Wednesday, August 27, 2008

We bless our God for the trials he sends

It is the plain testimony of Scripture that trials in the Christian life are not random, undirected, and totally destructive. Rather they come to us from the hand of One who is both Almighty God and our Faithful Father.

In themselves they are often painful and distressing, sometimes to the body, always to the emotions. They need to be sanctified because they stir up the dirty sediment of indwelling sin, exposing depths of depravity and distrust that perhaps naively we thought we were free from. However, by the searching light of the Word and the sanctifying work of the Spirit, these inward and outward trials become the very means by which we learn to trust our God more deeply, distrust ourselves more thoroughly, and cling to Christ and his cross more desperately than we did before.

For these reasons we bless our God for the trials he sends. His sufficiency and faithfulness and power and grace shine more brightly set against the backdrop of trials.

We bless God the Father because he is sovereign over us and all our ways.

We bless God the Son for his grace in the gospel to rebels like us. His grace is seen in greater heart captivating majesty. Before the cross we are again exposed as sinners without hope in ourselves, but Christ we have been loved from all eternity and saved by grace alone. Our guilt and shame became his. His obedience became ours, his blood has washed us clean and turned aside the righteous wrath of a Holy God that would have condemned us forever.

We bless God the Holy Spirit for his work in applying to us Christ's finished work, and for his sanctifying work through the Word and in our hearts that keeps us turning from sin and trusting our God.

We are at times astonished that we have not been overwhelmed by bitterness, anger, and despondency. Why not? Because in the midst of trials our God has kept our faith resting and relying on Christ, submissive to his will, confident that his wisdom is greater than ours. And so we bless our God for the trials he sends because they make us see in greater measure his grace in the gospel and his grace at work in our lives.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Blogs I love to read

This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, nor one that places blogs in a pecking order. I love to read blogs by those who have gone overseas to serve the Lord.

Here are three:

Alan Davey who blogs at Les Davey De France. Alan was my predecessor in the Church here in Deeside. Three years ago this week he and his lovely family moved to Bordeaux where they serve as UFM missionaries. You can read his prayer letter here.

Andy Shuddall who blogs at Kiwi Chronicles. Andy and his family moved from the UK to New Zealand three years ago to serve in student ministry with TSCF. Andy is a former colleague from student ministry days in the UK and I rejoice at the grace of God in his life. Do pray for him as he is currently recovering from a brain injury.

Ben Carswell who blogs at From the Ends of the Earth. Ben also now serves in New Zealand with TSCF, before that I was his boss in student ministry with UCCF Wales. Ben and Jen will soon be celebrating their first wedding anniversary. Do pray for him as he is involved in campus outreach.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Under Pressure (2): Unchanging ministry in changing times

The Church faces external pressure in the form of persecution and internal pressure in the form of false teaching.

Elsewhere I have written that persecution is comparable to The War of the Worlds, that unsubtle assault on humanity by aliens. Heresy, on the other hand, is like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The truth of the gospel is taken over subtlely by an alien world-view. The outward appearance remains in the form of orthodox words, but the content is replaced by quite different ideas. Both persecution and heresy are instruments in the hands of Satan to oppose God and the gospel.

Here's how Cyprian of Carthage expressed it:
There is more need to fear and beware of the Enemy when he creeps up secretly, when he beguiles us by a show of peace and steals forward by those hidden approaches which have earned him the name of the 'Serpent'...He invented heresies and schisms so as to undermine the faith, to corrupt the truth, to sunder our unity. Those whom he failed to keep in the blindness of their old ways he beguiles, and leads them up a new road of illusion.
This second, and internal, pressure also faces Timothy. Paul speaks to this in his second letter. Persecutors and false teachers are under the sovereign control of God, but they are not under the control of Paul or Timothy. We may wish that we never had to face heretics in the church. We may even begin to wonder why we have to deal with them. Why are they permitted to hinder the progress of the gospel? Why are they allowed to sow confusion and upset faith?

How should Timothy hold to a proper God-ward confidence under the pressure of the presence of false teachers?

By having confidence in God's sovereignty in salvation

Paul's answer to this is to direct Timothy to God's sovereignty in salvation. The Lord knows those who are his (2:19). This is a solid foundation for ministry. And those whom God knows, and brings to salvation in Christ by grace and through faith alone, will show the evidence of this by displaying the fruit of holiness (2:20; following 1:9). This is Paul's direct theological response to the infiltration of error in the church. Whatever damage it does, it simply cannot destroy this foundation. The Lord will save all his people.

By showing humble patience in correcting opponents

In 2:24-26 Paul spells out for Timothy the same kind of point that he makes in Ephesians 6:12 ("For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood..." Compare Ephesians 6:11 and 4:14). Correcting opponents cannot be done by merely human strength and wisdom. There is a spiritual conflict that Paul wants Timothy to be conscious of. What will secure a right response from those in error? Notice how Paul frames this scenario. Such men are:

*Senseless captives caught in the devil's snare to do his will (2:26)

*In need of God given repentance (which highlights the moral nature of error) without which they will never know the truth (2:25)

*Therefore Timothy must be humble, patient, gentle and not quarrelsome as he corrects them (2:24)

This is the atmosphere in which Timothy is to stand his ground and correct those in error. It is an atmosphere that calls for prayerfulness. It is also calls for wisdom because Timothy must avoid being dragged into time wasting, profitless disputes (2:14 and again in 2:23).

By demonstrating an unswerving commitment to orthodoxy

Paul urges this in 1:13. Timothy must "Hold fast the pattern of sound words." This is a moral and spiritual commitment to the truth. It is what you are meant to do with truth. By way of contrast the false teachers Hymenaeus and Alexander have "strayed concerning the truth" and have done so by letting go of the orthodox truth of the resurrection (2:17-18). And Paul has made the danger of error transparent. It will spread like a cancer. It is destructive, soul destroying.

Timothy can't control the existence of false teachers. Paul is clear, they will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived (3:13) and drawing followers after them (4:3-4).

How should Timothy respond?

He should keep going in the same direction, following the apostolic doctrine and pattern of life and ministry (3:14). Continue in what you have learned is Paul's admonition. The apostolic teaching and pattern of life are themselves rooted and anchored in the Holy Scriptures, the solid foundation for an all-round ministry (3:15-17).

What do you do in the face of false teachers?


*Lift your thoughts to God and Christ the Judge of all (4:1)

*Preach the Word at all times (4:2)

*Keep you head and keep going (4:5)

And you commit to identifying, training, and appointing men who will replicate this pattern (2:2).

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Warfield on the Two Natures of Christ

Here is Warfield on the Chalcedonian definition:

"The final statement...was arrived at, externally considered, through protracted and violent controversies, during the course of which every conceivable construction of the biblical data had been exploited, weighed, and its elements of truth sifted out and preserved, while the elements of error which deformed it were burned up as chaff in the fires of the strife.

Out of the continuous controversy of a century there issued a balanced statement in which all the elements of the biblical representation were taken up and combined. Work so done is done for all time; and it is capable of ever-repeated demonstration that in the developed doctrine of the Two Natures...and in it alone, all the biblical data are brought together in a harmonious statement, in which each receives full recognition, and out of which each may derive its sympathetic exposition.

This key unlocks the treasures of the biblical instruction on the Person of Christ as none other can, and enables the reader as he currently scans the sacred pages to take up their declarations as they meet him, one after the other, into an intelligently consistent conception of his Lord."

B. B. Warfield, "Recent Christological Speculation," in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield vol. III: Christology and Criticism, p. 264-5

And here is the Chalcedonian definition (451 AD):

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

The cost of the Kenosis theory

A brief extract from Warfield:

"Kenoticism differs from Socinianism fundamentally, however, in that Socinianism took away from us only our Divine Christ, while Kenoticism takes away also our very God. For what kind of God is this that is God and not God alternately as he chooses, and lays off and on at will those specific qualities that make God the kind of being we call "God"...

It really ought to be clear by now that there cannot be a half-way house erected between the doctrines that Christ is both God and man and that Christ is merely a man. Between these two positions there is an irreducible "either or," and many may feel inclined to adopt Biedermann's caustic criticism of the Kenotic theories, that only one who has himself suffered a kenosis of his understanding can possibly accord them welcome."

B. B. Warfield, "The Twentieth-Century Christ," in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield vol. III: Christology and Criticism, p. 376

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Under Pressure (1)

Timothy was a man under pressure when he read his second letter from the apostle Paul. He was facing the perennial pressures that authentic preachers and churches have found themselves under.

The external pressure came in the form of persecution. Verbal and physical persecution is painful. Paul knows this better than anyone, so he writes:

"Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God." (2 Tim. 1:8)

Here is the key perspective from which Timothy must look upon persecution.

What will keep Timothy from buckling under the pressure of persecution?

Objectively it is because of Christ's resurrection, his abolition of death and the grave, and his bringing life and immortality to light through the gospel (1:10).

Believers have the promise of life, eternal life, in Christ Jesus (1:1). They know that Christ has been raised (2:8), and that if they endure they will also reign with him (2:12). Moreover the hardship that Timothy is being called upon to endure (1:8, 2:3) will not eliminate gospel preaching and the securing of the salvation of all God's people (2:9-10).

Subjectively it is because God has given not a spirit of fear but of power and love and a sound mind (1:7). This is why Timothy must stir up the gift that he has been given.

Timothy will be enabled to face persecution and hardship (the inevitable consequence that accompanies godly living for Christ's sake, 3:12) by calling to mind that he will one day face Christ, the judge of the living and the dead (4:1).

And he who knows now, before God, that the Lord Jesus will judge all men, will no longer be able to face those same men now with the fear that dreads the harm that they can do and silences the preaching of the gospel.

It is a solemn thought that God can sustain his people when they suffer for the gospel so that they will not be ashamed of the testimony of their Lord. It is a solemn thought that Jesus Christ will make his enemies a footstool for his feet.

The second, and internal, pressure facing Timothy came in the form of false teaching. I'll deal with this in a later post.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Spurgeon on Law and Gospel

Here's a great quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon:

"The doctrine of the covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, is a master of divinity.

I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture, are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenant of law and of grace. May God grant us...the power to instruct, receive instruction on this vital subject."

Saturday, August 09, 2008

This is not yet your grandfather's Calvinism

After reading several reviews I finally decided to read through Collin Hansen's Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.

The book is obviously intended to be impressionistic about the younger generation of Calvinists within evangelicalism in the United States. As well as interviews with several prominent speakers and authors (John Piper, Al Mohler, Lig Duncan, Mark Driscoll, Joshua Harris, C. J. Mahaney etc.) there are plenty of reflections with young people connected with the ministries of those men (either attending, studying at, or working for Mars Hill, Bethlehem Baptist, RUF, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, etc.).

In many ways the book fulfills what George Marsden once said about history being the story of personalities, wider movements, and institutions. The mediating structures in this case between the key personalities and the wider movement are largely conferences, books, and the multi-media distribution of the teaching ministry of the larger churches. Perhaps the last of those three is the most influential.

The book is something of an apologetic for the positive transforming impact of a reformed understanding of salvation. Story after story is given of the humbling, God exalting, missions motivating, church planting, power of God's sovereign grace in the gospel.

Calvinism transforms lives. It is the solid rock on which the suffering saints stand, and it is when these notes are struck again and again that passionate songs of praise pour out from grateful hearts.

Another standout feature is the legacy of great men long dead whose writings continue to feed the souls of the leaders and followers of this movement, most notably Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon.

The book also picks up on what should seem obvious, that what is nick named Calvinism is none other than Biblical religion. Not just God exalting theology, the kind that passes the litmus test described thus by Martyn Lloyd-Jones,

"In every view of salvation the place given in it to the glory of God provides the ultimate test. The proof that it is truly scriptural is that it gives all the glory to God."

but also one that simultaneously humbles the human heart in its presence, bends the knees, subverts pride, and makes God's bitterest enemies his closest friends. This is not just orthodoxy, it is orthodoxy that transforms lives.

The encounter with Calvinism often begins not with Calvin, or Edwards, or Spurgeon but with Moses in Exodus, with Jesus in the gospels, or with Paul's letters. Testimonies are provided throughout the book of young people who encountered Calvinism in the preaching, or the reading, of the Word of God. And they met it when they saw that the things of first importance, and how they impact a life in conversion, are shaped by Reformed adjectives. Depravity is total, grace is irresistible, election is unconditional.

Is there more to Calvinism than this? Of course there is. However, for many who are new to Reformed theology, it is met not in its grand historic vision or presentation (as found in the great churchly statements of the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession) but in relation to the power of God in salvation. This of course is also the common bond between Calvinists who hold to historic Reformed views across the board and those who embrace a Calvinistic view of salvation only.

I think this observation on an emphasis that runs throughout the book explains why this isn't yet your grandfather's Calvinism. There is more to the Reformation heritage, much more, and this needs to find its way into the rest of the story after p. 156. And I'm sure that there is more going on because once you follow the Calvinist trail of literature and history it leads to the rich pastures of the confessions and catechisms, and of covenant theology.

One criticism of the book is the failure to signal just how much today's resurgence relies on and remains connected to the continuing work of grace that has kept God's people believing in his sovereignty. The representation of Calvinists outside of the current resurgence relied more heavily on negative stereotyping and caricature than was healthy. Even though there is some attempt to signal connections to the past there isn't a sufficient indication of how the last few generations have held to and been transformed by the same truths.

Then again the book is impressionistic and focussed narrowly and deliberately on certain influential figures and centres. As a result the book tends towards reports of Baptists (with illuminating stories about the struggles over Calvinism in the SBC) more than Presbyterians. Although RUF and Ligon Duncan do feature it would have been helpful to take a close up look, for example, at First Presbyterian Jackson or Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia just as Mars Hill or Covenant Life Church were covered.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Westminster and Evangelicalism

Here is the text of Dr. David B. Garner's recent post at the WTS website:

Westminster and Evangelicalism
David B. Garner
Vice President for Advancement
Westminster Theological Seminary (PA)

What is evangelicalism? Who are evangelicals? Because evangelicalism has experienced a metamorphosis, the answer to these questions is more complicated than one might guess. In the term’s early use in 18th and 19th century in North America, where evangelicalism was more narrowly defined by revivalism and its associated emphasis on personal conversion, evangelicalism became identified with the largest Protestant movement in North America.

In the wake of the infiltration of theological liberalism into the mainline churches and the massive immigration of foreigners of diverse religious background, the virtually ubiquitous force of evangelicalism tempered, yet its arteries extended so as to influence a wide panorama of churches and para-church groups. Accordingly, the Institute for Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) at Wheaton College defines evangelicalism as “a wide-reaching definitional ‘canopy’ that covers a diverse number of Protestant groups”.

On the current North American landscape, evangelicalism embraces, among others, Baptists, some Lutherans and Episcopalians, independents, Mennonites, Charismatics (Protestant and Catholic), Dutch Reformed, and Presbyterians. As evidenced by the vote to retain Clark Pinnock and John Sanders in the Evangelical Theological Society in 2003, the big tent of evangelicalism now extends from rigorous conservatism to forms of open theism and inclusivism.

With the expansion of its stakes in recent decades, this evangelical tent now covers such associations as the Christian Coalition of America (a political advocacy group), L.E.A.R.N., Inc. (a pro-life group), Evangelicals Concerned, Inc. (a pro-homosexual group), and the Evangelical Environment Network (an environmental advocacy group).

Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) shares appreciation for traditional evangelicalism’s emphasis on the inerrancy and authority of the Scripture. At the same time, WTS remains committed to its confessional heritage and standards; the Westminster Standards have been and remain our doctrinal standard.

No matter how much evangelicalism morphs, the parameters of Westminster Reformed Orthodoxy guide and preserve the Seminary’s theological commitments on Scripture and any other doctrinal matter on which the Westminster Standards speak. Wherever and whenever strands of evangelicalism agree with the Westminster Standards, WTS happily identifies with evangelicalism. However, when any form of evangelicalism (or any other theological approach) runs contrary to historic Reformed orthodoxy and methodology, WTS consciously separates itself from evangelical identification.

Is WTS an evangelical institution? If by that we mean our resolute commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ revealed in the inerrant Word of God, and to the five solas of the Reformation – faith alone, scripture alone, grace alone, Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone – then we grant a strong affirmative. Indeed, the bond of Christian unity makes such not an option or a work of supererogation, but a basic Christian imperative.

But if we mean sharing theological common ground with inclusivists, open theists, and any other self-professing evangelicals who deny or compromise the unique authority of divine Scripture, we grant a strong denial. Rather, in view of our Reformed heritage and commitment to the Westminster Standards, we unequivocally affirm our commitment to Reformed orthodoxy.

These confessional parameters guide, preserve, and promote our approach to theological education, ministerial formation, and academic study. They summarize in brilliant, short compass, the teaching of scripture. They keep us accountable in all that we do to our ecclesiastical constituency. And they focus our hearts and minds upon the gracious God who has preserved his church, and his gospel, from generation to generation.

Knowing the Times: Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman has posted a clear, helpful, and irenic essay entitled "Knowing the Times: Recent Controversies in Context" here. (HT: Justin Taylor)

A brief extract on "The ever broadening boundaries of evangelicalism":

In his new book, The Courage to be Protestant, David points to the increasing doctrinal minimalism of evangelicalism. Where once a raft of doctrines were assumed, now evangelicalism is defined almost by institutions and ethos rather than by theological confession.

If it is taught at a seminary calling itself evangelical, for example, or published by a press which has evangelical roots, then it is within the range of evangelical thought, even if it involves a low view of scripture, rejection of penal substitution, or even a question mark over the Trinity.

Further, Mark, in his book, Is the Reformation Over?, points out that many evangelicals, perhaps most, now reject justification by grace through faith as understood by the Reformers, a doctrine which has historically been one of the distinguishing hallmarks of evangelical Protestantism.

Strange times, indeed, when even the basics can no longer be assumed; but we must acknowledge that we stand at a point in history where the purview of evangelical thought is not determined by historic Christianity but is rather a function of the breadth of the beliefs of the faculty who serve at evangelical seminaries, the commissioning editors who work for evangelical presses, and the ministers who fill evangelical pulpits.

And this on "Confession and accountability":

So what is the significance of these recent events? As Academic Dean and as Vice President for Academic Affairs, I believe this lies above all in two specific areas.

First, it is now clear that Westminster is to be committed to a doctrine of scripture that reflects what is taught in the great confessions of the Reformation, and which has nurtured the confessional evangelical church for centuries. As evangelicalism in general broadens out, as it loses its connection with its confessional Reformation past, as it becomes increasingly vacuous at a doctrinal level, the leaders at Westminster have decided that that is not the path this institution will go down.

We will not accept that the Reformation creedal heritage is no longer relevant; we will not accede to the indefinite broadening of evangelicalism’s doctrinal horizons; nor will we subscribe to the modifications of the doctrine of scripture which are such a necessary part of that broadening. Rather, we will stand where we have always stood, on the great solas of the Reformation: Christ, scripture, grace, faith, and, above all, God’s glory. We are not, and will not be, a seminary which repudiates the great catholic legacy of the Reformation and of subsequent confessional evangelicalism.

Second, it has been made clear that Westminster professors are to be held accountable to more than just the canons of their chosen academic guild or the current trends of thinking in their various subdisciplines or even their friends and colleagues on Faculty. Accountability in times of crisis, of course, is always a painful experience.

There is a human cost on all sides which press releases, theological statements, and minutes of meetings rarely, if ever, convey. While theology is indeed a great hobby, it is too often a nightmare of a profession. Yet those who teach must be held accountable for their teaching, however hard that may be; and, for too long at Westminster, too little attention has been paid to what we as Faculty teach while too much, perhaps, has been paid to what others outside of our church constituencies think of us.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Against Heresies: the interviews

Christian Focus will be publishing a series of interviews that I did with senior ministers and seminary professors on handling truth and error in the church. I hope that the interviews will benefit all church members, but they will be especially useful for pastors, elders, and seminarians.

Several of the interviews were posted on the blog in 2007 (but are no longer available). There will also be new interviews in the book on justification and the New Perspective, with Ligon Duncan, plus others on inerrancy and hell.

The line up includes Carl Trueman, Mike Horton, Mark Dever, Tom Schreiner (on penal substitution), Scott Clark, Ligon Duncan, Derek Thomas, Joel Beeke, Kim Riddlebarger (on errors and the end times), Iain D. Campbell, Guy Waters, Ron Gleason, Gary L. W. Johnson, Tom Ascol, Geoff Thomas, Conrad Mbewe, and Sean Lucas (plus a few others that I'm very excited about but can't announce just yet).

The collection is topped and tailed with two chapters that I have written, a short primer on heresy and "What really matters in ministry" (directives for church leaders from Acts 20).

There's no release date as yet for the book.