Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
   a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
    of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
   the covering that is cast over all peoples,
    the veil that is spread over all nations.

  He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
   and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 25:6-8

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 Thy hands my life I trust
Thee, at all times, will I bless
Having Thee, I all possess

John Ryland 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Christ is a well of life: an update on Kezia's condition

As a family we are quite overwhelmed by all the messages of support that we have received from all over the world, for the many people who are praying, and for the offers of practical support from our own congregation, and from friends and churches in Liverpool.

We are also profoundly grateful for the way in which Kezia is coping with all of this.  She will be readmitted to Alder Hey on Monday and her operation is scheduled for Thursday.  We have met her surgeon and he is regarded as one of the finest in the UK, if not the finest, when it comes to operating on the rare type of brain tumour that she has.

David Meredith wrote to me and said that he hoped and prayed that what we have learned and experienced in the light will stay with us in the dark.  May it be so for these are deep and dark waters.  But as I said to Kezia last week, it is wonderful that God is our God, that is what he has promised to be, he is the God of the Covenant.  We know where our only comfort in life and in death lies.

Continue to pray for us

Here are some words that I have found helpful in the past and continue to draw encouragement from.

Robert Murray M'Cheyne:
You will never find Jesus so precious as when the world is one vast howling wilderness. Then He is like a rose blooming in the midst of the desolation,--a rock rising above the storm.
Samuel Rutherford:
If there were ten thousand, thousand millions of worlds, and as many heavens full of men and angels, Christ would not be pinched to supply all our wants, and to fill us all.

Christ is a well of life, but who knoweth how deep it is to the bottom?
And the following gem is also from Rutherford:
Grace tried is better than grace, and it is more than grace; it is glory in its infancy
John Owen:
Our beholding by faith things which are not seen, things spiritual and eternal, will alleviate all our afflictions,--make their burden light, and preserve our souls from fainting under them. Of these things the glory of Christ..is the principal, and in a due sense comprehensive of them all. For we behold the glory of God himself "in the face of Jesus Christ."

He that can at all times retreat unto the contemplation of this glory, will be carried above the perplexing prevailing sense of any of these evils, of a confluence of them all.

It is a woful kind of life, when men scramble for poor perishing reliefs in their distresses. This is the universal remedy and cure,--the only balsam for all our diseases. Whatever presseth, urgeth, perplexeth, if we can but retreat in our minds unto a view of this glory, and a due consideration of our own interest therein, comfort and supportment will be administered to us.
From the preface to the reader, "Meditations and Discourses on The Glory of Christ," in The Works of John Owen Volume 1, p. 278

Calvin on salvation in Christ:
When we see salvation whole,
its every single part
is found in Christ,
And so we must beware
lest we derive the smallest drop
from somewhere else.

For if we seek salvation, the very name of Jesus
teaches us that he possesses it.

If other Spirit-given gifts are sought--
in his anointing they are found;
strength--in his reign;
and purity--in his conception;
and tenderness--expressed in his nativity,
in which in all respects like us he was,
that he might learn to feel our pain:

Redemption when we seek it, is in his passion found;
acquittal--in his condemnation lies;
and freedom from the curse--in his cross is given.

If satisfaction for our sins we seek--we'll find it in his sacrifice;
and cleansing in his blood.
If reconciliation now we need, for this he entered Hades.
To overcome our sins we need to know that in his tomb they're laid.
Then newness of our life--his resurrection brings
and immortality as well comes also with that gift.

And if we also long to find
inheritance in heaven's reign,
his entry there secures it now
with our protection, safety, too, and blessings that abound
--all flowing from his royal throne.

The sum of all is this:
For those who seek
this treasure-trove of blessing of all kinds
in no one else can they be found
than him,
for all are given
in Christ alone.
Quoted in Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone, p. 7-8

And finally, Louis Berkhof on Christ as our High Priest:
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.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pray for us

Yesterday our youngest daughter Kezia (9) went for an MRI scan.  The doctors discovered a large brain tumor, which is pressing on the pituitary gland.  Kezia is currently in hospital in Wrexham and will be transferred today to Alder Hey children's hospital in Liverpool where the neurosurgeons will assess her and operate.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

As old as dirt

In an article that appeared in The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review in the year 1833, Archibald Alexander translated a large section of N. Arnold's refutation of the Racovian Catechism. Alexander saw the relevance of the older Reformed response to the Socinians as he wrestled with the emerging theological errors of his own day. He saw that heresy never dies and concluded:
One thing must have struck the reader as remarkable, namely, that the modern arguments, by which error attempts to defend her cause, are precisely the same as those employed for centuries past. We know, indeed, that those who now adopt and advocate these opinions, greatly dislike this comparison of modern theories with ancient heresies, and denounce it as invidious.

But why should it be so considered? Or why should they be unwilling to acknowledge the conformity of their opinions with those of ancient times, when the agreement is so manifest, not only in the doctrines themselves, but in the arguments and interpretations of Scripture, by which they attempt to support them?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

All you need for Christmas is the Trinity

Well, that's the title of a sermon I preached a few years back. 

But this post is not about a sermon, it is about two day conferences for ministers happening next year hosted by the Evangelical Movement of Wales.

We don't have a title as of yet but here are the essential details so far:

The day conferences will be on the Trinity with three sessions on the Father, the Son and the Spirit (yes, in that order) and the implications and applications of the Tri-unity of God for worship, prayer and pastoral ministry.  Each session will be 45 minutes long followed by around 15 minutes for questions.

Our speaker is Prof. Douglas F. Kelly (Richard John Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary).  Doug Kelly is the author of several books including Systematic Theology Vol. 1: The God Who is, The Holy Trinity (Mentor: Christian Focus, 2009)

Concerning the doctrine of the Trinity Augustine wrote that "In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable" (De Trinitate 1.3.5). Directly or indirectly every Christian belief is rooted in and connected to the doctrine of the Trinity.  It is the most important doctrine of the Christian faith. 

With apologies to Martin Luther, of the doctrine of the Trinity it should be said that "we cannot know it too well, preach it too often, and we need to beat it into our heads continually."  

What could be better for ministers of the gospel than spending the day contemplating and adoring the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are the same in substance and equal in power and glory? 

The dates for your diary are:

Monday 28th February 2011 in Bala (for those in North and Mid Wales, Liverpool, Manchester, Shrewsbury, the West Midlands etc.)

Tuesday 1st March 2011 in Bridgend (for those in South Wales, Bristol, Worcester and the South West)

But if you want to come from further afield we won't stop you.

There will be a charge for the days.  Drinks will be provided, you can bring your own lunch or buy locally (or order at the conference centre if you are coming to the day in North Wales).

Tearing up truth by the roots

To confess that God exists, 
and at the same time to deny that he has foreknowledge of future things, 
the most manifest folly...
For one who is not prescient of all future things is not God.


The Puritan Stephen Charnock, in evaluating the implications of the denial of God's exhaustive foreknowledge of the future free acts of his creatures, and underlining Augustine's remarks, said that in the book of Isaiah "God submits the being of his deity to this trial" and that "If God foreknows not the secret motions of man's will, how can he foretell them? If we strip him of the perfection of prescience, why should we believe a word of Scripture predictions? All the credit of the word of God is torn up by the roots."

In Scripture, from the temptation in the Garden to the temptations in the wilderness, Satan has always sought to cast doubt on the veracity of God's word. The stakes are very high. Open theism gives us a portrait of God that is distorted, misleading, seductive and destructive. It stands opposed to the clear testimony of the Church down through the ages and jeopardizes confidence in God's total truthfulness. 

If we cannot trust that God is true to his word, that every word of God will prove true, we cannot trust him at all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

There is no shallow end

Before I learned to swim I would always look for the shallow end of the pool.  When it comes to the doctrine of God there is no shallow end:

His judgements are unsearchable (Rom. 11:33)
His ways are inscrutable (Rom. 11:33)
No one has known his mind (Rom. 11:34)
No one has been his counsellor (Rom. 11:34)

His greatness is unsearchable (Psalm 145:3)

His understanding is unsearchable (Isa. 40:28)

Heaven, even the highest heaven cannot contain him (1 Kings 8:27)

He inhabits eternity (Isa. 57:15)

From everlasting to everlasting he is God (Psalm 90:2)

The depths of God are searched by the Spirit, and the Spirit comprehends the thoughts of God (1 Cor. 2:10-11)

No one has seen God, God the only begotten, who is at the Father's side, has made him known (John 1:18)

The love of Christ surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19)

Until and unless the weight of God's infinite being is straining your thoughts to breaking point, until and unless you have felt the finitude of your mental powers in contemplating the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, you have not even begun to fathom the unfathomable depths of the One, Living, True, and Triune God.
When we say that Jesus existed "pre" his incarnation, we do not mean he preceded it by any finite amount of time.  The Son of God preexisted his incarnation the way that the Creator preexisted creation: infinitely.

Preexistence may be easy to say, but that one little syllable, pre-, is a quantum leap from Here to There, from time to eternity.  Before you have finished that syllable, you have left behind everything measurable and manageable.
Fred Sanders, Embracing the Trinity, p. 85

Atonement and the altar on Mount Ebal: Joshua 8 (Guest post)

The following is a guest post by the Rev. Dr. Paul Blackham

The roots of the events in Joshua 8 go right back to the curses and blessings of Deuteronomy 27.  Moses commanded the people to stand on the two mountains of Ebal and Gerizim, to build an altar on Ebal, the mountain of curses, and to declare all those things that would bring the curses down on them.

Deuteronomy 27:12-15, 19, and all the way down to verse 26.
When you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin.  13 And these tribes shall stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali.
The Levites shall recite to all the people of Israel in a loud voice:
 “Cursed is the man who carves an image or casts an idol — a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of the craftsman’s hands — and sets it up in secret.”
 Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”… [onto verse 19]
“Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.”
 Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”… [then right down to verse 26]
 “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.”
 Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

This is exactly what happened in Joshua 8.  The entire ancient church, made up of natural Jewish people as well as those who had joined the church from the surrounding nations, all gathered at the chosen mountains.

Joshua 8:30-33 – “Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the Israelites. He built it according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses — an altar of uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used. On it they offered to the LORD burnt offerings and sacrificed fellowship offerings. There, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua copied on stones the law of Moses, which he had written. All Israel, aliens and citizens alike, with their elders, officials and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the LORD, facing those who carried it — the priests, who were Levites. Half of the people stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had formerly commanded when he gave instructions to bless the people of Israel.”

Notice first that the altar was built on the mountain of curses, Mount Ebal. 

Breaking the covenant of the LORD God brings a curse.  If we do not love our Glorious LORD with all we have and love everyone else as we should then we show that we have rejected His life and love.  When Adam and Eve originally refused to obey God's voice there were deep consequences.  A curse fell upon them – cursing the land, their relationships, their bodies and their destiny.  There is no life or health, no love or joy if we do not trust Jesus.  Rejected by the earth and rejected by heaven, the cursed sinner hangs in the air with nowhere to go but the corruption of death.

The altar was built on Mount Ebal because this holistic curse can only be broken through the blood and fire of atoning sacrifice.  Under the curse the only hope is the sacrificial altar, the blood poured out for atonement.  No other remedy had any place on Mount Ebal.

Notice second that the altar had to be built with “uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used.”  Iron tools are all about human ability and human arrogance.  The Philistines were the masters of iron tools [1 Samuel 13] and it was symbolic of human power.  This altar could not be built with human power or pride.  It needed to be as free of human input as possible, because there is nothing that any of us can do to remove the curse against our sin.  Yes, an altar is needed, but this has nothing to do with human religion or human offerings.  We can do nothing to escape the curse of death and emptiness that lies upon us. 

We need an altar, but we need a sacrifice that we cannot provide.

Now, all this is set alight by the events in the first part of Joshua chapter 8.  The city of Ai was under the curse of the Living God.  Their constant and worsening rejection of His ways had grown worse every generation until the time for judgement had arrived.  Under the curse they faced the fiery day of judgement under Joshua.

Joshua 8:28-29 – “Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day.  He hung the king of Ai on a tree and left him there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.”

That curse to be proclaimed on Mount Ebal was first vividly and frighteningly displayed in the judgement on Ai. Deuteronomy 21:22 declared, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse”.  The crucified man is rejected by the earth and rejected by the heavens, the curse of sin obviously displayed in his dead body.  So, Joshua crucified the king of Ai and then rolled the stones over his body outside the city gates, and there was no rolling away of the stones on the third day.  Those stones remain there to this day.

The curse of sin has a terrible power and once it has dragged us into death, there is no escape.  The God-forsaken death is death at full strength.  There were no second chances for the king of Ai.  His cursed death represented the death of everyone in the city of Ai: cursed, rejected and condemned.

If the altar on Mount Ebal, made without human tools, shows the way that even such a terrible curse can be broken, then it is preaching to us of the cursed and crucified Man, the Divine Messiah, who took the full force of that curse in His own God-forsaken death and then having exhausted its full measure rolled away the stones over His crucified body and walk out to a curse-free resurrection life of righteousness and joy.

Friday, November 19, 2010

From the Finger of God: The biblical and theological basis for the threefold division of the law

This looks very interesting.  Christian Focus have just released Philip Ross' From the Finger of God: The biblical and theological basis for the threefold division of the law

This book investigates the biblical and theological basis for the classical division of biblical law into moral, civil, and ceremonial. It highlights some of the implications of this division for the doctrines of sin and atonement, concluding that theologians were right to see it as rooted in Scripture and the Ten Commandments as ever-binding.

More here

"A book of great relevance with an immensely important message for the contemporary church, From the Finger of God is to be welcomed with open arms. It is a fine example of careful, readable biblical, theological, and historical scholarship that leads to deeply satisfying conclusions." 

Sinclair B. Ferguson ~ Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina

"Philip Ross has dealt with issues lying near the heart of the Christian life (and indeed, of the healthy functioning of any human society) in this careful, fair, and, at times, humorous (or at least, entertaining and attention-holding) study of the continuing validity of God's law... I will be frequently referring to his volume in my classes, and warmly commend it 

Douglas F Kelly ~ Richard Jordan Professor of Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina

"The question dealt with in this book is the relationship between the laws and requirements of the Old Testament and those of the New. Are these still obligatory on the New Testament Church? In dealing with this question the author suggests a threefold classification, and provides a very full analysis of the arguments in favour of that classification from many authors down through the centuries, as well as of those who write against that classification. I commend it to all who wish to live by the Scriptures." 

Lord Mackay of Clashfern ~ Retired Lord Chancellor & Patron of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship

"This book is a valuable contribution to discussion about the question of the nature of the unity of biblical law in the context of the diversity of its threefold historical function. It demonstrates how the finality of the person and work of Christ is the crux of the matter and how the atonement has law as its background. A readable presentation of the biblical data relevant to the subject that leaves no stone unturned." 

Paul Wells ~ Professor of Systematic Theology at Facult' Libre Theologie Reformee in Aix-en-Provence, France.

"Like me, you may never have thought that the division of the Law into the categories of civil, ceremonial and moral needed prolonged enquiry. When you read this book you will be glad that Dr. Ross thought otherwise. The book would be worthwhile if only for the discussion of the Decalogue or of the fulfilment of the Old Testament in the New , but there is something for the Bible lover on every page, as well as a demanding but readable opening up of a huge area of biblical enquiry, that takes us with profit from Genesis through to the Lord Jesus and his apostles. A real and rewarding mind-opener."

Alec Motyer ~ Well known Bible expositor and commentary writer

"In recent times, little has weakened biblical theology more than the tendency to collapse all the rules and statutes of the Old Testament into one uniform corpus of law material. In this timely and extremely helpful study, Dr Philip Ross demonstrates not only that the division of the law into moral, civil and ceremonial categories arises out of a natural reading of the biblical text, but that its adoption in Patristic, Reformed and Puritan literature shows it to have been the orthodox position of the church. To lose this confessional distinctive is to drive an unbiblical wedge between the Testaments, and to eviscerate the gospel itself. Unless the moral law is still in force, how can we define sin? And unless we can define sin, what gospel can we preach? Dr Ross's work is an important corrective to much misunderstanding on the nature and place of God's law in the Bible, and a reliable guide both to the primary and secondary literature on the subject." 

Iain D Campbell ~ Minister, Point Free Church of Scotland, Isle of Lewis

"It is a given for scholars in a variety of allied disciplines (e.g., biblical studies, systematic theology, Christian ethics) that the ancient Christian distinction between the civil, ceremonial, and moral laws is without foundation. Philip Ross dissents from the consensus and he does so thoughtfully, lucidly, and wittily. Those who are new to the question and those are willing to reconsider their views will find in Ross an able guide through the labyrinth." 

R. Scott Clark ~ Professor of Church History and Historical Theology, Westminster Seminary, Escondido, California

"This is one of the most important theological books to be published for several years. And it is a book which is desperately needed and which should be read by pastors and church leaders worldwide as a matter of urgency." 

Eryl Davis ~ Head of Research, Wales Evangelical School of Theology, Bridgend, Wales

"Elegantly written, this work is an impressive achievement in biblical studies combining systematic clarity with exegetical analysis."

Theodore G. Stylianopoulos ~ Archbishop Professor of Orthodox Theology and Professor of New Testament (Emeritus) Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, Massachusetts

"In this remarkable work Dr. Philip Ross studies the threefold Division of the Law as traditionally held by the Reformed, Orthodox and Catholic Churches and establishes this framework to be scripturally based. Ross's study is a welcome contribution to this topic especially in the context of challenges to this formulation from several modern authors who reject it as non-biblical, challenges which this study effectively refutes. This study is to be commended not only for its scholarly rigor but also for its ecumenical relevance."

George Keerankeri, S.J., ~ Reader in Sacred Scripture, Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi

Following error back to its lair

What difference would it make if we seriously thought about the origins of false doctrines?

It is vitally important to realise that heresies do not originate in the minds of men and women. Ultimately heresy originates with the devil. 

When the apostle Paul takes the Corinthian church to task for tolerating false teachers he compares their approach to the deception of Eve by the serpent (2 Cor. 11:3). But the deception in the Garden is more than a useful illustration. The super-apostles at Corinth are the servants of the devil disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 

Similarly Paul warned Timothy about “deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1), and of false teachers who are caught in the snare of the devil (2 Tim. 2:24-25). After all the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44). One of the English Puritans said that the devil never lets the wind blow for too long in the same direction.

Invoking this category to account for theological aberrations is hardly a way to win friends. However, to ignore it is to close our eyes to the clear testimony of Scripture concerning false teaching.

Wayne Grudem has provided a helpful reminder on this point:
After reading such verses [2 Peter 2:1; Jude 3-4], we might wonder if any of us have the same kind of heart for purity of doctrine in our Christian organisations, and the same sort of sober apprehension of the destructiveness of false doctrine, that the New Testament apostles had in their hearts. If we ever begin to doubt that false teaching is harmful to the church, or if we begin to become complacent about false doctrine, thinking that it is fascinating to ponder, stimulating to our thoughts, and worthwhile for discussion, then we should remind ourselves that in several cases the New Testament specifies that the ultimate source of many false teachings is Satan and his demons.
In Beyond the Bounds, p. 342

Atonement and the sin of Achan: Joshua 7 (Guest post)

The following is a guest post by the Rev. Dr. Paul Blackham. 

The deep truth of one man standing for the whole people is powerfully and fearfully revealed in Joshua chapter 7.  See how the chapter begins:

The Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the LORD’s anger burned against Israel.

One man acted unfaithfully to the LORD.  One man took plunder from the sack of Joshua for his personal treasure.  Achan alone disobeyed the LORD’s instructions.  Yet, we are told “Israel acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things” and “the LORD’s anger burned against Israel”.

Here we see one of the deepest truths in the Bible displayed in the clearest possible terms.  One of the most foolish claims that we make in our fallen mess is that each person must stand alone, that the actions of others have nothing to do with us.  In a highly individualistic age this gets even stronger.  Today we even find people who call themselves Christian yet are not part of a local church family.  They imagine that they stand completely alone before the Living God, that their atonement is a purely personal, individual transaction.

The story of Achan is a great reminder of the fact that we are joined together as a body.  The actions of one effects us all, for good or ill.  The Living God did not create us as a conveyor belt of individual items, but he created a human family that would stand or fall together. 

He deliberately created us so that the actions of one man could have decisive effects for all.

Achan had sinned.  He secretly hid away the plunder that was devoted to the LORD alone.  His secret sin publically corrupted the whole community.  His actions brought guilt on the whole people and had already cost people their lives.  When 36 Israelite soldiers were killed in the defeat at Ai, Joshua knew that the LORD was no longer with them.  When he enquired of the LORD he received a very straight answer.

Joshua 7:10-12 – “The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.”

Israel has sinned.  Israel has lied.  Israel has violated the covenant.  Why?  Because in the community there was a man who had done these things.  The covenant was broken by one man and the LORD was no longer with them because of this one man.

As the story unfolds we see how his whole family were caught up in his sin, probably sharing his greed and his hatred of the LORD and His ways.  Why didn’t his family run away from him when they knew what he had done?  What Achan had secretly done was fully known to the LORD God and in verses 14-18 the target of condemnation narrows down until it is fixed squarely on Achan.  Can we imagine what it was like as the tribe of Judah was selected, then the clan of Zimri is selected and then the families are narrowed down to the guilty one.  Why didn’t Achan repent long before he was found out?  That is the nature of our unbelief and sin.  We will not come into the light but instead we cower in the darkness of our guilt and shame.

When the lights were switched on and Achan and his family were revealed, how could the situation be fixed?  How could atonement be made?  If the covenant with the LORD had been violated, then what would it take to restore it?  Would it be enough to say sorry?  Would it be enough to simply do the right thing with the stolen plunder?  No.  Atonement requires more than mere repentance or restoration.  When we violate the LORD’s covenant, when we offend against His Holy Majesty, when we stand before Him with our corruption and guilt rotting around us, it is not enough to regret what we have done and it is not enough to attempt to patch up the mess we have made.  The cleansing and healing required is very costly.

Only death, only blood, can cleanse away the decaying death of our guilt and sin.

It is in the blood and fire of sacrificial atonement that our sin and corruption is put to death.  What can turn away the fierce anger of a Living and Infinite God?  What can pay Him off?  What can soothe the angry heart and mind of such a God? 

We might not like it.  We might prefer to imagine a thoroughly civilised ‘god’ who likes to deal with problems in a round table discussion, with compromises made on both sides.  We might like a genteel, polite religion with no blood, no sweat and no tears… and yet, when we face the sheer filthy evil of our greed and violence before the Living God, when we feel the desperate darkness of our world, when we are falling into the decay of our own death moments from facing our Maker, surely then we know the value of a blood and fire atonement that reaches to the very depths and soothes even the heart of that Most Holy One who inhabits eternity.

Joshua 7:24-26 – “Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold wedge, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor.  Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger.

Achan brought trouble on Israel.  The guilt and sin of the whole community was focused on him.  One man had brought the sin onto the people and now this one man carried the sin away from the people.  As that one man was killed and burned, it was as if the LORD’s anger against that sin was focused and satisfied.

The end of verse 26 is incredible.  The LORD’s covenant had been violated and He was rightly angry about this.  Yet, through the death of troublesome Achan He showed us, once again, that His own Man, His own Messiah, really would be able to take on the sins of the whole world and turn away, once and for all, the fierce anger of the Most Holy God against all our sins.

The ancient promise of atonement through the one Seed from the earliest days of Genesis was given a powerful if disturbing illustration in the death of Achan.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hell, Annihilation and Human Destiny: J. I. Packer (audio)

This is a re-post, and an important one at that...

In 1991 J. I. Packer delivered a lecture in Cardiff on "Human Destiny." In that lecture he gave a survey of the New Testament teaching on hell and responded to the annihilationist position advocated by John Stott, Phillip E. Hughes and Michael Green.

I sat in the audience, a theologically lightweight sixteen year old, and was far too clueless to take in the significance of what, and who, I was listening to. Since then I have listened to the cassette recording many, many times. I trust that you will find it informative, sobering, and a means of grace to motivate you in your love for God and commitment to evangelism.

The audio file can be downloaded here.

The lecture begins with some very warm words about Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and post-war Welsh Evangelicalism before Packer "bites the bullet" on the big issues of human destiny.

My thanks to Glenn Smethurst for his techie work. I also want to thank the Evangelical Movement of Wales for the use of the recording.

The EMW site has a number of audio sermons available to listen to, including those by Ted Donnelly, Don Carson, Geoff Thomas, Doug Kelly, Hywel Jones, and Sinclair Ferguson.

They also have a sermon by Douglas MacMillan (1933-1991), Free Church of Scotland minister and professor of Church History at the Free Church College, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man" from Genesis 6:3 which you can listen to here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Atonement and the Justice of God

The following is a guest post by Rev. Dr. Paul Blackham.  Paul was the Associate Minister for Theology at All Souls, Langham Place and did his doctorate on the Puritan Thomas Goodwin.

It is said that in ancient Rome a murderer was punished by having their victim’s body strapped to their back until it had rotted away.  More relevantly, the Bible views us as already dead, already decaying into the darkness due to our rejection of the One who is our Light and Life.  

 Our offences – our selfishness and sin - are like death clinging to us and this kind of death never just falls away with the passage of time.  We might wish these things would go away.  We might regret them with every fibre of our being.  We might weep away our sleepless nights aware of what we have done, of who we are.  Yet, none of these regrets or tears can ever cut that body of death away from us.  Or else we might laugh it off, filling our hearts and minds with the sights and sounds of work, friends, family and entertainment.  When the stench of that body of death clinging to us gets too strong, we may simply turn up the volume on our work and entertainment.  Yet, it never goes away.

Nothing we can ever do, nothing we can ever feel or resolve, no therapy or drug, no holiday or mid-life crisis or personal trainer or year out can ever take the corruption away.  From the very beginning we were warned that sin means death, and we can never change that equation.

Clinging to us, rotting on us, polluting us at every point is our own moral and spiritual corruption.  When, sooner or later, this corruption is also manifested in our physical flesh, then the process is complete: our sin has paid its wage and dragged us down to the eternal, burning rubbish tip in the outer darkness, far from the eternal home of righteousness, goodness and life.

We need to begin with these stark images because we cannot understand the Bible’s presentation of atonement as long as we see it in the superficial psychological terms that we are so used to.  So many of the discussions of forgiveness or atonement in our modern culture are so self-centred and merely therapeutic – as if the purpose of forgiveness is a selfish thing, setting ourselves free from hatred or bitterness.

There is some truth in that.  If we refuse to forgive, if we show no mercy, then we will be shown no mercy on the Day of Judgement.  If we carry our hatred and bitterness around with us then the evils done to us carry on and grow with each passing day.  Yes, all that has deep truth, but it is not taking us into the heart of atonement.

There are three aspects of justice or righteousness that we will focus on: two of them involve us and one of them completely excludes us. 

First, the justice of God means that He is ready to forgive us, so we are to forgive those who do wrong to us.  We share in God’s justice when we forgive and restore those who have sinned against us, when we forgive as we have been forgiven.

Isaiah 30:18 – “The LORD longs to be gracious to you; He rises to show you compassion.  For the LORD is a God of justice.”
Psalm 33:5 – “The LORD loves justice: the earth is full of His unfailing love.”

Second, the justice of God means that He helps those who cry out to Him in need, so the local church is to be a haven for the widows and the orphans, the hungry and the broken, the sick and the imprisoned.  Righteousness and justice flow out when the victims of sin are shown practical love and mercy. 

Isaiah 1:17 – “Seek justice.  Encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
Zechariah 7:9 - This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.  In your hearts do not think evil of each other."

Yet, the third level of justice belongs to the LORD God alone. 

Micah 5:15 – “I will take vengeance in anger and wrath upon the nations that have not obeyed me.”
Nahum 1:2 – “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies.”
Romans 12:19 – “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”
1 Samuel 24:12 – “May the LORD avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you.”

The LORD God alone can bring the destroying and final vengeance on evil.  Jesus, as the Judge of the World, alone punishes sin and brings His terrible judgement on humanity.  Yes, we might say that through governments and rulers He allows a small measure of this punishment to be meted out even in this present age, but He reserves to Himself the true Day of Justice when all our offences, all our corruption, the body of death that clings to us, is condemned and punished for all eternity.

The LORD’s justice cares for the needy and He longs to bring repentance and forgiveness to those who do evil… but there will finally be a day when He will bring vengeance against the wicked.  Within the Bible itself the focus of atonement is on that third category of justice.

The terrible crisis that faces the world, far more than all the troubles we have with each other, is that we are sinners in the hands of an angry and Living God.  As Jesus said, we do not need to fear those who can harm us only in this passing life, but our greatest fear needs to be of the One whose angry judgement can throw us into the eternal punishment of Hell.  The most urgent need for the world is to find peace with the Most Holy God who we are at war with.

When atonement is made, when God’s own blood has taken away our offensive sin, then we forgive as we have been forgiven and the love of God in our hearts bubbles over into very practical compassion and justice for those in need.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Putting creeds and confessions to work

There is an urgent need for a deeper awareness of historical theology in the life of the Church. For all our technological advances, for all the progress made in the mission of the Church, for all our concerns to speak meaningfully to our own generation and to engage with its unbelief we simply cannot afford to neglect the history of the transmission of Christian truth down through the centuries.

The great creeds and confessions can help us at this point. They stand as a lasting legacy of what is important, what is worth believing and what must be fought for and handed on to future generations. We are prone to the same errors that have arisen in the past and we can learn a great deal from the churchly confessions and classic theological works in order to identify what is discordant with the biblical historic Christian faith and how to deal with it.

The question that faces contemporary Western evangelicalism is whether it really has the spiritual appetite for sound doctrine. Indifference to sound doctrine does not make error go away, it merely makes us ignorant of its dangers and careless about its presence.

As much as creeds and confessions are boundary markers and safeguards against error, and as much as fuller confessions are a greater aide to preserving and proclaiming the truth, they are ultimately insufficient defenses against false teachings. 

Their inadequacy stems from a human factor. The testimony of Church history is clear. False teachers take the words of creeds and confessions but alter the sense and meaning of those words. Likewise creeds and confessions must be upheld by those concerned to defend the truth. Men must have the stomach for a fight and not allow the words of creeds and confessions to be given multiple meanings so that parties in the church can make them mean whatever they want them to mean. 

Accepting doctrinal ambiguity whilst at the same time giving credence to a clear confessional statement and identity is an ideal environment for heresies to incubate in.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Engaging with popular culture

The following article by Ted Turnau appeared in the Evangelical Magazine September/October 2010.  I think that it is worth a read.  Ted Turnau is a professor at the Anglo-American College, Prague, and at the Centre for Media Studies at Charles University.

On being as wise as serpents

Ted Turnau


Why and how Christians should engage popular culture

One of the issues that has perennially dogged the Christian church is the issue of how to relate to the culture that surrounds us, especially popular culture. Are we to separate from it, in order to preserve our purity? Or should we go along with the flow, so we can better relate to those in the culture. Both options have their strong points – maintaining purity is essential, as is relating to those who have no place for Christ in their lives. But both miss the mark, biblically speaking. The Bible supports neither a knee-jerk rejection of culture, nor an uncritical acceptance of it. We are to be both as  wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16), both engaged with our culture and distinctive from it. It could hardly be otherwise.

If the people we seek are immersed in the surrounding culture, in its worldview and worship, then obviously we must understand that culture if we are to speak to the concerns of their hearts. But just as obviously, we cannot simply uncritically imbibe the surrounding culture so that we blend in, chameleon-like. We cannot simply share their system of life and worship, for we would have nothing distinctive to offer. How do we maintain this balance? We must intentionally and critically engage the surrounding culture, especially culture that has the widest impact: popular culture.  Here are a few practical points on Christian engagement of popular culture.

Whatever else popular culture is, it is not trivial, because it is an expression of faith and worship.

Not too long ago, I watched Andrea Arnold’s gritty estate-drama Fish Tank (2009). The lead character, the young, frustrated Mia, lives for hip-hop dancing. Her life is infused with its rhythms, its lyrics of urban despair. In a sense, her dance training is a form of worship, her grasping at salvation. It is the same with all popular culture: they are all, ultimately, forms of worship. We need to see them as expressions of non-Christian faiths, non-Christian worldviews. Popular culture is, in this sense, like a mission field in your own home town.

Not all popular culture is equally meaningful.

Even though popular culture is not trivial (it represents an alternate form of worship and belief), some pieces of popular culture are more worthy of attention than others. Much popular culture can be ephemeral, like bubbles in a can of soda. But there are other pieces that have real depth, real staying power. If you find keeping up with popular culture too much, find a few artists working in popular culture who have the ability to really tap into the spirit of the age. Thom Yorke of the band Radiohead is one such, as is the television writer/producer Joss Whedon (creator of various sci-fi/fantasy series), or David Simon (creator of The Wire). Pay attention to the musicians, writers, and directors who make a difference. These are the ones who produce works of depth and meaning. They could be called ‘cultural leaders’. They lay paths that the rest of the culture follows.

Not every piece of popular culture is appropriate for engagement.

If we are to be wise as serpents and remain innocent as doves, we need to be careful not to put ourselves (or our children) in the path of temptation. Hard and fast rules are not typically helpful here. Rather, we need to know the idols of the heart that we ourselves are attracted to, where we are weak, territory that ought to remain off-limits for us. We also need to think through issues such as age-appropriateness, which will be different for different children. It is important to engage popular culture, but we must do so without compromising our walk with the Lord.

Popular culture works by creating imaginative landscapes for us to inhabit.

Popular culture works not by blurting out a message, but through appealing to the imagination. A television show does not simply convey a message, such as ‘Life is meaningless, so have all the fun you can while you can’. Rather, it tells a story in which someone discovers the ‘truth’ of that message; it tells it in a style that underlines that message, and it invites us along for the journey. Popular culture works indirectly, suggestively, not like a slogan at a political rally, but like a poem or a song. It draws you in and gets under your skin. Therefore, you must be intentional in your approach to popular culture so that you understand its effects on the imagination (including the imaginations of your friends and neighbours).

When thinking about a piece of popular culture, it pays to know the tricks of the trade.

Engaging popular culture means exploring the imaginative world, exploring the details of the stories it tells, the styles that it exhibits or fashions for us. That means you should try to understand how popular cultural producers do what they do. If you are considering a movie, think about things such as lighting, camera angle, shot selection, music, and so forth. If you are thinking about a song, pay attention to chords, rhythm, genre, instrumentation, as well as the lyrics. By paying attention to these details, you become more familiar with the imaginative landscape that the popular work invites you to inhabit.

Every piece of popular culture is a complicated mixture of grace and idolatry.

There is no piece of popular culture so banal or twisted that it does not contain some glimpse of God’s grace. And there is no piece of popular culture so pure and profound that it does not contain an invitation to idolatry. Popular culture appeals to non-Christians for a reason, namely, they sense some of God’s beauty, power and goodness in it. This is what theologians call ‘common grace’ – fragments of grace that God spreads to everyone – even those who will never come to believe. As Paul says in Acts, these gifts of God are ‘testimony’ to God’s being and character (see Acts 14:17). Popular culture contains such ‘fragments of grace’ woven into the very fabric of the popular cultural song, movie, television show, book, etc. But in non-Christian popular culture, these fragments of grace are bent to serve false gods. In fact, the idols presented in popular culture become persuasive for non-Christians (and sometimes Christians) precisely because of the attractiveness of those glimpses of God’s grace.

For example, James Cameron’s summer blockbuster Avatar (2009) won accolades for its stunning visual effects, and rightly so. The digital artistry created a beautiful and fascinating alien world filled with realistic and delightful creatures. It served to remind us of the real and delightful creatures God has made. In this way, the film served as a reflection of God’s creative artistry, and ultimately, the beauty and power of God Himself. But the film bends that fragment of grace into the service of pagan nature worship (the nature deity ‘Eywa’). Likewise, all meaningful and attractive popular culture succeeds by drawing its audience in with such reflections of God’s beauty, while putting those grace fragments into service to another god.

Think carefully about how to undermine the idol, and how the gospel applies to the piece of popular culture you’re sharing with friends.

Popular culture often uses ‘grace fragments’ to steer the imagination towards an idol. Think of ways that the idol shows itself to be inadequate and false, and how the Christian worldview and the riches of the gospel offer a better alternative.

Look for occasions where you can experience popular culture together with friends and family (both Christian and non-Christian).

My wife and I host movie discussion nights for my students every fortnight. You may not want to do something so formal, but you should seek out opportunities to experience popular culture together with people you care about. Listen to the music your children listen to. Go see a movie with friends. Invite friends over for dinner and a few episodes of your favourite television series on DVD. Open up your homes and your lives to be shared with family, friends and neighbours.

If we carefully consider the popular culture that surrounds us, we can develop biblical wisdom that neither dismisses it nor blindly accepts it. Such a wisdom that is ‘in the world, but not of the world’ can be very attractive to non-Christians who need Christ, but cannot see what difference He can make. By engaging popular culture, we can speak of Christ in a language familiar to them. And that can make all the difference.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Crystal Goblet and the Wine: We were made to memorise

Scott Clark has a delightful story about three year old Samuel Chelpka who has memorised Billy Collins' poem "Litany."

Take a look at the video and interview on ABC News here

If you are observant you can see a copy of G. I. Williamson's The Westminster Shorter Catechism: for study classes on the shelf behind Samuel and his mum

Scott has some great reflections on the story here

You should also check out David Murray's video clip "How to memorize: ten fast facts" here

Monday, November 08, 2010

Letter to the Pope: We are not heretics

In 1869 the aged Professor Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary wrote a letter to Pope Pius IX "explaining why the Presbyterian church was declining an invitation to send a representative to the Vatican Council of 1870" (David Calhoun, Princeton Seminary Vol 2: The Majestic Testimony, p. 32).  

You can read the full text of the letter at the Banner of Truth Trust site, the first part of the letter is below:
To Pius the Ninth, Bishop of Rome,

By your encyclical letter dated 1869 you invite Protestants to send delegates to the Council called to meet at Rome during the month of December of the current year. That letter has been brought to the attention of the two General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Those Assemblies represent about five thousand ministers and a still larger number of Christian congregations.

Believing as we do, that it is the will of Christ that his Church on earth should be united, and recognizing the duty of doing all we consistently can to promote Christian charity and fellowship, we deem it right briefly to present the reasons which forbid our participation in the deliberations of the approaching Council.

It is not because we have renounced any article of the catholic faith. We are not heretics. We cordially receive all the doctrines contained in that Symbol which is known as the Apostles' Creed. We regard all doctrinal decisions of the first six ecumenical councils to be consistent with the Word of God, and because of that consistency, we receive them as expressing our faith. We therefore believe the doctrine of the Trinity and of the person of Christ as those doctrines are expressed in the symbols adopted by the Council of Nicea AD321, that of the Council of Constantinople AD381 and more fully that of the Council of Chalcedon AD451. 

We believe that there are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are the same in substance and equal in power and glory. We believe that the Eternal Son of God became man by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, and so was, and continues to be, both God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever. 

We believe that our adorable Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is the prophet who should come into the world, whose teachings we are bound to believe and on whose promises we rely. He is the High Priest whose infinitely meritorious satisfaction to divine justice, and whose ever prevalent intercession, is the sole ground of the sinner's justification and acceptance before God. 

We acknowledge him to be our Lord not only because we are his creatures but also because we are the purchase of his blood. To his authority we are bound to submit, in his care we confide, and to his service all creatures in heaven and earth should be devoted.

We receive all those doctrines concerning sin, grace and predestination, known as Augustinian, which doctrines received the sanction not only of the Council of Carthage and of other provincial Synods, but of the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus AD431, and of Zosimus, bishop of Rome.

We therefore cannot be pronounced heretics without involving in the same condemnation the whole ancient church.

Neither are we schismatics. We cordially recognize as members of Christ's visible Church on earth, all those who profess the true religion together with their children. We are not only willing but earnest to hold Christian communion with them, provided they do not require, as conditions of such communion, that we profess doctrines which the Word of God condemns, or that we should do what the Word forbids. If in any case any Church prescribes such unscriptural terms of fellowship, the error and the fault is with that church and not with us.

But although we do not decline your invitation because we are either heretics or schismatics, we are nevertheless debarred from accepting it, because we still hold with ever increasing confidence those principles for which our fathers were excommunicated and pronounced accursed by the Council of Trent, which represented, and still represents, the Church over which you preside.

The most important of those principles are: First, that the Word of God, contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. The Council of Trent, however, pronounces Anathema on all who do not receive the teachings of tradition pari pietatis affectu (with equal pious affection) as the Scriptures themselves. This we cannot do without incurring the condemnation which our Lord pronounced on the Pharisees, who made void the Word of God by their traditions (Matt. 15:6).

Read the rest here

Friday, November 05, 2010

No Country For Old Doctrines: Why Driscoll & Breshears reject the eternal generation of the Son of God

Below is the fourth post looking at Driscoll & Breshears' rejection of the eternal generation of the Son of God.
You may wish to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

In their book Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears identify the classical, creedal doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit as doctrines that Christians should not believe.

They give three reasons for this:
The whole attempt to define the eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided.
First, God has given us no revelation of the nature of their eternal relations.  We should follow the command of the Bible: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God" and refuse to speculate.
Second, the Apostles' Creed defines the Son as "begotten, not made."  The point was that something begotten was of the same substance as the one who does the begetting.  But the term "begotten" could never be defined with any clarity, so it was of little use.
Third, begotten unavoidably implies a beginning of the one begotten.  That would certainly lend support to the the Arian heresy that the Son is a created being and not the Creator God.
For these reasons it is best to omit the creedal terms "begotten" and "proceeds" from our definition of the Trinity.  Our authority is not in creeds but in Scripture.
We stand with the universal Trinitarian definition of the church to confess that God is one God, eternally existing in three persons, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. (p. 27-28)
The best way to face up to this bold approach, and let's face it anyone who wishes to tippex out some of the clauses found in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the Chalcedonian Definition, and the Reformed Confessions is being pretty bold when it comes to doctrine, was exemplified by Samuel Miller in his book Letters on the Eternal Sonship of Christ (1823):
No man will ever forfeit my esteem or affection, by kindly and respectfully calling me to re-investigate any article in my creed, however long since I may have supposed it to be settled.
To begin with there some points of clarification that need to be made.

The phrase "Begotten, not made" is not, as Driscoll and Breshears claim, found in the Apostles' Creed.  It is found in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The "universal Trinitarian definition of the church" is surely to be found in these ecumenical creeds.  They really are the old country, and these creeds include the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son.

How then can Driscoll and Breshears claim to stand with the "universal Trinitarian definition of the church" at the very same time as they are deleting doctrines from those universal Trinitarian definitions?  To make this claim is somewhat muddle headed to say the least.

I'm not entirely convinced that Driscoll and Breshears have really got to grips with the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son.  They are clearly bothered by it and attempt to dissuade readers of it's credibility in Vintage Jesus and Doctrine.  However, there seems to be little attempt to adequately describe it on its own terms, even if they then choose to reject it.  In particular I think that their arguments are lacking when it comes to "judging, as of infinity" upon these matters.

Their discussion shows little awareness of the care, precision, and nuance found in the creedal articulation of the doctrine.  For example, they say that:
The Bible says the Father sent the Spirit to conceive Jesus in the womb of Mary.  Jesus is therefore referred to as the "only begotten [monogenes] Son."  Theologians extended this begetting in history back into the eternal Trinity and posited that the Son is eternally begotten of or generated by the Father. (Doctrine, p. 27)
This is an inadequate statement on biblical, theological and historical grounds.

Jesus is not referred to as the only begotten Son because of the virginal conception.  The Chalcedonian Definition carefully distinguishes between the Son being begotten by the Father before the ages, and his humanity begotten of Mary.

That he is called the only begotten Son we owe not to Luke's account of his conception but, at the very least, to John's use of monogenes (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9).  Indeed the Son was sharing the Father's glory before the world began, and was sent into the world as the Son in order that he should be its Saviour (John 17:5; Gal. 4:4; 1 John 4:9).  In other words, the Sonship of the Son of God was not conferred upon him by virtue of his incarnation or resurrection

Having laid out their objections to the doctrine, do these objections carry sufficient weight to overturn the creedal affirmations about the Son being begotten by the Father before all worlds?

1.  God has given us no revelation of the nature of their eternal relations

This is simply not true.  Were it not for the presence of this language in Scripture it is hard to see how anyone would have arrived at the doctrine of eternal generation.

Furthermore, the language of begetting is not confined to Jesus' incarnation or redemptive work but appears in Scripture in connection with the Son's relationship with the Father.  It is used in John 1:14, 18 where it clearly stands in contrast to the spiritual rebirth of believers as children of God, which itself is contrasted with normal physical begetting.  Believers are the children of God, but the Word is the monogenes of the Father.  As Letham rightly says "it is impossible to eradicate the idea of begetting from this description."

 Nor, as Driscoll and Breshears allege, is this doctrine the result of speculation, as if we had a revelatory blank concerning the eternal relationships in the Trinity and attempted to fill it (as if we were at liberty to do such things) by projecting on to the Trinity revelatory data drawn from the begetting of Jesus by Mary.

To be clear as to where they do stand, unlike those writers who affirm the eternal deity and distinct personality of the second person in the Trinity (designating him as the eternal Logos) but who deny that the Sonship of the second person of the Trinity is an eternal Sonship, Driscoll and Breshears affirm that the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit are eternal.

2.  The term "begotten" could never be defined with any clarity, so it was of little use

Concerning this lack of clarity Driscoll and Breshears may mean one of two things.

They may be referring to the -genes ending and whether it is related to the verb ginomai, and so indicates kind ("one and only"), or the verb gennao, and so indicates to beget or give birth ("only begotten").  If this is their meaning then perhaps they are saying that we shouldn't base a doctrine on a contested word.

They may be referring to the use of the word in relation to the persons of the Godhead, and therefore in what sense one could be said to be begotten by the other when they are both co-equal and co-eternal, and therefore that it is unclear how the word could apply to the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.

I am at a loss to explain, because their discussion is so concise, as to exactly when this lack of clarity was discovered and when the redundancy of the word was recognised.  I could understand their thinking a little better if they said that "the term 'begotten' cannot be defined with any clarity, and so is of little use."  However, because they use the past tense I am uncertain as to what period in church history they are referring to.  

Although it is true to say that understanding mongenes as "only begotten" has fallen out of favour in the last one hundred years this has, by no means, been a universal phenomena.  That aside it is worth considering what Robert Letham has said on this subject:
The Greek fathers understood monogenes in these Johannine passages to mean "only begotten."  Were they less qualified to determine its meaning than people living nearly two millennia later who speak a different language? (The Holy Trinity, p. 388). 
For more on the testimony of the early fathers see the relevant chapters in Samuel Miller's Letters on the Eternal Sonship of Christ.  For more on the exegetical issues involved you may wish to read Lee Iron's helpful paper on "The Eternal Generation of the Son."

3.  "Begotten" unavoidably implies a beginning of the one begotten

This is the crux of the matter.  In addition to the third reason for rejecting eternal generation given in Doctrine ("begotten unavoidably implies a beginning of the one begotten.  That would certainly lend support to the the Arian heresy that the Son is a created being and not the Creator God.") in Vintage Jesus they argue that:
But if the Son is really begotten, it certainly sounds like we are headed into a cultish, Mormon-like understanding of a God who fathers children.  Worse yet, it would also mean that rather than being eternal, the Son had a beginning, which is a core tenet of the Jehovah's Witness cult. (p. 102)
In the above quotation it appears that they are assuming that the only "real" generation that we can conceive of is creaturely.  They are also assuming that the term generation is to be applied univocally and not analogically. Michael Horton has a very helpful explanation of this point:
When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God's own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically, or equivocally. 
If we say that the predicate "gracious" means exactly the same thing, whether in God or a creature, we are using "gracious" univocally.  At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using the predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally.  If, however, God is said to be "gracious" in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical.
For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a "person," (MD: or better "three persons") do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are?  When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male?
Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in a univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical.
(Michael Horton, "Hellenistic or Hebrew?  Open Theism and Reformed Theological Method" in Beyond the Bounds, p. 209-10)
Human generation involves a beginning of existence, a beginning of the one begotten.  Human generation also involves a time when a father is not a father, for a father becomes a father when he begets a son.  But when we are thinking about the eternal generation of the Son of God we are not thinking about these things in a creaturely way, even if we are using, as we must, anthropomorphic language.  

Carefully consider the distinctions involved in this offered by Herman Bavinck:
In using these terms we are of course speaking in a human and hence an imperfect language, a fact that makes us cautious.  Yet we have the right to speak this language.  For just as the Bible speaks analogically of God's ear, eye, and mouth, so human generation is an analogy and image of the divine deed by which the Father gives the Son "to have life in himself."
But when we resort to this imagery, we must be careful to remove all associations with imperfection and sensuality from it.  The generation of a human being is imperfect and flawed.  A husband needs a wife to bring forth a son.  No man can ever fully impart his image, his whole nature, to a child or even to many children...But it is not so with God. (Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2, p. 308)
We must, accordingly, conceive that generation as being eternal in the true sense of the word.  It is not something that was completed and finished at some point in eternity, but an eternal unchanging act of God, at once always complete and eternally ongoing.  Just as it is natural for the sun to shine and for a spring to pour out water, so it is natural for the Father to generate the Son.  The Father is not and never was ungenerative; he begets everlastingly. (RD Vol 2, p. 310)

In my estimation the crux of the matter as to why Driscoll and Breshears have problems with the eternal generation of the Son and wish to jettison this creedal, catholic, and historic biblical doctrine is not because of the meaning of monogenes.  Their diffidence stems from a misconception about the implications of begetting for God, a failure to articulate how the language applies to the eternal Father-Son relationship with similarity, but a greater degree of dissimilarity, when it is used of human father-son relationships.

Gregory of Nyssa spoke well and wisely on this very point:
Again when it interprets to us the unspeakable and transcendent existence of the Only-begotten from the Father, as the poverty of human intellect is incapable of receiving doctrines which surpass all power of speech and thought, there too it borrows our language and terms him "Son,"--a name which our usage assigns to those who are born of matter and nature.
But just as Scripture, when speaking of generation by creation, does not in the case of God imply that such generation took place by means of any material, affirming that the power of God's will served for material substance, place, time and all such circumstances, even so here too, when using the term Son, it rejects both all else that human nature remarks in generation here below,--I mean affections and dispositions and the co-operation of time, and the necessity of place,--and, above all, matter, without all which natural generation here below does not take place.
But when all such material, temporal and local existence is excluded from the sense of the term "Son," community of nature alone is left, and for this reason by the title "Son" is declared, concerning the Only-begotten, the close affinity and genuineness of relationship which mark his manifestation from the Father. (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, Book II:9)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

An update of sorts

Currently reading:

Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (Very enjoyable so far)

A. C. Grayling, Scepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge (Grayling can turn sentences into lead and overload the most simple of arguments with a tiresome superfluity of words)

R. W. Dale, The Atonement (I'm looking at the shift in language from the "Church doctrine" of the atonement to that of "theories")

George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Maybe this time I will actually finish it)

Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching (A real tonic)

Currently lecturing on:

The Doctrine of God (Five sessions for the North West Partnership Training Course.  Today we did the Creator-creature distinction and analogical knowledge)

Currently preaching on:

"Knowing God" (Galatians 4:8-20)

"The Covenant of Circumcision" (Genesis 17)

Upcoming speaking engagements:

The New Pastors Conference (15-17th November, Bala, North Wales)

Banner of Truth Borders Conference (19th-20th November, Carlisle...in the North of England)

Upcoming blog posts:

"No Country for Old Doctrines: Three reasons why Driscoll & Breshears reject the eternal generation of the Son of God"

"Don't get your exegesis from Baal: John Walton on the Angel of the Lord in the Book of Genesis"

Very thankful for:

Not being hurt in a car crash in Swansea

The kindness of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Swansea for providing me with a driver (see above, hats off to Daf Taylor) so that I could preach at John Orchard's induction service.

John Orchard becoming the new pastor of Grace Church, Bridgend (formerly Broadlands Evangelical Church)

Mike Partridge becoming a pastor at Rock Baptist Church, Cambridge

Pete Campbell being called at the new pastor of Capel Fron, Penrhydeudraeth (Where, incidentally, Bertrand Russell is buried.  In his case it was Penrhyn-died-a-death)