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Posts Tagged ‘John Newton’


I’ve said it before, I’m glad Sinclair Ferguson retired.

I miss listening to his sermons, so I wish he hadn’t retired too. But his retirement has meant a steadier stream of great books. One of those books is From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading and Applying the Bible.

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4

This is not a new book such much as a revised and expanded version of Handle with Care! which was released in 1982. It was written to fulfill a commitment he’d made to provide a book on the Trinity. Unable to prepare that manuscript, they were willing to receive Handle with Care! Hopefully we will see that book on the Trinity some day.

In some ways, From the Mouth of God reminds me of Kevin DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word. They cover much of the same territory. Their styles are different due, in part, to differences in age and cultural background. Both are very good books and worth reading. Both are relatively short and accessible to lay people. I intend you use both in the teacher training, and officer training, that I am in the process creating and revising respectively.

As you might realize from the subtitle, the book is divided into three sections: trusting the Bible, reading the Bible and applying the Bible. The middle section is the longest. Unfortunately the section on application is the shortest. As one who can struggle with this aspect of sermon preparation, I would have liked this to be explored more thoroughly.

His opening chapter It Is Written covers the Bible as God’s self-revelation. He brings our depravity as expressed in a darkened understanding into the equation. Ferguson uses passages like Hebrews 1 to affirm that the Bible is historical, verbal, progressive and cumulative, and Christ-centered. He discusses the dual authorship of Scripture as an expression of the doctrine of concurrence. He also covers the doctrine of accommodation, that God speaks in such a way that we can understand. The second chapter, Getting It Together, focuses on questions of the canon. This includes the OT canon and Jesus’ view of that canon. He addresses inerrancy and infallibility, as well as finality. Inerrancy is often misunderstood. For instance, it includes the lies of men. It accurately reports those lies in some historical accounts. Faithfully communicating those falsehoods and errors does not mean the Bible itself errs.

He wraps up the first section with Is It God’s Word?, which evaluates the claims of Scripture to be God’s word. The Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also illumines the Scriptures for us. We see the depth of our dependence upon the work of the Spirit in knowing God.

Ferguson opens the section on reading the Bible with an example of how not to read it: allegory. Christians have struggled with how to read, and therefore understand, the Bible. The priest of my youth told us “Don’t read the Bible, you’ll get it wrong.” And many do. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t Do-It-Yourself. We have a responsibility, and need, to read the Bible for ourselves. We aren’t saved by implicit belief in what the priest or pastor knows & believes. We must explicitly believe saving truths, and we know them through the Scriptures.

Explaining Paul’s statements, Ferguson discusses rightly handling the Word of God, thinking in the hopes the God grants understanding (2 Tim. 2:7). He then turns to the Westminster Confession of Faith to explain some principles for interpretation. He contrasts this with the medieval church’s 5-fold interpretation.

In Keys, he notes the 5 keys to interpreting Scripture: context, Christ, the unfolding drama, and gospel grammar. These keys help us by helping us grasp the historical and literary context, the redemptive-historical context, its connection with Christ and reminding us that the indicatives (facts) of the gospel precede the imperatives (commands) so we live by grace. In Prose, Poetry, Wisdom, and Prophecy focuses on the different literary genres in the Old Testament. He briefly provides the basics needed to understand each of these genres. He includes brief examples of how to interpret each. Similarly in Gospels, Epistles, and Visions Ferguson looks at the genres in the New Testament. In For Example, he interprets the book of Ruth. He repeats one of the keys he noted earlier: “in reading Old Testament narrative we must always have in mind the way in which the promise of Genesis 3:15 unfolds in terms of God’s covenant promise working out through deep conflict to establish his kingdom in Christ.”

Ferguson moves to application with What’s the Use?. Here he returns to 2 Timothy 3 to help us understand the use of the Scriptures in making us wise for salvation. This chapter will find its way into my officer training.

In Seed Needs Soil he addresses the condition of hearts that hear the gospel. This is one of the few places I disagree with Ferguson. It is a minor disagreement. I believe the parable is told to explain the different reactions to the ministry of the Word for the disciples. I don’t think it is meant for us to be self-reflective as if we could prepare our hearts. Still, he does a good job explaining the nature of those hearts.

He concludes with Speaking Practically, which is about how to implement the material you have read. He discusses the role of discipline to develop a routine, and a method for reading the Bible. We have to actually read the Bible, consistently and repeatedly, to bear great fruit. Each of the first 5 years or so that I was a Christian (until I went to seminary) I read the Bible through once a year. I gained a good working knowledge of the Bible as a result. Unfortunately it was the NIV, and many key phrases in my head don’t match up with the ESV. Even after 20 years in ministry, while reading the Bible for my own devotion I continue to see new connections points (I just read Exodus 22:28, noting its connection to NT texts about honoring the king).

Though Ferguson is done, the book isn’t. He includes two brief appendices. The first is John Murray on The Guidance of the Holy Spirit, and John Newton’s letter on Divine Guidance.

This is a good book that leaves you wanting more. I recommend it for all those interested in teaching others, and people interested in why they should trust the Scriptures and how to read them.

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I’ve been reading Jared Wilson’s blog on and off since his days in TN. I’ve read some of his books and found them profitable. So when the opportunity arose to read & review his latest, The Imperfect Disciple, I took advantage.

Chapter 1 begins with a quote from John Newton which sets the tone for what is to come: “In short, I am a riddle to myself, a heap of inconsistence.” This book is a neo-Calvinist version of Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality. As Wilson notes in his introduction, this is for the average Christian who just plain struggles and feels like a total loser when reading books on discipleship, if they ever dare to. The focus here is certainly not “try harder and get your act together”. The emphasis is that God works immeasurably beyond what you manage to do because He’s rich in grace and you are united to Christ. How’s that for a nutshell?

“A message of grace will attract people but a culture of grace will keep them.” This is at least the 2nd book he’s used this in. But it is a great quote.

Jared Wilson’s style is decidedly in the popular vein. It is conversational, and not concerned with sentence and all that jazz. Each chapter begins with “My gospel is…” followed by a story that generally doesn’t portray him in a positive light. He’s not looking down at you (us). He is not the Tony Robbins of discipleship (or the David Platt/Paul Washer intent on making you feel guilty for being an ordinary person).

He addresses many of the ordinary disciplines or means of grace from a different point of view than usual. He uses some unusual terminology at times. One of the strengths is that he focuses on the reality simul justus et peccator, at the same time we are just and sinners. We do not, and cannot get our act together this side of death or Jesus’ return. We will continue to struggle with sin (including sloth), temptation and spiritual drift. In talking about this in chapter 1, he addresses some people’s tendency to blame their spiritual problems on their church upbringing. This is particularly common among progressives who grew up in more fundamentalist or even evangelical churches. While our family and church backgrounds may have been messed up and wounded us, we were all born in Adam and are sinners. We are all messed up even with others messing us up more. We never escape Romans 7, yet we always have the hope expressed in Romans 8.

“So while the storm of Romans 7 rages inside of us, the truth of Romans 8 has us safe and sound. Within the spiritual ecosystem of God’s saving sovereignty, in fact, our struggle is like the little squall stirred up in a snow globe.”

In the second chapter he calls discipleship followship. We follow Jesus and help others follow Jesus. This is true, but we also learn and teach others and are therefore … disciples. Often we can make it difficult, he says, for others to follow Jesus by confusing wounds and sins. Both persist, but the gospel addresses them in different ways. We forgive those who wound us, and God heals us with the balm of the gospel. Sins, which sometimes flow from wounds, are forgiven and God calls us to repentance and self-denial at times.

The third chapter focuses on beholding Jesus glory as opposed to seeing Him as a life coach or self-help advisor. Jesus changes us as we behold His glory (though this is not the only way He changes us). We are on a quest to discover glory, often in the wrong places like porn, wealth accumulation etc. I look for glory in sports. Not my glory but the athletes’. So he encourages us to look to Jesus and His unchanging glory.

He then addresses time in the Scripture to hear the rhythm of the gospel. We are immersed in the rhythm of our culture and need to be renewed by the rhythm of the gospel in Scripture. It isn’t just the details, but beginning to grasp the big picture of Scripture. It took him some time to get to the point of the chapter, listening to the rhythm. This another way God transforms us as He renews our minds.

There is another rhythm he mentions next, that of spilling your guts: prayer. We live in a busy culture and often suffer from hurry sickness. We don’t have time to pray (or read, or …). Prayer is how we process His words to us, and our circumstances (hopefully in light of His Word). Even better, Jesus lives forever to intercede for us in order to save us to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25).

Then Wilson discusses a much-neglected aspect of discipleship in our culture: community. While we are personally saved, we are joined to Jesus into a community, the Body of Christ. We need one another to grow into maturity. Sanctification is not a self-help, or do-it-yourself, project. Community is also where self-denial, humility, considering the needs of others becomes necessary as we follow Jesus.

“The Christian life must be walked within the encouragement, edification, and accountability of Christian community. … To abide in Christ necessitates embracing the body of Christ as God’s plan for the Christian life.”

In a strange turn of events, he puts forth “Nine Irrefutable Laws of Followship”. He throws out some biblical imperatives that are part of healthy Christian living: be loving, be joyful, be peaceful, be patient, be kind, be good, be faithful, be gentle, and be self-controlled. This is a description of what Jesus is making you because it is a pretty good description of Jesus. These are also the fruit of the Spirit.

He then moves into our union with Christ. We are not who we will be, and still struggle with something of an identity crisis. There is much we don’t like about ourselves. Thankfully, our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). In the midst of this he talks about idolatry via Genesis 22. We lay down all our idols to pick up Jesus. Our idols can’t make us what we want to be, only Jesus can. Our idols can’t give us life (they steal it), only Jesus can.

“You may see yourself as worthless and faithless, but God never has to look for your righteousness, because since you have been raised with Christ and since Christ is seated at God’s right hand, your holiness is also seated at his right hand.”

He then moves into a discussion of suffering. We often feel forgotten or abandoned by God when we suffer. Jared is honest about a deep, suicidal depression he experienced. There is no pit too deep for Him to reach us, but He also lifts us higher than any idol can or than we can imagine going. There is grace in the pit, and grace lifts us to God’s presence in heaven.

“It’s true that sometimes God doesn’t become our holy hope until God becomes our only hope.”

The final chapter, Lurv Wins, is rooted in a scene from Annie Hall and reminds me of Rob Bell’s book. He never mentions Bell’s book, and the content isn’t the same as Rob’s book. He’s not advocating “Christian Universalism” but talking about heaven. The point of heaven is Jesus. He’s not an add-on, a bonus or merely a means to the end. What we experience there will be more than words can express. In Scripture, when people go to heaven they are overwhelmed, struck down as if dead and filled with dread. Our hope is not an earthly hope, but one that can only be satisfied in the unmediated presence of God. Earthly hopes keep unraveling, but that one will be greater than we can imagine.

“Grace is all-sufficient for glory. Grace doesn’t just go all the way down to our weakness and suffering; it goes all the way up to our deliverance, all the way up to the throne of God, where our Savior is seated at the right hand of the Father and where, because we have been raised with him, and seated with him in the heavenly places, we also have a place.”

While this, and the book, is generally good, at some points this casual or conversational style makes for some “sloppy” theology. One is something I noticed in Unparalleled as well regarding justification. “It’s not just that God wipes our sinful state clean (justification); he also writes onto the slate of our heart the perfect righteousness of Christ (imputation). (pp. 166)” Actually the first is “pardon” and justification includes both pardon and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

He also hit one of my pet peeves: “He predestined this very circumstance. If I believe that, I can be patient.” (pp. 160) The word he wants is ordained. Predestination refers to salvation/damnation, not ordinary providence. Just one of those things that bugs me since technical terms exist for a reason and sloppy usage ends up changing the meaning and makes theological discourse more difficult (as Sproul notes in a book I am currently reading to review). While not an academic book, I’d hope he could communicate the proper use of technical terms.

He also makes a false distinction between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant on page 122. “The old covenant was made with God’s chosen people, and the new covenant is made with God’s called-out people.” Was not Abraham called out in Genesis 12? Was not Israel called out of Egypt? Was not Israel called out from the nations to be a people of God’s own possession? Are not we chosen (Eph. 1, 1 Peter 1 for starters)? The word ecclesia, which he might be basing this on, is used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, to refer to the assembly of the Israel. Israel was …. the church! The OT was largely written to the community of faith called Israel, which so often struggled to believe. The NT was largely written to the community of faith called the church which was grafted onto the vine of the True Israel- Jesus.

Another head scratcher was on page 40: “We are idiots when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount.” I won’t get into the nature of the beatitudes and the 3 uses of the law at this point (he could use some brushing up there too), but just the use of idiots to refer to us. It strikes me as contrary to another part of the Sermon on the Mount.

Being a Baptist, he also leaves out the sacraments as a part of the rhythm of grace God has given to us. Baptism begins our discipleship (based on the grammar of the Great Commission). But we are imperfect disciples, and that includes Jared. His book isn’t perfect but it is a very good and helpful book. It is worth reading and is accessible to those who are struggling with the fact they are quite imperfect.

[I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.]

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One of my new study leave traditions is to read one of the volumes in Crossways’ series on theologians on the Christian life. Each volume looks at one man’s thought and tries to identify their contributions and understanding of how we are to live in Christ and in the world. So far I’ve read the volumes on John Newton (whom Sinclair Ferguson repeatedly called “perhaps the wisest pastor of the Church of England” in his series on Romans) and Herman Bavinck. This study leave it was Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards has long been a favorite of mine, in part because he was a favorite of R.C. Sproul’s. In seminary I took a class, The Theology of Edwards’ Sermons, with R.C.. We read so much of Edwards it may have ruined me for a spell. I haven’t read many of his sermons since then, but have gone back to volumes life The Religious Affections and Charity and Its Fruits.

Dane Ortund’s volume Edwards on the Christian Life boils Edwards down to being live to the beauty of God. He begins with the beauty of God, moves to regeneration as to how we become alive to God’s beauty and then focuses on its affects on us (love, joy, gentleness, obedience) as well as how we grow in our knowledge and experience of that beauty in Scripture, prayer and pilgrimage until finally our fullest experience of beauty in heaven.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series which is ironic when we consider the great length of Edwards’ sermons and how complex his thought can be at times (The Freedom of the Will is a challenge).  In many ways this serves as an excellent primer on Edwards’ and is much shorter than Gerstner’s Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards.

In many ways Ortlund paints an attractive (beautiful?) portrait of the Christian life from Edwards’ view. Who can argue with love, joy and gentleness? What Christian doesn’t want to be loving, joyful and gentle? Yet we cannot separate these fruit of the Spirit from the Word of God, nor the growth in obedience as we live as pilgrims in this world. Yet, missing here is explicit reference to work and marriage. One of Ortlund’s critiques of Edwards was a neglect of the doctrine of creation in favor of redemption. This is one evidence of that neglect. Our life can’t be abstracted out of work and marriage for those are the places we most need the fruit of the Spirit (as well as church life).

One of the ironies that Ortlund points out is that while Edwards’ sermon series on justification was the means for the Northampton revival prior to the Great Awakening, Edwards’ focus seemed to be on sanctification, God’s work in us (subjective), rather than justification, Christ’s work for us (objective). Perhaps this is one reason why the sacraments aren’t mentioned much here or in Edwards’ sermons. This leads to another of Ortlund’s criticisms- that Edwards was overly introspective and more frequently called us to examine ourselves than to look to Christ. Assurance was focused more on Christ’s work in us than for us. He flipped the emphasis. His work for us is the primary source of assurance, with His work in us as the secondary source.

One thing that Edwards focused on that the church tends to neglect is regeneration in which God makes us alive to His beauty. He takes a Reformed position of regeneration preceding, indeed producing, faith rather than the common evangelical view of faith producing regeneration as if that is God’s response to our faith. We need to recapture this more biblical understanding that reflects God’s sovereign grace.

In his criticisms at the end of the book, Ortlund notes that Edwards did have some imbalance in even this. He failed to emphasize that unregenerate people are still made in God’s image, and are not as bad as they can be. They are still capable of civil righteousness even though they are morally incapable of delighting in Christ and the gospel. Additionally, he seems to give “too much” to regeneration this side of glorification. There is a great tension in the Scriptures. It is a total change (every aspect of our being is affected by regeneration) but the change is not total. As regenerate people we want to obey and we grow in obedience but we also feel more acutely our failures to obey. We still, or rather have begun to, struggle with sin. There seems to be a hint of over-realized eschatology in Edwards on this point. But I understand, I think, why. At times I’ve preached like that to get that point across that we have been changed and Christ is at work in us by the Spirit (see Titus 2). Too often we can minimize our need for obedience as a fruit of salvation, and our ability to obey. We live in this tension and it can be easy for us to err on one side or the other. At other times in ministry I note the admission by the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism that our progress in this life is meager. This is because some people so beat themselves up over their sin. This person needs to hear of Christ’s perfect imputed righteousness and to have more realistic expectations. The lazy and slothful Christian needs to hear the call to obedience. Edwards presumably thought he was preaching to the latter and not the former.

Ortlund puts together a very good volume. He sees Edwards as one worth imitating in many areas. He points out some of his imperfections in the final chapter. One was missing, and that one is particularly pertinent in our particular day. Despite his theological convictions, Edwards (like many in his day) owned slaves. Perhaps the reason why Ortlund doesn’t mention this is because Edwards doesn’t address this in his sermons or writings (at least what I’ve read). Edwards didn’t defend slavery, but did practice it. This should humble us because while we don’t explicitly defend sinful practices, we can certainly practice them (often without realizing their sinfulness). This is one big bone for us to spit out as we consider his life, and it would be great if Ortlund mentioned it.

All in all this is another solid contribution to the series. It should enrich not only my life but my preaching. I am reminded of the need to integrate them more fully.

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“A Church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation.” A.A. Hodge

I came across this years ago when reading Hodge’s The Confession of Faith, a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Note: he wrote this in a commentary on a confession of faith.

Since I’m currently putting together SS material on the Westminster Standards I saw the red ink underlining and exclamation points in the margin. John Calvin expresses similar sentiments in his chapter on The Power of the Church in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541). I decided to run an experiment. I put it on my FB page, and in a closed group I belong to connected to Calvinism. I was curious if there would be any difference in responses.

On my FB page, the response was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few questions, but no big deal.

In the group, it was overwhelmingly negative. There were a number of misinterpretations of the quote. People were fairly unreasonable. I know, shocking conduct on the internet.

Here is a sampling:

“I disagree. attendance and membership are two different things. …theology is as important as doxology.. we are there to preserve both.. as a group we draw lines in the sand.. as an open group we do not.

“…maybe we should eliminate membership and just gather together without running church like a business. … If you expect the rent/mortgage on your church’s building to be paid, your pastor to be paid, the facility clean and in good repair, and your favorite ministries to be funded, then yeah, church needs to have a business component to it. Some churches take that too far and forget they’re a church, but churches have to run like a business to some degree.”

I also disagree. The elders are responsible to guard the flock, and you can’t keep the wolves out if you just admit members indiscriminately. Membership lists also have a use in determining who is eligible for church discipline. Just because a person sits in the pews doesn’t mean the church has authority to discipline them.

I would not expect a Pentecostal to accept me as a member since I do not accept their core beliefs about how the Spirit works and manifests itself. There should be some basic doctrinal agreement and some kind of pledge to serve to be a member.

“In order to worship in unity you need to agree on some things that aren’t salvation essentials. I don’t doubt the salvation of my Presbyterian brethren even though I doubt the legitimacy of their baptizing infants. They don’t doubt my salvation either but they would view my refusal to baptize my kids before conversion as disobedience to Christ’s command. Baptism is definitely not an essential doctrine but is practically speaking pretty important in fellowship and worship. …Messianic Christians and seventh day Adventists worship on Saturday, and think we’re misinterpreting the New Covenant when we worship on Sunday. They probably don’t doubt our salvation and in many cases we don’t doubt theirs, but it’d be pretty difficult to worship together weekly because they wouldn’t want to gather on our day nor we on theirs.”

“Nobody has to attend our church regularly in order to be saved, nobody has to agree to our church’s confession and member’s covenant to be saved, even baptism is not a requirement in order to be saved. So obviously this statement as it appears is false. But I wonder if it is explained in context in a way that might show it to have a true meaning.

We see an avalanche of erroneous assumptions, worse-case scenarios and oddities marshaled to reject Hodge’s premise.

What does Hodge mean? What doesn’t he mean?

These words begin that paragraph:

“In all Churches a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership, and the terms upon which office-bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling.”

Hodge is writing a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. He believes in the use of Confessions and Creeds. He believes churches should have and use a Confession of Faith. He held to the Westminster Confession.

So, Hodge is NOT arguing that churches shouldn’t have a confession.

Hodge recognizes the distinction between members and officers. Members are held to a higher standard. He is speaking of the Confession, not extra-biblical conditions (keep reading). The Confession must be accepted, and taught, by the leadership of the church.

What the quote is saying, in part, is that holding to (subscription) the Confession (or any confession) should not be a requirement of membership. There are some denominations, wanting to limit doctrinal controversy. I used to be a pastor in the ARP and the membership questions included: “Do you accept the doctrines and principles of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for far as you understand them, as agreeable to and founded on the Word of God?”  A confusing qualifier to be sure. The URC requires membership subscribe to the Three Forms of Membership. I was surprised upon joining the PCA that there was no similar vow. Many wish there was one, but I tend to think there shouldn’t be.

This does not mean that Hodge didn’t think members didn’t have to believe anything. They had to believe anything necessary for saving faith. The Westminster Confession includes things necessary for saving faith, but has far more in there. The additional topics are for our well-being rather than our salvation. We should require faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as God incarnate & part of the Trinity, who died and rose again. We should also require repentance as well. And baptism as included in the Great Commission. In other words, as far as we can tell, comunicate members should be Christians.

The other thing Hodge is (may be) saying is that membership should not bind the conscience in any way not required for salvation. Some church membership vows include abstinence from alcohol, smoking or dancing. These are not requirements for salvation (or sanctification).

In speaking about “church constitutions” Calvin argues in this way:

“So we must rapidly conclude as we argued earlier that, where God is concerned, our consciences are in no way compelled or obligated by any such constitutions. Their aim is to bind our souls before Go and to lay duties upon us, as if the things which they commanded were essential for salvation. Such today are all those constitutions called ‘church constitutions which they say are necessary if God is to be truly honored and served. They are countless in number, and make for equally countless bonds which keep souls imprisoned.”

If you think it wise not to drink alcohol, or dance or have the occasional cigar, you are able and free to make that decision for yourself. What you are not free to do is to bind the conscience of others to the same extra-biblical command. No church is free to so bind the conscience of its members. The doctrine of Christian Freedom needs to be taught in churches so members won’t fight over these matters (like the discussions I’d had as a young Christian with people who hated Christian rock, or secular music). You don’t resolve the argument biblically by binding consciences. “So you won’t fight about a beer with your pizza, we’ll just prohibit drinking altogether.” Too many churches take this very route and sin against God and their members.

Back to Confessions. Church members should know that the church has a confession, and that the teaching of the church will conform to that confession. I cover this in our membership class. I give them a copy of the Westminster Standards.

Some members will already agree with the Confession. That’s great! But I hope that many members are younger Christians. We are not a Reformed refuge where you need the secret password (John Calvin Owen & Newton). I see holding to the Confession as one of the goals of my teaching. I want people to move toward the Confession, understand it better and increasingly affirm it as a summary of Scripture. We can’t demand that as a condition of membership, however. We should never say to a Christian, you can’t be a member here. We may say, this is what we teach. If you are willing to discover more about this great. But if you fight about it, this may not be where your membership should be. Just as we offer Christ’s Table, this is Christ’s church. We may be Presbyterians, but can’t restrict membership to Presbyterians. I want people to grow in & into their faith in my congregation.

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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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In the last few years there has been an explosion of books on the topic of grace. Some of been excellent. Some have been controversial. Some of those that have been controversial had some significant flaws. Not a fatal flaw, mind you. They were still within the bounds of Christianity but not necessarily within the bounds of the community to which the author belonged (how’s this for vague?).

So, it was with a measure of anticipation and trepidation that I read Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness by Barbara Duguid. I had a sense of anticipation because I have found her husband Iain’s books very helpful. Additionally I saw that she was very dependent on John Newton from whom I’ve also benefited greatly. But I also had sanctification controversy PTSD.

Here is my bottom line: I loved the forest, but some of the particular trees may have issues.

Barbara has some obvious influences, and some that aren’t as obvious. In addition to John Newton, she has a certificate from CCEF, and holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith. When she sticks close to those the book is quite excellent and helpful. When she goes beyond them I found it less helpful and has some of the same issues that troubled me about Tullian Tchividjian’s books on grace. I try to remember what Dr. Pratt taught us: you can’t say everything any time you say anything. Yet a qualification or two saves a world of misunderstanding.

The Good

Throughout the book Barbara Duguid is quite honest about her own struggles, which essentially drive the book. This is nothing new. Many theologians have a doctrinal emphasis that reflects their own personal struggles. Think Luther and his emphasis on justification by faith alone. There is nothing wrong with this, particularly when we consider the providence of God in the matter. Yet we should recognize that we, as sinners saved by grace, can still run off into extremes. Her honesty, to get back to my point, is helpful. She is not writing theoretically, but has walked with God through these difficult places.

“God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin.”

This book is easy to read. It is not a technical book but intends to make theology practical. She does a good job of this. The first chapter, Welcome to Your Heart, easily introduces you to her heart and by extension yours through a story. She shows how pride lurks in our hearts, distorting our experience by trying to make us the center of … everything.

The next three chapters, leaning heavily on Newton, are about the three stages of Christian life: babes in Christ, maturing and grown-ups. Sadly, not many people talk about this. It is helpful to recognize the differences so a person has more accurate expectations. Babes often have few trials and lots of joy. God has merciful on them. There is often, in my experience, significant change almost immediately if one converts as an adult. But then life gets hard. God begins to work more deeply, and most often through hardship and failure. The focus is on developing deeper dependence on God, and the destruction of our pride.

“A mature believer studies all the aspects of a person’s struggle with sin and makes allowances. He never stops calling sin the ugly and evil thing that it is, but he understands how deeply rooted it is in human nature and how helpless every Christian is to stand against it.”

Her book offers hope to all of us who struggle with sin, which is every Christian. She reminds us of the providence of God, the preservation of the saints, and the doctrine of assurance (from the Westminster Confession of Faith) which instruct us that sometimes God does in fact bring us through periods of disobedience. The problem is most Christians don’t talk about with struggles (contrary to James 5) so when we struggle with sin we think we are the only one, or more messed up than everyone else in church.  We have to remember that God is up to something bigger than “sin management.”

Our struggles with sin should translate into greater patience with the sins of other Christians. When we consider how patient God is with us, and how sufficient His mercy is to us, we are able to be patient and extend mercy to our brothers and sisters even (particularly!) when they sin against us.

“The more I see myself as the biggest sinner and the worst transgressor, the more I will be able to step up to love others even when they sin against me time and time again.”

I can see Ed Welch’s (a professor at CCEF)  as well as Newton’s influence in the last chapter. Part of how we strive for holiness is in community and making use of the means of grace (Word and sacrament). We need each other profoundly. Her the individualism of Americans is anti-thetical to the gospel. We need help to see our sins. We need help through the prayers of others not only for our illnesses but our sins. We need to remember that the Lord’s Table is for us as saved sinners who still need grace along the pilgrim road.

Her audience is those who are depressed and overwhelmed by their on-going struggle with sin. These people need to know of God’s extravagant grace toward sinners saved by grace. There is plenty of truth to encourage them so they can strengthen their weak knees and keep moving by the grace of God.

“Although God did not create your struggle or tempt you to it, he has called you to walk with it. He has assigned it to you, and he loves you as he calls you to walk through it. He is not disgusted by you.”

The Questions the Reformed Community Needs to Address

There are some questions that are raised by this book, reflecting problems with other books on grace. The sanctification debates seemed largely focused on the third use of the law. These go deeper and are, I think, more important.

1. Is sanctification monergistic or synergistic? This book seems to give conflicting answers at times. Newton often refers to striving for holiness, and she echos that at times. But she is also critical of unnamed pastors who seem to focus on our responsibility. Philippians 2:13 has been one of the key verses for me to understand the relationship between gospel indicatives (facts) and gospel imperatives (commands). God works in me so I will and work according to His purpose. We can’t focus on only one part of that. Edwards noted that it is “all of God and all of me”. I can only work because He works in me (grace!!). But I actually work. He’s not working for me, believing for me, repenting for me. It is typically a hyper-Calvinist view to minimize the exercise of our wills. At times she comes really close to this.

2. What is the nature, or goal, of sanctification? She frequently criticizes the view that it is “sinning less and less.” This seems contrary to the way it is expressed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism to which she holds as a member of the ARP.

Question 35: What is sanctification?
Answer: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

She doesn’t really qualify or explain what she means. She is correct if she is referring to simply external obedience. The truth is that our “obedience” is often driven by fear and pride instead of faith and love. When we obey out of fear (the fear of getting caught, what people will think etc.) or pride (having a reputation to uphold, a sense of entitlement) we are not really obeying. If this is what she means, I wholeheartedly agree. God is working to address the fear and pride behind so much “obedience.” God also won’t give us “victory” (I hate that term) if it will lead us to spiritual pride. Fear and pride are sins too, but sins that drive other sins as well as counterfeit obedience.

3. What is the Degree of Regeneration?

Our depravity is total, but not absolute. Every aspect of us is affected but we aren’t as bad as we could be. She notes that though saved, we are depraved, weak little sinners. Where is regeneration? To what degree have we changed? Thomas Boston, in the Human Nature in its Fourfold Estate, argues that our regeneration is total in the same way that depravity is. Every aspect of us is affected by regeneration, but not absolutely. While regenerate we still have indwelling sin. We want to be neither triumphalists nor fatalists. She rightly criticizes the former but sounds an awful lot like the later.

4. Does God get angry with us? Can He be pleased by our actions?

She hammers our position in Christ. Indeed there is cause for great rejoicing with regard to our position in Christ as perfectly righteous. This is our hope: union with Christ. But in sanctification does God only see us positionally or does He also see us personally?

She notes the Israelites in the wilderness as the pattern for us in many respects, particularly their failure (she overlooks how many times it does say they did everything the Lord commanded Moses in particular matters). If they were converted (which I think many/most of them were) they were then united to Christ (apart from whom there is no salvation). During the wilderness journey we often see God angry with Israel (with no differentiation between the elect and non-elect). In Hebrews 12 we see that God disciplines us so we bear the harvest of righteousness. He necessarily sees us as less than personally righteous and moves us toward greater personal righteousness. We have Christ’s imputed righteousness in justification, and He imparts Christ’s righteousness to us in sanctification. These distinctions seem to be missing here (and in other some books about grace). If we can’t please God personally, then why does Paul pray for this in Colossians 1.

Love is not contrary to anger, as she seems to argue. Anger is an important part of love to protect the beloved from danger, including the destructiveness of sin. I wonder how much her own anger issues (one of the sins she says she struggles with) influence her views on this. I don’t want God to be angry with me, but I need his fatherly anger at times, as Calvin notes.

“The Spirit of love was given to Christ alone, for the express purpose of conferring this Spirit upon his members; and there can be no doubt that the following words of Paul apply to the elect only: “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us,” (Rom. 5:5); namely, the love which begets that confidence in prayer to which I have above adverted. On the other hand, we see that God is mysteriously offended [wondrously angry] with his children, though he ceases not to love them. He certainly hates them not, but he alarms them with a sense of his anger, that he may humble the pride of the flesh, arouse them from lethargy, and urge them to repentance. Hence they, at the same instant, feel that he is angry with them for their sins, and also propitious to their persons.John Calvin (Institutes 3:2:12)

The Big Picture Problem?

When she moves away from Newton, CCEF and the Westminster Standards, I pick up an organizational principle for salvation that is more Lutheran than Reformed. Lutheran theology (after Luther’s death) made justification by faith alone the organizing principle so union with Christ and sanctification (and all the other benefits) flow out of justification. This, in my opinion, means that justification flattens the other doctrines, our understanding of Scripture and the dynamic rather than static relationship we have with God. This shows up in focusing on the positional almost exclusively.

The Reformed view sees union with Christ as the organizing principle (to borrow Lane Tipton’s terminology, see Calvin’s Institutes, book 3 and the WLC #65-69). Out of our union with Christ we receive all the (distinct) blessings of Christ. We receive the double grace of justification and sanctification at the same time, though they are distinct. We experience definitive or definite sanctification at that point. It focuses on us as positionally sanctified (see Hoekema’s Saved by Grace). Progressive sanctification necessarily focuses on our personal sanctification. He sees us as we are in ourselves (but doesn’t condemn us because of our position in Christ). Reformed Theology has historically held these two in a biblical tension that appears to be lacking here.

Yesterday I looked at some other reviews to make sure I wasn’t missing the boat, or seeing something that isn’t there. Both Mark Jones and Dane Ortland saw the same things or similar things.

Like Dane Ortland I recognize the many good things about this book which includes some things that are rarely taught which need to be heard. But I want to filter out the ways in which she departs from (my understanding of?) Reformed Theology. Enjoy the forest, even if some trees have thorns. Or to use a different metaphor: it is a good meal, but there is some bone and gristle to toss out.

Time for a little Double Cure.

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In the past my experience with Alzheimer’s has been minimal. There is a Deacon Emeritus in our congregation who suffers from it. I did not have the honor of knowing him before this illness began to take its toll on him. While I felt bad for him and his family, I didn’t have much personal investment, so to speak.

At some point in the last few years I noticed that my mother was losing track of things. Her short term memory was becoming non-existent. She was faking conversations to cover up the pain and frustration she felt (or so I imagine). My father tried to eliminate every possible source of the problem.

Last fall she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I had seen her in the summer but still didn’t realize how bad it was by the fall. There were benefits, so to speak. She no longer obsessed over her health, recounting every pain and problem. Perhaps, in a sense, that was a strange mercy for her (and us).

I was prepared for the worst when I saw her this summer. Or so I thought. I was prepared for to not recognize me. She thought I was one of my father’s friends. I thought I handled it well.

I must give kudos to my Dad. He’s doing a great job with her. She looks well-cared for, and he was patient with her while we were out to eat (and she kept trying to order different meals). It has to be a great strain on him. She calls him “the Boss” which leads me to believe she doesn’t really know who he is either. That has to break his heart, but he continues to care for her.

I must admit that I don’t do “sad” very well. I tend to stuff those feelings deep inside. I hate the sense of powerlessness. I hate the reality of what produces it. I’m angrier than usual, and have a short fuse. Anger seems easier than sadness. At least for me, but not for anyone around me.

Eventually the sadness catches up to me, I just don’t know when it will happen.

What is it like to have a mother with Alzheimer’s? It is like she has vanished. There is someone walking around who looks like my Mom, but really isn’t. There is no warmth, no “glad to see you.” There is no delight in my kids as cherished grandchildren. It is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She has been replaced with a person who doesn’t respond like she did, act like she did or share a common history.

I’m not really sure what to do with that. I’m not angry with God as if this shouldn’t happen in a world filled with sin and misery. I’m angry because I can’t fix it. I can’t make it better for my Dad. Yet, like most people, I have and hate that sense of our powerlessness and weakness.

Yet that weakness is everywhere right now. I feel weak as a parent trying to raise four kids. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed by their needs, their sin and their foolishness. I feel weak as a pastor in the midst of a renovation project that seems to produce an unforeseen crisis (costing more money we don’t really have) each week. Weak as I try to manage church conflict and miss friends who have moved away. I see those empty seats where a few families used to sit and wish we could have another meal together.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12

I hate my weakness. Instead of boasting in my weakness and boasting in the power of Christ (whose power is made perfect in my weakness) I rage. Stupid, I know. Foolish, indeed. An act of unbelief.

But nothing can change the fact that my mother is gone, and I can’t say ‘good-bye.’ There is the sense of loss, but no opportunity to say ‘good-bye’ unless I manufacture one. But then I will see the person who looks and sounds like her.

In the months and years to come I will learn more about this disease and its effects on families, on the soul. I’m not really looking forward to that. There will be things that I wish I could forget.

This morning I read some Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the subject of trials. I know God is using this to develop patience in me (Romans 5; James 1). This means He has to reveal the impatience in me- the impatience that drives my anger. It is a painful process and an ugly process. But the result will be good. He will hang on to me, so to speak, through the process

In the midst of all of this I am reminded of the final recorded words of John Newton: “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.” May I never forget these two things.

 

 

 

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