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Posts Tagged ‘Holiness’


Sometimes “life” just gets in the way of all good intentions.

A few years ago I read Antinomianism by Mark Jones and when discussing the doctrine of assurance he mentioned Anthony Burgess (the Puritan, not the author of A Clockwork Orange). While reading The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson the subject and Burgess came up again in the footnotes. So I bought a copy of recently released version of Faith Seeking Assurance (FSA) by Burgess in the Puritan Treasures for Today.

While I finished reading the book in December, I went on vacation and returned to a crazy schedule that included preparing for a church trial, and presbytery meeting. I came down with “the” cold (I’m still coughing 4 weeks later), experienced a pastoral crisis or two, helped interview a church planter and we hosted a financial seminar. I think I am returning to normalcy and this review is still waiting for me.

That is how my brain works. I need to clear this out so I can move on to the next review of a book I just finished.

The doctrine of assurance is one of those neglected doctrines these days. Recently we’ve seen a spat of books about the Trinity and union with Christ which had been neglected for a long time. Maybe this doctrine will experience a literary resurgence. But until then … we pretty much have this book. Thankfully it is a very good book, but since I just worked thru this subject in the Westminster Standards for a SS class- there is more to be said.

FSA is a typically Puritan book in its style and structure. If you aren’t familiar with the Puritans, one way to describe them would be a dog with a bone, chewing, chewing, chewing. I’d say a cow chewing its cud, but that sounds too “gentle”. Perhaps another way of putting it is drilling down deep into a doctrine, looking at it from a variety of angles.

“… ecclesiastical discipline being to the church what the sword is to the Commonwealth.”

The assurance of which we speak is assurance as a reflex action- the assurance that we are saved by knowing we have believed and depend upon the merit of Christ. As a direct action, faith believes that God actually saves sinners. In this way, following Calvin, assurance is an element of faith.

“In his reflex acts of faith, the confidence that a believer has of the truth of grace wrought in him comes more from God’s Spirit removing his slavish fears and disposition and supporting the soul than it does from the excellence and beauty of grace within him.”

He begins with the necessity of assurance by bringing us to Corinth and Paul’s letters to them. Professing Christians can be quite content in their lusts. Paul advised them to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith rather than continue to exhibit presumption. In this way we differ from Roman Catholicism in which only those who receive a secret revelation can have such knowledge (think the saints, not ordinary Christians). But Scripture indicates we can know, and God generally wants His children to know that they are in fact saved.

Its advantage is likened to the man who has actually tasted honey and knows its sweetness experientially instead of simply theoretically. It provides a security in affliction, rather than a false security in our guilt. It also helps us to enjoy the sweetness of the sacraments, ceasing from useless arguments with others and focusing on your own heart (warning: we can be overly introspective however, and we are supposed to be looking outward to Christ who is our salvation), focusing on obedience and service. What gets in the way? He notes self-love, carnal confidence and the temptation to unbelief. We can also use false standards to determine whether or not we are saved.

“… some Christians rest in knowing the doctrine of the gospel and in the outward use of ordinances without ever feeling the weight of sin.”

From these introductory matters he spends time addressing the reality of hypocrites. Some have an historical faith: “They have the kind of historical faith that the devils possess. It is no real faith at all, but, at most, only a human assent.” There is intellectual agreement of a sort, but no resting in Christ. There are also those, like in the parable of the sower, who are temporary believers. They are part of the visible church, seem to be filled with joy, but eventually return to their sin and unbelief.

True Christians: “These Christians are incorporated into Christ’s body and so receive a vivifying influence from Him as a living branch in the vine or a living member in the body.”

One of the more interesting obstacles to gaining assurance that Burgess mentions is that we can resist the ministry of the Spirit to provide it. The basic notion is that the flesh resists all motions toward holiness, and all reception of spiritual blessings. Other obstacles are guilt over sins committed, temptations experienced and the Evil One who wants to destroy the joy of our salvation since he can’t actually destroy our salvation.

This means a believer may actually be saved, but not have assurance. They may have doubts and fears. But gaining assurance gives us greater peace and joy in our salvation.

Thomas Goodwin spoke of a father and son walking on the road. The father picks up the son, holds him and kisses him. The son was just as much his son when he was standing by the father, or even running from him. But his experience of being a son was better, more nurturing when the father held and kissed him. Assurance is like being held and kissed, our experience of salvation is sweeter. But we may still be saved even when we don’t experience this.

Burgess provides remedies for carnal confidence and directions for those who lack assurance. While God generally wants us to have assurance, it is not all He wants for us. He also wants us holy and humble. If assurance will make you proud or slothful at a given point in time, God may choose to withhold assurance for this greater good.

“We should not so gaze upon ourselves to find graces in our hearts that we forget those acts of faith whereby we immediately close with Christ and rely upon Him only for our justification.”

Assurance starts with the simple question, do you believe in Christ? If you don’t you have no ground for assurance. In seeing if you truly believe or have a counterfeit faith (see Edwards’ Charity and Its Fruits), you look to sanctification and whether common graces are at work in you. You aren’t looking for perfection, but progress. And in this someone else may help for often we see the sin, not the progress. In terms of common graces, is there a desire for worship, prayer, Bible reading, fellowship etc. These are faith at work. The desire for them is a work of the Spirit. The one who has never and doesn’t currently desire them has no grounds for assurance. There can be dry spells, and during them we generally don’t have assurance.

This is not a perfect book. It is a good and worthwhile book. For those who are not familiar with the Puritans, there is a learning curve. There is much to discover here, but I did find myself wanting more when I was done. Sadly, I can’t recall exactly what that more was. At this time, this and the chapters in The Whole Christ are the primary works on this important and often misunderstood subject.

 

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I have long been an admirer of John Newton. He has written many letters and hymns that not only address my mind but also my heart. He was not a “speculative” theologian but an practical or pastoral theologian. He is one of my “long distance” mentors- stretching across both time and geography thanks to God’s providential gift of the printing press. While I am surely not the pastor (and Christian) I want to be, I am a better pastor because of John Newton.

Tony Reinke has done people like me a great service with his contribution to Crossway’s series Theologians on the Christian Life. This is the first book I’ve read in the series. It makes me want to read more. But let’s look at Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ.

As Reinke notes at the end, he doesn’t say everything Newton does, nor cover every topic Newton covered. It would therefore be larger than the 4 volume Works of John Newton I also purchased recently.

In about 240 pages, Reinke summarizes Newton’s view of the Christian life and then examines key areas like Christ’s All-Sufficiency, the Daily Discipline of Joy in Jesus, Gospel Simplicity, the Discipline of Trials and so much more.

As the subtitle notes, the focus is on Christ, who as is noted above is All-Sufficient. Our Christian life is lived in union with the all-sufficient Christ. That does not mean he held to a view of Christian perfectionism. Newton made much of the reality of indwelling sin (there is an excellent chapter on the subject here). Too few pastors and theologians address this constant hindrance to our movement towards obedience. It is also the source of a steady stream of temptations. Any book on Christian living that makes little of this reality is fundamentally flawed.

One of Newton’s other contributions is the stages of Christian life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Wise pastors should consider this as they preach and structure discipleship programs. This is one of the chapters in which Keller is mentioned often, as he is nearly as dependent on Newton as he is on Lewis. We need to help people see their own immaturity and what it looks like to become more mature in Christ and how Jesus brings us there.

He includes a very convicting chapter on Seven Christian Blemishes. These are “respectable” sins that hinder our gospel proclamation and witness. He isn’t saying we aren’t Christians, but these attitudes and practices are sub-Christian. They are frequently a turn off to others. For instance, he mentions the one who quarrels about politics (I told you this was convicting). He was not against political involvement for he encouraged Wilberforce to stay in politics to put an end to the slave trade. The problem is people who are in no position to change anything (they are not politicians) and often lack sufficient information. Many people’s never-ending stream of political FB posts would fit here. These are rarely calls to prayer, or to contact your elected officials. This is one reason why some non-Christians are offended by our “politics”- not that we have views but how we express them or when we are ill-informed.

The chapter on the Discipline of Trials is also quite important. Too few pastors really spend time talking about this. We then fail our congregations in preparing them for suffering well, with an eye to Christ above all. It is a lengthy chapter, and really needed to be lengthy. We all experience trials, and unless we have a solid theological understanding of the ways God uses them we will be mired in immaturity and grow bitter against God.

The chapter on Christ-Centered Holiness was frustrating at points. I don’t disagree with what he said. I wish there was more. The focus is on beholding Christ as our Savior as well as our Pattern or Example. This is a very biblical idea (see 2 Cor. 5). Newton also talked about straining toward or agonizing toward holiness. He could have written more on this aspect of the pursuit of holiness.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. It is much like Newton’s ministry in that it is profoundly focused on Christ. It is filled with quotes from Newton to illustrate his points, many great encouraging quotes. He brings in some others too via quotes. This produces a very encouraging book.

This is not just a book for pastors. Nor is it intended to be. Most Christians would benefit from this book. They will grow in their understanding of the Christian life, and therefore what God is up to in your life and how to grow up in Jesus. These are important things and Newton is a gentle but faithful pointer to Jesus.

 

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It took me over 2 years to read Sexual Sanity for Men: Re-Creating Your Mind in a Crazy Culture by David White. It should have taken me 14 weeks. Unfortunately while I was reading it my eyes were growing weaker and I never brought glasses to that room until just recently. Yes, that is pretty lame.

When you read the blurbs by men like Paul Tripp, Tim Keller and Ed Welch you are tempted to think “they have sexual issues??!!” You can understand Stephen Brown but those guys seem, like holy. The fact of the matter is that we all have sexual issues. It is just a matter of degree. Really. We are all sinners, and our depravity extends to every part of our being which includes our sexuality. So, I can safely say that EVERY man (with the sole exception of Jesus) has sexual issues, an element of insanity. (Don’t worry, there is a book for women too!)

As a result, there are times when I am tempted toward self-righteousness because I’ve never done that or struggled with this. But I have enough of my own struggles. Some of what he talks about will be outside of your frame of reference. But it will be part of other readers’ frame of reference. People struggle with some very hard things.

I was reading another book recently and the author gave the example of bucks. Usually you don’t see bucks. They tend to avoid people. But during rutting season (aka mating season) when they smell a doe they become single minded, seemingly ignoring people and cars in the road.

We can be like a buck during rutting season. When our testosterone levels are high we are prone to do stupid, and sinful things. We need help to regain our sanity.

This book is intended to help us in this endeavor. This means it is a painful book at times. We are confronted with the idols that drive our sexual insanity. Forsaking our idols, and our sin, can be quite painful.

In light of that, this book is intended to be read as part of a group. This is the sticky wicket for many men. We (rightfully?) have a great deal of shame around these issues. We think we are alone in struggling with these things. It is hard to open up. The fear of rejection is real at times.

If you are a pastor it is harder. It isn’t just about image management. Some people can’t differentiate between those who know their problems and wish they didn’t have those problems and those who sin gladly. So you aren’t sure who you can trust to walk with you instead of point the finger at you.

David White reminds us that our enemies are the flesh, the world and the devil. We have an internal bent toward sexual sin, the world encourages and facilitates sexual sin, and the devil will first plant sinful suggestions and then condemn you for them and any sin you may have committed.

At times I wish he’d remind us it wasn’t simply about obedience more often. Toward the end he talks about pride. This may sound strange, but God is more concerned with the condition of our hearts than our external obedience. He wants obedience from the heart. To humble us, we can have thorns in the flesh. We will not be 100% sexually sane until we are glorified, but we can grow.

This book does not want us to settle for the status quo, but to press on toward greater holiness. When our sin is about something so central to who we are, our sexuality, progress is slow and painful.

I would recommend this book (based on what I can remember over the course of two plus years). Yes, there are passages that struck me as a bit legalistic (the idea we must be in accountability groups even though this is not mandated in the Scriptures). The general tenor of the book, however, is to drive us to Jesus and the gospel. When we are honest about our sexual sin and struggles, our need and desire for Jesus should grow.

 

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God Loves Sex, now that is a book title! Sadly that is a concept that is foreign to so many Christians. It is easy to get that idea if you do a selective reading of the Bible. It is easy to find all the “do not’s” and get the idea that God doesn’t really like sex and views it only as a means to a procreative end. This kind of view has led many to take an allegorical approach to The Song of Songs, a book in the Bible which I believe exalts the beauty (and frustration) of a redeemed marital sexuality.

It has been a number of years since Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III have collaborated on a book together. It has been a very beneficial collaboration, in my mind. This particular collaboration is highly dependent on Longman’s commentary on The Song. I recently read that commentary to prepare for a Sunday School series on the Song. I’m grateful that this book was released in time for me to read it as well.

This is not an academic look at The Song. While it is dependent on Longman’s commentary it is not a commentary. Allender’s contribution is seen in the subtitle: An Honest Conversation About Sexual Desire and Holiness. It is written to the heart too, inviting us to ponder our sexuality and its expression in our lives.

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In this barren wasteland of books on the Trinity there are only a few oases out there. If you believe Michael Reeves, and I suspect you should, this is thanks to Schleiermacher who basically treated the Trinity as extraneous to Christianity. In Michael Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith he treats the Trinity as the hub upon which all of Christianity turns. That is part of what makes this particular volume on the Trinity unique. He explicitly states and develops this as a steady drumbeat in the book.

“For God is triune, and it is as triune that he is so good and desireable.”

In part, the book is an apologetic for Christianity in general and the Trinity in particular. He spends some time examining what happens if you don’t have a Trinity, what does that mean about God. To put it simply, God is not love. He is wanting a creation, if he wants a creation that serves him. But if God is love, and there are more than 3 persons in this eternal community of love we understand creation (and redemption) as an overflow of the love they have for one another. This sets Christianity into a different light, a greater light.

“Before he ever created, before he ever ruled the world, before anything else, this God was a Father loving his Son.”

For instance, love is the motive for the mission of God. I am currently reading a book on that subject and the author of this otherwise good book seems to neglect this as the reason. He’s not seeing the mission as the Father sending the Son to adopt more children, but more a Creator wanting to be obeyed. This focus on God as loving community helps to clear the air of many misconceptions and present a more winsome Christianity.

“He creates as a Father and he rules as a Father; and that means the way he rules over creation is most unlike the way any other God would rule over creation.”

For instance, in the last chapter he explores how this focus influences how we view various attributes of God. God’s holiness, for instance, is that he is separate from us in that he loves. In Leviticus 19, he reminds us, that the call to be holy, or perfect, as he is is surrounded by the command to love your neighbor as yourself and explanations of what that looks like (caring for the poor, for instance). So our holiness is not to be mere obedience. Our holiness is to be a love that reaches out to others as God has reached out to us in order to meet the needs of others. Oh, there is obedience but as Jesus said in John’s Gospel this is because love Him who first loved us.

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Is there a reasonable hope for godliness for the Christian? Can we please God?

In the 5th chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung addresses this very question. He starts with the qualifications for office. The standards can seem so high that most men feel unqualified. They humble us. Taken absolutely, they disqualify everyone but Jesus. How are we to sort this out?

“It’s one thing to be humble about our piety. It’s another thing to think piety is impossible.”

At times we tend to flatten out holiness. We see it as static, not dynamic. It is part of our dynamic life with God. As we affirm our depravity, and the remnant of indwelling sin, we can start to think that we can obey God. We start to think we cannot please God.

But Scripture doesn’t talk that way.

And if we don’t think carefully and biblically, our lives are stunted.

He wants us to consider Zechariah and Elizabeth. They were righteous, walking blamelessly before God. That is not justification. That is sanctification.

Consider Job. He was called blameless and upright. Again, sanctification.

It isn’t just the Old Testament. Jesus expected people to put his words into practice (Mt. 7:24). James basically said the same thing (James 2:22-25).

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If we ignore the imperatives of Scripture, there is a Hole in Our Holiess. This is the premise of the 4th chapter in Kevin DeYoung’s book.

By and large, we hate commands. We don’t like being told what to do. Kids don’t like to listen to the parents or teachers. As adults we don’t like to listen to our bosses. We don’t just “question authority” we undermine and resist it.

“God cares enough to show us his ways and direct our paths. … Divine statues are a gift to us. God gives us law because he loves us.”

While others may try to lord it over us, God’s intention is good. It is evidence of love, but we read it as hate. The problem is not with Him, but us. Even as Christians, there is resistance not only to particular commands at particular moments, but to the Law period.

The Church has wrestled with the Law for quite some time. Scholars have landed in various positions. Among Calvinists, this is one of the many practical differences between Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology. Historically, Reformed Theology has had a 3rd use for the law. We hold to a 3-fold distinction in the law that NCT rejects. We recognize the moral law, the civil law and the ceremonial law. They cannot ultimately be separated from each other. But they are distinguished and have a different relationship to Christ. The moral law reflects the character of God, and transcends all administrations of the covenant. The civil law is the application of the moral law to the nation of Israel as a theocracy, and includes the punishments for breaking particular laws. The ceremonial law is about the removal of guilt and pollution from breaking the moral law. It is also about maintaining the separation between Israel and the nations.

“Typically, this has meant that the moral law (e.g., the Ten Commandments) is directly normative, but the civil and judicial aspects of the law point to what is true for all people at all times.”

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