Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Edwards’


I‘ve been preaching for over 20 years. I haven’t arrived. I still read books about preaching so I can, hopefully, become a better preacher. This year in particular I wanted to focus on my preaching. Earlier this year I read Tim Keller’s book on preaching. This more recent vacation I decided to read Zack Eswine’s Preaching to a Post-Everything World.

I really like his book, The Imperfect Pastor. From that book I picked up his idea of the “gospel waltz” and have used it in my preaching. Zack teaches homiletics at Covenant Theological Seminary.  He also addressed our presbytery a few years ago, with material in The Imperfect Pastor. It was very helpful material. I had high hopes for this book.

I was not disappointed. An important part of what a book on preaching should do is help you look at your preaching and see what you can do differently so you can communicate more effectively. I didn’t want an echo chamber that merely encouraged what I was already doing.

He addresses preaching truth in a post-Christian context where the Bible isn’t the authority that it once was. There are competing worldviews that are often better known (and lived) by the people to whom we speak. We can know longer assume biblical knowledge and a biblical worldview. This adds to the challenge.

He begins by encouraging us to preach what is real. We want to help people connect what the Bible says to the reality they live in today. We identify that reality in the text.

“By the Context of Reality, I mean the mutual life environment that contemporary believers and unbelievers share in common with those to or about whom the biblical text was written that teaches us about the nature of reality.

By showing them this mutual context, they see that the text matters and can inform them about their similar struggles. The Bible wasn’t written in a vacuum, not is it read or preached in one.

At times we avoid aspects of reality. The Scriptures can uncover them. They can force us to talk about the things we’d rather not talk about.

He wants us to preach what is redemptive. We want to explore connection between creation, fall and redemption. He discusses Chapell’s Fallen Condition Focus and expands it:

“The Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers or nonbelievers share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him or for those who resist God to properly regard him and to be reconciled to him.

We experience a fallen condition, a finite condition, a fragile condition (fra-gee-lay), and a faltering condition. Eswine explores these so that we are better able to connect the text to people’s need for Christ in these areas. In this context, he warns of moralism.

He deviates from the repetition by telling us to preach the stories. We need to help them understand the story. He encourages us to pay attention to parrot words (repeated words and phrases), These give us a clue as to the big idea of a passage. Any divine comments or assessments can also give us a hint as to the big idea of the story.

One of the most helpful ideas for me was inductive preaching. It was like one of those light bulb moments- “why hadn’t I seen that before?” Often the point of a passage is unclear until the end of the passage. We tend to frontload the big idea instead of exploring the text in the sermon to discover the big idea. This way people are engaged, curious, and the sermon follows the track of the story. I’ve begun to utilize an inductive approach more often. Let’s see if my congregation stones me.

He does discuss a deductive approach, but I’ve been utilizing one for decades. So …. not as useful for me. But that is just me.

He advises us to remember where we’ve been. We need to keep our presuppositions and personal history in mind. I’m not preaching to myself (that’s preparation) but people who don’t necessarily share my presuppositions and history. We can address how others look at the topic or text so they know others dissent, and therefore why we hold to this. We also share some of our history that connects with the text so they can see how truth works in a life. He calls this redemptive vulnerability.

“Redemptive vulnerability invites preachers to a general transparency with everyone, a specific vulnerability with a few.”

He also address how to face the inevitable criticism that comes. As well as the inevitable misunderstanding since the truth will generally offend the irreligious and religious, the progressive and conservative at times.

He moves into the second part about biblical models to explore. We are to follow God’s lead. You are not your favorite preacher. We have to find our own voice. We can all fall into this trap, especially if we listen to one person too much. I’ve been there, hearing another pastor’s intonation and going to myself “hold on a minute.” God wants to speak to them thru me, not me channeling my best Sinclair Ferguson impersonation (for an example). He speaks of the main voices as prophet, priest and sage (there is a footnote explaining this last one).

The Bible uses different kinds of language, all of what the people understood. We can use different kinds of language, as long as they are what the people understand. We can be scientific, poetic doctrinal etc. We can also preach in different cultural contexts. He groups them as churched, unchurched, and once-church or in-between.

“… the prophet primarily addresses the relational faithfulness of what we might to as a churched audience. The priest’s teaching maintains doctrinal clarity and integrity in audiences that are churched or in-between. The wise likewise address any audience. But I suggest that their fear-of-the-Lord approach to reality forms a communication approach that is accessible to nonchurched hearers.”

I think this is why Tim Keller is generally successful in NYC, but a lot of churched people (particularly pastors in the Bible Belt) get frustrated. He’s not speaking to them directly. He’s speaking to people with little to no biblical background. Therefore he doesn’t meet their shibboleths.

The next three chapters address those prophetic, priestly and sage (wisdom) paradigms that Eswine mentioned earlier. He then mentions that we should step outside and explore creation so we can speak about it. For instance, both Edwards and Spurgeon loved being outdoors, taking in God’s glory in creation and used illustrations from nature frequently.

The third part is about engaging the cultures of a post-everything world. He begins with accents: the biblical text’s, yours and your audience’s accents. He interacts with war passages in our age of terror as well. He helps us learn to speak about hell, addressing idols and devilish spin. He ends with crying out for the Holy Spirit.

I found this a helpful book as an experienced preaching pastor. There were some new ideas explored, old ones (to me) expanded and I felt encouraged. This is a book well worth reading for pastors experienced and inexperienced.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


I’m not wild about books about preaching. I often feel overwhelmed; how can I fit all that into a sermon? I already feel like I’m trying to do too much in my sermons.

But I know I can become better at my craft. This year during study leave, I decided to read some books on preaching. One of the books was Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller. I want to do a better job of reaching those who aren’t “fully on-board” in addition to communicating the Reformed faith to those who already believe. I think Tim Keller is pretty good at that.

This book is not so much about the nuts and bolts of sermon preparation (there is an appendix that addresses much of that). It focuses on the bigger issues of preaching- how to communicate with people.

The introduction talking of the three levels of the ministry of the Word. The ministry of the Word is not the exclusive province of pastors. The ministry of the Word extends far beyond the sermon. Every Christian should have a ministry of the Word in that they should be able to communicate basic Bible knowledge and teaching to others. This is a very informal level of ministry. If the Word dwells richly in us, this is doable.

In between this informal ministry and formal ministry is those who have a gift of teaching but who are not ordained to preach. It is a formal setting, but doesn’t entail formal education or an office. Small group leaders, SS teachers, personal exhortation, counseling, and evangelism are examples of this second level of teaching. This book would be helpful for people in the 2nd and 3rd levels of ministry.

In the midst of this, Keller defends preaching from the attacks of those who want it done away with in our day. While God transforms churches through all three levels of the ministry of the Word, preaching is still an important part of that transformation. We see preaching as normative in the New Testament. It should be normative for us as well. He positively quotes Adam in saying the gospel ministry should be “pulpit-centered, but not pulpit restricted.”

Good preaching is faithful to the text, and the people to whom God calls you to preach. Great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the preacher and the listener. Later he’d refer to Martyn Lloyd-Jones talking about “logic on fire”. I recently watched the documentary on him and can identify with those moments during preaching when you are caught up in the truth you are preaching. A shift takes place in you as you preaching becomes worshipful, for lack of a better term. You are lifting up Christ to them, and yourself.

“Spiritual eloquence should arise out of the preacher’s almost desperate love for the gospel truth itself and the people for whom accepting the truth is a matter of life and death.”

Great preaching preaches Christ to the cultural heart. The preacher connects with the heart of the culture to challenge its conclusions and point to Christ for the fulfillment of its legitimate aspirations. Keller is an advocate of redemptive-historical preaching, connecting each text with the central message of the gospel for the justification and sanctification of those who listen.

He starts with preaching the Word. He explains the difference between expository and topical preaching. He advocates for focusing on expository preaching. He doesn’t think you should never do a topical sermon, but that it should be the exception, not the rule. He cautions against some forms of expository preaching which spend so much time in one text that book studies take 5+ years. The people will not hear the whole counsel of God this way.

“Preaching is not only explaining the text but also using it to engage the heart.”

I am generally an expository preacher. I have one text and preach it. During Advent, Lent or Reformation Day I may do some topical or thematic sermons. My goal is to preach the text, and point them to Christ through that text. I’ve spent about 2 years in a book like Genesis or John, but I try to balance that out with shorter series like Esther, Jonah or a summer series in Psalms. In my 7, nearly 8, years at my current congregation I’ve preached on Genesis, James, Colossians, John, Esther, 1 Peter, and Jonah. In addition to the summer series on Psalms, there have been series on the sacrifices, Advent Songs in Luke, the dreams in Matthew, prophecies of the Messiah and others I can’t recall at the moment.

I pick series based on my perception of the congregation’s needs. Expository preaching will drive us to preach on difficult texts and subjects we’d prefer to avoid as well as keeping us from our hobbyhorses and pet issues.

In the second chapter he focuses on our need to preach the gospel every time. We need to connect our text with the context (paragraph, chapter, book, Testament, whole Bible). We don’t want to merely provide moralistic “biblical principles” or generally inspire them. We need to show them Jesus because He is the One they need generally and in the particulars of their lives. I’ve heard too many sermons that never get us to Jesus.

Keller talks about law and gospel. He relies much on William Perkins who doesn’t divide the Bible or texts into law and gospel. It is more helpful to see law and gospel as uses of texts rather than categories of texts. Therefore we use the text to reveal the law and therefore need for the gospel, and how Christ fulfills that need. In this context he points us to Ferguson’s work (from the Marrow Controversy) on legalism and antinomianism. Both have the same root in the lie of the serpent that God is not good but withholds good from us. If you read only one chapter in this book, this is the chapter to read. This should filter into our preaching so that we bring the gospel to bear against both legalism and antinomianism. Both miss God’s loving grace, the loving grace we need to present to them each week. We can trace their idols down to these roots and show that Christ is the real answer.

Keller, without really saying it, indicates what gospel-centered preaching isn’t. He mentions two dangers to avoid. I have actually heard sermons that said “gospel” 50 times but never actually explain the gospel. Such a sermon is NOT gospel-centered preaching. Keller warns us to avoid preaching without preaching the gospel. You can mention Jesus frequently without mentioning His substutionary obedience, death, resurrection and ascension. You can mention Him without talking about imputed righteousness, union with Christ, His humiliation and exaltation etc. We can also preach Christ without actually preaching the text. Spurgeon did this sometimes. We need to know the main point of the author and spend time with it and going from their to Jesus. Spurgeon tells a story of a Welsh pastor telling a young pastor that every city in England had a road leading to London. Not every road led there, but one did. Every text has a road to Jesus (sometimes more than one), find it and go down that road with the people.

In the next chapter, he spends some time showing how to do this.

The section I really had interest in was about preaching Christ to the culture. This had much to do with proper contextualization so you are connecting too as well as challenging the culture. This is a hard balance. Antinomians accommodate the culture and legalists tend not to connect to the culture because they are overly critical. While culture is the produce of sinful humans, it is also the product of people made in God’s image and necessarily has some remaining connection points.

“We adapt and contextualize in order to speak the truth in love, to both care and confront.”

He notes a shift in Edwards’ preaching after he left Northampton. He took the Native Americans’ experience of suffering into consideration in his preaching. He used more narrative as well. He adapted his preaching style in order to connect with a different culture, a different audience.

“If you over-contextualize and compromise the actual content of the gospel, you will draw a crowd but no one will be changed. … You will mainly just be confirming people in their present course of life.”

He advocates for using respected cultural authorities to strengthen your thesis. Just as you may drop a few Calvin quotes for a Reformed audience, you may want to consider quotes from non-Christians or others who are generally respected by the non-believing members of your audience. Additionally you want to demonstrate you understand doubts and objections. Address the resistance instead of simply ignoring it and plowing through it. He brings up “defeater beliefs” people hold, that if true Christianity can’t be true. Acknowledge them and address them or people will just tune them out if they have those beliefs. He advocates affirming cultural narratives in order to challenge them. Often the aspirations are good but the means are not biblical. Affirm them as on the right track, but point them to Christ and His work as the real means to fulfilling those aspirations.

In the next chapter Keller addresses preaching to the modern and late modern mind. He talks about the impact of individualism, the web of secularity and the borrowed capital used by atheists. He tries to help pastors move from the cultural narratives into idols and true freedom and fulfillment in Christ.

Keller than addresses preaching to the heart. You preach the text (normative), addressing the culture (situational) and the heart (existential). We have to exegete all three and preach to all three. Each of us finds one of these easier and another harder. Tim is great at the culture in my opinion. The text must impact the heart of the pastor to help him impact the hearts of the congregation. He again draws on Edwards and his work on the affections. Truth produces holy affections. We are passionate and imaginative when we address the heart. We want to show them that Jesus is greater than the things they love. This is gospel motivation; more love to Thee.

One of the keys is getting out of the echo chamber. He doesn’t use that term, but we need to listen to a diversity of opinions. That can come from friendships, social media, sources of information and more. But don’t just listen to people you agree with. This will help you have broader understanding of the application of texts.

The book ends in discussion the demonstration of the Spirit and power. This includes the call to holiness. Giftedness will get you only so far. Holiness is essential to great long-term preaching. We are more convincing if we actually find Him to be great, not just assert He is great.

This is a very good book for covering the big picture of preaching which affect how we say it more than what we say. It is a challenging and encouraging book. I’d highly recommend this contribution to the science of preaching.

 

Read Full Post »


I was so excited about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation I was laying awake for hours in the middle of the night.

Not really. Just some insomnia as I pondered my next sermon, my sermon series that begins in January and a host of other things. One of them was the Reformers.

Some people are very critical of the Reformation. There is indeed cause for lament over another divorce in the body of Christ (as a friend’s sermon put it). Some people are really bothered by the sins of the Reformers and subsequent leaders. Sins they are.

Many happen to be sins that our age looks down upon most severely. Sins that were not necessarily understood to be sins in their day. Luther’s anti-Semitism late in life. Calvin’s involvement in Servetus’ trial as a heretic resulting in the death penalty (this would be scandalous today, not necessarily sinful, though many misunderstand the circumstances and act like Calvin lit the fire). Edwards, Whitefield and others owned slaves. I could go on.

Some try to discredit the Reformation, or other movements within Protestantism, based on the sins of such leaders. How could God use such stubbornly sinful men?

Perhaps their sinfulness is the precise reason God used them.

God magnifies His grace by using Moses the murderer, David the adulterer & murderer, Jacob the con man, Abram the liar, Peter the impetuous, Paul the blasphemer etc. And the Reformers.

Ah, but those men repented. Luther, Edwards and others didn’t. Hmm, what about the sins you fail to repent of? Shall they overcome union with Christ too? Do they mean you were never united to Christ? We have to be careful for the measure we use will be how we are measured.

I’m not saying that these things weren’t sins. I am saying that His grace is greater than their sin (and mine).

By their sinfulness He is also saving us from our sinfulness. As Calvin noted, the human heart is “a factory of idols.” We would turn these men into saints, like Rome and the Orthodox so. Rather than leaders, we’d make them super-saints who were better than us. Even now many of us still struggle with this. Some try to down play, ignore and outright reject the idea that they were sinner like us.

God is patient and long-suffering with sinners. His active and passive obedience are sufficient for our salvation. As Steve Brown so “scandalously” said at the Ligonier National Conference in ’91, “there is nothing you can do to add to, or take away, from the work of Christ.” We are justified by Christ’s righteousness, not our own. This is the whole point of the Reformation’s re-discovery of the gospel. This is revealed clearly in the lives of these men (and women). Their faith was imperfect, just like ours is.

We quickly forget that we have our own cultural blindspots. We stand firm against many forms of addiction/idolatry. But not gluttony or shopping. Not our idolatrous pursuit of external beauty and “fitness”. Our “American Dream” driven greed would be called idolatry by Paul. Our exaltation of our culture as a norm (particularly by majority cultures) would receive a Galatians-like lashing from Paul. We’d better take the log out of our own eyes lest we somehow think we are better than these saved by grace alone saints of days gone by.

Reformation Day should really be humbling. We are truly saved by grace alone, always. Salvation is thru faith alone in Christ alone. It is for God’s glory alone. Reformation Day is the great day to remember that “Salvation Belongs to the Lord”, the focus of my sermon from Jonah 2:8-10.

The Reformation, and the Reformers, need not be perfect for us to express gratitude. It isn’t about big parties and celebrations (though those aren’t wrong) but about the grateful disposition of the heart.

Read Full Post »


We struggle to love God. We struggle with knowing what it means, or looks like to love God.

I wonder how many Christians avoid the Old Testament. I wonder if they avoid it because they don’t understand what Sinclair Ferguson calls “gospel grammar”. They read it as law, isolated from gracious realities. In their minds they still hear the law’s loud thunder.

Here is what I read to begin my personal devotions this morning:

“You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always. Deuteronomy 11

Love for the Lord involves warm & fuzzy feelings. It isn’t less than that, but it is far more. Love does something. If I love YHWH as my God, as my Father, it means I’m moving toward obedience. It doesn’t mean I perfectly obey, because in this life I can’t. But God is restoring me and that reveals itself in obedience.

“Wait!” some may say. “What about the Gospel? Be done with this talk of obedience.

When we read Deuteronomy 11, we should hear the voice of Jesus in John 14.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

And His disciple John in his first letter.

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. 1 John 2

Love for God will produce the fruit of obedience in our lives. Love moves us down the road of sanctification so our inner experience and our outer actions become increasingly aligned. They also become aligned with God’s law as a reflection of God’s character. Love is not vague, shapeless, obscure, hard to pin down.

When Paul nailed it down he brought the Roman Christians, and us, back to the law.

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13

This discussion is missing something so far. Why do we love God in the first place? The answer is the same in the Old and New Testaments: because He first loved us. Now we’ve recovered Gospel grammar if we behold this.

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers,Deuteronomy 7

Why were they holy, or set apart, or devoted to God? Because God chose them as his treasured possession. Why did he choose them or set his love on them? Because he loved them. It all goes back to God’s love, a love we can’t explain, nor can he really explain to us. But it is a love that revealed itself tangibly in redemption. There is no understanding the law properly for the Israelite apart from Ex. 20:1 and Deut. 5:6. He redeemed them from Egypt!

Gospel grammar means that we understand the commands of Scripture in light of what God has done for us. Obedience is a response to God’s love and acceptance, not the cause for God’s love and acceptance. A grace that doesn’t result in growing obedience would be a counterfeit or cheap grace (Edwards & Bonhoeffer respectively). Which is the whole point of 1 John. Union with Christ changes us. Calvin speaks of the “double grace” received in our union with Christ. In justification our status is changed. In sanctification we are changed, progressively. We receive both because we receive the whole Christ in our union.

Egypt was intended to pay the way for the greater Exodus from sin.

10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4

God loved us => we love God in return => we grow in love & obedience => experience more love

“Wait, where’d you get that last bit?”

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. John 15

If we aren’t careful, we can lose sight of the gospel grammar here. Jesus is not to be understood as earning God’s love and acceptance. We see the distinction between union and communion here. United to Christ we are loved and accepted. United to Christ we have power & desire to grow in obedience. As we grow in grace we grow in our experience of communion or fellowship with God. We experience more of his sweet dew and sunshine as one hymn puts it. We grow in assurance, for instance. We subjectively experience more of what we have objectively through our union with Christ.

We see this all the time in other relationships. My wife and I are married. We are united whether we like it or not at any given moment. Our communion, intimacy with one another, fluctuates depending on how we treat each other. Our union is not changed. It is static. Communion is dynamic.

The gospel holds these together. If we let go of union we fall into legalism, constantly feeling the need to gain approval. If we let go of communion, we fall into license where our love doesn’t matter and grace is cheap. The gospel is that we are united to Christ by grace through faith and fully loved and accepted by God who has taken us as his children. Growing in my love for God as I grow in my understanding, I grow in obedience. I’m not more or less loved and accepted, but I know more of the Father’s pleasure. All of this is love that is reflected in a human father’s love. They are always my children, but sometimes they experience my pleasure and others my displeasure. They never cease to be my children, even the adopted ones. As they mature and understand the many ways I’ve loved them, their love to me grows and changes them.

What does love to God look like? Growth in obedience (which includes engaged worship). How does love to God grow? By remember how God loved and loves me. Gospel facts (indicative) leading to gospel implications (indicatives or commands). Love and law are not opposed in gospel grammar, but have their proper place. If we reverse the grammar, we really mess things up.

Read Full Post »


Tim Keller says “This is the best book for laypeople on this subject.” This book is Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. I think he is right.

Union with Christ is one of the more neglected doctrines in the contemporary church. This neglect has been addressed with a few releases in the past few years like the books by J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham. These tend toward the more academic or pastoral in nature. Wilbourne’s book is written for the lay person and is easy to understand, though the topic can still stretch our minds. He provides a number of good illustrations to help us understand this rather nebulous concept. Or perhaps enchanted, for in his introduction he relates this to our disenchanted (materialistic) culture, and to understand union we need our imaginations again.

“Coming to see your union with Christ is like finally putting on a pair of desperately needed glasses- Wow!”

He begins with reality of a gap between what the Bible says and our experience of that reality. We can often feel exhausted by our efforts and discouraged by a lack of “progress”. The gap is real and must be acknowledged. But God’s answer to all this is union with Christ.

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore … he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” John Calvin

Calvin, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, is very present in this volume. United to Christ we have all the blessings of God (Eph. 1). Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit so we are empowered by Him to enjoy these many blessings. While this was understood by many in history (he quotes from Edwards and Goodwin, for instance) such talk is like a foreign language to many/most western Christians.

“If it ‘s true that nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ, and this book aims to show that it is, then it is fair to ask this: Why is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us? Why, rather, is union with Christ, if it is talked about at all, reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living…”

The only way we partake of the gospel promises is …. union with Christ. When we neglect this, the work of Christ for us is separated from the person of Christ in us and the gap between beliefs and experience begins to increasingly widen.

He moves on to what it actually is. One aspect of union is imputation: what happened to Him happened to us; what He earned we receive; and what we earned He paid the price for. Paul frequently uses the term “in Christ” to talk about how we live before God. Christ represents us so His death is our death to guilt & sin (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). His resurrection is our newness of life (Rom. 6; Eph. 2; Gal. 2:20). His obedience becomes our obedience. We have even been seated with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2).

“Faith is how union with Christ becomes operative and powerful in your life. Faith is a God-given gift that allows you to take hold of God’s having taken hold of you. … Your life, your story, becomes enfolded by another story- Another’s story.”

As Paul says in Colossians our life is hidden with Christ in God. United to Christ, Calvin says, we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification. Though distinct they are a package deal given simultaneously. We partake of His redemption because we are united to Christ, covenantally and spiritually. We enjoy our salvation as He works in us to transform us. Our faith is not simply in Christ’s work for us, but also that Christ continues to work in us and through us. He became like us to make us like Him so we look to Him to accomplish these things that are so beyond our doing.

Union with Christ also holds together some of the tensions that tend to tear God’s people apart. For instance, he mentions extravagant grace and radical discipleship. We see them both in Calvin’s double grace, but our tendency is to separate them. Apart from discipleship extravagant grace lapses into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. Apart from extravagant grace discipleship degenerates into legalism. This conflict that has periodically emerged in the church is resolved in union with Christ. These two songs, as he terms them, meet in harmony in Christ. They cannot be separated because Christ cannot be separated (Ferguson makes the same argument in The Whole Christ). Wilbourne then explains and applies the “double grace”.

“Because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives, because we will use anything, even our virtue, to keep God at a distance, we can’t hear this song of grace too loudly or too often. … That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing- using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. … Undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Jesus. He is always full of both.”

Rankin then spends a chapter showing us where all this is in the Scripture, a chapter on where it pops up in Church History (Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Owen and Lewis) and then what happened that we have fallen to this low estate. As mentioned, there is the disenchanted or materialistic worldview, the increase in self-centeredness (due to the eclipse of the gospel), our poor pneumatology, sound-bite culture, and pragmatism.

“Paul is saying union with Christ not only gives you a new identity; it gives you a new mindset, a new grid through which to filter everything that happens to you. For it’s not so much what happens that defines you, as how you interpret what happens to you.”

From there he delves into the problems union with Christ solves. We have a new identity, new destiny, new purpose and new hope. So many of the stories we love focus on people seeking to discover their identity. We think we have to establish our identity so we are insecure and exhausted. Many famous musicians (interviews with Madonna and John Mayer come to mind) feel the need to re-establish themselves, prove themselves. In Christ, we receive an identity we neither win or can lose. We don’t have to prove ourselves. This identity also shapes how we live, providing appropriate boundaries for us. We have a new destination too- not simply to decompose in the ground or simply cease to exist. Our destiny is to be what Adam and Eve once were, the image of God. Jesus, in His humanity, the perfect image of God restores God’s distorted image of us. We don’t lose our sense of self (just as in a healthy marriage we are one flesh but don’t lose your sense of self). You become more fully you with the unique gifts and experiences but without the sin and weakness.

“The purpose of the gospel [is] to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.” John Calvin

“Because love was central in the life of Christ, love is at the heart of the image of God. Your win is learning how to love. And your greatest losses are your failures to love.”

We are here for holiness, which for many of us, as he notes, is like broccoli. Good for us but …. (personally I like broccoli). Holiness is good, beautiful and attractive. It is something we only pursue properly in union with Christ (see Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).  We are positionally holy due to our union with Christ, and dwelling in us He works to make us personally holy. These two tensions are brought together in harmony in Christ. The more holy we become the more we enjoy communion with God, in part because we now find His holiness more attractive and a greater source of joy.

“God wants us to grow in holiness, not as some sort of test or punishment, not even just as preparation for the future, but because he wants us to enjoy life with him more. The more we grow in holiness, the more we can enjoy his presence. He wants us not simply to press on but to soar. He wants holiness for us, for our joy.”

Our hope is life in the presence of God where Jesus currently is. This is unattainable for us apart from our union with Christ. He is there now, seated and interceding for us (Heb. 7:25). This means that our continuing sin does not separate us from God. We don’t have to look to our circumstances to gauge if God is pleased with us, we look to Jesus and know He is. Union with Christ holds the facts that God with for us and with us together.

“John Calvin said, ‘Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us.’ John Owen added, ‘Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.’ And Jonathan Edwards exhorted, ‘We should labor to be continually growing in divine love.'”

Wilbourne then moves into our daily life as people united to Christ. He begins with abiding. He brings up the illustration of sailing. Sailing depends on the wind, but you still need skills to get where you want to go in the power of the wind. This is communion with Christ, the subjective or experiential aspect of our union with Christ. We cannot be more or less united to Christ. But our sense of communion with Christ grows or diminishes. Faith always precedes our sense of communion for faith lays ahold of Christ. He warns us of our tendency to drift (pride, complacency etc.). If we are not manning the sail and the tiller we will not go where we long to go. He moves into the means of abiding, or the means of grace. Our sense of communion is tied to prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship including the sacraments (signs of our union). This does not mean all will be exciting. There will be doldrums, just like in sailing. There will be times when all seems stagnant, and no progress is made.

“Jesus lived a perfect life and terrible things still happened to him. Jesus was the only one who ever trusted and obeyed God perfectly, yet he nevertheless was made to walk the way of suffering unto death…”

We are united to the Christ who suffered. As a result we should expect to suffer (Rom. 8; Phil. 1 & 3; 1 Peter 2-4). Because He suffered, He is able to comfort us in our suffering. He also provided an example for us in suffering, to continue to do good and entrust ourselves to our Creator. Will our suffering drive us from God, or deeper into God?

He then moves into the fact that each of us is united not only to Christ individually but also to one another. In Christ we are the people of God. Here, in a footnote, he surmises, that the tension revealed by the New Perspective of Paul finds reconciliation. In Christ we are justified by the imputation of His righteousness AND we are part of the community of God; soteriology and ecclesiology are united in Christ. Another tension that tends to tear the church apart is also reconciled in Christ: we declare and demonstrate the love of God to the nations. Many conservatives so fear the social gospel that they deny the social aspects of the gospel (and throw accusations at any who do). This is because Jesus not just declared God’s love but demonstrated it (see 1 John 3-4) and calls us to do the same (see also 1 Peter 2).

I found this to be a very encouraging book. He had a number of helpful ways to explain our union and its implications. I heartily recommend it to pastors, elders and ordinary people who want to grow in grace. He makes a difficult subject understandable, interesting and practical.

 

Read Full Post »


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »