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Posts Tagged ‘John Calvin’


Habakkuk is not a minor prophet who gets much attention. It is a book that is difficult to read since you have little hope there as he complains to God and the answer is not quite to his liking.

ItNo photo description available. just doesn’t “preach” in our day of itching ears, prosperity and easy living.

This week I begin a sermon series on Habakkuk. As you begin you aren’t sure if the resources will be worth your while. You aren’t sure if you are going to get helpful perspectives and cover historical, exegetical, and practical issues well enough to prepare you to bring the Word to God’s people. Only time will tell if I refresh weary souls.

Calvin’s Commentary on Habakkuk is my interaction with the historic community. I try to pick at least one older commentary. We shouldn’t ignore how it was interpreted in the past. We stand on their shoulders rather than figure out everything from scratch. You generally can’t go wrong with Calvin.

D. I’ve got O. Palmer Robertson’s volume in the New International Commentary of the Old Testament series covering Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah. This is my more technical commentary for Habakkuk. Robertson is a capable scholar, so I feel like I’m in good hands as I seek to tackle any of those more technical questions.

Similar to that is Walter Kaiser’s volume, Micah -Malachi, in The Communicator’s Commentary Series. It should focus a bit more on how to preach it. We’ll see.

I read some good reviews on Habakkuk by Heath Thomas, part of the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series. This is also more to the exegetical/technical side of things. It offers to bridge the gap between biblical and systematic theology.

John Currid often provides lots of archeological & historical background in his commentaries. As a result, I picked up his volume Habakkuk: The Expectant Prophet. It is not very thick, but I expect to get some good nuggets from it.

Even shorter is D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ (I’ll never say it the same after watching the Lego Ninjago Movie with the kids) From Fear to Faith: Studies in the Book of Habakkuk and the Problem of History. The cover is pretty ugly with a rocket launcher and some B-movie monster (okay, actually a statue of some ancient idol that looks like a B-movie monster). Go figure. Maybe in addition to watching wrestling with the grandkids he watched monster movies.

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I came home from vacation to find a box of books I had forgotten that I had ordered. There was a clearance sale. Some had arrived before I left for vacation and this was the balance of the order.

Since I’ve chosen to read The Works of John Newton this year, I decided to read some shorter books on a variety of subjects to broaden my reading for the year.

I decided to begin with The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God by Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book on the subject of the ascension. This is generally a neglected doctrine, at least among Protestants.

Yet, I thought this an unusual book for Tim Chester. I’ve liked other books of his, but this seemed to be a less practical and more theological topic. Robert Letham? Sure, I can see him writing a volume on the ascension. Tim Chester? Not so much.

This is not just a different subject than usual for Chester but also writing style. Perhaps it is the presence of Woodrow. It is not written in the more popular style that Chester typically uses. It is not quite academic either. It draws a good balance.

The book is a mere 3 chapters and 92 pages long. Don’t confuse that with being shallow or superficial. It certainly isn’t exhaustive, but it handles what it does cover well. There are some good footnotes with resources to use for further reading. Some may be hard to find. My first attempt at finding an older volume by Derek Thomas was futile, but there are other places for me to look.

The first two chapters cover Jesus as Ascended Priest and Ascended King. They anticipated my (and other’s) critique regarding the final chapter which was not Ascended Prophet but Ascended Man. I believe they could and should have added a 4th chapter covering the missing office of Christ. It bears discussion. This is one way in which the present volume is not exhaustive.

“Let’s be honest: the ascension of Jesus is weird.”

It is a nearly unique event that makes it difficult for us to talk about with people. We struggle to understand it, so how can we explain it to non-Christians. But we must for there is no Christianity without it!

I say nearly unique because in one of the few points of disagreement, I think God prepared us with taking up of Enoch and then Elijah.

In the introduction they address a few of the objections people may have to the idea of an ascension. Things like “Wouldn’t evangelism be a whole lot easier if Jesus was still on earth?”

“The ascension seems a bad strategy. It removes the key piece of evidence that substantiates the claims of Christianity.”

And so we see the struggle we can often experience as we consider the ascension. It is not simply the reward for a righteous man like Enoch (though it is that too). This is the removal from earth of the most important person who ever lived, the object of our faith. And that perhaps is the point- He’s an object of our faith, not our sight. But it is more significant that simply that.

“The ascension is the enthronement of Jesus. He receives all authority and sends us out to declare that authority to the world. The ascension is the beginning of mission.”

I thought the first chapter, Ascended Priest, was the best chapter. It moved me to worship as I read of Christ ascended as my Great High Priest carrying my name (among others) into the presence of the Father. A good amount of theology is covered in a short space. This is good biblical theology as they moved through the Old Testament to show greater fulfillment and types revealed in Jesus’ ascension.

They frequently connect this doctrine with our union with Christ. We are present before the Father because we are united to the Son who is physically present before the Father.

“Our presence before God is as certain as Christ’s presence before God. Our salvation is safe and secure as long as Christ is in heaven.”

Jesus is there, as our Priest, not only interceding for us but leading our worship. We worship not only on earth but in heaven because of our union with Christ. The Father hears our voice!

The authors then move to the subject of Jesus as our Ascended King who is currently subduing His enemies while we wake and sleep. He is re-establishing God’s rule on a rebellious planet from His seat at the right hand of the Father. He has and is accomplishing what no mere son of David could do.

They look at the Ascension “from above” by tying it into Daniel 7 as the Son of Man appears before the Ancient of Days in the heavenly court. This is legal coronation as He is invested with authority to rule. Earthly kingdoms are being superceded by the kingdom as the gospel is announced and trusted.

“If he’s enthroned in Jerusalem then He is just Israel’s king. No, Jesus is enthroned in heaven as the king of the whole world.”

The new Adam is not merely the son of God but the Son of God who comes “as the world’s king to rescue the world.” He reigns thru His people as they continue with the mission He gave in the Great Commission. In this they want us to see a bigger gospel than the individualized one. We do believe as individuals, but we become part of a bigger Story, a bigger Body and an everlasting kingdom. We are citizens of heaven, and citizenship is not a private thing but a public one.

They spend some time on the necessity of a bodily ascension instead of a spiritualized one. He is both King by virtue of divinity but also a human king sitting on the heavenly throne. He rules not only over “spiritual” realms but the material realm as well. Rather than immediately establish the kingdom in its fulness, Jesus left “earth to allow those who belong to the old age time to repent.” They explain the already/not yet aspects of Jesus’ reign well. The new age has begun while the old age continues until Jesus does return. We live within a great tension.

We can see this tension in a number of ways. Personally: we are at the same time righteous and sinners. We partake of the new age thru justification and sanctification. But we are not yet glorified until we are in His immediate presence. Justified by faith alone we not only seek to become righteous but thru the proclamation of the gospel bring others into the new age. We work to change the societies in which we live, reflecting the rule of Christ. But this won’t be completed apart from His return. We should neither “give up” because it will all “burn anyway” nor expect to usher in some golden age before the return of Jesus. We work for righteousness though we know it won’t be accomplished (there will still be poor, still be famine, still be racism etc.).

The third chapter, Ascended Man, was probably the least focused. It contains some important material. But the lack of an office creates a broader stroke. In some ways they try to cover too much territory and engage in some philosophical speculation.

The begin with the scandal of the ascended man by taking a look at John 6. He see a Messiah who came down from heaven, who promises resurrection to those who partake of Him, and the disciples will “see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!”. In the Ascension, the Son of Man is not going someplace He’s never been. He’s returning to His glory. But, He goes as Man blazing a trail for humanity. They express it as ‘making a place for humanity in heaven’. This idea of eternal bodily existence was scandalous to the Greeks who generally had a view of the body as a prison for the soul which is escaped in “salvation.” Our understanding of salvation is bodily.

“The ascension is the story of a body moving to heaven. It is not escape from the bodily realm, but the entry of humanity- in our physical-ness- into the heaven, the sphere of God.”

Here they get into discussing heaven and earth as “two separate planes that intersect” rather than heaven being “above” earth. He reminds us of Narnia, another world that intersected with ours so that at times people could move between them. In unpacking this they bring up theoretical physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Space, time and motion are about the relationships between things. This could be difficult for some to wrap their minds around.

Image result for lord's supperNext they address how the “absent Christ is present through the Spirit.” The ascension results in the outpouring of the Spirit as Jesus now engages in His heavenly ministry on earth. The humanity of Christ has not been transformed and omnipresent but is available thru the Spirit who dwells in His people making Christ present to them, preserving our union with Christ. This plays out in the Reformed understanding of Communion. Rather than confuse the natures of Christ, nor transfer attributes creating one new nature, we uphold the two natures of Christ but recognize how the Spirit mediates His presence with us and our presence with Him. Following Calvin they say: “It is not that Christ comes down to us in the Lord’s Supper. Rather, by the Spirit, we ascend to be with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.”

In ministry we are people in two places (earth and heaven) and two times (present age and age to come) through Christ. They differentiate between an ascensional ministry and an incarnational ministry. Like J. Todd Billings in his book Union with Christ, they critique incarnational ministry. There is a way to affirm this as loving people as Jesus did and serving them in their context. But we are not to think of ourselves as His presence on earth, as though He re-enters creation through us. They note: “Christ does not need a replacement body because He is still embodied.” We do not complete the Messianic task, He does.

Lots of distinctions are made in this section as they deal with some concepts common in evangelicalism. They want us to properly understand kingdom growth, not in spatial terms, but in the number of people who gladly enter His rule. Here they also discuss the “pilgrim principle” for our remaining time on earth prior to His return.

I found this to be a helpful book to introduce the meaning and implications of the bodily ascension. I am surprised that Tim Chester wrote a book on this subject (with Jonny Woodrow), but I’m mighty glad he did. Aside from some of the theoretical physics and their application in the Lord’s Supper via Calvin, this is an accessible book for normal people. They connect all this to our salvation, mission and Christian life such that this is not ivory tower navel gazing.

“Christ has taken our nature into heaven to represent us; and has left us on earth, with his nature, to represent him.” John Newton

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I found it in a “clearance bin” online. It was discounted, but I was intrigued.

The title was On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor. I wasn’t sure if I was burned-out but I was certainly discouraged, folded, spindled and mutilated (or so I felt). The last few years of ministry had been very difficult and were taking their toll on me. I was a ripe candidate for this book by Clay Werner.

“It is much needed because pastors experience loneliness and discouragements, even depression and despair, more often than most church members (and even other pastors) realize.” Dennis Johnson in the Forward

In the midst of ministry we can often lose sight of God. Our God awareness suffers. This is where he begins. He spends time looking at Moses and Israel in the wilderness journey to help us understand the pressures at work. We work with people who are prone to forget God’s grace & goodness, grumble & complain (we are in that mix too). We see Moses at times strong and wise and at other times foolish and worn out. At times we are up for the challenges, and sometimes they eat our lunch. Moses never gave up and ran away. But Werner reminds us that Moses was simul justus et peccator, and so are we.

Image result for pressureHe looks at both external and internal pressures upon pastors. We face the challenges of balancing ministry and family, leadership, administration and management. We face the isolation of leadership (people may know some of what troubles us, but rarely the whole picture and we can’t necessarily share all of it). Compassion fatigue can hit us as wave after wave of difficulty hits us. That has been the last few years with a steady stream of high involvement crises, deaths, conflicts and other losses sent me tumbling like a toy boat caught in high tide at a set of breakers.

Into this he addresses the futility of our work. Ministry has been complicated by Adam’s disobedience and the curse that came as a result. There are lots of thorns and thistles, and not as much fruit as we’d like.

This shifts us into the internal pressures to perform and produce. We struggle with idolatry and establishing our kingdom and not His.

“… there are times when walking away from the community to which God has called you to minister seems to be safer than staying.”

God gives us the gift of disillusionment. He quotes Eugene Peterson who’s simplifying Bonhoeffer: “The church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have.” We have a longing for Eden though we live east of Eden. All pastors will wrestle with this if they have any ambition: godly or selfish. God works to expose the “utopian concept” most Christians experience. Growth is intended to take place (for the pastor and the congregation) in the midst of this very imperfect community. The community is “at the same time just and sinner” too. We live in a tension between loving the community as it is and yet longing for it to change (and working for it).

Werner moves to the great crisis of his faith. If the resurrection wasn’t true, he was done with ministry. And so he took a retreat to the woods to read and pray. In this chapter he also discusses the reasons were are “on the brink” or the injured list: prolonged exhaustion, delight turned to duty, discouragement ==> depression, older-brother mentality, anger, self-indulgence and the list goes on. If the resurrection is true, why do we experience these and why is the church so slow to change? This is where it hits, and hurts.

In the midst of this (and so many other areas) he turns us to John Newton. He warned of listening to yourself. He warned of comparing your place with that of others, particularly those that seem to be flourishing. Newton points us to God and his sovereign faithfulness.

He has a short transitional section on the cross as the remedy. God addresses our needs in Christ and Him crucified. We see His love and commitment as well as our stubborn sinfulness.

This brings him back to the resurrection: the resurrection of Christ, our hearts, our hope, our joy and endurance. Here he also applies the already-not yet to the reality of ministry.

He then reminds us of the love of God for us, the transforming love of God. This love enables us to forgive others and love them in their weakness and sinfulness.

This also allows us to dive into the difficulty of ministry. Jesus didn’t pull back from ministry with such flawed disciples. He calls us to join Him in working with such people.

He then deals with our desire to run away, the selfish desire to have our own life. We are curved inward, which is precisely why Jesus had to come and rescue us. He reminds us of the Suffering Servant again, who didn’t run away from the demands of ministry to difficult people like you and me.

He also calls us to fight for the unity of the church. The Prince of Peace came to bring unity to the church. The gospel is necessary for us to pursue peace. We also need character formed by the gospel to pursue peace. Additionally we need gospel competency.

God is our God for the long haul. He calls ministers to work with their congregations for the long haul. He ends on this note.

This is a brief book (about 130 pages) which is good for pastors who are “on the brink”. They need succinct help, and Clay Werner provides it. He draws on Scripture, John Newton, John Calvin and Francis Schaeffer throughout this book. They provided him with wise advice that he wants to pass on to others.

Image result for in case of emergencyThe chapters are similar to sermons. There is an opening illustration to frame the chapter. He returns to illustration to wrap up the chapter. It is a well put together book. It is a book that pastors are well advised to keep on their shelf. At some point they will need it “in case of emergency” because one day that emergency will come. The pastor who reads it can receive help and survive the inevitable emergencies. Maybe you’ll even find a copy in a clearance bin. Don’t confuse that with its worth.

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For those who have forgotten, my reading project this year is 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, a church history set by Nick Needham. Each quarter I’m reading one of the 4 volumes in the set. Due to vacation I started the 3rd volume a little late but finished it before the end of the quarter. A whole week to spare.

Volume 3 covers the Renaissance and Reformation. It covers quite a bit of material since the Reformation was not a uniform movement. By no means am I an expert on the history of the Reformation, but have read a fair amount. Needham provided plenty of nuance in his discussion, bringing in other factors that influenced people and events. There was plenty here I didn’t know and found beneficial particularly on interactions between groups seeking elusive unity. One issue that kept arising, and preventing union, was communion. Attention is paid to the different views and meetings over those views. Another distinctive mark of the series so far is present here as well. He addresses events in Eastern Orthodoxy during this time period in the final chapter. That he refuses to limit himself to Europe is one of the strengths of this set.

The first chapter covers the Renaissance, which in God’s providence give birth to the Reformation. The humanists were those who developed a great fondness and dependence on the “ancient books” that had in many places been forgotten. They began to read Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and fell under the spell of Greek and Hebrew. It was a revival of the knowledge of the past. There were pockets of the Renaissance in Italy, Germany, England, France and Spain. It was not a uniform movement with ideological goals. But many humanists, like Erasmus, begin to see and confront the problems they saw in the church. There were some theological critiques due to the renewed influence in Augustine, but largely they focused on moral issues.

The humanists laid the groundwork for the Reformation by bringing the study of Greek and Hebrew, and Augustine (among others) back into vogue. Many began to realize the rich heritage of the Church and how it differed at points with parts of their contemporary church. The theology of Rome was not uniform either. The theological aspects of the Reformation would later produce more uniformity in Roman Catholic theology as a response.

There were “Reformers” before Luther, people who expressed “evangelical” theology and called for changes within the Church. They would influence communities, but not a nation like Luther did. Needham notes people like John of Wesel who held to an early form of sola scriptura, attacked indulgences, rejected transubstantiation and enforced celibacy of priests. He was deposed from his office and subjected to the Inquisition. 79 years old, the Inquisition was too much for him and he renounced his “heresies”. He was sentenced to imprisonment in an Augustinian convent where he died 2 years later. Wessel Gansfort was a teacher who made many of the same criticisms, though he accepted a form of transubstantiation. He managed to escape the Inquisition. Girolamo Savonarola led a moral reform in Florence in which people burned their pornography, cosmetics and gambling devices. In his preaching he also attacked the corruption of the papal court. He was a strong Augustinian, and therefore drew the ire of the Franciscans.

One of the ironies of the Renaissance is the rise of the witch hunt. In such a time of great learning, there was also a time of great superstition and fear regarding black magic. Over 300 years governments put thousands of men and women accused of black magic to death. Estimates range (widely from 100,000 to as much as 9 million). For instance, in Geneva while Calvin was alive 2-3 women a year were executed by the government for witchcraft. Most were hanged, not burned.

Martin Luther by Cranach-restoration.tifNeedham moves to Luther in whom all of this took root, and through whom all of this came to be a crisis that rocked Europe. While a monk and professor, Luther’s spiritual guide was Johannes von Staupitz. He was a professor of biblical studies at Wittenberg University, as well as a disciple of Augustine. He was highly influential on Luther. Luther would take over Staupitz’ duties in 1512.

The initial dispute was over indulgences. Eventually the dispute moved to the root of that dispute: justification. But this took a few years. Luther’s personal breakthrough on the issue of justification likely took place in 1518-19 (with Melanchthon’s help), after the 95 Theses sparked the controversy. Men like Spalatin, Carlstadt and Melanchthon joined Luther. Some for a time (Carlstadt) and others for a lifetime (Melanchthon).

As one considers the Reformation, you see the different tensions that emerge. There was the theological tension between Augustine and Aquinas (despite being greatly influenced by Augustine), nationalism and the Holy Roman Empire, informed faith and implicit faith. The Reformation was about salvation, worship and Church government as well as the Church’s relationship with government.

The 3rd chapter focuses on 1521-1531 as Luther’s views began to shake up and shape much of Germany. In Germany a state church developed under the authority of the magistrate. There were no more Church courts, thereby unrolling the reforms of Hilbebrand.

All was not fine and dandy however. It was the Peasant’s Revolt, which was a misunderstanding and misapplication of Christian liberty among other things. There was also the iconoclast vision of Carlstadt and Zwilling in Wittenberg. They were concerned with actions, not hearts and went far beyond where Luther was willing and disrupted the city.

This period includes the beginning of the Swiss Reformation under Zwingli. While there were many common points with Luther, the one big difference was the Lord’s Supper. While they tried to work it out, it seemed insurmountable. Luther would condemn the Swiss Reformed, not even counting them as brothers. The milder Melanchton would maintain his friendship with them and would end up counting John Calvin as one of his best friends.

Martin Bucer by German School.jpgNeedham then brings us to Calvin whose reformation when deeper than Luther’s on many points. It would have gone deeper still if not for the hindrances of the local magistrate which saw itself as controlling the church. Under this chapter he includes Bucer who would have a great influence on Calvin, as well as Peter Martyr. Martyr would work with Calvin to “finalize” the Reformed doctrine of communion as distinct from transubstantiation, Luther’s view and Zwingli’s memorial view. Emphasis was placed on our union with Christ, the nature of signs and the role of faith in receiving that which they symbolized by virtue of that union.

He then focuses on Calvin. One of Calvin’s contributions was his view of the Church in distinction to the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anabaptist views. Calvin is dependent on Bucer but was able to say it better, with more force and able to implement it far more than Bucer did. They distinguished between the visible and invisible church, argued that the church and state work together but that the church was not controlled by the state. The church must exercise church discipline lest the visible church become corrupt.

Needham spends a fair amount of space on the controversy with Servetus. This “tragic episode” should be seen in a larger context of Calvin’s controversy with the Libertines or Perrinists. The Libertines opposed Calvin in his desire to enforce moral discipline. They often had loose morals and many held hetrodox views: pantheism, denying the inspiration of the Scriptures etc.. The Libertines made life very difficult for Calvin: so difficult he often wished God would let him leave. At the time of the Servetus trial and execution, Ami Perrin was the chief magistrate.

Michael Servetus.jpgServetus was considered a heretic by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike for his denial of the Trinity. Over the years he had correspondence with Calvin in which Calvin tried to reason with him. Eventually Calvin decided to no longer offer pearls to swine. Servetus was arrested and condemned by the Inquisition, but escaped the prison before he could be executed. For reasons unknown he went to Geneva where he was arrested.

The trial was a contest not only between Servetus and Calvin (a primary witness against him) but also between Calvin and the Libertines (who controlled the city council). In one of histories great ironies, Servetus believed that the magistrate should put heretics to death. He just didn’t believe he was the heretic. The Libertines used this as an opportunity to harass Calvin, putting every conceivable obstacle in the way to justice according to Genevan law. They strung it out even as they knew they couldn’t acquit him with all the western world watching. The council condemned him to death by burning. Calvin argued for a quicker, less cruel manner of death. His old friend, Farel, called Calvin soft.

The Libertines had destroyed their credibility by how they conducted the trial. In the next elections they lost power. In response they staged a riot, for which the ringleaders including Perrin were arrested and convicted. Most were banished, but Perrin was sentenced to death. He was able to flee Geneva to Berne to avoid his sentence. But the Libertines troubled Geneva no more.

Calvin’s work as a pastor and theologian of the first order was not carried out in ease. “He was a constant martyr to arthritis, migraine headaches, bleeding from the stomach, bowel disorders, hemorrhoids, inflamed kidneys and kidney stones, fever, muscle cramps, and gout.” He endured all of these without the benefit of modern medicine.

The 5th chapter covers what is called the Radical Reformation. Needham views this time as one of Reformations, not a single Reformation with different branches. This is due to the complexity of this phenomenon regarding theology and the view of the state and worship.

Needham identifies three Radical tendencies. Any group may have more then one of these tendencies, but any one of them put them outside of the Lutheran and Magisterial Reformations. Those three tendencies were Anabaptism (rejection of infant baptism and baptizing people “again”), Spiritualist (rejecting the authority of the Word for the Spirit apart from the Word) and Rationalist (rejecting the authority of the Scriptures for the authority of one’s on reason).

Some groups majored on Anabaptism, thinking the Reformers at the time weren’t going far enough in their rejection of Rome. Many of them were peaceful groups wanting to live out their faith in an increasingly dangerous environment due to the political realities of the time. One of their distinctive views was that of a “pure church” comprised only of the truly committed. Today this is expressed in a “regenerate church” in which being in the covenant is conflated with salvation. This is the presupposition that drives credobaptism. Zwingli, for instance, believed the Swiss Brethren were asking too much of him- to abandon the existing church and form this new separatist religious communities. Early on, Anabaptists like Grebel did not seek to change the mode of baptism to immersion but that would come and become a shibboleth for “real baptism” among Baptists today. Zwingli saw their baptisms and celebration of the eucharist as anarchy since they were outside of the established church.

They also seemed to shun theology. The Schleitheim Confession is a case in point. It “dealt exclusively with matters of morality and Church order.” With regard to the latter it develops their understanding of the ban or shunning. They thought everything flowed out of lifestyle, and theology arose from their “ethical and communal concerns”, which is quite the opposite of the Magisterial Reformation and Luther. This led to a rejection of the Augustinian views of salvation found among the Reformers. They were semi-pelagian or even Pelagian in their understanding of salvation. They rejected the forensic doctrine of justification by faith alone, and maintained Rome’s conflation of justification and sanctification. Like Rome they feared it was a license to sin.

Since Zwingli was forced to engage them on baptism, his own position changed. Early on he wrote that infant baptism was “neither right nor wrong.” In 1523 he was committed to infant baptism. In his engagement with the Anabaptists he formalized a biblical defense of infant baptism rooted in the covenant and connected to circumcision. One of his key texts was Romans 4, which was one of the key texts in my transition to Reformed infant baptism.

Unfortunately, some Anabaptist groups began predicting the return of Christ. Perhaps this was a consequence of their pure, or true, Church focus. Now that the true Church had been established, Christ would/could return.

MennoSimons.gifMenno Simons was one of the more balanced Anabaptists. But one way he differed significantly from the Reformers was his formulation of sola Scriptura. He disallowed any appeal to tradition. It was not simply that Scripture alone is the final authority, but cleaved Scripture and the church from the past for help in understanding Scripture. That is a very dangerous place to be.

The more a group also drank from the Spiritualist well the more dangerous that group became. This thread subordinated all external authorities, including Scripture, to the “living voice of God speaking directly in in the individual’s heart.” It was about “inward personal experience.” Sebastian Franck went so far as to argue that God deliberately placed contradictions in the Bible to point us away from it to the Spirit. At its worst it also resulted in the Munster community which was filled with sexual license and violence before the armies came to lay siege.

The Rationalist Radicals subordinated all external authorities, including to Scripture, to human reason, often called “right reason”. As a result they rejected the doctrines which were revealed but not provable by reason: the Trinity and the Incarnation. The most famous of them was Socinus.

Needham moves to the topic of Europe divided. Here is where the politics of the time rises in prominence. There were power struggles galore as states sought independence from the Holy Roman Emperor and regional churches sought independence from Rome and the Pope. At times it stained the Protestants, including Luther, Melanchthon and Bucer, when they approved of the bigamy of Philip of Hesse. This was significant because Philip’s role in the Schmalkaldic League which united Lutheran states against the Emperor. When Luther died, Charles struck and defeated the League. He could defeat their armies, but not their faith.

The Reformation spread to the Scandinavian countries, first gaining a toe hold in Denmark. Luther’s death also saw the growth of the Reformed faith in Germany due to the work of people like Peter Martyr. France experienced stiff resistance to the Reformed faith with quite a few persecutions and eventually a war that split the nobility. The Catholic League formed an alliance with Spain to destroy the Huguenots. Philip Duplessis Mornay, a Huguenot, developed Calvin’s statements on the lesser magistrate into A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants, which would be a theological justification for the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the horrible excesses of the French Revolution.

In addition to the divisions on the European continent, divisions would come to the British Islands. The 7th chapter focuses on England and Scotland. Here as well politics and religion formed a dangerous combination at times with persecution breaking out periodically, particularly by Mary as she sought to restore Catholicism as England’s faith. It all began with a king’s idolatrous pursuit of an heir. His three children from three mothers led to a see saw effect. Edward embraced Protestantism, Mary Catholicism and Elisabeth was Protestant but more concerned with uniformity. Her Act of Supremacy reasserted the throne as the Head of the Church of England setting the stage for the rise of the Puritans and the English Civil War.

In Scotland there was no king like Henry VIII, but plenty of internal struggle between Catholic royalty and Protestant nobility. We see the rise of John Knox (who spent time in England and Geneva as well as a French slave galley to make for an interesting resume).

The Catholic Counter-Reformation was not quite uniform. Needham spends some time on the evangelical Catholics. They affirmed justification by faith alone but typically maintained allegiance to the Pope and the doctrine of transubstantiation. One of these was Luther’s old mentor, Staupitz. While a faithful Catholic, his books were placed on the index of forbidden books in 1563. Others included Albert Pighius, Jacob Sadoleto and Juan de Valdes.

One the other side of the spectrum was the rise of Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits. A former military man, he organized his order in similar fashion and acted like it was on, moving into “enemy territory” to reconvert the Protestants.

Rome also responded to the Reformation with the Council of Trent. Intended to be ecumenical, it was anything but that. The Pope(s) and Emperor struggled over the Council including its composition and location. They each had factions loyal to them. The Catholic Evangelicals were involved in early meetings but soon were pushed out. Roman Catholic theology had a greater breadth and variety leading up to the Reformation. Trent changed all that, bringing greater uniformity with its anathemas and affirmations. Needham notes that the anathemas were largely aimed at straw men. They consistently misinterpreted Protestants.

In the East, the Church fell on hard times to the spread of the Ottoman Empire. The courting of Rome for help didn’t work, and alienated much of the Orthodox masses who greatly resented the Pope and Roman Catholicism. The Russian Orthodox, among others, saw this compromise as close to apostasy. The Ottoman Empire defeated Constantinople and made Christians 2nd class citizens. They allowed the Patriarch of Constantinople to exist, but began to appoint men to the position. There was some correspondence with the Lutherans who wanted to remind Rome that there were churches tracing their roots to the early church that rejected Rome and the Pope’s authority. It didn’t get far due to stark theological differences.

The power vacuum created by the Ottoman conquest was filled by Moscow which was granted the position of Patriarch city. Oddly, the Russians didn’t seek to push the Ottomans out of Constantinople. While offended that Constantinople looked West instead of North, they did nothing about it. But the compromise of the South lead Russian Orthodoxy to believe they alone held to the true faith, a view which still exists today.

There is obviously much more in this volume. I’ve only touched on some highlights. As usual, this volume is engaging in its writing. Some history can be dreadfully dull as written. Needham’s isn’t. He hits on some points that other historians seem to overlook. He also rejects the temptation to neglect the Eastern Church after the Great Schism. This is good and informative reading that includes sections of original source material. Can’t beat that.

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As a former Particular Baptist, as they used to be called, I had an appreciation for Charles Spurgeon. While in seminary I did a paper in one of my history classes examining his sermons during the revival of 1859 to see how the doctrines of grace (aka Calvinism) were prominent and therefore consistent with revival.

I’ve found Michael Reeves’ books, Delighting in the Trinity and Rejoicing in Christ, to be engaging and informative. The former helped (re)shape my grasp of missions (including a critique/weakness of Christopher Wright’s tome, in other words, where is the love?).

So, imagine my pleasure in seeing that Reeves wrote the new book Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ. I decided I would read it during my vacation ritual this summer.

Reeves had no easy task in trying to put this together. The vast majority of Spurgeon’s writing are the transcriptions of his sermons. Not quite something you can easily read and grasp a comprehensive understanding of how he understood the Christian life. He is an unenviable position as he writes this book.

One of the interesting things about this series is that often the volume is written by someone outside of the subject’s tradition. Trueman, a Presbyterian, wrote the volume on Luther. Here Reeves, an Anglican, writes about the Calvinistic Baptist.

The sections cover the themes of Christ the Center, The New Birth and The New Life. As you might imagine, regeneration seems to be the central motif in Spurgeon’s view of the Christian life as understood by Reeves. We must become new people with new passions and all of that happens in Christ. Or thru Christ since the focus is not quite union with Christ. Explicitly, anyway.

He begins with a very brief biography of Spurgeon. He was a man of great passion, who felt greatly. He was known for a great sense of humor. While he used some humor in the pulpit, he was not a comedian as some pastors seem to think of themselves. Like Jonathan Edwards, Spurgeon loved creation and allusions and illustration to trees, flowers, animals and more filled his sermons. Spurgeon also grew up reading the books in his grandfather’s library. Many of these were Puritan books, and he developed a great fondness for Bunyan, particularly Pilgrim’s Progress.

Christ the Center

He viewed the Bible as the Word of Christ about Christ. As a result, the Bible did not compete with Christ for our affections, but is the revelation of Christ for us to know Christ. To not love the Bible is to not love Christ. The Bible is living and active as a result. Jesus changes lives through the Bible.

In terms of translations, he held the KJV in high esteem, but not without criticism. There were times the translation frustrated him (as happens with me concerning other translations at times).

Spurgeon affirmed that not only did the OT point us toward Christ, but that OT saints are our brothers and sisters. We shared the same faith. We just know more of the faith. Christ is the center of our faith, and all doctrines find their proper orbit around Christ.

“A Christless gospel is no gospel and a Christless discourse is the cause of merriment to devils.”

He was fully Trinitarian. But we must remember that Christ alone is the Mediator between God and man. It was Christ who became human, obeyed, died and was raised for our salvation. We come to the Father thru the Son, so Spurgeon preached Christ.

As I mentioned before, he grew up reading Puritans. His theology was Puritan. Aside from the issue of baptism (and the ecclesiology that flowed from that)he was “Reformed”. He had a great appreciation for Calvin and understood Calvinism to be a shorthand for the gospel. He understood them as they were intended to be: Christ-centered.

Though he was a Baptist, he affirmed (and perhaps exceeded) the WCF concerning elect infants dying in infancy being saved by the work of Christ. In one place he extended this to all infants dying in infancy. I’m not sure we have biblical warrant for this extension, though I’d like it to be true.

Spurgeon was not dogmatic about Calvinism however (not a Gnostic Calvinist). He would affirm other preachers as long as they preached Christ. Reeves noted a sermon Spurgeon heard by a priest in Belgium. The priest preached Christ, much to Spurgeon’s delight.

Preaching was more than informing people about Christ. He saw his goal to draw people to Christ. While you have content, the target is the heart. This, in some strange way I’d love to talk to him about, was why he discourage sermon series. I was scratching my head. Sermon series can’t be used by God to transform lives?

The New Birth

Spurgeon was baptized as an infant. Like many new converts today, he read the Bible and believed he should be baptized after he believed. Spurgeon held on to his baptistic convictions despite the fact that many of the theologians he loved and respected practiced infant baptism. Reeves places this within the context of baptismal regeneration and a return to Roman Catholicism. Reformed paedobaptists don’t hold to baptismal regeneration. But it seems the fear of Roman Catholicism was strong in Spurgeon (I once was there too).

We see there the disconnect, or at least I do. He held that we are brothers and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and the rest. The covenantal principle seen in the sign of circumcision is that children receive the sign and seal of “righteousness by faith” (Rom. 4). Abraham had the faith, and the sign called his children to the faith. But Spurgeon breaks faith, so to speak, on this principle. He viewed baptism as a sign of our faith, not God’s promise. At times he warned of the baptismal font being a rival of Christ’s for paedobaptists. The same could be said for many of the credobaptists I’ve heard. So there seems to be another inconsistency.

I mentioned about the covenantal principle of visible and invisible church in the OT (and NT). Rather, he holds to the impossible prospect of the “pure church”. Credobaptism doesn’t create a regenerate church, as the rolls of many baptist churches indicate. Baptism doesn’t mean one possesses the reality to which the sign points, whether one holds to paedobaptism or credobaptism. The promise of the new covenant is isolated from how the NT actually speaks about the church (wheat & tares, for instance).

The new birth is necessitated by human sinfulness. We are not merely weakened by sin, but dead in sin and trespasses. We are hostile to Christ and the law in the unregenerate state. People are not neutral. God must grant new life for people to believe. Regeneration is a grace we receive, not because we’ve met any conditions but in order that we may believe. The Spirit uses the Word to give us this new life. He enlightens our minds; He shines His light into our hearts.

Without the cross, there is no regeneration. There is no salvation apart from atonement, by Christ. His focus on Christ’s death meant that he advocated for weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The message that saves is Christ crucified. It is also about the mortification of our sin in the present. Jesus aims to mortify our sin and give life to graces.

The New Life

The new birth necessarily creates a new life. The Spirit doesn’t give us new life and walk away. We are increasingly drawn to Christ and away from the sin that so easily entangles.

Another aspect of our new life is prayer as an expression of our union with Christ. Our communion with Christ doesn’t pull us out of the world but calls us into the world just as Christ went into the world.

“… nobody mixed with sinners more than our Lord.”

Reeves then returns to sanctification. Spurgeon held to the blood of Christ as the “double cure”: free from sin’s guilt and power. Christ’s blood removes our guilt, but in Christ we also died to sin. Saved by grace thru faith, we also begin to walk in the good works prepared for us. This new life is a gift, but we live it. The Spirit isn’t living for us.

Spurgeon made much of joy. It reveals that we serve a great Savior. It is the strength for our service to Him. Complaining and despondency rob us of joy, strength and vitality. But Spurgeon knew this first hand, as Reeves points out later.

As we grow into Christ, we increasingly hate our sin. And increasingly see our sinfulness. We become more sensitive to sin and recognize our sinful motives and not simply actions.

“As the man loves God more, and becomes more like Christ, he takes greater delight in prayer.”

Reeves then returns to prayer with its own chapter. Spurgeon saw prayer as essential, not only to the Christian life, but to ministry. The Monday Prayer meeting was attended by over a thousand people each week. He saw it as the engine of the ministry. It is the battlefield between faith and unbelief. Spurgeon, who didn’t like planned out sermon series, also didn’t like planned out prayers either. He preferred spontaneity. I think this is a more a matter of preference and personality instead of principle.

Reeves then shifts to Bunyan’s influence. We are pilgrims. But we are not solitary pilgrims. We are a community of pilgrims. But we are engaged in warfare- an army of pilgrims. The warfare motif wasn’t reserved for sermons, but Reeves shows that it influenced his private prayer journals. His was an active faith. Spurgeon oversaw “the Pastor’s College, the Stockwell Orphanage, seventeen almshouses for poor and elderly women, the Colportage Association, and a day school for children.” This was just the tip of the iceberg. He didn’t expect the government to solve his society’s problems. He expected the church engage them, and led the charge.

But life is not all flowers and sunshine. Afflictions come and spirits falter. Depression can come home to roost whether by circumstance or medical conditions. Spurgeon fought with depression. The incident in Surrey Gardens, a “joke” that panicked the crowd resulting in 7 dead and 28 severely injured, resulted in clinical depression. Spurgeon also suffered from “a burning kidney inflammation called Bright’s Disease, as well as gout, rheumatism, and neuritis.” At times he would be unable to preach for extended periods of time.

One reason we suffer is that Jesus suffered. The cross comes before the crown for us too, according to Paul. It is a sign of our adoption and union with Christ. We also learn to depend on Christ rather than ourselves. God also prepares us for greater ministry thru humility and empathy.

He wraps up with the hope of glory. This is not our best life now. Spurgeon likely was a premillenialist, but clearly not a dispensationalist. He was not into speculation. He was into focusing on Christ.

Summing Up

Perhaps it was my high expectations, but I finished the book thinking “That’s it?”. At no point was I stopping to ponder something more fully. This is the first volume in the series that disappointed me. This is not a volume I would be inclined to recommend to anyone (my favorite remains the volume on John Newton). This was more theoretical and geared toward the pastor, in my opinion. It also seemed to skim the surface.

As I mentioned above, the source material is so vast but due to his habit of not systematically preaching through the Scriptures. It is seemingly impossible to sort through and “systemize” the material. This is still unfortunate.

 

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We seem to be “good” at judging other people’s spiritual status. And pretty lousy at judging our own.

I think of some of the comments I see by Christians.

“President Trump can’t be a Christian because ….”. (I don’t know if Trump is actually a Christian, but that’s because I don’t know what he actually believes and whether it is orthodox).

“People who commit such & such a sin can’t be Christians.” These are usually grievous sins, but still.

We often do this to ourselves. “How can I be a Christian? I looked at porn/committed adultery/embezzled from work or church etc..” We lack assurance because we’ve begun to shift of confidence from Christ and His perfect righteousness to our own very imperfect righteousness.

I’m currently re-reading A Guide to Christian Living by John Calvin. It is taken from the 1544 edition of the Institutes. Chapter 1 is the Scriptural Foundations for Christian Living. In section 5, Perfection Should Be Our Aim,  Calvin addresses the progress or seemingly lack of progress ordinary Christians experience.

“I do not insist that evangelical perfection be attained before anyone can be regarded as a Christian. That would be too strict and severe a test. On that basis every living soul would be excluded from the church, for there is no one, whatever progress he has made, who does not come well short of the mark. Most people indeed have hardly advanced one step, yet they are not to be rejected on that account.”

Calvin argues against perfectionism here. It is not the claim of perfectionism, but the demand of perfectionism in view. While we must be clear about sin and the need for repentance, our standard for fellowship with others and their admittance into the church is not their performance but Christ.

TImage result for Christian Loveoday I was also reading Hugh Binning on Christian Love. He notes that we are not to see other Christians as they are with all their sins staining their clothes, but as stripped and clothed in Christ and His perfect righteousness by virtue of their union with Christ.

Returning to Calvin, he notes that even the best of Christians would be prohibited from membership. Not only does he say we are short of the mark, but well short of the mark. Not even close. Not a kick that bounces off the goal post, but WIDE right. And short.

Our progress in sanctification is slim. But you are not to think that you or your professing friend or neighbor isn’t a Christian because they committed a sin, or the same sin 490 times.

Sin is stubborn like that. It is deep down within us and not solved by resolutions or 7 steps (or 12). Our hope for freedom from sin is tied to the consummation, not conversion.

“What then? Our sights should be naturally set on the perfection which God commands. That should be the yardstick by which we measure all our actions, and that should be the goal for which we strive.”

Calvin is not a practical or theoretical antinomian. He’s not rejecting the law or its use for us. It is not used for our justification, or to admit people in the church. It continues to reveal sin to us, and in us. It continues to show us what Christ-likeness is like. It still has a role in the life of a Christian.

“But as long as we live in this earthly prison, none of us is strong or keen enough to hurry on as briskly as we ought. Most of us are so weak and feeble that we shuffle and stumble along, making little headway as we go.”

Union with Christ doesn’t make us uber-Christians. His strength is made perfect in our weakness. He sin daily in thought, word and deed. Sin easily entangles us (Heb. 12), so we all stumble in many ways (James 3). Habitual sins (those connected with a lifestyle or called addictions) don’t go away easily or quickly. Change is often incremental. There can be 3 steps forward and 1 or 2 back. “Little headway” he says. Do we say that? Do we act towards others as if he’s right?

Calvin encourages us to keep walking the path. Don’t give up because we sinned, again. Keep your eyes, he says, focused on the goal.

One key aspect we should not forget in the midst of this. “… not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices.” Real Christians admit their sinfulness. They own their faults and want to be free. They are not using grace as license. They struggle, they fight and sometimes they lose. The point is that they are in the game.

There are some who shouldn’t be admitted to the church, or should be removed from the church. Those are sinners who don’t care about their sin. They are not repentant but blame-shifting, excusing and enjoying their sin(s). They are the ones who are antinomian by theory or practice.

Real Christians confess their sins as sins. Real Christians look to Christ’s blood and righteousness for their acceptance with the Father. They know we are never more or less united to Christ and therefore never more or less God’s son. But they also know that communion can increase and decrease. The Father does discipline us, as sons, when we are careless about sin. He’s concerned about our future faith & practice, not about punishing us.

Calvin is encouraging us to be kind to ourselves, and other sinners who profess faith. Repentant, they need encouragement so they stay on the path. We need to remember that while our sins may be different and less spectacular, we too fall far short of the mark ourselves. And that is normal.

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I woke up this morning thinking about my new sermon series and text. I begin a series on Philippians called Partners in the Gospel with the first two verses. Theoretically I’ve begun this series by looking at Acts 16 for the last four weeks to see the beginning of the church in Philippi through the ministry of Paul and Silas (and Timothy).

Image result for huddleJesus made each of those three men His partners in the gospel. He also made them one another’s partner for the gospel. We see Jesus then forming a partnership with Lydia and the jailer. These new Christians are not only partners with the church planting team, but one another particularly as Paul & Silas are shown the door by the city leaders.

I’ll be exploring this theme of being partners with Jesus and one another for the gospel in Tucson.

The resources I’ll be using are on the shorter side of things. The Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series I’ve grown to appreciate recently does not have a volume on Philippians. I almost picked up the Baker Exegetical Commentary by Moises Silva.

Rather than get the larger, more technical Ralph Martin volume on Philippians in the Word Biblical Commentary Series, I decided to settle for his volume in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary Series. It should hit the highlights of his more technical commentary.

I like the practical nature of the Let’s Study series. The Philippians volume is written by Sinclair Ferguson. It only makes sense that I use that one.

I’ve had the D.A. Carson volume Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians collecting dust for awhile. Time to read it.

I often use the Bible Speaks Today Series, and this will be no exception. Alec Motyer is the author of The Message of Philippians.

Lately I’ve enjoyed some of the volumes in the Focus on the Bible Series, so I’ll be reading David Chapman’s volume on Philippians.

For the Dead Guys, I’ll be reading Calvin’s Commentary on Philippians.

I will be trying a new series called Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Philippians. The authors are Tony Merida and Francis Chan. Merida, along with David Platt and Daniel Akin, is a series editor. I’m not sure if Chan is a plus or a minus at this point. But I want to make sure I’m keeping the focus on Jesus.

It sure sounds like a lot of reading but none of these books is big. If I don’t find particular volumes helpful, I can drop them easily. Overall, I’m looking forward to Philippians. I hope it will be encouraging, challenging and keep pointing people to Jesus, our partner in the gospel.

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