Sunday, August 30, 2009

John Murray "The Work of the Minister of the Gospel"

The following charge was given by Professor John Murray to Wayne F. Brauning at his ordination and installation as pastor of the Fifth Reformed Presbyterian Church, Phila., PA on October 13, 1960. It is well worth reading through. (HT: The Wanderer)

The text can be found at the Westminster Seminary website, but as it contains several errors I have tidied it up and reproduced it here:


"You have been called as minister in this congregation and you have been ordained in pursuance of that call. There are many functions which devolve upon you in that particular capacity, but I want to draw your attention particularly to two of these functions because I believe they are the two main functions which devolve upon the minister of the Gospel. And these two functions are the preaching of the Word and pastoral care.

"Now first of all there is this duty of preaching or teaching the Word. You are to labor in the Word and doctrine. And in connection with that function I want to mention three things.

"First, do not burden yourself and do not allow others to burden you with other business so that you are deprived of the time and energy necessary to prepare adequately for your preaching and teaching administration. The Word of God indeed, in all its richness and in all its sufficiency, is in your hands. It lies before you. But in order that you may discover the richness of that Word and bring forth from its inexhaustible treasure for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for the instruction which is in righteousness, there must be the blood and toil and sweat and tears, the earnest labor, and the searching of that Scripture, and in application to its proper understanding, so that you may be able to bring it forth in a way that is relevant in your particular responsibility.

"The second thing I want to impress upon you is that you realize deeply and increasingly, your complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit for understanding of the Word and for the effectual proclamation of it.

"Now that is not the counsel of sloth. That is not to be an alibi for your earnest labor and the study of the Word of God and your earnest application to effective proclamation, and neither is that a counsel of defeat. Your absolute dependence upon the Spirit of God - this is the counsel of encouragement and confidence. It is the Spirit and the Spirit alone who gives the demonstration and power by which the Word of God will be carried home with effectiveness, with conviction, and with fruitfulness to the hearts and the minds and lives of your hearers. It is He and He alone who produces that full assurance of conviction, and it is your reliance upon the Holy Spirit that in the last analysis is your comfort.

"The Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. And do not be so God dishonoring as to pray for Pentecost. Pentecost is in the past. Pentecost was a pivotal event in the unfolding of God's redemptive touch, when the Holy Spirit came. The Holy Spirit abides in the church. He came and He abides in order to perform those functions which Jesus himself foretold: 'When He, the Spirit of Truth' is come, He will convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment, and that He will also glorify Christ by taking of the things which are Christ's and showing them unto us.'

"It is necessary, it is indispensable, however, that you earnestly pray for the unction and the power and the blessings of that Holy Spirit. Because it is only if there is that accompanying demonstration of the Holy Spirit and the power that men and women will be arrested and stunned with the conviction of sin. And it is then that they will give expression to the word of another, 'What shall we do to be saved?' Likewise, in that particular situation of overruling, overwhelming conviction produced by the demonstration and power of the Holy Spirit, that you will be able, by the understanding given by the Spirit, by the unction imparted by the Spirit, to bring into that conviction of need, that conviction of sin, that conviction of misery, the unsearchable riches of Christ.

"That is my second aspect of this charge. To realize more and more your complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit. It is as you will realize your complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit, that you will be more diligent in the discharge of all the duties that devolve upon you in the understanding of God's Word and in its effective proclamation.

"Third, I wish to mention, in that precise connection, that you are to think much of the privilege. You are to think indeed of the responsibility, and I have said enough with respect to that responsibility already. I want particularly to impress upon you now the appreciation of your privilege.

"It is yours to be a fellow of the Gospel - of the glorious, the blessed Gospel. It is yours to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ. It is yours to be the ambassador of the King eternal, immortal, invincible. It is yours to be the ambassador of him who is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, of whom you have heard already that He walks among the candlesticks. There is no greater vocation on earth. There is no greater vocation that God has given to any than the vocation of proclaiming the whole counsel of God - proclaiming the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, and proclaiming the unsearchable riches of the Redeemer. Think much of your privilege.

"Now second, you have the pastoral care. That is an all important aspect of a minister's responsibility and privilege.

"There are likewise three things that I want to mention in connection with that particular function, and the first is this: Shepherd the church of God. I personally cannot understand those men who have been called as pastors of churches who neglect the pastoral care of the people committed to their charge. I cannot understand it. And I'm not expected to understand it, because it is part of the mystery of that iniquity which too frequently has overtaken those who have been called into the ministry.

You do not get your sermons from your people, but you get your sermons with your people. You get your sermons from the Word of God, but you must remember that the sermons which you deliver from the Word of God must be relevant. They must be practical in the particular situation in which you are. It is when you move among your people and become acquainted with their needs, become acquainted with the situation in which they are, become acquainted· with their thoughts, become acquainted with their philosophy, become acquainted with their temptations, that the Word of God which you bring forth from this inexhaustible treasure of wisdom and truth will be relevant and will not be abstract and unrelated.

"Second, in connection with this very same subject of pastoral care I charge you to be ready always to give an audience to your people. I mean an audience to them as individuals, or an audience to them as families. Be in such a relation to them that they will make you their confidant, and take good care that you will be their confidant. And as you will be their confidant, they will pour out to you the bitter experiences of their heart, the bitter experiences of their souls, of their lives. I charge you, my very dear friend, to be the instrument of dispensing, I say the instrument of dispensing the 'oil of joy for mourning and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness' to those who are broken in heart and weary in the body.

"Now there is more, of course, involved in that ministration of comfort to the people of God in the temptations and the trials which necessarily overtake them in this life. You must also bring the counsel of God, the whole counsel of God, to bear upon them where they are. And it is just as you bring that whole counsel of God to bear upon them in your pastoral visitation, that you bring it to bear upon them precisely where they are. Remember that there are many who, in accordance with the address which you have heard already tonight, are going astray or are on the verge of going astray, or perhaps have always been astray. And remember the inestimable privilege that is yours, to convert the sinner from the error of his ways, to save a soul from death, and to hide a multitude of sins. 'Reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and doctrine.'

"Now thirdly and finally, I charge you to remember that you are the servant of Christ in this pastoral care which you will exercise. Oh, be friendly to your people, and be humble. Be clothed with humility for 'God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.' Be clothed with humility in the pastoral visitations and the pastoral duties that you discharge because, if you are not humble, you will not only be offensive to God, but you will soon become offensive to all discerning people. Be friendly, be humble, realize your own limitations and be always ready to receive from those who are taught in the Word as they communicate unto you who teach. But remember that you are the servant of Christ and do not seek to please men, for if you should seek to please men, you are not the servant of Christ. And again, I repeat in that very same connection: Don't be afraid to reprove, don't be afraid to rebuke, just as you may not be afraid to exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine.

"I give you these charges, in the humble expectation and the hope that you will become an example, that you will be an undershepherd, realizing at all times, that you will one day give an account to the great Arch-shepherd who himself gave, as the Shepherd of his sheep, His life, 'that they might have life and have it more abundantly.'

"And I charge you, in constant dependence upon the Holy Spirit to be the minister, the administrator in Christ's name, of that life which is nothing other than life everlasting."

- A charge to Wayne F. Brauning, DMin 1993, at his ordination and installation as pastor of the Fifth Reformed Presbyterian Church, Phila., PA on October 13, 1960 by John Murray, prof. of systematic theology at Westminster.

The Gospel is full of wonder

It is a wonder, that our words are so inadequate to express, that God should have looked upon those who have provoked his anger with eternal saving love.

It is a wonder that this love was not dependent on their loving him, obeying him, choosing him, but was free, and full, and flowed from his own gracious character.

It is a wonder that this love should prove so costly to him. This love for sinners came at the cost of his own beloved eternal Son.

It is a wonder, not so much that he loves us at all, but that he loves us in this way. The atonement was an incomparable demonstration of God's love to his people who by nature were sinful, wrath deserving, people.

No one has ever really begun to grasp the meaning of the word 'substitution' until they have felt something of the inexpressible wonder of all these things in their own heart. It is an absence of the sense of what sin deserves, of what we personally deserve by way of justice, that diminshes the glory of substitution and leads us to find salvation by other means.

It is a wonder that instead of bearing the full eternal consequences of the very sins that now see as deserving of God's righteous judgement, that we should find in Jesus One who by his suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, has redeemed us from everlasting damnation and obtained for us the grace of God, righteousness and everlasting life.

What privileges could ever compare to those that belong to God's people? What status, what riches, what possesions, what blessings could ever be worth comparing to those found in Christ?

As Donald MacLeod has expressed it:

"They are chosen to be beneficiaries under Christ of everything that his obedience and sacrifice deserve.

They are elect to participating in everlasting life."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Declaring the whole counsel of God

"We cannot preach at all without preaching doctrine and the type of religious life which grows up under our preaching will be determined by the nature of the doctrines which we preach."

B. B. Warfield

Here are the details of a conference that I will be speaking at soon:

The next Preaching Today conference will be taking place on October 17th 2009. This will be our 17th conference and we will be holding this at our usual venue of Bethlehem Evangelical Church Aberavon SA12 6NE.

Bethlehem Evangelical Church Aberavon

"Declaring the Whole Counsel of God"

Speaker: Martin Downes (Christ Church, Deeside)

There will be two addresses:

  1. The Preacher as a Theologian
  2. Preaching our Theology

Details about previous Preaching Today conferences can be found here

Registration is from 9.30am and the first session starts 10.00am and we finish around 1.00pm. There is no pre booking - just turn up on the day. There is a small administration charge for this conference of £5 to cover the costs of materials and conference expenses. The sessions will be recorded and available to purchase on CD. A bookstall will also be available

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Normal service will resume shortly

Currently reading:

Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession

George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life

Donald MacLeod, A Faith to Live By

About to start reading:

Al Mohler, He is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World

Curently listening to:

John Frame's three lectures on Process Thought (History of Philosphy and Christian Thought)

Thinking ahead about:

My two sessions at Preaching Today (Declaring the Whole Counsel of God)

Always rejoicing in:

Christ's righteousness imputed to me by faith alone

Friday, August 21, 2009

Christ the Center interview: Truth and Error in the Church

The guys over at Christ the Center recently interviewed me about my new book Risking the Truth. Here's the blurb:
The nature of error and heresy is delineated and the best approach to
handling it pastorally in the life of the local congregation and in the larger church is discussed at length. The interview format of the book is also considered. This is an enjoyable conversation about perennial issues in the life of the church.

You can listen to it here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The language of sin

Here are some honest, blunt, and strangely refreshing words from the sports journalist Matthew Syed about the "bloodgate" scandal that has stained the sport of rugby union:
There comes a time when an institution is so deep in the mire, so steeped in scandal and immorality, so corrupted by greed and cynicism, that those on the inside are no longer able to perceive, still less comprehend, the extent of their own depravity.
You can read more about the extent of the on field cheating, the off field scheming, and the ongoing public deception here. But this post isn't about sport, it is about the survival of the language of sin in a world where God is routinely deleted from the script of human nature, aspirations, and standards.

Ever since the Fall, when our first parents sought to re-write the constitution of the universe, human beings have both been on the run from God and incapable of escaping the reality of being God's creatures living in God's universe.

This tension is felt everywhere, and no more so than in the realm of moral corruption. It is here that we are confronted by our creatureliness, that ineradicable sense of righteousness and justice, and by our hopeless self-contradictory suppression of the very categories of truth and goodness, of honesty and transparency. Banish God, as we will, to the very margins of life, try as we might to squeeze him into areas that we can control and access on our terms, yet we cannot silence his speech about sin. God's vocabularly survives all our attempts to drop it from our language.

Of course we are repulsed by cheating, by organised deceit. Of course we reach for God's grammar to describe it. What ought to be admitted is that it is God's truth about human corruption, his descriptions about how we lie, steal, and cover over our deceptions, that rings true. After all, Romans 1-3 describes us and our condition, internally and externally, individually and collectively, pervasively, and perfectly.

The big problem of sin comes to the surface in sport, in politics, in education, in commerce, in the home. Every time that it does so it is a signal reminder of the reality of God and the truth of his word.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Christ and the Law: More from Samuel Petto

If the Lord be God to any, it is in Christ; if their inquities be forgiven, it is in the blood of Christ; if the divine law be written in their hearts, it is by the finger of the spirit of Christ.
Samuel Petto, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace, p. 72
Doubtless men are obliged, at all times, to let the streams of their love run towards God; to love him with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their mind, and to love their neighbour as themselves...the fulfilling of these is the keeping of the law.

Christians are under the law, but it is to Christ, 1 Cor. ix. 21. They take it not from the hand of Moses, in its terror and rigour, but from the hand of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed from the curse of it.
Samuel Petto, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace, p. 154-5

Listen carefully...

Westminster Seminary California have launched a new monthly podcast called Office Hours. Season 1 will see you through interviews with the faculty, and one or two others. There is a sneak preview, schedule details, giveaway items, and instructions on how to subscribe here. The first two shows will be broadcast on 31st August and feature Bob Godfrey (President and Professor of Church History) and Julius Kim (Associate Prof of Practical Theology).

This looks like an excellent resource. You can even send in questions that you would like the faculty to discuss.

Every line is suffused with wonder

"The gospel is not so much a miracle as a marvel,
and every line is suffused with wonder"

Roland Bainton

In reading Bainton's biography of Luther this morning this sentence caught my eye. It is a wonder, beyond our thankful words ever to adequately express, that God should love sinners so much that he gave his Son for us. Not to marvel at this shows how little, experimentally, we understand the majesty and holiness of God and the wickedness of our own souls.
When poor souls hear the tidings of covenant love in the heart of God towards them, they are ready to suspect it is too good news to be true; are apt to be incredulous here, are hardly persuaded to believe the truth thereof, at least as to themselves: now Jesus Christ condescends so far, as to take upon him the office of a witness, to assure of the truth of all; now he is in heaven, he does not throw up that office, he continues still in this work, and sends down news from heaven thereof Revel. i. 5. and iii. 14.

He is the faithful witness still; as if he should say, I lay in the bosom of the Father, I have seen all transactions, all passages, I know how the heart of God stands toward this covenant work; if my word may have credit with you, I testify (says Jesus Christ) that the Father is real herein, and the work is done, the covenant is struck, ratified and sealed with my blood.
Samuel Petto, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace, p. 74-5

Don't mix up your covenants

Whilst on holiday I have ben reading Samuel Petto and have found him to be full of insight. The following is his 1673 work, with a recommendation from John Owen, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace:
...when the children of Israel had sinned egregiously in making the calf, and the Lord severely threatened even to consume them, Exod. xxxii. 10, 11. Moses, in interceding for them, does not plead the covenant newly made at Mount Sinai, but that with Abraham--verse 13. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swearest etc. &c.

He saw he could not ground his plea upon the Sinai covenant, already violated by them, and, therefore he flees to another, founded upon free grace. So, Deut. ix. 27. 2 Kings xiii. 23. The Lord was gracious to them, and had compassion on them, and had respect to them.

He does not say, because of his covenant with Moses at mount Sinai, but because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, &c.; so that whilst the Sinai covenant was in force, yet that with Abraham (which went before) was not swallowed up or mixed in it, but remained entire and distinct still, dispensing out blessings to the subjects of it; they were not one and the same covenant in that day.

O then let Christians beware of mixing and confounding the old and new covenants, which are so distinct. It is the great design of the Epistle to the Romans and Galatians to beat off from this mixture: both have their great use, but they must have their due place--Gal. iv. 24.
Samuel Petto, The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace, p. 109

Monday, August 10, 2009

Off to Aberystwyth

Normal posting will resume in two weeks

If you have not done so already make David Strain's blog a regular read. And of course there is plenty of good stuff at The Wanderer.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Tennyson remembered

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Tennyson was the longest serving Poet Laureate (1850-1892), and was the immediate successor of William Wordsworth. The BBC have a recording of Tennyson, from 1890, reciting "The Charge of the Light Brigade." You can listen to it here. Tennyson died in the same year as Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Read more about him here.

Lady Catherwood tells a story about a conversation she and her father, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, had about Tennyson's poem "Crossing the Bar." Beautiful poetry it may have been:
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea
It did not carry that note of certainty with which a Christian should approach death. Lloyd-Jones found that sentiment better expressed by Charles Wesley:

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade !
Charge for the guns ! ’ he said :
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade ! ’
Was there a main dismay’d ?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d :
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die :
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d ;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d :
Plunged in the battery smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke ;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d ;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade ?
O the wild charge they made !
All the world wonder’d,
Honour the charge they made !
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred !

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Warfield on Jonathan Edwards

As well as reading Marsden's bio of Edwards, and chipping in with an Edwards related discussion over at the Heidelblog, I re-read Warfield's essay on "Edwards and the New England Theology."

You can read the whole thing here, and it begins like this...

JONATHAN EDWARDS, saint and metaphysician, revivalist and theologian, stands out as the one figure of real greatness in the intellectual life of colonial America. Born, bred, passing his whole life on the verge of civilization, he has made his voice heard wherever men have busied themselves with those two greatest topics which can engage human thought — God and the soul. F. J. E. Woodbridge says:

“He was distinctly a great man. He did not merely express the thought of his tune, or meet it simply in the spirit of his traditions. He stemmed it and molded it. New England thought was already making toward that colorless theology which marked it later. That he checked. It was decidedly Arminian. He made it Calvinistic… His time does not explain him.”

Edwards had a remarkable philosophical bent; but he had an even more remarkable sense and taste for divine things. and, therefore (so Woodbridge concludes, with at least relative justice), “we remember him, not as the greatest of American philosophers, but as the greatest of American Calvinists.”

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

What the new atheists don't see

The following is by Theodore Dalrymple and appears in The City Journal:

This sloppiness and lack of intellectual scruple, with the assumption of certainty where there is none, combined with adolescent shrillness and intolerance, reach an apogee in Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. It is not easy to do justice to the book’s nastiness; it makes Dawkins’s claim that religious education constitutes child abuse look sane and moderate.

Harris tells us, for example, that “we must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it. Given the present state of the world, there appears to be no other future worth wanting.” I am glad that I am old enough that I shall not see the future of reason as laid down by Harris; but I am puzzled by the status of the compulsion in the first sentence that I have quoted. Is Harris writing of a historical inevitability? Of a categorical imperative? Or is he merely making a legislative proposal? This is who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest language, ambiguous no doubt, but not open to a generous interpretation.

It becomes even more sinister when considered in conjunction with the following sentences, quite possibly the most disgraceful that I have read in a book by a man posing as a rationalist: “The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live.”

Let us leave aside the metaphysical problems that these three sentences raise. For Harris, the most important question about genocide would seem to be: “Who is genociding whom?” To adapt Dostoyevsky slightly, starting from universal reason, I arrive at universal madness.

Lying not far beneath the surface of all the neo-atheist books is the kind of historiography that many of us adopted in our hormone-disturbed adolescence, furious at the discovery that our parents sometimes told lies and violated their own precepts and rules. It can be summed up in Christopher Hitchens’s drumbeat in God Is Not Great: “Religion spoils everything.”

What? The Saint Matthew Passion? The Cathedral of Chartres? The emblematic religious person in these books seems to be a Glasgow Airport bomber—a type unrepresentative of Muslims, let alone communicants of the poor old Church of England. It is surely not news, except to someone so ignorant that he probably wouldn’t be interested in these books in the first place, that religious conflict has often been murderous and that religious people have committed hideous atrocities. But so have secularists and atheists, and though they have had less time to prove their mettle in this area, they have proved it amply. If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.

In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

Read the rest here.

(HT: Triablogue)

Some reasons why people embrace errors

People embrace errors for a variety of reasons:

1. Inheritance

This is what they have been taught as the truth, and they have received it from people they respect, trust and love. Having an inheritance is a blessing or a curse depending on what we inherit. Timothy inherited sound teaching and living examples of godliness (2 Timothy 3:10-13), nevertheless Paul still directs him to the more sure and solid foundation of sacred Scripture (3:14-17). Some people inherit serious theological errors (e.g. they are raised to beleive that Christ was no more than a man).

2. Ignorance

They don't know any better. This is what they have been taught and they haven't had anything that has challenged their initial assumptions and convictions. They are not really aware of any alternatives.

3. Prejudice

They are aware of other view points that would make them question their assumptions but foster prejudice against them, or have been taught to foster prejudices against them. This can be divided into two categories:

a) Prejudice due to misinformation

Examples of this would be the accusation that amillennialists have a faulty hermeneutic borrowed from liberals or Roman Catholics, that they don't take the Bible literally. This kind of prejudice can be exacerbated by misrepresenting the views of your opponents, or choosing their worst representatives rather than their best. In this way you can, without sufficient warrant, dismiss anyone who holds to that view (e.g. all Calvinists are against missions and evangelism).

Prejudice is always difficult to overcome, whether it has been created by caricatures or by people whose behaviour has been inconsistent with their profession (and doesn't that describe all of us), e.g. I met an inerrantist once and they were narrow minded and bigoted (they would probably be narrow minded and bigoted if they denied inerrancy and believed that the Bible was shot through with error).

b) Prejudice due to a refusal to accept the truth

Instead of being prejudiced against a position that has been caricatured, or prejudiced because of bad experiences with people, this kind of prejudice is against a position. It is more than intellectual, it is deeper seated than that. It is the kind of prejudice displayed by John Wesley against the Calvinistic view of predestination. Wesley was bold enough to say that whatever the Bible teaches it cannot teach the Calvinistic view. In cases like this one begins to ask whether the locus of authority has switched from Scripture to the individual (e.g. I won't believe in a God who sends people to hell forever).

4. Dissatisfaction

Specifically dissatisfaction with the truth. This is a little different to the last point. Again let me subdivide it:

a) Dissatisfaction due to a love of novelty

Some people identify with a position, a label, a group, but never seem to get their roots down into the truth. They are, perhaps, caught up with the moment, riding on the crest of a wave (e.g. cool culture affirming new calvinism) but not anchored personally in the truth. Their interest is a phase, and then they move on to something new and have a testimony about how they too were once a Calvinist. Some people are restless spirits. Imagining that they really did hold to a position they can wax eloquent about it deficiencies.

b) Dissatisfaction due to the limits of revelation

God has given us all that we need to know about his works and ways in his Word. That Word binds our thoughts and sets the limits of our investigations. But the issue is not only eschatological, it is also about the limits placed upon us as creatures. What we know is sufficient, but even what we know we cannot fully fathom or work out (Romans 11:33-36). We may then seek to resolve things that cannot be resolved, to rationalize beyond the limits set by revelation, to draw inferences that are not warranted. This is part of the attraction of heretical solutions. They offer a neatness where we out to feel our own finitude and be content with unfathomable mystery.

b) Dissatisfaction due to being unregenerate

Quite simply the person without the Spirit will not receive the things of the Spirit, they are foolishness to him (1 Corinthians 2:14). Paul's castigation of the false teachers on Crete included a devastating assessment of their spiritual state (Titus 1:15-16). We expect this of people who are agnostic or atheists, we ought to expect it from those who are Christianized but not really converted.

The narrative that preaches penal substitution

Mark 15 and the six signs that Jesus is under judgement

I cannot make sense of the cross without viewing it through the lens of a "transaction" between the Father and the Son, the benefits of which are applied, personally, by the Holy Spirit. That there was a divine agreement involving different roles for the Father and the Son seems to lie on the very surface of the words of Jesus in John 18:11, "shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?" This is the cup that caused Jesus such anguish in the garden. Antecedent Scripture tells us why this is so. Consider the Old Testament background:

Isaiah 51:22 Thus says your Lord, the LORD, your God who pleads the cause of his people: "Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more."
Jeremiah 25:15-16, "Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: "Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them."
Psalm 75:8 For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.

The doctrine of penal substitution is not dependent on a few isolated proof-texts. It is indelibly woven into the very fabric of the account of the crucifixion, as recorded in the gospels, with numerous threads drawn from the Old Testament. 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. I realise now that 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."

At another level being delivered over to the Gentiles is a traumatic sign of being under God's judgement. Psalm 106:40-41 speaks of God's people being handed over to the nations as a consequence of being under judgement:

Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people,
and he abhorred his heritage;
he gave them into the hand of the nations,
so that those who hated them ruled over them.

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 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,
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.

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).

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 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;
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.

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. Carefully compare Mark 15:29 with Lamentations 2:15.

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 Deuteronomy 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,
"I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight."

As Jesus dies even the very elements speak of the presence of God's judgement at the cross.

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?"

This is not separation from God that can be measured in space, rather it is the separation felt by the Son as he endures the curse that should be borne by sinners.

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. The much neglected Larger Catechism expresses this in clear and moving terms:

Q. 49. How did Christ humble himself in his death?

A. Christ humbled himself in his death, in that having been betrayed by Judas, forsaken by his disciples, scorned and rejected by the world, condemned by Pilate, and tormented by his persecutors; having also conflicted with the terrors of death, and the powers of darkness, felt and borne the weight of God's wrath, he laid down his life an offering for sin, enduring the painful, shameful, and cursed death of the cross.

Monday, August 03, 2009

August is for American church history

Every August, for the last few years, I have read up on American church history. Last year it was George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture, two years ago it was Bradley Longfield's The Presbyterian Controversy. Before that...who knows, I can't even remember what I did let alone what I read.

I'm forever perusing volumes by the Old Princetonians (I've even got an 1874 three volume edition of Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology) but August is for reading up on history. So this August I am getting back into a book that I have struggled with, George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life.

The Cross and our affections (2)

And make me feel it was my sin,
As if no other sins were there,
That was to Him Who bears the world
A load that He could scarcely bear.

F W Faber


It is essential that we come to the cross with a right apprehension of the guilt of our sin, of God's holy nature and just wrath against sin, and of the condemnation we ourselves deserve from God for our sins.

We cannot look upon any of these realities dispassionately. They are a litmus test that reveals whether we have really grasped our spiritual condition at all. It is no wonder that people rail against the doctrine of penal substitution if they have never felt in their hearts the overwhelming sense of God's holiness and the foulness of their own depravity. What Herman Bavinck once said of justification by faith applies just as well to the cross:
To correctly assess the benefit of justification, people must lift up their minds to the judgment seat of God and put themselves in his presence...But when they put themselves before the face of God and examine themselves in the mirror of his holy law, all their conceit collapses, all self-confidence melts, and there is room left only for the prayer: "Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you" (Job 4:17-29; 9:2; 15:14-16; Ps. 143:2; cf. 130:3), and their only comfort is that "there is forgiveness before you, so that you may be revered" (Ps. 130:4).

(Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 4, p. 204-5)
If we have little sense of our sin, if we are strangers to grief, hatred and sorrow for it, we will feel little need to rest and rely solely upon Christ crucified as he is offered to us freely in the gospel. B. B. Warfield was right to say that “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.” (Warfield, Works IX, p. 283)

Our minds must be drawn to God's explanation in the Old and New Testaments of the atoning work of Christ so that we will have a clear understanding of what he has done for sinners like us and that our affections will be stirred up and fixed upon him. In the sublime words of Charles Hodge:
The knowledge of not the apprehension of what he is, simply by the intellect, but also a due apprehension of his glory as a divine person arrayed in our nature, and involves not as its consequence merely, but as one of its elements, the corresponding feeling of adoration, delight, desire and complacency.
The doctrine of penal substitution must not only be defended but delighted in. We must not only, when necessary, engage in a polemic debate about it but so hold before our eyes Jesus Christ and him crucified that he will receive the praise and adoration of our hearts.

Contemplating the cross work of Christ should fuel what the Heidelberg Catechism calls the "beginning of eternal joy," that believers already feel in their hearts, and which Revelation tells us will cascade in inexpressible adoration to the Lamb that was slain world without end (Revelation 5:9-14).

It is not enough that we agree with God about the nature of the death of Christ. Christ is our life and our joy. The more we see of his glory at the cross the more we ought to be thrilled and moved to know that though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, that we by his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). This is how God has so ordered things in his greatest act of grace, the giving of his Son to the death of the cross, that he might perish and that we might not. Let Jonathan Edwards have the last word:
All the virtues of the Lamb of God, his humility, patience, meekness, submission, obedience, love and compassion, are exhibited to our view, in a manner the most tending to move our affections, of any that can be imagined; as they all had their greatest trial, and their highest exercise, and so their brightest manifestation, when he was in the most affecting circumstances; even when he was under his last sufferings, those unutterable and unparalleled sufferings he endured, from his tender love and pity to us.

There also the hateful nature of our sins is manifested in the most affecting manner possible: as we see the dreadful effects of them, in that our Redeemer, who undertook to answer for us, suffered for them. And there we have the most affecting manifestation of God's hatred of sin, and his wrath and justice in punishing it; as we see his justice in the strictness and inflexibleness of it; and his wrath in its terribleness, in so dreadfully punishing our sins, in one who was infinitely dear to him, and loving to us.

So has God disposed things, in the affair of our redemption, and in his glorious dispensations, revealed to us in the gospel, as though everything were purposely contrived in such a manner, as to have the greatest possible tendency to reach our hearts in the most tender part, and move our affections most sensibly and strongly.

How great cause have we therefore to be humbled to the dust, that we are no more affected!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Cross and our affections (1)

Great High Priest, we view Thee stooping,
With our names upon Thy breast,
In the garden groaning, drooping,
To the ground with horrors pressed.
Holy angels stood confounded,
To behold their Maker thus,
And shall we remain unmoved,
When we know ’twas all for us?

Joseph Hart


The message of the cross is intended to make a deeper impact upon us than a mere acceptance of its truthfulness. The message of Christ crucified is to engage the mind, and to be received as the wisdom of God, but it is to do more that that. We are to be intellectually satisfied that the substitutionary atoning death of Jesus is no human theory but God's own interpretation in Scripture of the cross. It commands our assent, in all its glorious aspects, as the very truth of God.

Not, of course, that we can ever fathom the depths or fully grasp the mystery of the death of Christ. But the cross was not an event without explanation. Crucially, ever before the hours of darkness at Calvary, the person who would suffer there, the nature of his sin bearing wrath averting death, and the effects of his sacrifice were all foretold. The categories of thought that explained Christ's offering of himself were already laid down in the Old Testament. They demand and deserve our assent. The eye of faith must see and our lips confess that at the cross Christ became sin for us.

The effect of the cross upon those who believe and refuse to believe goes deeper than mental assent or rejection. Zechariah and John speak of those who will mourn on account of the crucified Christ (Zechariah 12:10-12; Revelation 1:7). Paul made his boast in the cross (Galatians 6:14). God commands that we rejoice in his Son with trembling (Psalm 2:11), and that the right response to the free forgiveness that he bestows is to fear him (Psalm 130:4). Peter speaks of our loving an unseen Christ. We believe in him, and rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:9). Indeed the believer's assessment of Christ is that he is precious, and that his precious blood has redeemed us (1 Peter 1:18-19; 2:4).

In the words of J. I. Packer “To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.”

The vital role of the affections has perhaps not always been given due prominence in the more recent exposition and defence of the atoning work of Christ. To see the truth of penal substitution not only rejected but caricatured brings pain and sorrow to those who believe that it is what the Word of God teaches.

Writing about the revolt against penal substitution at the turn of the twentieth century B. B. Warfield noted that those who rejected this doctrine were not only offering to their audiences, in its place, something they believed to be much better but that

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.”

(“Modern Theories of the Atonement,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume IX: Studies in Theology, p. 287).

As insulting, inappropriate, and offensive as 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 contemporary audiences. What has perhaps been underplayed is the emotive nature of this attack on the atonement. This was not lost upon Gresham Machen in his landmark work Christianity and Liberalism. Though written in 1923 they deeply resonate with today's conflicts over the cross:

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.)