Friday, October 31, 2008
Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Fathers at Ref 21
My good friend Paul Levy has written Calvinistic Methodism and Rock 'n' Roll, a review of this recently published, first time in English, two volume work on the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Fathers. He's also written a provocative and helpful piece on The Advantage of Virtual Church.
I would also like to draw your attention to the recent emphatic victory by my rugby team the Cardiff Blues over Carl Trueman's team Gloucester.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
A Reformation Day Challenge
Before I say a little about each book let me underscore a few reasons why we ought to know the truth of justification as well as we can.
1. We cannot afford to lose this truth. And truth can be lost sight of, and that not merely for a generation but even for centuries. When justification by faith alone is lost sight of not only are we left in darkness but we will grope around to find in ourselves and our works the ground of our acceptance with God. In a day when this truth is being questioned, attacked, denied, and revised thank God that he has raised up men who are able to teach it clearly from the Scriptures, able to refute opponents, and for publishers who are making new and old volumes on this truth available.
2. We cannot afford to live without this truth. We dare not approach God without the obedience and blood of Christ, and we cannot benefit from the work of Christ except by faith alone. We deliberately need to turn away from ourselves and toward Christ, resting and relying on him alone in order to be declared righteous before God.
3. We cannot afford to die without this truth. Once we learn that we have already passed from death to life, that for us looking to Christ alone by faith alone the judicial verdict of God has been passed and we are declared righteous in his sight, we may then approach death without fear of future condemnation. Iain Murray tells an encouraging story that illustrates this:
About a hundred years ago Alexander Whyte, as a pastor in Edinburgh, visited one of his elders who was dying. A book was close to the man's hand and, recognizing that it was not the Bible, Whyte looked on the open page to see what it might be. There his eyes fell on the words, "Chapter 11--Of Justification":Murray adds "We too will die, and when that day comes there will be no truth we shall value more than the doctrine thus stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith."Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
The first book that I would encourage you to read is John V. Fesko's recently published Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (available here). It is a substantial volume weighing in at 480 pages. This work seeks to set justification clearly in the framework of the history of salvation and the order of salvation. It also has an eye to recent controversies over justification by faith alone and seeks to understand and respond to challenges to the classic Reformed doctrine.
The second book takes us back to the 19th Century, where again the doctrine was under attack. Let me encourage you to read James Buchanan's classic work on The Doctrine of Justification (available here if you live in the US or here if you live in the UK). Buchanan deals with the OT and NT teaching on justification, justification in church history and various aspects of the doctrine.
Joel Beeke says:
Buchanan expounds the doctrine itself by covering the scriptural meaning of the term, its relation to the law and justice of God, its relation to the mediatorial work of Christ, its relation to grace and works, and more. The chapter on justification in relation to the work of the Holy Spirit is alone worth the price of the book.Again it is a substantial volume at 540 pages.
The final book was written by the greatest theologian the British Isles has ever produced, John Owen. Owen's work The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ explained, confirmed, and vindicated) is available here (US) or here (UK). At 448 pages it is the shortest of the three! You will find that Owen's work, although written in the seventeenth century, has a contemporary feel to it. It is proof positive that the same debates are played out again and again in church history. This work will enrich your soul as well as inform your mind.
Reading, like running, requires commitment and development. If you want to run a marathon you have to train and build up your stamina over long distances. We should all aim to read so that we can move onto to more substantial literature.
Take time to work through these volumes carefully. Meditate on them, summarize their points and arguments, digest their teaching, speak to others about what the Lord has taught you. And on your knees thank him for having mercy upon you a sinner by not counting your sins against you, but instead counting, as if it were yours, the obedience of your Lord and Saviour, your representative and substitute, the only mediator Jesus Christ.
Twelve years ago I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Hans Kung's teaching on justification in relation to official Roman Catholic and classic Protestant views on the doctrine. I well remember at times spending twelve or thirteen hours a day working on it. I still remember the joy of laying my head on the pillow in the certain knowledge that it wasn't my works but Christ and his perfect work that was my righteousness before God. I thank God the same is true today and I can sing in the words of the old hymn:
A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;Happy Reformation day!
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view
Mike Ovey interview
Robert Letham writes about the interviews:
This collection is fascinating, sobering and encouraging. It presents an impressive range of experience and wisdom on the challenges facing the church and its ministry in dealing with false teaching while being sensitive to those affected by it.I have also interviewed Mike Ovey, one of the authors of Pierced for our Transgressions and the Principal of Oak Hill Theological College. You'll have to buy the book to read the full interview but here is a taster:
How should a minister keep his own heart, mind and will from theological error?
I think a minister must remember first that his mind is not a neutral instrument, but one that not infrequently will be used to rationalize his heart’s desire. From that point of view there is a real need for a minister to concentrate on the fruit of the Spirit and in particular the virtues of humility and gentleness. It does seem to me that a heart that is prone to pride and aggression is likely to be prone to theological error. So spending personal time with the Lord, submitted to his word, and where possible having an accountability group – all these things to my mind help protect us from theological error as well as from unholiness of life. The two do, I think, go together.
Why do men possessed of fine intellectual gifts end up embracing and believing significant theological errors?
I think there are three things that spring to mind. First, pride: in particular perhaps a pride of intellect that insists God should have said this rather than that, and therefore squeezes the Scripture into one’s own system. Secondly, boredom: I think there is a spiritual malaise that has a sense of ennui at the presentation of simple Gospel truths (Christ died for my sin, Christ rose again, he is the ascended Lord) and wants, so to speak, to explore the periphery of Christian theology. I think there is a cultural spirit in our time that loves the new and loves the esoteric. Thirdly, we can embrace error because we want to justify what we are doing: simple immorality over the years has led many of us astray.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Idolatry, trials and grace
"The world, and the things of the world, Madam, is the lover ye naturally affect beside your own husband Christ. The hedge of thorns and the wall which God buildeth in your way, to hinder you from this lover, is the thorny hedge of daily grief, loss of children, weakness of body, iniquity of the time, uncertainty of estate, lack of worldly comfort, fear of God's anger for old unrepented-of sins. What lose ye, if God twist and plait the hedge daily thicker?"
"Grace tried is better than grace, and it is more than grace; it is glory in its infancy"
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
It is a consoling thought that Christ is praying for us, even when we are negligent in our prayer life; that He is presenting to the Father those spiritual needs which were not present to our minds and which we often neglect to include in our prayers; and that He prays for our protection against the dangers of which we are not even conscious, and against the enemies which threaten us, though we do not notice it. He is praying that our faith may not cease, and that we may come out victoriously in the end.On Sunday 2nd November I will be preaching at the anniversary services of Grove Chapel, Camberwell (London). Check out the Grove Chapel website here.
Monday, October 27, 2008
They lose nothing who gain Christ
Robert Murray M'Cheyne, letter to one bereaved, March 9th, 1843
"Ye have lost a child: nay she is not lost to you who is found to Christ. She is not sent away, but only sent before, like unto a star, which going out of our sight doth not die...but shineth in another hemisphere. Ye see her not, yet she doth shine in another country.
If her glass was but a short hour, what she wanteth of time that she hath gotten of eternity...Build your nest upon no tree here; for ye see that God hath sold the whole forest to death; and every tree whereupon we would rest is ready to be cut down, to the end that we may fly and mount up, and build upon the Rock, and dwell in the holes of the Rock."
Samuel Rutherford, letter to Lady Kenmure, on occasion of the death of her infant daughter, January 15th, 1629
Thursday, October 16, 2008
A dark providence, a gracious God
His eyes would never open to see the wonders and sorrows of this world, but we are sure that they have opened to see the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ, of a perfect world of love that his family on earth have only begun to poorly imitate.
We shall lay his earthly remains in the grave, but not our hopes with them. Christ is risen, death is conquered, our night of weeping will give way to everlasting days of joy.
We live by promises, not explanations. George Whitefield wrote after the death of his second child "To explain God's providence by his promise, and not his promise by his providence, I find is the only way both to get and to keep our comforts." And his comforts come by speaking of his gospel promises that are stronger than death (1 Thess. 4:18).
Here is Article 17 of the Canons of Dort (1618)
The Salvation of the Infants of Believers
Since we must make judgments about God's will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.
Monday, October 13, 2008
"A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud"
As long as our doctrinal understanding is undeveloped we are ill equipped to face the intellectual, emotional, and practical challenges that meet us every day. Think of Paul's description in Ephesians 4:14-16 of immaturity in knowledge and its effects:
So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.Crucially, as long as we are like this, there is will be no stability in our Christian walk. Instead, tossed to and fro by the waves, immature believers are carried about by every wind of doctrine. The solution to this is for the church to be confessional, speaking the truth of the gospel in love. Not only were they troubled by instability but the young believers at Ephesus were also impressionable, fair game for the craft and cunning of false teachers.
The same means intended to deal with their instability would also deal with their vulnerability to error. What this of course means is that as we grow in knowledge so we are better able to discern and reject error.
And so it is when we come to the doctrine of providence.
Consider the following on providence and sanctification the Westminster Confession 3:5:
The most wise, righteous, and gracious God does oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.Is this how I view temptation? Do I discern it it God's design to work all this together for my good? What about those periods of emotional flatness? Or a felt sense of God's absence? (Even though by Word and Sacrament we see his pledge never to leave nor forsake his people).
How easy it is to be troubled by our circumstances because we have not developed a robust biblical, and essentially comforting (read "soul strengthening") view of the providence of a good and faithful God.
Our culture has taught us that the world operates by chance, that our lives are ultimately unguided. In this atmosphere we appear to live and move and have our being. And then there are versions of providence that encourage to view God as frustrated, limited, and thwarted. This is the God who is almost sovereign.
The Heidelberg Catechism (Questions 26-28) not only affirms, summarises, and explains the doctrine of God's providence, it also takes us by the hand and shows us the application of it. A Christian instructed about God's providence should know that it teaches us to be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for the future to have good confidence in our faithful God and Father.
Knowing and applying this gracious teaching about God's providence gives strong consolation in times of trial, adversity and grief. Consider the words of Sarah Edwards as she wrote to her daughter Esther on 3rd April 1758 to break the news of her husband's death:
"What shall I say: A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left to us! We are all given to God: and there I am and love to be."We cannot respond like this without knowing about God's providence from his Word. This is precisely the point that Paul underlines in Romans 8:28. "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." We know this! We know it because God has revealed it.
And consider also the words from Ryland's hymn (which to me personally when I read them a few years ago on the back of a Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth magazine in the library of Gordon Conwell Seminary were a timely help). What confidence we can have in a God who is Almighty and a Father who is Faithful:
Sovereign Ruler of the skies
Ever gracious, ever wise
All my times are in Thy hand
All events at thy command
He that formed me in the womb
He shall guide me to the tomb
All my times shall ever be
Ordered by his wise decree
Times of sickness, times of health
Times of poverty and wealth
Times of trial and of grief
Times of triumph and relief
Times the tempter's power to prove
Times to taste a Saviour's love
All must come, and last, and end.
As shall please my heavenly Friend.
Plagues and deaths around me fly.
Till he bids I cannot die:
Not a single shaft can hit
Til the God of love thinks fit.
O Thou gracious, wise and just
In They hands my life I trust
Thee, at all times, will I bless
Having Thee, I all possess
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Both Almighty God and a Faithful Father
That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that in them is, who likewise upholds, and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ, His Son, my God and my Father, in whom I so trust as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this troubled life, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.
27. What do you understand by the providence of God?
The almighty, everywhere-present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.
28. What does it profit us to know that God created, and by His providence upholds, all things?
That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.
Our Only Comfort
1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
New Book: Bible Overview
The book should stir up some debate on important issues, not least of which is the content of the faith of Old Testament saints. One wonders whether liberal theology and higher critical Old Testament scholarship eviscerated evangelical confidence that David knew that Christ was his Lord, that Israel grieved the Holy Spirit in the wilderness, and that the Church in the Old Testament wasn't Unitarian.
Have a read of the following recommendations (there is one from me inside the book):
"Steve has a fever for the Bible and is desperate to infect you! Let him."
Dale Ralph Davis
"This is a page-turner of a book! I truly cannot think of a better way of introducing someone to the Bible than through these wonderfully luminous chapters."
"That it is well written and easy to read is good for starters; but the heart of the situation is the sheer happiness of meeting someone who is so in love with the bible, so sensible in his approach..."
"My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will use this lively and stimulating book by Steve Levy to remove the veil from many minds."
Here's a comment from Glen Scrivener at Christ the Truth:
Loving what I’ve read so far. I reckon this is the book I’ll be giving to anyone wanting a grounding in Christ-focused biblical theology.
Here’s a provocative paragraph early on:
“When you are reading any of the Old Testament books, whether Numbers, Leviticus, Kings or Chronicles, you are reading about the gospel of Jesus Christ. You are not reading an illustration of the gospel, you are not reading stories that can be reinterpreted in the light of the gospel. You are reading God’s clear word about Jesus. That is how the Bible sees itself.” (p22)
Wednesday, October 08, 2008
Amnesia and Apostasy
The Bible is clear: amnesia produces apostasy. That is why Scripture is so frantic about the church not forgetting what Yahweh has done for us (see Deut. 4 and 6). So Jeremiah diagnosed faithless Israel:
They did not say, 'Where is the LORDWhen we allow either his quiet keeping or his dramatic rescue to slip into oblivion we are on our way toward Baal.
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that none passes through,
where no man dwells?'
Nor is it merely some ancient Israelite problem. The apostle warns us of false teachers who will be "denying the Master who bought them" (2 Pet. 2:1 RSV, italics added).
Which is good reason for us to partake gratefully and frequently of the Lord's Supper. Lest we forget.
Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Exposition of the Book of Judges, p. 37
Thursday, October 02, 2008
Today, at the click of a button I can listen to a vast amount of material, from the cream of the crop, still without a real preacher or real congregation present, and all for free.
Twelve years ago my supply was limited by my finances, and thereby limited in its impact. It formed a tiny part of my spiritual diet alongside books, and listening to real preachers in a real congregation.
Today, the sheer volume of audio material available means that I am far more likely to make that a significant part of my spiritual diet. And today I am that real preacher in a real congregation.
The question is, what is this individualism doing to me?
Given that technology is reconfiguring our spiritual intake, and I take it that the benefits are obvious, how do I become aware of the dangers? What are the dangers?
What is this doing to local churches? Will this lead to an audio hierarchy where the best internet preachers are really the most influential figures in local churches? Is that healthy? Are we already there?
What does that do to the way we listen together week by week in the context of local church life?
Why we must guard the gospel
What is false teaching?
In 1 Timothy 6:20 it is "irreverent babble" (ESV), "godless chatter" (NIV), it is falsely called knowledge.
What happens when false teaching like this spreads?
It destroys faith, it is the spiritual equivalent of gangrene (2 Tim. 2:16).
The "good deposit" must be guarded, and the pattern of sound teaching must be kept (2 Timothy 1:13-14). And so what appears to be a fairly restrictive and somewhat negative approach to ministry is seen against serious and severe background.
These are not small matters. Unoriginality in this regard is to be prized, for the true teacher will not seek to modify or adapt the content of the message to suit his age or audience. Rather he will see that guarding and keeping are significant aspects of authentic orthopraxy. This is what God requires of gospel ministers.
The real impact of this is not measured by the influence of the church in the present age, but in the eternal destiny of those who listen to false and true gospels. Yet even here Timothy is to take heart that in the midst of a confused church scene, there is no confusion on the Lord knowing his people (2 Tim. 2:19.