Sunday, March 30, 2008
Off to the Banner (otherwise known as The Leicester Ministers' Conference)
Friday, March 28, 2008
How theology students should handle campus controversies
There is some very wise advice on handling these matters from Scott Clark here.
The New Perspective(s) on Paul
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) suspends Dr. Peter Enns
"News has just been made public regarding yesterday's special meeting of the Board of Trustees at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), which met to address "the disunity of the faculty regarding the theological issues related to Dr. Peter Enns' book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament." The Board decided to suspend Professor Enns at the close of the school year, with a process in place to consider whether he should be terminated from his employment at the Seminary."
Dr. Peter Enns book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament has received some critical reviews for its concessions to views historically associated with liberal rather than evangelical theology. There is a helpful review by Greg Beale here. Dr. Enns responded here, and there was a surrejoinder from Beale here. Beale's review and the subsequent exchange are from 2006 and 2007. A further review by Paul Helm, and exchange with Dr. Enns, plus a review by D. A. Carson can be found here.
Whilst it is useful to have these reviews and responses available on the internet they are no substitute for reading the book itself.
Here is the letter from the Chairman of the Board:
March 27, 2008
Thank you very much for your prayers for the special meeting of the Board of Trustees that was held on March 26 to address the disunity of the faculty regarding the theological issues related to Dr. Peter Enns' book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. After a full day of deliberation, the Board of Trustees took the following action by decisive vote:"That for the good of the Seminary (Faculty Manual II.4.C.4) Professor Peter Enns be suspended at the close of this school year, that is May 23, 2008 (Constitution Article III, Section 15), and that the Institutional Personnel Committee (IPC) recommend the appropriate process for the Board to consider whether Professor Enns should be terminated from his employment at the Seminary. Further that the IPC present their recommendations to the Board at its meeting in May 2008."In order to provide the entire Westminster community with a more complete understanding of the Board's decision and to offer an opportunity for questions and dialogue, the Chairman and Secretary of the Board will join the President on campus for a special chapel on Tuesday, April 1 at 10:30 am. Students and staff are encouraged to attend and participate. Following that special chapel, they will hold a separate meeting with the faculty.
Our concern is to honor the Lord Jesus Christ and assure a faithful witness for Westminster for years to come. To that end, please pray for everyone involved during the next two months.
Chairman of the Board
The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Should the doctrine of Scripture be relocated?
In his opening chapter, "Reconstructing the doctrine," he states:
The case being made in this chapter is that, within the doctrine of God, the proper place to discuss Scripture is as an aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit. (p. 30-31)After providing a brief survey of the place, and content, of the affirmations concerning Scripture in the ecumenical creeds and some early Reformed confessions, McGowan highlights the turn toward giving the doctrine of Scripture both a primary place and detailed treatment in subsequent Reformed confessions. He makes the following observations and deductions:
In the Reformed confessions and catechisms, then, there was a gradual move towards putting the doctrine of Scripture at the beginning, with everything thereafter being deduced from that first premise. Logically, this makes perfect sense.All errors have consequences, even if we stumble into them with the best of intentions by following a 'logical' as opposed to a 'theological' or 'biblical' method. At the crucial point of elaborating the content and form of confessional Reformed theology did the compilers of the Reformed confessions take a wrong turn? Did they unwittingly obscure the doctrine of God by giving first place to the doctrine of Scripture? If so, what observable errors did this lead to?
The Reformers and those who followed in their tradition wanted to emphasize that all of their teaching was drawn from Scripture; hence they began with a strong statement on the authority, sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture before dealing with any other doctrine. In this way, they were underlining the fact that when they came to speak about God, salvation, the church or any other matter, everything they said would be drawn from the Scripture principle.
Although making sense 'logically', however, this positioning of the doctrine of Scripture creates many problems when viewed 'theologically'. In fact, this positioning of Scripture at the beginning of the theological system takes the primary focus away from God. (p. 27-28)
McGowan notes that one of the crucial texts in the formulation of our doctrine of Scripture is 2 Peter 1:20-21. Peter, of course, stresses in the passage the sovereign role of the Holy Spirit in the composition of Scripture. From this evidence McGowan makes the following point:
The writing of Scripture, then, ought to be seen as an aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit, and this ought to be reflected in the place Scripture is given in our theological formulations.In a final extract professor McGowan provides an example of the kind of error that the wrong location of Scripture in the theological system leads to:
This means that Scripture ought not to be placed at the beginning of the theological system, to provide an epistemological basis for what follows, but rather ought to be placed under the doctrine of God--more specifically, under the work of the Holy Spirit.
The rationale for this argument concerns the nature of Scripture itself, as part of God's self-revelation. Thus theology proper begins with God, not with the Scriptures. It is God himself who brought the Scriptures into existence. How then can these writings have a logical or theological priority over the God who caused them to be written? (p. 29).
The most serious of these errors is to imply that the Scriptures can stand alone as a source of epistemological certainty, quite apart from the work of God the Holy Spirit. This error results in the Scriptures taking on a life of their own, whereby men and women sometimes imagine (even if they would not express it this way) that they hold in their hands the final written revelation of God that can be read, understood and applied, without any further involvement of God. (p. 29).At this stage it is helpful to note that McGowan's proposal deals with systematic theology and the Reformed confessions. Although related, systematic theology and churchly confessions are not synonymous in form and content. There is no reason why a systematic theology written by an individual author may not adopt a different order as McGowan suggests. I would regard this as a matter of personal choice. As I understand it McGowan is arguing for a relocation of the doctrine of Scripture that would have implications for systematic theology and the confessions, and his criticisms of the current order affect both. Of particular interest are the undesirable consequences that are alleged to be attributable to the wrong location of the doctrine of Scripture. McGowan spells out this aim in his concluding chapter:
...the chapter on Scripture should not be the first chapter in our confessional statements but ought to come after our doctrine of God, as one aspect of his self-revelation. (p. 208)Critique
We will begin by taking up the error referred to in the last quotation, that of Scripture standing alone "as a source of epistemological certainty, quite apart from the work of God the Holy Spirit" and as the "final written revelation of God that can be read, understood and applied without any further involvement of God."
Is the wrong location of the doctrine of Scripture in the theological system to blame (either as a direct cause or contributing factor) in the production of this error? My answer is no for the following reasons.
All doctrines and doctrinal formulations are open to abuse in the minds and lives of sinful people. I do not think that the Reformed confessions 'imply' the kind of error that is imagined above, but we can logically conceive of someone being guilty of this error despite the clear emphasis in the Reformed confessions on how one arrives at a certain knowledge of the truthfulness of Scripture.
Doubtless it is true that some people may find themselves to be guilty of this error. This may be the case because their doctrine and application of the work of the work of the Holy Spirit is in some way deficient (a reflection of their reading or theological background?). Yet I find it hard to believe that a Calvinist who believes in monergistic regeneration could fall into this error, regardless of where the doctrine of Scripture is located in the theological system, since their total theological and experiential grasp of the work of the Spirit in revelation and conversion keeps them from it.
To fall into this implied error is surely a sign that one has practically departed from sola gratia. The fault then is not the location of Scripture in the system but the denial or suspension of belief in the need for the gracious work of the Spirit at the point of ongoing understanding of the Bible. To suppose that Scripture can be "read, understood and applied, without the further involvement of God" is no less than raw Pelagianism. The ordering of the confession, or system, is surely not to blame for a view of the grace of God that is at odds with the Reformed faith as a whole.
In their presentation of the doctrine of Scripture the Reformed confessions are not silent on the role of the Holy Spirit in the production, and believing acceptance, of the written Word of God. The Westminster Confession affirms in I:V that "our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts" and in I:VI that "we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word."
Likewise the Belgic Confession states in Article 3 that "We confess that this Word of God was not sent nor delivered by the will of men, but that holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit, as Peter says" and in Article 5 that "we believe without a doubt all things contained in them...above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God." There is no implication given at all that Scripture "can stand alone as a source of epistemological certainty, quite apart from the work of God the Holy Spirit" or that Scripture "can be read, understood and applied, without any further involvement of God." If this happens we must look elsewhere for an explanation, it is certainly not the chapter order of the Westminster or Belgic Confession that is to blame.
Although these confessional statements on Scripture precede their respective statements on the Trinity they evidently presuppose the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the revelation and recognition of Scripture. There is clearly a reciprocal relationship, and an organic unity, in these confessional statements about the being and persons of God and the Word of God written. What remains to be asked then is why the Reformed confessions begin with elaborate statements on Scripture and then move to fuller statements on the doctrine of God? Is there anything at stake in this choice?
Professor McGowan has perhaps provided the key to answering these questions with a very pertinent quote from G. C. Berkouwer, "There is no more significant question in the whole of theology and in the whole of human life than that of the nature and reality of revelation" (p. 18). But which to treat first is the issue, revelation or the One who has revealed himself to us? Richard Muller has written:
The question of order arises immediately upon the identification of the two principia or foundations: should the system proceed from its ontic to its noetic foundation, or should it proceed from its noetic to its ontic principium?In conclusion, the relocation of the doctrine of Scripture in the Reformed system is unnecessary. The organic relationship between the statements about Scripture and the Spirit in the Westminster and Belgic confessions make such a relocation superfluous. Furthermore, as Muller has stated "either order has its justification" given the need for special saving revelation from and about the Triune God. Finally, McGowan's caution about the "serious errors" implied by the present location of the doctrine of Scripture in the theological system, are not of sufficient cogency to attribute their existence to the current system. These errors can be accounted for in other ways. Indeed the specific error that he uses as an example is contrary to the whole Reformed system and not directly, or even indirectly, caused by the particular location of Scripture in that system.
The noetic or cognitive foundation depends for its existence upon the existence and activity of the ontic or essential foundation: there could be no Word of God without God. But the essential foundation could not be known if it were not for the cognitive foundation: there could be no knowledge of God without God's self-revelation. Either order has its justification.
Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Two: Holy Scripture, p. 156 emphasis added.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
The Revolt Against Penal Substitution
The ultimate result has been that the revolt from the conceptions of satisfaction, propitiation, expiation, sacrifice, reinforced continually by tendencies adverse to evangelical doctrine peculiar to our times, has grown steadily more and more widespread, and in some quarters more and more extreme, until it has issued in an immense confusion on this central doctrine of the gospel. (p. 286)Whenever there is a revolt against the particular theological conception of a doctrine, in this case of the cross as a penal substitutionary atonement, one can usually find a concomitant tone of rhetoric that casts that doctrine in as unfavourable a light as possible. And of course one ought to expect to find the promotion of an alternative doctrinal framework also. Warfield made the following judicious statement on the status of penal substitution at the dawn of the twentieth century that is remarkably apropros for today's evangelical scene:
Probably the majority of those who hold the public ear, whether as academical or as popular religious guides, have definitely broken with it, and are commending to their audiences something other and, as they no doubt believe, something very much better. A tone of speech has even grown up regarding it which is not only scornful but positively abusive. There are no epithets too harsh to be applied to it, no invectives too intense to be poured out on it. (p. 287)As insulting, inappropriate, and offensive a phrase such as "cosmic child abuse" may be, the impulse to verbally deprecate penal substitution is, at least, not a contemporary phenomenon. Nor for that matter are 21st century alternatives to penal substitution anything other than older forms of atonement theology repackaged for a contemporary audience. Again we find that little has changed since Warfield's assessment of "modern theories of the atonement":
Perhaps at no other period was Christ so frequently or so passionately set forth as merely a social Saviour. Certainly at no other period has his work been so prevalently summed up in mere revelation. (p. 284)The reason for this is surely obvious. The is a direct relationship between our grasp of human need and our understanding of the work that Christ undertook to meet that need. If we conceive of our deepest need as one of being in state of error, or ignorance, a state exacerbated by our wayward living, then we will see Christ largely, if not exclusively, as a teacher and example. Warfield neatly summarizes this tendency as follows:
The fact is, the views men take of the atonement are largely determined by their fundamental feelings of need--by what men most long to be saved from. (p. 283)This straightforward insight tells us something very significant about the present status and future of penal substitution. Even though, in the last fifty years, we have had many able defenders of penal substitution (from Leon Morris, Roger Nicole, Jim Packer, John Stott, down to the recent volume Pierced For Our Transgressions) we are warranted in repeating Warfield's conclusion for our own day, "this defense only stemmed the tide, it did not succeed in rolling it back." The doctrine of penal substitution has not been lacking the most able of academic and popular defenders, but this defense has yet to win the day.
The preservation and future success of penal substitution is a supernatural work. Only God can uncover the appalling need we stand in for a Saviour to give his life in place of ours, only God can so convict of sin and guilt that we will flee to Christ for refuge, only God can give faith to turn from ourselves and to look to Christ crucified in our place according to the testimony of the Scriptures.
The outcome of the 21st century revolt against penal substitution will not bypass the need for solid exegetical and theological books on the subject, but it will require more than this. It will require the kind of experiential grasp of sin and salvation, produced by the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts through the Word, that Warfield described so powerfully:
If we have not much sin to be saved from, why, certainly, a very little atonement will suffice for our needs. It is, after all, only the sinner who requires a Saviour. But if we are sinners, and in proportion as we know ourselves to be sinners, we will cry out for that Saviour who only after he was perfected by suffering could become the Author of eternal salvation. (p. 297)[All quotations are from "Modern Theories of the Atonement," in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield vol. IX Studies in Theology]
Warfield on Rationalism
Knowing something of the impact of unbelief on Christian doctrine, especially as it has occurred over the last two hundred years, is far from being an academic exercise. The nature of the unbelief causing pressure changes (modernism and postmodernism), but the process of unbelief realigning doctrines around a different epistemology and locus of authority remains.
"Rationalism" never is the direct product of unbelief. It is the indirect product of unbelief, among men who would fain hold their Christian profession in the face of an onset of unbelief, which they feel too weak to withstand.B. B. Warfield, "The Latest Phase of Historical Rationalism," in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield vol. IX Studies in Theology, p. 591
Rationalism is, therefore, always a movement within the Christian Church: and its adherents are characterized by an attempt to save what they hold to be the essence of Christianity, by clearing it from what they deem to be accretions, or by surrendering what they feel to be no longer defensible features of its current representations.
The name historically represents specifically that form of Christian thought which, under the pressure of eighteenth century deism, felt no longer able to maintain a Christianity that needed to appeal to other evidences of its truth than the human reason; and which, therefore, yielded to the enemy every element of Christian teaching which could not validate itself to the logical understanding on axiomatic grounds. The effect was to reduce Christianity to a "natural religion."
Thursday, March 20, 2008
A Scandalous Attack on the Cross: an article from the archives
A public debate organised by the Evangelical Alliance took place on 7 October in Emmanuel Centre, London following strong criticism from Christians of Steve Chalke’s book, “The Lost Message of Jesus” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). 600 people attended, indicating the strength of feeling that the book’s message had aroused. Steve Chalke’s supporters laughed at his amusing remarks and applauded him vigorously when he had made his presentation. The two who spoke against his beliefs were Simon Gathercole, lecturer in New Testament at Aberdeen and Anna Robbins, lecturer in Theology and Contemporary Culture at the London School of Theology. Chalke was supported by Stewart Williams, chair of the Anabaptist network.
Martin Downes the UCCF team leader in Wales explains the error of Chalke’s ideas in an article in the September/October 2004 Evangelical Magazine writing as follows.
A Scandalous Attack on the Cross
The doctrine of penal substitution affirms that on the cross Jesus exchanged places with sinners, and voluntarily bore the punishment that their sins deserved, thereby propitiating an angry God. It is a defining belief of evangelical faith, biblically warranted and central to the gospel. Why then is the Evangelical Alliance hosting a debate where penal substitution is being attacked by a well known evangelical?
What is the debate about?
Steve Chalke asks how we have ‘come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son?' (p.182). Chalke considers this to be a mockery of Jesus' teaching about refusing to repay evil with evil and a contradiction of the statement that God is love (p.182). He insists that the cross isn't 'a form of cosmic child abuse - a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed' (p.182). Instead the cross is a symbol of love, a demonstration of how far God is willing to go to prove his love (p.182).
He claims that we have fundamentally misunderstood Jesus' cry of dereliction, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Matt. 27:46). Rather than the sight of Jesus taking the world's sin on Himself being unbearable for a holy God, Jesus' feeling of abandonment ‘mirrors those of countless millions of people who suffer oppression, enslavement, abuse, disease, poverty, starvation and violence’ (p.185). Calvary wasn't unique. For Jesus the cross became a way of sharing the experience of all who feel abandoned by God in their suffering. The reality, however, is that God is always right there with us in our suffering (p.185-6).
Steve Chalke no longer preaches penal substitution (p.184), but he still believes that preaching the cross is central. ‘On the cross Jesus took on the ideology that violence is the ultimate solution by "turning the other cheek" and refusing to return evil for evil, willingly absorbing its impact within his own body’ (p.179). The resurrection is the reversal of this, the triumph of love over hate, as the God of love takes on the powers of darkness and wins (p.l87).
In a press release Steve Chalke has said that penal substitution is ‘a theory rooted in violence and retributive notions of justice’ and is incompatible ‘at least as currently taught and understood, with any authentically Christian understanding of the character of God.’ He is unrepentant about referring to the doctrine as a version of ‘cosmic child abuse’ because 'it is a stark "unmasking" of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such a theology'.
Recovering the truth about God's character?
Chalke considers it a tragedy that Church history has obscured the centrality of God's love. He asserts that the Bible 'never defines God as anger, power or judgement-in fact it never defines him as anything other than love' (p.63). Moreover, he argues, to think of God's attributes without reference to the primary lens of his love 'is to risk a terrible misrepresentation of his character, which in turn leads to a distortion of the gospel' (p.63).
Even texts that speak of God's holiness should be understood as portraying the love that makes God different rather than his sinless purity and 'otherness' (p.58-9). But God is described in the Bible as light (1 John 1:5) and Spirit (John 4:24). Moreover both Testaments affirm that God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29), and dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim.6:16). The sight of God's holiness filled Isaiah with dread and made him conscious of his guilt (Isa. 6:1-5). Christians are called to holiness not impurity (1 Thess. 4:7). This confusion of God's attributes of holiness and love is not just a basic error; it appears to be an intentional misrepresentation to serve his own agenda.
How does he reconcile the frequent occurrences of judgment in the Bible with love as God's defining characteristic? This is his answer:
“Yahweh's association with vengeance and violence wasn't so much an expression of who he was but the result of his determination to be involved with his world. His unwillingness to distance himself from the people of Israel and their actions meant that at times he was implicated in the excessive acts of war that we see in some of the books of the Old Testament.” (p.49).
According to Steve Chalke the conquest of Canaan was done in God's name but not at His command or with His consent. This is directly contrary to Deut. 7:1-2,16, 20, 22-26; 9:1-3; Jos.6:15-21; 10:40-42.
A Blatant Contradiction
All this begs the question, is it ever appropriate on this understanding of God's love, to speak of his anger and judgment? But the following admission is telling:
“Although God is love, this doesn't exclude the possibility of him eventually acting in judgement... if God is love, then anger is a legitimate, indeed intrinsic, expression of that love. But because God's anger is born of pure love, it is never fickle or malicious” (p.62).
But this entirely undermines his argument. For if there is no final conflict between love and judgment, one wonders why at the cross God cannot demonstrate His anger at our sin, and, at the same time, manifest His love? Is God angry just because we reject His love or is He angry at all deviations from His nature and will? How can God forgive us and uphold His justice?
Steve Chalke is caught in a contradiction. He wants to affirm God's anger in some sense, but is intent on redefining God's holiness and downplaying the seriousness of sin (p. 173). Nevertheless he is right to say that anger is a legitimate expression of God's love. Because the Lord is righteous He loves righteousness and hates the wicked (Psalm 5:4-5; 11:5, 7). The Bible speaks plainly about God's anger against all sin being expressed in the present and at the day of judgment (Rom. 1:18ff, 2:5-11; Eph. 5:3-6).
God's love is not a moral weakness. If sin ought to be punished then there is nothing in God that impels Him to leave it unpunished. If God loves sinners then some way must be found for His justice to be satisfied as well.
Where Wrath and Mercy Meet
Is it true that penal substitution contradicts the statement that God is love? If it is then the New Testament writers were not aware of it. Paul tells us that the God who justifies those who believe, by his grace, does so by setting forth His Son as a propitiation (Rom. 3:25). The writer to the Hebrews says that it was as a merciful High Priest that Jesus made propitiation for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:17).
The apostle John tells us that God is both light (1 John 1:5) and love (3:16). 'In this is love', writes John, 'not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins' (4:10). On the basis of this wrath-averting death Jesus acts as our advocate with the Father when we sin (2:1-2). Rather than being incompatible with love, God's love saves sinners from His own wrath through the death of Christ (Rom. 5:8-9).
Vengeance Is Mine
By pitting Jesus' teaching about not 'repaying evil for evil' against the idea of penal substitution Steve Chalke makes a basic but telling mistake. Consider Romans 12:17, 19: 'Repay no one evil for evil... Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance Is mine, I will repay, says the Lord"'. Retribution belongs to the righteous Judge not to private individuals. But the state is given the limited remit to punish wrongdoers, 'For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer' (Rom. 13:4).
Why the debate is a scandal
Let us make no mistake; this debate is due to Steve Chalke's fame and not to the worth of his argument. His writing is logically flawed, arbitrary, reliant on emotional language, and highly selective in its use of Scripture. To brand penal substitution as ‘cosmic child abuse’ is heretical and blasphemous. This badly chosen phrase portrays God as committing unspeakable evil. We are left with no confidence in the sub-Christian Old Testament revelation or in God's dealings with Israel. It is an embarrassment that this ill-conceived theology should be given such public prominence. Steve Chalke has dressed up old-fashioned liberalism in twenty-first century dress. He has certainly abandoned the evangelical gospel. J. Gresham Machen's words are appropriate:
'They (liberal preachers) speak with disgust of those who believe ‘that the blood of our Lord, shed in substitutionary death, placates an alienated deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner. Against the doctrine of the cross they use every weapon of caricature and vilification. Thus they pour out their scorn upon a thing so holy and so precious that in the presence of it the Christian heart melts in gratitude too deep for words. It never seems to occur to modern liberals that in deriding the Christian doctrine of the cross, they are trampling on human hearts.”
(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1923, p.120.)
Monday, March 17, 2008
Dealing with the legalist within
How do you deal with the problem of legalism?
Here's a brief reminder of what we mean by legalism:
Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God. (C. J. Mahaney)Some important presuppositions
1. Repentance is a life long work
My approach to gardening is to launch a blitzkrieg against the weeds and then to bask in the victory. The weeds then gain their revenge by growing back. In my astonishment I lose heart that I didn't kill them in one go. If we attempt to deal with sin and temptation that way we will be profoundly disheartened. We need the realism that repentance is a life long work.
The seeds of legalism are rooted in indwelling sin, and we deceive ourselves if we think that there is a once for all cure that will leave us trouble free from then on. That said, realism is not the same as defeatism. We are not bound to constant failure but, if the Spirit of Christ dwells in us, then we are debtors not to the flesh but to the Spirit. We must put to death sin to death, including the sin of legalism, every time it rears its head.
Legalism is a form of idolatry. It seeks independence from grace and promotes self-reliance, it is a manifestation of pride, self-love and self-trust. No Christian this side of glory has been totally free from the desire and temptation to become a legalist.
2. Legalism is a heart problem
Berkhof noted the dangerous tendency among some of the early church fathers to turn the Gospel into a new law. He observed that:
The view taken of good works is legal rather than evangelical. This moralistic perversion of New Testament Christianity found its explanation in the natural self-righteousness of the human heart. (History of Christian Doctrines, p. 205).Or as Sohm put it "the natural man is born a Catholic." Internally we seek to establish our own righteousness before God, sewn together from the material of our pious thoughts and religious performances. The gospel has to be perverted to become a new law that says "do this and live" instead of the actual good news of what God has done for us in Christ.
3. The heart externalizes its legalistic desires into concrete forms
From our own imagination, even with the best intentions, we can spin a web of requirements that either we ourselves or other believers then get caught up in. We simply add things that God has not required and make them essential to a relationship with him. Or else we even take the things that God has required and subtly let them supplant Christ and his righteousness as the basis of our acceptance with God.
God does not accept me because today I'm actually up to date on my chapter a day Bible reading plan. God does not accept me because I stand in the pulpit and preach his Word. My righteousness is not boosted when I tell people that I pray for them everyday, or am known as the person in the congregation with the best theological knowledge or evangelistic gifts.
How easy it is to construct visible structures that indicate publicly the level of our performance and all the while they are feeding self-reliance and self-righteousness. This is the way that those conscious of their sin, broken hearted by it and repentant, are crushed by the weight of false expectations. This is also the way that pride is reinforced and grace diminished.
Legalism thrives under the canopy of unnecessary forms that we or others have imposed as the basis and standard of acceptance with God. Our grubby sinful hearts can use even good things in the service of self-righteousness. The solution is not to get rid of good things, but to keep them firmly in their proper place, and never let them supplant the gospel of free acceptance in Christ.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
The Love of God in Christ
The Father communicates no issue of his love unto us but through Christ; and we make no return of love unto him but through Christ. He is the treasury wherein the Father disposeth all the riches of his grace, taken from the bottomless mine of his eternal love; and he is the priest into whose hand we put all the offerings that we return unto the Father.Communion with God, p. 27
Though the love of the Father's purpose and good pleasure have its rise and foundation in his mere grace and will, yet the design of it accomplishment is only in Christ. All the fruits of it are first given to him; and it is in him only that they are dispensed to us. So that thought the saints may, nay, do, see an infinite ocean of love unto them in the bosom of the Father, yet they are not to look for one drop from him but what comes through Christ. He is the only means of communication.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Saturday night at the movies: Wales win the Grand Slam
So just to recap the road to the Grand Slam looked like this:
England 19-26 Wales (a first win at rugby HQ since 1988)
Wales 30-15 Scotland
Wales 47-8 Italy
Ireland 12-16 Wales (Wales won the Triple Crown)
Wales 29-12 France
In a word: Elated
Thursday, March 13, 2008
No one loves us more than Jesus Christ does
Article 26: The Intercession of Christ
We believe that we have no access to God except through the one and only Mediator and Intercessor: Jesus Christ the Righteous.
He therefore was made man, uniting together the divine and human natures, so that we human beings might have access to the divine Majesty. Otherwise we would have no access.
But this Mediator, whom the Father has appointed between himself and us, ought not terrify us by his greatness, so that we have to look for another one, according to our fancy. For neither in heaven nor among the creatures on earth is there anyone who loves us more than Jesus Christ does.
Although he was "in the form of God," he nevertheless "emptied himself," taking the form of "a man" and "a servant" for us; and he made himself "completely like his brothers." Suppose we had to find another intercessor. Who would love us more than he who gave his life for us, even though "we were his enemies"? And suppose we had to find one who has prestige and power. Who has as much of these as he who is seated "at the right hand of the Father," and who has all power "in heaven and on earth"? And who will be heard more readily than God's own dearly beloved Son?
So then, sheer unbelief has led to the practice of dishonoring the saints, instead of honoring them. That was something the saints never did nor asked for, but which in keeping with their duty, as appears from their writings, they consistently refused.
We should not plead here that we are unworthy--for it is not a question of offering our prayers on the basis of our own dignity but only on the basis of the excellence and dignity of Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is ours by faith.
Since the apostle for good reason wants us to get rid of this foolish fear--or rather, this unbelief--he says to us that Jesus Christ was "made like his brothers in all things," that he might be a high priest who is merciful and faithful to purify the sins of the people.
For since he suffered, being tempted, he is also able to help those who are tempted. And further, to encourage us more to approach him he says, "Since we have a high priest, Jesus the Son of God, who has entered into heaven, we maintain our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to have compassion for our weaknesses, but one who was tempted in all things, just as we are, except for sin. Let us go then with confidence to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace, in order to be helped."
The same apostle says that we "have liberty to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus. Let us go, then, in the assurance of faith...." Likewise, "Christ's priesthood is forever. By this he is able to save completely those who draw near to God through him who always lives to intercede for them." What more do we need? For Christ himself declares: "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to my Father but by me." Why should we seek another intercessor?
Since it has pleased God to give us his Son as our Intercessor, let us not leave him for another--or rather seek, without ever finding. For when God gave him to us he knew well that we were sinners.
Therefore, in following the command of Christ we call on the heavenly Father through Christ, our only Mediator, as we are taught by the Lord's Prayer, being assured that we shall obtain all we ask of the Father in his name.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
What happened to Jesus on the Cross?
As a young Christian I instinctively looked to the gospels to provide the facts about the crucifixion of Jesus, and to the letters to supply the meaning of those facts. Of course there were exceptional verses (Mark 10:45), but on the whole I did not really think that the gospels gave the same kind of theological explanation of the cross that I found in Romans, Galatians, or 1 John. This was a mistake.
The factual details of the crucifixion of Jesus speak to us about the nature of his death. They are much more than a bare description of the events, merely "bare" facts that are open to different interpretations. Once we look below the surface, and in terms of the Old Testament background, we will see that the details of the narrative in Mark 15 testify that Jesus is dying under the wrath of God, and that he is doing so as a substitute for sinners.
Mark shows us six signs that Jesus dies under God's judgement.
1. He is handed over to the Gentiles
Six times in Mark 15 we are told that Jesus is the King of the Jews (2, 9, 12, 18, 26, and King of Israel in 32). This King of the Jews has been handed over to the Gentiles. At one level this is the fulfillment of what Jesus said would happen. Consider his words in Mark 10:33-34:
"See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise."
Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people,The same idea is expressed by Ezra as he acknowledges the guilt of the people of God that led to the exile (the ultimate OT expression of judgement). Ezra 9:7b reads:
and he abhorred his heritage;
he gave them into the hand of the nations,
so that those who hated them ruled over them.
And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today.In the OT being handed over to the nations was a sign of God's anger. This is happening to Jesus in Mark 15.
2. He is silent before his accusers
We know that the charges brought against Jesus by the Jewish leaders were both unjust and incoherent (Mark 14:55-61). Before Pilate, as again Jesus is falsely accused, he remains silent. Why does Jesus not speak up in his own defense? Why does he not silence the lies of his enemies? Pilate is amazed at this (Mark 15:3-4). But the silence of Jesus is spoken of in the words of Isaiah 53:7:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,The silence of Jesus before his accusers is a confirmatory sign that he is the suffering servant who will bear the penal consequences of the sins of others by substitutionary atonement (Isa. 53:4-6, 10).
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
3. He is hung on a tree
The very instrument of execution, the cross, spoke of the nature of Christ's death. In the words of Deuteronomy 21:22-23:
If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.Jesus was not personally guilty of any crime that could issue in his death. His death therefore was as a substitute for clearly it was a death that showed him to have been "cursed by God" (this point is drawn out in Gal. 3:10-13).
4. He is mocked by his enemies
When Hollywood wants to draw attention to the death of Jesus it does so by focussing our attention on the physical details of his sufferings. The graphic nature of his beating and execution is brought to the forefront. Mark, however, places that in the background. Mark's directorship places minimal attention on the act of crucifixion; he simply says "and they crucified him" (15:24).
Mark draws our attention not to the wounds of Jesus but to the words of his enemies. He goes into great detail to record the taunts and verbal abuse that Jesus suffered (15:29-32, 35). Why does he do this? Why do we need to know about this mockery of Christ? Because this too is a sign that Jesus is dying under God's judgement. Consider Psalm 89:38-42 (in context this is about God's king from David's line):
You have cast off and rejected;In Psalm 89 being scorned by his enemies was a sign that God's king was under God's judgement for his sins. And here in Mark 15? King Jesus is scorned by his enemies. The King of the Jews is bearing God's judgement as a substitute for sinners.
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.
5. He dies in the darkness
We are surely meant to recall the darkness that fell upon Egypt during the plagues as we see Jesus plunged into the darkness in Mark 15:33. This too was what God threatened Israel with in Deut. 28:29 "and you shall grope at noonday, as the blind grope in darkness." Amos also warned of this sign of judgement (Amos 8:9):
And on that day," declares the Lord GOD,As Jesus dies even the very elements speak of the presence of God's judgement at the cross.
"I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight."
6. He says that he has been forsaken
Here we come to the words that Jesus speaks in Mark 15:34:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice,
"Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?"which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
What is happening to Jesus on the cross? He is bearing sin, its full penalty, in the place of his people. Here is penal substitution. Here is hope for sinners, for here is a refuge from condemnation and free acceptance with God in Christ.
Lamentations 2: The Suffering City and the Suffering Saviour
You can listen to the sermon online here. The outline of the sermon was as follows:
1. When the unthinkable happens
2. What the inquest uncovered
3. Where to go in a crisis
Judgement then and now
The city and the Saviour
The lost city and the city that can never be lost
Friday, March 07, 2008
Facing up to Legalism: Q & A
There is an individual and a corporate dimension to this struggle.
i. Individual struggles
We struggle to accept that when Christ cried from the cross "it is finished" that the work of atoning for sin was completed (John 19:31). The righteousness that we need is found in him, it comes to those who do not work but trust God who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:1-8). But within us there remains a desire to earn God's approval, to contribute something toward our acceptance with him. This must be turned away from again and again. God cancels unpayable debts out of sheer grace, not because we have persuaded him to do so by our attitudes and actions (Luke 7:36-50).
A gospel of grace goes against the grain of the aspirations of our fallen human nature. In fact legalism is a clear expression of our fallenness. The desire to earn acceptance with God based on our own works is a colossal failure to see just how fallen and condemned we are and therefore how much we are in need of grace alone to save us (Eph. 2:1-10).
ii. Corporate struggles
Perhaps because we are so ashamed to admit to the profound corruption of our own hearts we seek to hide behind the petty legalisms that can regulate the behaviour of the church and Christian organisations that we belong too (read Mark 7:1-23). A certain form of external behaviour (more often than not man made) becomes an indicator of true holiness. This approach masks over human depravity, and does not lead to relationships where the mighty grace of God in justification and regeneration is displayed, rejoiced over, and treasured together. How could it be when sin and holiness is treated so superficially?
Q2. How does legalism affect our relationship with God?
It silences the voice of praise for grace shown to ruined sinners in the work of Christ. It extinguishes our joy in the Saviour. It dimishes love to Christ for his mercy and grace toward us. It limits to a point in time (my performance and response to God) dimensions of love that stretch back to God's eternal plan and purpose (Eph. 1:4-5). He loved us from all eternity and gave his Son for us.
In place of praise, joy, and love we are left with uncertainty, servile fear, and grim obedience. "Have I done enough?" is a question that we will ask and never know the answer too. In short we will not have assurance that we ought to have that we are forgiven and accepted for Christ's sake. As Dennis Johnson puts it:
Only when our obedience flows from a justification-secured assurance of the Father's approval of us for his Son's sake is our obedience an expression of love for God above all, rather than an attempt to obligate through our efforts.
Q3. How does legalism affect our relationship with other Christians?
A legalistic attitude produces ugly Christian behaviour.
i. We play the comparison game
We find ourselves measuring our standing before God in proportion to how we compare with other Christians. Their gifts, character, blessings, and experiences determine our own security before God. The truth is that neither we nor they are loved by God for our giftedness or graces; we were loved by God from all eternity, loved as the sinners that we are, loved when we were dead, lost, disobedient, and powerless. We were never chosen and loved for the good in us, rather it was because of the mercy and grace of God (in full awareness of our corruption) that we were saved from our sin and given a future inheritance in heaven. Why then do you look on others to assess and measure your standing before God?
ii. We nurture the pride that boasts and the pride that envies
At the root of legalism is pride. Not only the pride that boasts in who we are and in what we have done when things go well, but also the pride that is wounded and hurt and then manifests itself as envy, jealousy, manipulation, and despair. Both forms of pride are wrong, both need to be corrected by taking faith away from ourselves and our good and bad performances, and resting that faith in Christ and his righteousness.
God in the gospel does not rebuild our troubled sense of self-esteem. God destroys our self-esteem by his law, he re-educates our sense of human dignity, depravity, and destiny; and in the gospel he casts us upon Christ and his righteousness instead of feeding our pursuit of self-love.
iii. We tolerate the sins of suspicion, superiority and hypocrisy
Legalism makes us feel good that we are not like others. It creates the illusion that we can look down our nose at less righteous people. Ironically it does this by reinforcing a diminished view of our own sinfulness. Legalists have never come to grips with Ephesians 2:1-10.
But how can it be dealt with? I'll come back to that in the next post.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
1. Legalism kills joyful Christian living. Paul asks the Galatians who have moved away from him and the gospel of the grace of God "What then has become of the blessing you felt?" (Gal. 4:15). There is a clear connection between the truth of justification by faith alone and healthy and vibrant Christian experience.
2. Legalism kills Christian fellowship. Legalism erects a barrier between people. That's what happened in Galatians 2:11-14 when the obedience and blood of Christ as the ground of justification was rejected as the basis of fellowship.
I once heard the story of how Christians in the Congo would sometimes greet each other by asking “Fresh milk?” (by which they meant "when did you last have your quiet time?"). And you would have to say when that was, and what it was that you had read. In itself that is not a bad thing, but there is only a short a gap between that and legalism (is it not a "how are you performing?" kind of question) . It is not hard to imagine the Pharisees asking each other that question. Perhaps those Christians should have been asking "are you repenting and trusting in Christ alone to save you?"
And of course the reason why legalism kills joyful Christian living, and kills Christian fellowship, is because:
3. Legalism kills the gospel.
The gospel is transformed from being the good news of our acceptance in Christ through faith alone, to one of our acceptance by God by relying on the works of the law. Paul emphasises this throughout the letter. Take a look at 1:6-7; and 2:15-16, 21; 3:10-11, 21; 4:21; 5:3-4.
So what is it? What is legalism?
C. J. Mahaney has a helpful definition:
Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God.And this longer explanation from Dominic Smart is very perceptive:
It’s a way of making and keeping yourself acceptable to God. From this flows the legalism that is directed towards one another. It’s a way of scoring sanctity points in church. The need for order, structures and boundaries feeds our quest for control.
Our very ability to keep some rules feeds our pride and gives us the impression that our relationship with God is somehow founded upon this ability. It often arises out of a good motive: to be holy. It takes our faith away from Christ's sufficiency and misplaces it upon ours. We live to achieve his approval; we forget that we are already alive and accepted in Christ.
It is like the conversation that goes on every week in clothes shops all across the land. The wife tries on an outfit and says to her husband “how do I look?” and a pre-recorded message says “you look great” (the eyes are open, the mouth moves, but Mr Brain has long since been thinking about sport). Legalism makes us ask “do I look good?” and the answer we want is “yes, you look good." Legalism sets us out on the treadmill of performance.
Don't confuse legalism with obeying God's commands, or a concern to obey God's commands, the two are not the same.
Consider what Jesus says in John 15:10, 12, 14:
“If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. You are my friends if you do what I command.”
Legalism is not the desire to obey God's commands, it is the desire to keep God's commands with the wrong motives (to earn acceptance).
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
Legalism: Its cause and cure
Dennis Johnson's chapter "Simul iustus et pecator: The Role of Justification in Pastoral Counselling" in Scott Clark [ed.], Covenant Justification and Pastoral Ministry is a real treasure trove of applied doctrine in this area. I highly recommend the chapter and the book as a whole for a contemporary statement of historic Reformed theology. I'll follow this up with a post entitled Legalism Kills in the next few days.
Here are some extracts from the handout:
"Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God." (C. J. Mahaney)
1. Do you agree with this definition?
2. Why do Christians struggle with legalism?
3. How does legalism affect our relationship with God?
4. How does legalism affect our relationship with other Christians?
5. How can legalism be dealt with?
Connecting Justification and Ongoing Sanctification
Treasuring justification by faith alone supplies the only right motive for obedience
Treasuring justification by faith alone stops us from basing our assurance of God's approval on our record of obedience
Treasuring justification by faith alone stops us from seeking reassurance of our spiritual standing through comparison and contrast with others
Monday, March 03, 2008
The priority of reading in pastoral ministry
And I would want to encourage pastors who I think might be tempted to view reading and study as selfish. I view reading and study as one of the most important ways I can serve the church. So it is not a selfish act for me to set aside this time. It is really the most effective way I can serve this church, by tending to my soul and by preparing for the various forms and expressions of ministry. The best way I can serve a church is by responding to the command to watch your life and watch your doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16).And this:
It is the example of a pastor over a period of years and decades that will make a difference in the life of a congregation. And therefore I want to guard my heart from growing familiar with the pastoral world, growing familiar with God’s Word, growing familiar with corporate worship, growing familiar when I am listening to preaching, growing familiar when I am taking communion, growing familiar with God. I want to guard my heart from that. And the best way I can do that is by attending to his Word and applying his Word to my heart on a daily basis. I think that is the most effective way I can serve those I care for and those I have been called to serve and lead.
Only God gets his to-do list done on a daily basis.You can read the rest here.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
Tell me I'm a good man
"Tell me I have led a good life"These are the words of an old man who has lived in the shadow of the haunting charge given to him by his dying savior Captain John H. Miller, "earn it." As the movie closes the aged James Ryan wants to hear a declaration that he has earned it, that he is a good man. Want he wants is to be justified, and to be justified by a whole life lived.
"Tell me I'm a good man."
Before God we will never be justified if we seek to earn it. If justification is by works then our only certainty is that we will stand condemned. As Romans 3:19-20 tells us:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.Mercifully there is another righteousness available. As Paul goes on to say (Rom. 3:21-24):
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.Yet if Christ has died only to deal with past sins, leaving the future justification to be determined by his saving work and our co-operation with grace, then there is no hope that the declaration will be secure. Later in Romans we are assured that his atoning work is fully sufficient to deal with our sin, to grant us a righteous status now, and to ensure that on the basis of Christ's work alone we will saved from the coming wrath (Rom. 5:1-11; 8:32-39).
In the gospel God justifies the ungodly. God credits, counts, imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. We receive this right standing on the basis of the obedience and blood of Christ, and it is ours by faith alone resting and relying on Christ (Romans 4:1-8).
Saturday, March 01, 2008
Biography of Cornelius Van Til
The details are here.
Here's the blurb from the WTS bookstore:
A glowing endorsement from Scott Oliphint:
This work contributes to an understanding of Van Til and his apologetic insights by placing him within the context of twentieth century developments in North American Reformed theology, including the formation of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the rise of neo-evangelicalism, and American reception of Karl Barth.
Extensive research from published sources, unpublished archives, personal interviews. Views Van Til's apologetic contribution in light of his commitment to the Word and the church.
"Muether does a masterful job of tracing the personal history of this 'father of presuppositionalism.' He also shows the inextricable link between Van Til's own call as a minister of the gospel and his task of training men for gospel ministry to be self-conscious in their apolo- getic method. As Muether weaves together the various strands of Van Til’s life and career, one can readily see, in a way not clearly seen before, that it was Reformed theology, and not philosophy, that shaped Van Til’s work as a Christian apologist. I could not put this book down."And the table of contents:
- K. Scott Oliphint, Professor of Chruch History at Westminster Theological Seminary
- Introduction: Apologist and Churchman
- 1. A Child of the Afscheiding
- 2.'Fit Modesty and Unreserved Conviction'
- 3. From Dutch Reformed to American Presbyterian
- 4. Reformed or Evangelical?
- 5. The New Machen against the New Modernism
- 6. Through the Fires of Criticism
- 7. Presbyterian Patriarch
- 8. Steadfast, Unmovable, and Abounding
- Conclusion: Against the World, for the Church