all the trappings of austerity, self-denial, humility, discipline, and the keeping of rules. These, however, can gloss over the pride that refuses to submit to the truth, and the arrogance that dismisses biblical doctrine.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Heretics: Introduction

This is a slightly altered introduction to the paper I gave at the Eccentric Ministers Conference:

A word about the title of this paper. It is of course a twist on best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Given that heretics twist things I can't see any problem with my spin on the title.

We recognise that there are different types of error. Not all errors fall into the same category of seriousness, and they are not equal in the damage that they can do. For example, John Wesley's views on holiness (and of course the offshoots in the various forms of Higher Life teaching) were wrong, and because they were wrong they were pastorally damaging. This defective version of holiness created false expectations about the nature of the Christian life. These expectations were of course never realised. However, even though this is an error it is not heresy. Over this error, and we might add a few others, we would not regard Wesley as a heretic.

What then is heresy? Michael Horton helpfully describes it as "any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance." The late Harold O. J. Brown said that heresy:
Designated either a doctrine or the party holding the doctrine, a doctrine that was sufficiently intolerable to destroy the unity of the Christian church. In the early church, heresy did not refer to simply any doctrinal disagreement, but to something that seemed to undercut the very basis for Christian existence. (Heresies, p. 2)
Heresy is the kind of doctrinal error that is so serious that it redefines the gospel.

We also recognise that there are different types of people who fall into, or who embrace and propagate error. In an unpublished paper given at a B.E.C. conference the late Robert Sheehan helpfully talked about how in the New Testament there are five kinds of people who are in error, and five different responses to those errors by the apostles. They are:

1. The sincerely ignorant
2. The sincere misinterpreter
3. The temporarily inconsistent
4. The deceived
5. The deceivers

There are those who are sincerely ignorant, as Apollos was in Acts 18:24-28. He was eloquent, competent in the Scriptures, and instructed in the way of the Lord. Luke says that he taught accurately the things concerning Jesus. But there was something missing, and when Priscilla and Aquila heard him they explained to him the way of God more accurately. Apollos was in error but not denounced for it. He was teachable and led into further usefulness in ministry.

Others sincerely misinterpret things. They don't want to be in error but they have misunderstood the teaching of the Bible on a particular point (we will come back to this later). Sheehan cites 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 as an example of this.

Then there are the temporarily inconsistent. This is Peter at Antioch whom Paul had to oppose. Peter was not regarded as unregenerate, but his conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:11-14).

So we recognise that there are different kinds of error, different people who are involved in them, and different ways of handling those errors and people.

What about handling truth and error in our ministries?

Since we are committed to the exposition of God's Word we will be dealing with teaching on error as it arises in the text. If we are preaching through Colossians we will explain the features of the type of error troubling the church there, and how to respond to it. This commitment to exposition should prevent the pulpit from being preoccupied with error, or to shy away from confronting it. As Gresham Machen noted, the New Testament books are filled with conflicts with error and the need for churches to go on holding to the truth.

We will also need to deal with error when it becomes a clear and present danger to our churches. At times we will need the courage to name and shame heretics, as Paul did in 2 Timothy 2:17, and not be content with general descriptions of their errors. Calvin said that ministers have two voices, one for the sheep and one for the wolves. We need to wisely discern how to do this in pastoral ministry today.

Having said all this by way of introduction, in the body of this paper I want to deal with the highly effective habits of heretics. There are plenty of books, ancient and modern, that deal with heresies in an A-Z fashion. I want to look at the practices, the behaviour, the habits of heretics. What are they doing in relation to the truth? How do they behave in and among churches? Think of the way that Paul describes them as swerving from the truth (2 Tim. 2:18), and of wandering into vain discussion (1 Tim. 1:6). Peter describes false teachers secretly, as opposed to openly, introducing destructive heresies. In Galatians the false teachers fawn over the believers. Paul says "They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them" (Gal. 4:17).

As we go through the seven habits (and there could be many more) please excuse me if I do not state the obvious. Of course heretics will be manipulative and authoritarian. I want to press beyond the general description of that manipulation and look at some specific habits where this is manifested.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

How to respond to controversies over justification by faith alone

As long as the church is militant, fulfilling its mission to proclaim the gospel to the nations, it will suffer from internal strife as well as external persecution. The fight for the truth against the pseudo-gospels that seek to infiltrate the church is an ongoing, unavoidable reality.

There are several reasons for this. God tests the hearts of his people to see if they love his gospel. Satan opposes the gospel with unremitting vigour. Men love darkness instead of light, and if they will not choose to express this by atheism, or false religion, then they will choose corrupted forms of the gospel.

We may wish that it was otherwise because it grieves us to see the truth distorted and those who need the gospel being confused, deceived, or confirmed in their views that the bewildering variety of Christian claims equals an uncertainty about God's revelation.

This is the reality. It is not going to change. Handling these matters is difficult. There is the temptation to compromise, to be impatient, to be inaccurate in prosecuting error, to be loveless either to God or to those we oppose. Theological controversy calls for a heart of wisdom, grace, and conviction. Error must be opposed and truth advanced. We will never be adequate to the task, but our own inadequacies are never to be the cause of neglecting our duty.

How should we respond to it? Here are some observations from Robert Traill:
It is a sad, but true observation, that no contentions are more easily kindled, more fiercely pursued, and more hardly composed, than those of divines; sometimes from their zeal for truth; and sometimes from worse principles, that may act in them, as well as in other man. (p. 253)
"Further to this good end," says Traill, we should do the following:
1. Let us not receive reports suddenly of one another. In times of contention, many false reports are raised, and rashly believed. This is both the fruit and fuel of contention.
[And just think how this point is magnified by the use of broadband and blogs!]
2. Let us make Christ crucified our great study, as Christians; and the preaching of him our main work, as ministers...all things that come in Christ's room, and justle him out, either of hearts or pulpits, are like abominable to a Christian.

3. Let us study hard, and pray much, to know the truth, and to cleave unto it. It is an old observation..."Before Pelagius even the fathers spoke more carelessly;" meaning well, and fearing no mistakes in their hearers. Now it is not so; and more careful should we be in our doctrine.

Let us search our own consciences, and see how we ourselves are justified before God...And let us bring forth that doctrine to our people, that we find in our Bibles, and have felt the power of upon our own hearts.

4. Let us run not into extremes, upon the right or left hand, through the heat of contention; but carefully kep the good old way of the Protestant doctrine, wherein so many thousands of saints and martyrs of Jesus have lived holily, and died happily, who never heard of our new schemes and notions. (p. 281-2)

Robert Traill, The Doctrine of Justification Vindicated from the Charge of Antinomianism, p. 281-2

Friday, January 18, 2008

Just too good to be true?

Here are some extracts from Robert Traill's magnificent work The Doctrine of Justification Vindicated from the Charge of Antinomianism (1692).
...A convinced sinner seeking justification, must have nothing in his eye but this righteousness of Christ, as God proposeth nothing else to him; and that God in justifying a sinner, accepts him in this righteousness only, when he imputes it to him. (p. 257)
On Reformed and Roman Catholic views of justification

...the Papists...plainly confound justification and sanctification...they will have this faith to justify, as it hath a principle and fitness in it to dispose to sincere obedience. The plain old Protestant doctrine is, that the place of faith in justification is only that of a hand or instrument, receiving the righteousness of Christ, for which only we are be justified by faith, is to be justified by Christ's righteousness, apprehended by faith. (p. 259)
On the attitude of the believer to justification and the final judgment

But when they draw near to the awful tribunal, what else is in their eye and heart, but only free grace, ransoming blood, and a well-ordered covenant in Christ the Surety? They cannot bear to hear any make mention to them of their holiness, their own grace and attainments.

In a word the doctrine of conditions, qualifications, and rectoral govenment, and the distribution of rewards and punishments, according to the new law of grace, will make but an uneasy bed to a dying man's conscience; and will leave him in a very bad condition at present, and in dread of worse, when he is feeling, in his last agonies, that the wages of sin is death, if he cannot by faith add, but the gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. (p. 271)
On the reaction of natural religion to the gospel of free grace

All such cannot endure to hear, that God's law must be perfectly fulfilled in every tittle of it, or no man can be saved by doing; that they must all perish for ever, that have not the righteousness of a man that never sinned, who is also God over all blessed for ever, to shelter and cover them from a holy God's anger, and to render them accepted of him: that this righteousness is put on by the grace of God, and a man must betake himself to it, and receive it as a naked blushing sinner: that no man can do any thing that is good, till gospel-grace renew him, and make him first a good man. (p. 273)
On law and gospel, faith and works

...the justification of a sinner before God, is either on the account of a righteousness in and of ourselves; or on the account of a righteousness in another, even in Jesus Christ, who is Jehovah our righteousness. Law and gospel, faith and works, Christ's righteousness and our own, grace and debt, do equally divide all in this matter. Crafty men may endeavour to blend and mix these things in justification; but it is a vain attempt.

If a man trusts to his own righteousness, he rejects Christ's: if he trusts to Christ's righteousness, he rejects his own. If he will not reject his own righteousness, as too good to be renounced; if he will not venture on Christ's righteousness, as not sufficient alone to bear him out, and bring him safe off at God's bar, he is in both a convicted unbeliever. And if he endeavour to patch up a righteousness before God, made up of both, he is still under the law, and a despiser of gospel grace... (p. 291)

The Lost Office of Jesus

It is no secret that a denial of the depravity of our nature, and our total inability to save ourselves, often co-exists with either the denial of the full deity and true humanity of Christ, or else the reduction of his work to that of an inspirational teacher. Christ is no longer needed as Prophet, Priest and King. In fact he is often reduced to Prophet and King and his Priesthood discarded as unnecessary to his work.

This is bad news for sinners. Christ is reduced to being a Moralizer and is no longer a Saviour. He will still be called a Saviour, and words like grace and faith with still be associated with him. The reality, however, is that his saving work has been so recast and reinterpreted, that it becomes "accept my teachings and obey my message of good news." No wonder that the focus has shifted, in some bestselling books, to the message of Jesus and sharp distinction from the message about Jesus (his person and work).

This Jesus has come to teach, to call followers to take up his teaching, to influence them by his example in life and in death, but not to do the work of saving them from their sins by atonement. This "Jesus" will do you no good. This "gospel" obscures how profoundly guilty, lost and unclean we really are. It also draws a veil over the infinite holiness of God.

Said John Owen:
...not apprehending the dread of our original apostasy from God, nor the consequences of it in the universal depravation of our nature, they disown any necessity either of the satisfaction of Christ or the efficacy of divine grace for our recovery or restoration.
John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, p.20

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Error doesn't advertise itself

Some wisdom from Fowler White and Cal Beisner:
Historians of doctrine call justification by faith alone--sola fide--the "material principle of the Reformation." Today, that doctrine, which continues under official Roman Catholic anathema, is under reappraisal and attack within evangelical circles and even within distinctly Reformed communities.

Our saying so should not prompt you to look for articles in popular magazines or theological journals or on websites bearing titles like "Four Reasons Why I Renounce Sola Fide" or "A Biblical Critique of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone."

No, those who currently pose the greatest threat to sola fide do not explicitly reject the doctrine by name but affirm it while redefining its terms or, as the case may be, using traditional terms in non-traditional ways.
"Covenant, Inheritance and Typology: Understanding the Principles at Work in God's Covenants," in Johnson & Waters [eds.], By Faith Alone, p. 147

Theological errors are most plausible when they pose as biblical truth. I suppose the article or seminar would more likely have a title along the lines of "Has the Reformed Tradition misunderstood justification by faith?" or "The Biblical doctrine of justification."

That "biblical" wins hands down in our estimation, over "systematic theology" or "traditional view," is par for the course. By presupposition we would not consider a merely traditional view to warrant the kind of cognitive rest that receives doctrines as the very teaching of the Word of God. In fact we would reject such a view as a product of human imagination, the doctrines of men.

If we are Reformed we are programmed to filter out views that cannot be shown to rest on the authority of Scripture. But words like tradition, systematics, and biblical also function as slogans. Their very appearance in an article or sermon can reassure us, or carry us along, and at the same time stifle the use of our critical faculties. How else would we expect error to gain entry among those who by conviction hold to the absolute authority of Scripture?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Preaching, emotions and the book of Lamentations

If you are committed to expository preaching you will want to work hard at understanding the text you are dealing with in the context of the unit of thought, chapter, and book that it is in.

In addition to this you seek to be sensitive to the connections in the text to antecedent Scripture, the architectonic structure of God's revelation (covenant theology), and the fulfilment of OT typological themes in Christ. In the case of Lamentations there is the crucial importance of the curses of Deuteronomy 28 and the Psalms (especially the reference to Ps. 48 and 50 in Lam. 2:15).

That said there is surely more to expository preaching than a right understanding of the text, if by what we are referring to is an intellectual grasp of its meaning. Entering the world of Lamentations involves us passing into a dark and tragic landscape. Emotionally it is draining and painful. Consider the anguish expressed in 2:22:
You summoned as if to a festival day my terrors on every side, and on the day of the anger of the LORD no one escaped or survived; those whom I held and raised my enemy destroyed.
How terrible it must have been to experience the retributive judgment of God in this way. How agonising the loss. Can you preach this text rightly without knowing something of the emotional impact that it makes?

There is, perhaps, the added poignancy of the suffering of "my people" and the death of children (2:11-12, 19-20, 22)

As I prepared to preach on this text I sat down and remembered an event close to home.

In October 1966, in South Wales, not too far from where I grew up, a massive slag heap of coal slurry high above the village of Aberfan hurtled down the mountain and engulfed the local junior school. On that terrible day 144 people lost their lives, 116 of them were children. A generation was wiped out.

One of the fathers who lost a son on that day said of the impact of the Aberfan disaster, “It was a grief spread throughout the community. This total grief was frightening I suppose because we didn't know if we would get over it.”

The journalist John Humphrys was there that day as a young reporter. He witnessed the agonising scene of fathers desperately trying to rescue their buried children:

The knowledge that they were digging for their own children was indescribably awful. They'd rushed up from the coal face obviously the moment they heard what happened. Their faces were still covered in coal dust and there were streaks of white running down their faces - sweat, and tears. It was ghastly beyond belief.
It is incomprehensible to read these words and to be detached and unmoved by them. The only comparison that I am seeking to draw between this event some forty one years ago, and the events of 587 BC concerns the depth of sorrow and anguish involved for the respective communities.

How can it be possible to teach the very texts about the heartbreaking lament of Jerusalem's siege and destruction and be unmoved?

I had three big applications from Lamentations 2.

My final application, which I will develop in another post, concerned the lost inheritance of the Land, City and Temple and the inheritance that can never be lost which believers have in Christ (" inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you" as Peter puts it, 1 Peter 1:4). The lost inheritance rested on the obedience of the people (Ex. 24:7-8), our future inheritance rests on the grounds of the obedience and suffering of Christ.

The second application was the connection between the suffering of the city (under the covenant curses) and the suffering of the Saviour (Gal. 3:10-14). The mocking of their enemies in 2:15 was a sign of God's retributive judgment (2:17). The NT equivalent of this is Mark 15:29-30. The mockery of Christ by his enemies is a sign that he is the sinless substitute bearing the wrath of God.

The first application concerned judgment then and judgment to come.

After a great tragedy or disaster the causes are investigated. Could it have been prevented? The danger of judgment for Jerusalem was public knowledge through the written word (Deuteronomy) and the preaching of the covenant enforcing prophets. There had been a catastophic failure to expose the sin of the people (2:14) and so the Lord carried out his Word which he commanded long ago (2:17). Scripture records these great acts of judgment by the living God to warn us of the danger of our sin, the great danger that the Lord will become like an enemy toward us forever.

Yet who would imagine that the God we have offended so much would give his own Son to save us from the judgment we deserve?

Robert M'Cheyne and Andrew Bonar were once talking about what they had preached the previous Lord's Day. "On Hell," said one, to which the other asked "did you do it with tears?"

The British Government challenges the Heidelberg Catechism

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has backed a move to change organ donor laws in the UK from being voluntary to compulsory. Melanie Phillip's has a telling comment on this:

Undoubtedly, the impulse to give people the gift of life after one’s own death is a noble one. But if Mr Brown really imagines that he will win popular acclaim by saying that the state will whip out people’s hearts or kidneys without their consent, his advisers undoubtedly need a brain transplant.

For the implications are truly terrifying. There is no more fundamental human right than control over our own bodies and what is done to them, both in life and death.

The inescapable implication of a donor opt-out is that we no longer possess such control. The presumption instead is that the state controls our bodies and can do what it likes with them after it declares us to be dead.

If the medical profession alone were to suggest this — as its leadership most lamentably is doing — it would be alarmingly coercive. For the Government to be backing it, however, deepens coercion into something even more threatening.

Volunteering to donate your organs is one thing. Making it compulsory unless you opt out transforms an act of altruism into state oppression.

You can read the rest of the article here.

For Christians, our bodies belong not to ourselves, or to the State, but to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ:

1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death,[1] am not my own,[2] but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ,[3] who with His precious blood[4] has fully satisfied for all my sins,[5] and redeemed me from all the power of the devil;[6] and so preserves me[7] that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head;[8] indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation.[9] Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life,[10] and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.[11]

[1] Rom 14:7-9; [2] 1 Cor 6:19-20; [3] 1 Cor 3:23; Tit 2:14; [4] 1 Pt 1:18-19; [5] 1 Jn 1:7; 2:2; [6] Jn 8:34-36; Heb 2:14-15; 1 Jn 3:8; [7] Jn 6:39-40, 10:27-30; 2 Thes 3:3; 1 Pt 1:5; [8] Mt 10:29-31; Lk 21:16-18; [9] Rom 8:28; [10] Rom 8:15-16; 2 Cor 1:21-22, 5:5; Eph 1:13-14; [11] Rom 8:14

Why not memorize this question and answer? You can read the rest of the Heidelberg Catechism here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

How Green Was My Valley

Just so that you can have a taster of Derek Thomas' favourite movie here is a clip of Huw's first day at school. This early attempt at Welsh accents was not the most succesful, with the exception of Dai Bando the boxer. It seems that tacking on an "is it" at the end of a sentence was the best they could do to make the dialogue authentically South Walian. Not to worry. Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta Jones have recovered the situation.

Please note just how appropriately English the school teacher is.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Grace plus a little bit of works is no longer grace

Why would we refuse to come to Christ and be clothed in his righteousness? Why would we want a Christ who does some of the work in saving, but who reserves a part for us? Why will we not rest and rely on the imputation of his active and passive obedience to us? Why will we refuse to accept that we are saved by faith alone?

The answer, lies within.

Here is Luther on Galatians 2:7:
It seems such a little thing to mix the law and the Gospel, faith and works; but this does more mischief than human reason can conceive, for it not only blemishes and obscures the knowledge of grace, but it also takes away Christ, with all his benefits, and utterly overshadows the Gospel.

The cause of this great evil is our flesh, which, being immersed in sins, sees no way of getting out except by works and therefore wants to live in the righteousness of the law and rely on its own actions. Therefore, it is utterly ignorant of the doctrine of faith and grace, without which it is impossible for the conscience to find rest and quietness.

Interview with Derek Thomas

Guy Davies interviews Derek Thomas here

They discuss preaching, biblical and systematic theology, pastoral ministry, and Wales.

Turns out that Del Boy's favourite movie is How Green Was My Valley. There is lovely. I read the book when I was an A-level student. Derek, tolle lege.


There is a word in the interview that needs some explaining to non-Welsh readers. Guy asks Derek about whether he still gets hiraeth. It means longing and homesickness. Welsh people suffer from it terribly. They only have to cross the Severn bridge into England and it sets in.

If you would like to see a bit of How Green Was My Valley, I've posted a clip from the movie here.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Suffering God's curse: the City and the Saviour (Lamentations, Law and Gospel 2)

One of Charles Wesley's hymns draws on Lamentations 1:12 (the verse that adorns so many cenotaphs):
All ye that pass by, to Jesus draw nigh:
To you is it nothing that Jesus should die?
Your ransom and peace, Your surety He is:
Come, see if there ever was sorrow like His
Why did Wesley see a connection between this verse and the crucifixion? In Lamentations 1:12, the focus is on Jerusalem under God's judgment experiencing the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28:
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.
This theme is explored further in the second poem in brutal and graphic terms (2:1-2):
How the Lord in his anger
has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud!
He has cast down from heaven to earth
the splendor of Israel;
he has not remembered his footstool
in the day of his anger.

The Lord has swallowed up without mercy
all the habitations of Jacob;
in his wrath he has broken down
the strongholds of the daughter of Judah;
he has brought down to the ground in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers.
The devastating situation is encapsulated in the admission that "The Lord has become like an enemy" (2:5). Quite simply if God is against you, who can be for you?

What is the relationship between the City, the Saviour, and the covenant curses? Consider the connection between Lamentations 2:15 and Mark 15. First Lamentations:
All who pass along the way
clap their hands at you;
they hiss and wag their heads
at the daughter of Jerusalem:
"Is this the city that was called
the perfection of beauty,
the joy of all the earth?"
I once had the mistaken impression that the gospels gave us the facts about the crucifixion whilst the epistles majored on the meaning of the cross. Certainly on the surface Mark 15 does record the historical details of what happened when Christ was crucified. But the description we are given is loaded with theological significance. We need to look below the surface and along the trajectories set by redemptive history.

There are several signs in Mark 15 that Jesus is enduring the wrath of God as a sinless substitute. Jesus said that he would be delivered into the hands of men, to the Gentiles (Mark 9:31; 10:33; fulfilled in 15:1). In Psalm 78:59-62 being handed over to the nations is a sign of God's wrath against his people. The same point is made in Nehemiah 9:27-30 "Therefore you gave them into the hand of their abandoned them to the hand of their gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands."

Before his accusers Jesus is silent (Mark 15:4-5), as the suffering servant of Isa. 53:7 was said to be; and as that servant, the Lord lays on him the iniquity of us all (53:6). The servant was going to be despised and rejected by men (53:3), but it was also the Lord's will to crush him and put him to grief (53:10). Jesus is hung on a tree (Mark 15:24), a sure sign that he was under God's curse (Deut. 21:22-3; Gal. 3:13).

Mark is sparing in his narrative about the physical details of the crucifixion ("And they crucified him" 15:24). His focus is so unlike that of a Hollywood director. Mark extensively records the mockery of the enemies of Jesus. This too is a sign of being under God's judgment. Consider Psalm 89:38-42 where we see what happens when God is angry with his anointed:
But now you have cast off and rejected;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust. You have breached all his walls;
you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
All who pass by plunder him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice.
And the words of Mark 15:29-30, "And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, 'Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!'" This is the New Testament typological fulfillment of Lamentations 2:15. As Barry Webb says "In short, Christ crucified is the God given replacement for Jerusalem and the temple."

He is the sin-bearing substitute, the sinless covenant keeper who stands in the place of the guilty covenant breakers. "What was Calvary?" asked John Duncan, in one of his lectures, "it was damnation! And he took it lovingly." Charles Wesley was right to see the connection between Lamentations and the cross.

Interview with David Gibson, co-editor of Engaging With Barth

Guy Davies interviews my old colleague David Gibson here about Engaging With Barth the book he has co-edited with my very good friend Dan Strange.

The book is available from 18th January and has a stellar list of contributors.

[The picture by the way is of Barth]

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Is it nothing to you? Lamentations, Law and Gospel (1)

The most read Bible verse in the town where I live comes, surprisingly, from the book of Lamentations.

People read this verse every single day. Once a year it is read by a large group of people. The exact verse is Lamentations 1:12:

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
This verse is a common inscription on cenotaphs. It does seem to be a fitting way to grab onlookers by the conscience, especially succeeding generations for whom the conflicts of WWI and WWII are ignored or forgotten.

The verse, however, is half quoted and taken out of context. It should read:
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.
The voice personifies the lament of Jerusalem, Zion, the city of the Great King. The destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar's army was unlike any other siege. As Old Testament scholar Barry Webb says concerning Lamentations:

It is a book about suffering, but not suffering in general. It is about deserved suffering, suffering for sin...The book of Lamentations, more than any other OT book, shows us God's wrath as a directly experienced reality.

Ask most Christians to list their favourite Bible books in order and Lamentations would appear at about the same place that the Welsh national football (soccer) team does in the FIFA world rankings...somewhere near the bottom. However, it is an important book to help us understand wrath and sin, righteousness and judgment, Law and Gospel.

The temple, the city, and the land had all been given as a gift to the people of God (all of these were types of the heavenly realities). They had been redeemed from Egypt and brought into the land. It was because God loved them that he chose them. He brought them out of Egypt to keep the oath that he swore to the patriarchs (Deut. 7:7-11; Exodus 6:2-8). As a nation at Sinai the people had bound themselves to obey the Law (Exodus 24:7-8). In that extraordinary chapter, Deuteronomy 28, spelling out the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience God said:

If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God, then the LORD will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions (58-59).
As long as the possession of the land, the city and the temple, depended on the obedience of the nation the threat of judgment hung over them. This was not an inheritance that could never perish, spoil or fade. In the anguish of the book this is acknowledged (1:5, 18; 2:17). They did get what they deserved, and what God had said would happen, however unbearable this was.

This is why the book ends on a precarious and bleak note (5:20-22). There is no final resolution at the end. How can there be as long as it depends on the obedience of the people?

But there will be another Israel, a covenant keeper, an obedient Son. He will fulfill all righteousness, his obedience will guarantee and secure the inheritance. And he will endure the wrath of God as if he himself were a covenant breaker. All the curses will fall on him. The resolution to Lamentations will be found at the cross (Galatians 3:10-14).

This truth is expressed in questions 37 and 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
37. What do you understand by the word “suffered?”

That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race; in order that by His suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.

39. Is there anything more in His having been “crucified” than if He had suffered some other death?

Yes, for thereby I am assured that He took upon Himself the curse which lay upon me, because the death of the cross was accursed of God.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Confessions of a Bog Standard Evangelical

A must read from Carl Trueman here.

Some excerpts:
I am not in the game of bashing evangelicals and evangelicalism – humanly speaking, I owe everything, almost all my theology, and much of my Christian nurture to such people.

It wasn’t the confessional Presbyterians who told me the gospel; it wasn’t the confessional Lutherans who took the time to teach me the basics of the faith; it was the evangelicals. They cared enough to reach out to me and engage me.

Yet evangelicalism at an institutional level seems to have been hijacked, not by the kind of decent, orthodox people who taught me the faith, but by a group of people who are happy to use the institutions and the market of evangelicalism to give themselves a power base, but who seem to despise precisely the kind of basic evangelicalism which I have loved and to which I owe so much.

Bog standard evangelicalism: I love it; I owe almost everything to it; and I am saddened at the way it has slowly but surely been evacuated of all of its basic and beautiful theology by those who are interested in drawing pay checks and power from its institutions, and performing on its stages, while at the same time dripping spittle on its theological heritage, from the doctrine of the Trinity to justification by grace through faith as understood by the Protestant confessional consensus to basic biblical teaching on homosexuality.

And, of course, the problem with these charlatans is not simply a lack of theology; it is a lack of integrity.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

On this day in history, 3rd January 1645

The House of Commons passed the first completed production from the Westminster Assembly, the Directory for Public Worship. Upon publication it officially replaced the Book of Common Prayer.

Here is some of the wise advice on what to say about heresies from the pulpit:

In confutation of false doctrines, he (the preacher) is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavour to satisfy their judgements and consciences against all objections...

There was also guidance on the prayer before the sermon, including the need to seek God's blessing so that listening to his Word being expounded would not be unprofitable:
And because we have been unprofitable hearers in times past, and now cannot of ourselves receive, as we should, the deep things of God, the mysteries of Jesus Christ, which require a spiritual discerning; to pray, that the Lord, who teacheth to profit, would graciously please to pour out the Spirit of grace, together with the outward means thereof, causing us to attain such a measure of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord, and, in him, of the things which belong to our peace, that we may account all things but as dross in comparison of him; and that we, tasting the first-fruits of the glory that is to be revealed, may long for a more full and perfect communion with him, that where he is, we may be also, and enjoy the fulness of those joys and pleasures which are at his right hand for evermore.
It is available online here.

An interview with Paul Helm

Our good friend Guy Davies the Exiled Preacher has posted an interview with professor Paul Helm here.

The interview deals with philosophy, systematic theology, Barth, Edwards, Calvin and the much maligned Charles Hodge.

Here's a snippet:
"The content of systematic theology should correspond with the label on the jar; it should be systematic, that is, connected up, coherent, consistent, contemporary, and as clear as can be, and it should be about God and his ways. In view of these requirements, the Hodge-Berkhof tradition of systematic theology is indispensable.

What I have chiefly complained about in print (in my usual cantankerous way) is that Hodge and co. have been dismissed in a shamefully unscholarly manner by various evangelical theologians...who should have known better – he is allegedly ‘foundationalist’, an ‘Enlightenment’ thinker, ‘inductive’, ‘scientific’, as a result of which he and his kind have been rubbished.. These epithets have been hurled at the poor man from ignoramuses who do not seem ever to have bothered to open the first pages of volume I of his Systematic Theology to see how he actually operates. What kind of scholarship is that?"

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Restoring Christianity to its pristine form?

What appears to be new, innovative, fresh, and insightful (these are the terms to use to get a hearing and to get a movement going) can often be found to be old, incomplete, wayward, defunct, and after consideration discarded.

The bold voices of revolution today are often the echoes of long forgotten men. As long as we think that history is bunk then bright new things that attract us so much will not be seen for what they so often are, the worn out theological junk of yesteryear.

Repristinating Christianity is an age old practice. Don't expect it to go away.

Here is Richard Muller on some attempts made in the 16-17th centuries:
Over against the magisterial Reformers and the Roman Catholic theologians of the day, theologians like Michael Servetus, Giovanni Blandrata, Valentine Gentile, and Laelius and Fautus Socinus examined the text of Scripture in a strictly linguistic and non-traditionary exegesis and found no doctrine of the Trinity: on the one hand, in the name of a return to the original message of Jesus they and their followers leveled a biblical critique against the traditional churchly doctrine of the one divine essence and three divine persons.

On the other hand, looking at the writings of the earliest church fathers, they could argue no clear doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus in particular argued the case for a pre-Nicene, non-trinitarian view--with the result that his theology and that of other antitrinitarians looked like nothing so much as a reprise of ancient heresies.

...the antitrinitarian position is characterized by a radical biblicism coupled with a renunciation of traditional Christian and philosophical understandings of subtance, person, subsistence, and so forth, as unbiblical accretions. Yet it is hardly the case that the antitrinitarian stress on the utter and absolute unity of God to the exclusion of personal distinctions in the divine essence was utterly a-philosophical and simply the return to the basic Christian message.
Richard A. Muller, PRRD volume four: The Triunity of God, p. 74-5