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Posts Tagged ‘Calvinism’


The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set)John Newton has long been one of my favorite ‘dead guys’. A few years ago Banner of Truth reformatted his Works into 4 volumes (from the previous 6 volume set) and I picked up a set. Last year I read a church history set over the course of the year. This year I decided I’ll read a volume of Newton each quarter.

Well, the first quarter is done. One of the idiosyncrasies of the first volume in the pagination. If you look at the back it is just over 600 pages. But … it begins with Memoirs of Rev. John Newton from page xvii-cxlvi so the volume is nearly 750 pages long. I did have to adapt my reading schedule from 10 pages/day to 10-15/day and some times adding some Saturday reading.

After the Memoirs of Rev. John Newton we find An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton, in Fourteen Letters. In other words, Newton’s autobiography over the course of 14 letters. Then we have Forty-One Letters on Religious Subjects, by Omnicron and Vigil (a pseudonym) and Cardiphonia; or, the Utterance of the Heart, in the Course of a Real Correspondence.

The theme of volume one is two-fold: his life and his letters. We will find more of his letters in volume two (as they complete Cardiphonia). It did seem strange to have both the Memoirs and the Narrative at the beginning of his works. In one sense it makes sense thematically. From the perspective of the reader I would have preferred some space between the two accounts of his life.

JohnNewtonColour.jpgHis life, however, is an amazing testimony to the patience, persistence and providence of God. And the amazing grace of God. It is easy to lose track of how many times Newton nearly died, or should have died. For instance, one time the captain told him to stay on the ship one night after dinner. It was his custom to sleep ashore. The captain had no identifiable reason. That night the boat sank before reaching shore meaning Newton, who could not swim, would have drowned. Another time he took ill days before a voyage and could not go. That ship sank and Newton would have been lost. There are many of these stories which should remind you of how often we may be spared without knowing it.

Behind the seemingly random chaos of life, Newton saw God’s providence. He didn’t necessarily understand, or claim to understand, why God would do such things, but accepted that He did. And so should we. We don’t have to understand why. We do need to simply trust that God has His good reasons (a subject to which he will return often in his letters).

We fail to accept the fragility of life in our day. Due to technology we think we can prevent accidents from occurring. In his day, they were accepted as par for the course. For Newton, at least, the god-complex of thinking we should be able to control life didn’t exist. Both evil and calamity existed. We, on the other hand, seem to pretend evil doesn’t exist except in rare cases, and think we can prevent all calamity.

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott.jpg

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott

Mental illness shows up as well, both in the life of William Cowper and in some of Newton’s letters. This, obviously, was before the use of medications to treat them. People could be institutionalized for years. Cowper would die in an institution. Newton’s adopted daughter would also spend time in one. In a letter he alludes to visiting a person in an institution for the mentally ill, and it was a great struggle for him. It reminded me of the visits I’ve done to prison: there’s something about hearing that door slam shut and lock behind you. It feels oppressive.

This is not hagiography, which is refreshing. You do get a picture of a flawed man, a trophy of grace. You get a taste of life’s hardship. You also get a taste of societal sins: class and race struggles that marked his day. But also the people who worked to end the legalize prejudice. Today Newton might be called a Social Justice Warrior, but I think that would be quite the misnomer. He did fight to end some injustices which he saw as implications of the gospel. He was haunted by past sins of his regarding the slave trade. He kept the gospel central, and so can we.

As Newton moved into pastoral ministry, there was seemingly controversy on every side. Divisions filled England and its churches. He notes the high Calvinists considered him an Arminian and Arminians recognized him as the Calvinist he claimed to be. There were also Dissenters or Independents. This was a time when declaring oneself as a Methodist or Enthusiast closed many doors for service. Newton grew weary of such debate and dissension in Christ’s church. He wrote often enough about how to conduct ourselves in controversy. He also interacted with pastors who were younger and needing a mentor, and pastors of different minds on the secondary issues.

He provides some sound pastoral advice to pastors about subjects like when to seek a new call in addition to engaging in controversy. For me these have often been timely words of advice.

Sinclair Ferguson notes that the details of our conversion often shape the concerns of our Christian life. He notes Paul’s envy of Stephen’s gifts, as well as Isaiah’s subsequent focus on the holiness of God. In Newton’s case, he focused on the sinfulness of the human heart and God’s purposes in providence. They fill his letters. This is part of why I love Newton.

Newton doesn’t paint a picture of experiential religion that places us above and beyond sin. Rather, he struggles with his own heart, recognizing the temptations that arise both in private and public. In a number of places he wonders how a Christian can survive in London with all its temptations. This was before he was called to serve a church in London later in life. No pastors are called to serve in paradise. And neither is anyone else.

Newton is not excusing sin, but honest about the effects of indwelling sin, the world and the devil. He is critical of Christian Perfectionism that was found among some including some Methodists. Our pilgrimage is thru a fallen society that pressures us to sin, stirred up to sin and tempt by the Evil One, and possessing a heart that is too often receptive to these temptations.

“So wonderfully does the Lord proportion the discoveries of sin and grace; for he knows our frame, and that if was to put forth the greatness of his power, a poor sinner would be instantly overwhelm, and crushed as a moth.”

In addition to temptation we also experience much in the way of affliction. God reveals our weakness as well as His strength. It is not enough for us to consider this intellectually, but He wants us to “feel” our weakness and experience His sufficient supply. By these afflictions he reveals the idols of our hearts and the sufficiency of Christ for our satisfaction.

His letters address the subjects we struggle with but often don’t talk about. As a result, they are immensely helpful.

There are some topics of historical interest. Some of the letters mention the American Revolution. In that context he refers to the problem of the national debt a few times. He views the colonists as sinning in their rebellion against the king, but also that this is in some way a judgment on the nation.

For the anti-vax crowd, one letter struggles with the advent of the vaccine for small pox. He thinks thru the situation out loud. Does a trust in the God of providence avoid the vaccination leaning solely on Him or see this as God’s providential provision of means.

On subject of puzzlement is his view of the theatre or playhouse. He views it as a venue for sin. He doesn’t specify the content of particular plays. Could it be the sin that took place in the playhouses? In one of Jerry Bridges’ book on grace he mentions he grew up hearing that he should avoid the pool halls. As he grew older, he learned that playing pool itself was not the issue, but the gambling and other sins that took place in the pool hall.

Newton does chastise one person in a letter for attending a play. I need more context as to why in this case. Apart from the context it sounds a bit legalistic.

Volume One has plenty of material worth reading. Most of it is in readable chunks thanks to the fact it is largely letters. You can follow along as some relationships develop over time. Why don’t more people read John Newton?

 

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The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has a strange history. Many, not all, of the Founders of the SBC would have self-identified as Calvinists, or Particular Baptists. J.L. Dagg’s Systematic Theology is one example. Tom Nettles traces the history in By His Grace and For His Glory. Over the years, Arminianism took root in the SBC. There has been a resurgence of Calvinism that parallels the resurgence of Calvinism prompted, in large part, by the ministries of men like J.I. Packer and R.C. Sproul. Men like Tom Nettles and Tom Ascol formed the Founders’ Conference. Let’s just say there has been some push back from the SBC at large.

The latest has emerged in a series of Affirmations and Denials in A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation. As I read the document, my thought was that they gutted the gospel in an attempt, in their minds, to save the gospel from those pernicious Calvinists. The affirmations and denials, in their own words, ultimately cause problems in understanding the gospel. This is an exercise in theological over-reaction. They fulfilled one of the CavCorollaries: in theological disputation we tend to move to greater extremes.

We deny that only a select few are capable of responding to the Gospel while the rest are predestined to an eternity in hell.

I would take issue with the phrase “select few”. I believe there will be a numberless multitude according to Revelation. They don’t affirm what Scripture means when it talks about election, chosen in Christ before the creation of the world (Eph. 1). But early on, you can see they are asserting a particular view of free will. They don’t seem to realize that Calvinists hold to free will (there is a whole chapter on it in the Westminster Confession of Faith). The difference is that they don’t really see much of an effect from Adam’s sin to the will of man.

We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.

Here is a denial of what we find in Romans 5- the imputation of Adam’s sin to all. Paul teaches that all sinned in Adam. He stresses the “one man’s trespass” in contrast to the “one man’s obedience”. You see, if you deny the imputation of Adam’s sin, you lose the basis for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. You … gut the gospel. Paul is teaching covenant theology here as the basis for the fall of humanity and salvation in Christ.

We deny that grace negates the necessity of a free response of faith or that it cannot be resisted. We deny that the response of faith is in any way a meritorious work that earns salvation.

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My journey on the doctrine of baptism was long and at times arduous.  I think it may be pertinent as I review this book about baptism.  I was raised Roman Catholic, and was “baptized” as an infant (I say “baptized” since my parents are nominally Catholic and I question whether I had a right to baptism).  As a new convert, I unknowingly fell into a campus cult that taught you needed to be baptized to be saved.  I knew I was already saved by grace thru faith, but believed I should be baptized so I was.  Soon I was engaging my “discipler” on the issue, driven to better understand Scripture and leave that “ministry”.  I found a Conservative Baptist church in my hometown and enjoyed my new life as a Christian there until I left for Seminary 5 years later.  At seminary I was a credobaptist among paedobaptists, and I was thankful for Dr. Nicole as I also read Kingdon & Jewette to defend my credobaptism from a covenantal perspective.

Finally, 2 years after I graduated from seminary (the first time), the light bulb went on.  A friend jokingly challenged me that my resistance was a reaction to growing up Catholic.  I re-entered my study with “Lord, if this is true help me to see it.”  I saw that I had erroneous presuppositions that led to my resistance of a fully biblical view of baptism.  I had it partially right, but not wholly right.

So, my cards are on the table- are yours?  The power of presuppositions is one of the reasons this discussion is so difficult.  We are not just dealing with biblical texts, but all the presuppositions about Scripture we bring to the table.  This is true about all doctrinal discussions, but this discussion is particularly laden with landmines.  Baptism: Three Views brings three respected theologians together to work through it.

The introduction quotes from Barth, who after writing the quote moved from a paedobaptist position to credobaptist position, about how your anger reveals a vulnerable point in your position.  Could be.  Or it could also be that your sanctification has not sufficiently progressed to patiently deal with a person who is either unteachable or utterly blind of the presuppositions he or she brings to the table.  So be careful about using that quote, folks.

Dr. Bruce Ware, a self-described Progressive Dispensationalist (footnote, pp. 42), is the first to present his view.  He has written many books I’ve found edifying, including God’s Lessor Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism and the books he edited defending the 5 Points of Calvinism.   He is no theological slouch, which is what makes his presentation all the more disappointing.  I see within it the power of his presuppositions, to it’s detriment.

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I could have sworn I covered the Calvin and Servetus situation in a post somewhere.  But aside from passing references, I have not.  This is one of the things people point to in an effort to discredit John Calvin and his theology.  Similarly, some people point to various American Calvinists who owned slaves.

Something people overlook is that all of these men, Calvin, Edwards, Dabney and more, were sinners.  Each time and culture has sinful practices to which their members, often godly in many other ways, can’t see.  We see their sin much more clearly than we see our own sin.  We, too, can be captive to cultural sins.  And we are!

Were I do have done a fully thought out post on the issue of Calvin & Servetus, it could be no better than the thoughts of J.I. Packer on the subject as posted by Justin Taylor.

The anti-Trinitarian campaigner Servetus was burned at Geneva in 1553, and this is often seen as a blot on Calvin’s reputation. But weigh these facts:

  1. The belief that denial of the Trinity and/or Incarnation should be viewed as a capital crime in a Christian state was part of Calvin’s and Geneva’s medieval inheritance; Calvin did not invent it.
  2. Anti-Trinitarian heretics were burned in other places beside Geneva in Calvin’s time, and indeed later–two in England, for instance, as late as 1612.
  3. The Roman Inquisition had already set a price on Servetus’ head.
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This is the 500th anniversary of his birthday.  A series of articles on John Calvin showed up in the most unlikely place- one of our local newspapers.

The main article, on the front page, included some characterizations people have which are often unfounded.  It is mostly about the resurgence in Calvinism.  It includes a few quotes from Tim Rice over at Trinity Presbyterian, center of a church planting network.  I’m not sure why they included a photo of Tim’s copy of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, as though it was a rare book or something.

On page A3 there was a short biography of Calvin.  Very short, seemingly amazed that he had friends and got along with them.

On page A6 there was a short explanation of the 5-Points of Calvinism.  A bit too short if you ask me.  But it was not unfair in any way.

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One of the controversies that has sadly plagued those who embrace Calvin as one of the more astute and faithful theologians concerns the “free offer of the gospel.”  Some followers of Calvin, a minority of them, reject the free offer of the gospel.  They believe, erroneously, that the gospel is only to be offered to the elect.  While listening to a former PCA worship leader lament Calvinism at the recent John 3:16 Conference, he described this strain of Calvinism called hyper-Calvinism.

While preparing for last week’s sermon on Psalm 16, I didn’t find Calvin to be particularly helpful.  This is a rarity.  But he did say something that should set the record straight on what John himself believed Scripture to teach.

“It would be of no advantage to us for God to offer himself freely and graciously to us, if we did not receive him by faith, seeing he invites to himself both the reprobate and the elect in common; but the former, by their ingratitude, defraud themselves of this inestimatable blessing.  Let us, therefore, know that both these things proceed from the free liberality of God; first, his being our inheritance, and next, our coming to the possession of him by faith.  The counsel of which David makes mention is the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, by which we are prevented from rejecting the salvation to which he calls us, which we would otherwise certainly do, considering the blindness of our flesh.  Whence we gather, that those who attribute to the free will of man the choice of accepting or rejecting the grace of God basely mangle that grace, and show as much ignorance as impiety.”

Calvin himself holds to the “free offer of the gospel” to all.  God truly offers Himself to the elect.  Notice how he phrases that- God offers Himself, not just salvation.  As John Piper noted in his book, God is the gospel.

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Now here is an interesting and (sadly) controversial subject.  Not here to argue the case, but present the summary of the Westminster Confession on this matter as I prepare for my licensure exam on Wednesday.

Chapter III: Of God’s Eternal Decree

38. What are the decrees of God?  God, from all eternity, did freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.

39. What is the basis of the decrees of God?  God’s most wise and holy counsel.

40. Distinguish between the Westminster doctrine of the decree and the view refuted in III.2 which bases God’s decree upon “foreknowledge”. Relate this to Romans 8:29.  The false view is that God issues decrees based on what he knows we will do rather than God decreeing events.  In Romans 8:29 it is the people, not their actions, which are foreknown meaning that God had loved them before time.

41. What are the so called “Five Points of Calvinism”?  Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.

42. Are you personally committed to the doctrine of predestination?  Yes!

43. Demonstrate from Scripture that election is a sovereign, free act of God and totally unconditional. Are you personally committed to this doctrine?  Romans 9- “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy; I will have compassion upon whom I will have compassion.  It does not depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”

44. How is election important for the doctrine of assurance? It is vital for our assurance rests on God’s work rather than our fleeting experiences.

45. What is the significance of having been chosen in Christ?  None are saved apart from Christ.  God didn’t just ordain who would be saved, but how they would be saved and experience that salvation- thru Christ and in union with Christ.

46. Why did the divines distinguish between the “predestination” of the elect, and the foreordination” of the non-elect (III.3)? God actively works to save the elect, but passively passes over the non-elect.  He does not actively prevent them from coming to a saving knowledge of Christ.  The language seeks to make this distinction.

47. What does it mean that God has “foreordained all the means” unto election (III.6)? He ordained the ordo saludus- the process by which we are saved- redemption accomplished by Christ and applied by the Spirit.

48. Why does the Confession say God “passes by” those ordained to dishonor and wrath (III.7)? God does not actively prevent them from being saved.  He withholds grace that they might receive the proper penalty of their sin. 

49. Why do you think God revealed this doctrine of election?   To humble us and exalt Himself.

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