Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Justification’


In my typical vacation mode, I’m reading another in the series “on the Christian life.” This vacation I’m reading Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ by Michael Reeves. Reeves’ goal is to communicate about Spurgeon’s views, not offering correctives or counter-points. While I agree with much of what Spurgeon held regarding preaching, there were enough things I wanted to offer a counter-point to that this merited its own blog post.

Spurgeon began to preach as essentially a newly converted person. Prior to his conversion he’d read much from his grandfather’s library. This is where his love of the Puritans came from. Spurgeon did not preach like a Puritan.

For instance, I’m also reading Christian Love by Hugh Binning. After his treatise on the subject there are 3 from his sermon series on Romans 8:1-15. They are taken from his 40 sermons on that passage. Yes, 40! The better part of a year on 14 verses, by a man who would die at 26.  Spurgeon did not do such lengthy series.

“The special work of our ministry is to lay open Christ, to hold up the tapestry and unfold the mysteries of Christ.”

“It is the end (goal) of our calling to sue for a marriage between Christ and every soul. We are the friends of the bride to bring the church to him; and friend of the church, to bring Christ to them.”

In this regard, Spurgeon is spot on regarding the goal of preaching. We are to so reveal Christ as to present a Savior worth trusting, and encourage them to trust in Him for all things as revealed in the Scriptures.

In this way, preaching is not simply an information dump. Information is conveyed. We must explain the text, and explain Christ to them. But we are to preach for personal and congregational transformation.

“The object of all true preaching is the heart: we aim at divorcing the heart from sin, and wedding it to Christ. Our ministry has failed, and has not the divine seal set upon it, unless it makes men tremble, makes them sad, and then anon brings them to Christ, and causes them to rejoice.”

The rub is in some of the opinions he had about how that takes place.

Reeves notes a common criticism, that I have mentioned to others, that he wasn’t very exegetical. Reeves notes that prior to his sermon, in another part of the service he would give “a separate verse-by-verse exposition on the portion of Scripture from which his preaching text would be taken.” Or at least what he thought he would be preaching. At times he would admit to changing his text on the fly. This would disconnect the text from the exegesis. If it was a late, not last second change, then he wouldn’t have much time to do proper exegesis of the text. He’d inevitably have to do that on the fly. The prep work he’d done (and he did do plenty of that) would not be used, at least that week.

Spurgeon discouraged his students from preaching series. He didn’t plan out his sermons in advance. I often have my sermon texts lined up a few months out. He thought few preachers had the gifts to preach a series and engage the congregation’s attention for the duration. Spurgeon notes that even the gifted Joseph Caryl preached his congregation from 800 to 8 over the course of his series on Job. No mention is  given on how many sermons this included. I’m not advocating 5-6 years (or 16) in a series on a book of the Bible.

He believed that such sermon series didn’t address the immediate situation of the congregation.

When I plan a sermon series, I consider the “immediate” needs of the congregation and choose a book that addresses those things. Their immediate needs often include long-term needs that need more than a sermon by an extended period breaking up the ground, sowing and watering seed that it may bear the fruit we long to see. Some of those immediate needs may be met by a short book like Jonah, or a longer book like Romans.

I want to model Bible study as a collateral benefit of preaching. They begin, I hope, to see how thoughts flow through a book of the Bible. They aren’t seeing a text arise from the ether but in the overall theme of its authors, human and divine.

Surely the Holy Spirit is not bound by the time frame of a week to know what any congregation needs. As God who has eternally decreed whatsoever comes to pass, He can lead and guide me well in advance, not just on the spur of the moment. In my preaching, I frequently illustrate in ways I had not prepared, or go on an unplanned trail. So the Spirit is not stifled, but neither am I investing hours each week figuring out what text to preach. Rather I’m grappling with the text to discern what it means and how it applies to this group of people.

Christ can be just as preeminent in a series as in a weekly discerning of a text to preach. As he famously noted, just as all towns in England had a road leading to London, all text lead to Christ.

As pastors, we do well to remember that we “are not only laboring for Christ but in His stead.” As the Reformed Confessions indicate, the word preached is the Word of God. Christ is addressing His people thru us. He indicated (as another book I’m reading, Preaching to a Post-Everything World) we must love the people, the sinners, to whom we preach. We do not exercise a ministry of condemnation. We are not to provoke or exasperate them. But we are to plead with them so they turn from their sin to Christ in both conversion (justification) and consecration (sanctification).

He also indicates that we are to embody that which we preach. Here I think is an issue as well. We are to preach joy in Christ, joyfully. But this implies that in God’s providence we are not preaching to ourselves as well as to them. Often I can struggle because God brings me to the “school house” through the text.

For instance, I’m currently preaching through Philippians. While joy is a theme of Philippians, so are partnership in the Gospel particularly in the context of persecution and some level of congregational strife. They were to stand together, but apparently they weren’t.

In our congregation this has been a year filled with change. Change inevitably brings conflict. There has been some disagreement among us. I’m a sinner and struggling to not take it personally at times. I’m challenged to abound more and more in love toward people with whom there is disagreement. My preaching, therefore, is not bound to my emotions. I’m not being deceitful as I say these things, but am also in the struggle to define my life by God’s great Story rather than I own feelings, thoughts or story. I’m in process just like they are.

We do not preach as perfected men. We preach as men being perfected. God’s living and active sword cuts us too, in a surgical way, as we prepare and preach. I agree we should not be disingenuous, but neither are we to search for a text or subject we’ve mastered or that suits are emotions on a particular day. God is in control over the text, and our circumstances even leading up into that moment we walk into the pulpit (many a preacher gets a disheartening text, call or email while writing the sermon, Saturday evening or Sunday morning). We are called to bring the Word of God to bear even as we wrestle with our own sinfulness and need for the gospel.

So, I find these views of his to be driven by subjectivity. As we think of his life, as a man who struggled with depression, this seems particularly out of place or idealistic. It can crush a man instead of helping him trust that God uses even him, a jar of clay, to reveal the treasure of the gospel.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »


In the next two chapters of Evangelism for the Rest of Us, Mike Bechtle discusses biblical methods of evangelism and personal techniques which reveals something of a (good) tension. The methods that we use should be biblical, but that doesn’t mean we’ll all use the same method. Or that each of us won’t use the same method each time we bear witness to Jesus Christ.

Scripture includes God’s passion for His glory in the salvation of sinners which includes our bearing witness to Christ’s person and work for that salvation. If Scripture is our norm or authority (it is!), then it reveals to us methods of evangelism. We should pay attention to the contexts of those examples of evangelism as well as how they parties involved interacted with those who don’t believe. Some of them came to faith, and others did not.

Not everyone Paul and Peter (and Stephen among others) shared their faith with came to faith. We should not expect everyone we share our faith with to come to faith either. We should have realistic expectations.

One of the examples Bechtle brings us is from 2 Kings 7 dealing with the lepers who discover Israel’s enemies had been defeated and tell the people starving in Samaria. I struggle with this example. I agree with his premise: evangelism is “one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” A number of others have made this assertion. They are reporting a redemptive act on Israel’s behalf. I guess I struggle with this as an earthly deliverance. It really isn’t the gospel so much as a type or foreshadowing. He needed to develop this further to show how this earthly deliverance connects with God’s covenant faithfulness revealed in Christ who died for our sins and kept the law for us. This is an example of the ‘imperfect witness’ he discusses next.

What I’m saying is this. At times Bechtle himself is not really clear about what the gospel actually is. For instance, later in this chapter he misses or neglects the reality of the double imputation I mentioned above: His bearing our sin and giving us His righteousness. Salvation is not less than forgiveness but more than that. It is about pardon and being declared righteous (not simply innocent). We are imperfect witnesses, and won’t say everything right. He still sin, and we don’t always use the right words. In a book we can’t include everything (this intends to be a short book, not a tome). But we should be as clear as possible.

We evangelize as justified people, not people seeing to be justified. We are righteous and have an established, unchangeable status with God. We are not trying to earn said status. This means, in part, that we can be honest about our sin including sin toward those we want to tell about Christ. That very sin may be what opens the door to talk about Christ’s work for us. We should be authentic, not used car salesmen, who own up to our weakness and struggle but rely on the supreme and sufficient Savior. Bearing witness has an objective aspect (what Christ has done for sinners), and a subjective aspect (our testimony about how Christ worked in my life).

“We’re not saved from every problem; we’re given his strength to face them, his presence to walk with us through them, and his patience to help us grow in the midst of them.”

One way of thinking about evangelism is to introduce mutual friends. Bechtle notes that we often go by personal recommendations when looking for someone to fix our car or home and a doctor to help us with a health problem. We aren’t selling a product, but recommending a person. We can’t make the person entrust themselves to Christ.We persuade, extolling His virtues and connecting them with their needs.

He mentions some pictures of this persuasion: salt, seed and light. In terms of salt he mentions that we often present the gospel in small doses, numerous conversations. We want to make them thirsty, preserve them (restraining sin) and provide some flavor. Too much salt hinders growth. In terms of light we reflect the light of Christ, shine on Christ instead of self. Seed is something we sow, but it grows apart from our work. We only control an environment. Not all the seed will grow. Growth, or harvest, takes time. It is not immediate. All of these pictures remind us to relax. Don’t focus on results so much as the process.

In our current culture we should be aware of the loss of civility. Being salt and light means being gentle and respectful, not forceful and angry. We can be passionate, but also humble. We can’t be so worked up about moral issues that we forget our own need for the Savior.

By knowing the people around us, we can speak to them during or after the “earthquakes” that take place in their lives. They all have them. You have to be there beforehand to gain trust. He notes that often we put up obstacles, thinking that being a good witness is filling our cubicles with “Christian posters” or knick knacks. We don’t have to force Jesus into every water cooler conversation. But we can and should “build relationships with fellow employees based on the common ground found in our daily tasks.” The same is true for neighbors. I don’t walk around spouting off Scripture verses. I’m building relationships with some based on common interests. We are intended to live among the lost, and you do. You may not like it and may run from it. Salt, seeds and light must be present to make an impact. As I recently told my congregation, you are here for the gospel. That “here” is home, office, neighborhood etc. But God placed you “here” for the gospel.

In the next chapter Bechtle reminds us that not only will one size not fit all for us, it won’t for the opportunities we have to share the gospel. A hammer is very helpful if you are driving (or pulling) nails. It is not so helpful for driving screws, cutting wood or wires, laying concrete etc. You need a tool box of evangelism techniques to share the gospel with the various people you know in the many different contexts. You should be building your tool box as a result. It is helpful to be familiar with evangelism explosion, the bridge illustration, the Romans Road, Two Ways to Live, the Great Story (creation, fall, redemption & glory), cultural connections (the trending section on FB to know what is going on), etc. The better you understand the Bible, the better you’ll be able to communicate it to people in a gracious way that meets their circumstances. You don’t want to be one of those people relying on a 12-in-1 tool all your life (helpful in emergencies but not too good for intentional and varied work- if that is all your contractor has, get a new contractor). Some will “fit” you better. Know your limitations, as Dirty Harry advised. Set healthy boundaries in light of your resources and limitations.

Who you are may also shape the means of evangelism. You could use these methods and techniques in street preaching or blogging. They are very different, and not for everyone. Engage in evangelism using the gifts and interests God gave you even as you share about your weaknesses, struggles and needs.

This is moving us from sales pitches to customer service. It also moves us from expert to information gatherer. Learn from the people you want to share with. Ask about their work or hobby. That is part of relationship building, but also gaining knowledge you can use in the future in other relationships. Be a person who grows in wisdom and favor with God and man. This will make you someone more comfortable with and likely to engage in evangelism.

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 »


Sometimes you come across a book that looks like it will address the big questions you’ve been churning over in your mind for years. When you read it you are disappointed because it barely addresses those questions. This can happen more frequently in the age of internet shopping. But it is quite frustrating as you invest time in a book that doesn’t scratch the itch you have.

Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds is one of those books for me. Based on the subtitle I thought it would focus on the profound ways we have been sinned against. Indeed, Chris Brauns does include a number of stories about such profound sins. But I found a disconnect between those stories and the content he presented. So while there was some good material here, it didn’t really help me in the issues I was looking for help personally and professionally.

In his introduction he claims to address “where I’m coming from”. This is not so much about his presuppositions (more in a moment) but the questions he will address, such as: should we forgive God, does God forgive everyone, and should we forgive everyone?

He does lay out one presupposition: “only God’s Word can unpack forgiveness”, a proper commitment to sola Scriptura. He then says “unpacking forgiveness is like relocating a family.” Unpacking takes a lot longer than the actual event of moving. He mentions that 2 years after a move, his family was still unpacking. This is what I was hoping he’d address but really didn’t as I’d hoped. And some of what he said hindered this process, at least as I understand it.

I was struck at the two main presuppositions he didn’t address which shape so much about forgiveness. He never defined his understanding of sin. He assumes we all know. He doesn’t use this term often, preferring the terms derived from the verb “to offend”. While sin rightfully offends, we often use that term (which he doesn’t define either) in many ways no connected to sin. It often has psychological (for lack of a better term) uses, and he generally distances himself from other psychological concepts. This focus on “offense” is a more subjective understanding of sin, not an largely objective one. For instance he says “we have all offended his standard” (pp. 45) with regard to Romans 3:23 (I assume since he doesn’t note it). This is a great time to clarify that “sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” Look, was that difficult? No. But he assumes the reader has a definition of sin, and that it is the same as his unexpressed one.

The other big presupposition was the nature and extent of the atonement. He quotes a few Calvinistic and Reformed guys (he mentions Piper frequently), but how he speaks about forgiveness points to a general atonement in which salvation is possible but not actually procured. I could be wrong about what he actually believes, which is the point: he doesn’t actually express it. (To be fair, he defines ‘propitiation’ on pp. 46.)

Granted, you can’t say everything about everything when you write a book, but these seem to be significant issues that affect much of what you say on this topic. I’m not “heresy hunting” but noticing large gaps in his reasoning.

At times his vagueness affects how he interacts with Scripture. I have notes written in the margins in numerous places questioning how he understands particular texts.

He interacts with Lewis Smedes on the topic of “mandatory forgiveness”, representing a less than biblical view of forgiveness. But he doesn’t interact with anyone else on significant issues. I would have liked him to interact with Dan Allender’s material in Bold Love, as an example. His work regarding forgiveness is different than Brauns’ (and Smedes’). Such interaction would have helped clarify a few things in his book that I still have questions about regarding his perspective.

The main premise of the book is that “we forgive as God forgave us.” He doesn’t simply take this as forgive because we’ve been forgiven, or even in a similar way, but rather “in the same way.” He rightfully notes the graciousness of God’s forgiveness, and the costliness to God in the atonement of Christ. He properly notes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us in justification. He notes the connection of forgiveness with reconciliation (they are not identical). He also notes that forgiveness does not remove all earthly consequences which in Christ have been transformed from punishment to training in righteousness. But I struggle with his definition of forgiveness.

“God’s forgiveness: a commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences.”

So, for you to forgive is an identical commitment to those who repent.

Take a moment though to insert that definition into a passage in the place of forgiveness. Passages like these:

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,Luke 1

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Acts 5

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, …. Ephesians 1 cf. Colossians 1:14

In this way, he goes beyond the simple meaning or use of the term forgiveness (which he mentions) as release from a debt to this more complex idea. We therefore offer people forgiveness, but they must repent in order for us to actually forgive them. We have an “attitude” of forgiveness toward them.

So, while he therefore says we don’t need to “forgive” everyone he never gets to what I think is a core issue based on the doctrine of sin. I don’t forgive people unless they sin, thereby incurring a debt, against me. I can’t forgive Timothy McVeigh, whom he mentions repeatedly in this context, for instance because he didn’t sin against me except in the most vague way since I’m an American. I can feel outrage, but that is the problem: I’m carrying an indirect burden since he didn’t take anything away from me. His treatment of this issue, in my opinion, is quite superficial and unhelpful.

Let’s apply this to an unknown rapist whose repentance a victim may never know about. She has an attitude of forgiveness, and a “gift” she doesn’t know where to send. This is where it breaks down for me. Theology is all about distinctions, and there are a number of big ones he doesn’t make. The “gift” makes sense in understanding my personal relationships. But not with regard to profound sins in which there is no personal relationship (for instance with an uncle who physically abuses the victim).

Another important distinction that is never spelled out (or I missed it if he did) was that just because I forgive someone doesn’t mean God does. He seems to imply at points in his argument against automatic or mandatory forgiveness that God does because I do. Not only may there be state sanctions (though he has conflicting statements on this too), there may be divine sanctions that remain.

Let me illustrate: there is a family member who sinned against me profoundly (it was not a crime so there would be no legal sanctions), in a way that still haunts me to this day. That person can’t really face it, or understand it. For an extended period of time I was very angry with them. Despite their lack of repentance I forgave them. I didn’t just have an attitude of forgiveness, but forgave their debt to me. I am reconciled with them despite this sin and their lack of repentance. This doesn’t mean God forgave them or is reconciled with them (by all appearances He has not). I chose to no longer hold this debt against them, and even restore relationship with them despite this profound debt.

He missed another important distinction in his chapter about when you can’t stop thinking about it. Why are you thinking about it? Is the source Satan to continually put up walls between you, to get you to be bitter or feel false condemnation, shame etc.? Or is the source God to help you deepen your forgiveness of the other person? This, in my opinion, matters. But he never mentions the latter possibility.

What I mean is this (which I hoped the book would be about or address): at times we come to a deeper understanding of the debt incurred. Something we thought was a $50 debt is really a $1,000 debt. For instance, I minimized that debt a family member incurred. I needed to face what I really needed to forgive. Ultimately God intended that process for good, even as Satan intended it for evil (to trap me in bitterness). THIS is real pastoral theology, not the superficial approach he presented that we shouldn’t think about it if we’ve forgiven. But what have we forgiven? Have we forgiven the debt as much as we can understand it?

A question he doesn’t really answer is that though forgiveness is often the basis of reconciliation, must I reconcile with someone because I have forgiven them? A rape or abuse victim should forgive the person who sinned against them. Perhaps the person has even repented. Must you be reconciled to them? Have them over for dinner? Leave your kids with them? No!! Forgiveness does not mean that the person is suddenly trustworthy, or that you trust them with your life. It just means you no longer want your pound of flesh, for the debt to be repaid. It doesn’t mean you have to loan out more money.

There was also somewhat of an internal conflict in the book. He thinks we should only forgive if the other person repents. That was not the intention of Jesus’ answer to the question. It was not what must they do for me to forgive them, but if they repent must I forgive them. Very different question, and to distort that distorts the answer. As long as someone repents, I must forgive them. But it doesn’t mean I must wait until they repent to forgive, which is what Brauns says at points.

Later in the book he notes we can overlook an offense. But they didn’t repent. Unlike Ken Sande, whom he references at times, there is no real process for sorting out when I should just overlook an offense or sin. Sometimes even Braun, despite his previous statements, means they don’t have to repent for you to forgive them.

This book does present some good material that may be helpful to a number of people. He is closer to the biblical understanding of forgiveness than Smedes. But there are some holes in the foundation, gaps he didn’t address or distinctions he failed to make that prove unhelpful for others. For instance, my sister-in-law found the book helpful. Okay. I don’t think she’s deceived or stupid. It helped her and that is GOOD. I didn’t find it as helpful. That could be a function of my understanding of theological complexities which differs from hers necessarily as a pastor, and/or the ways I have been sinned against that she has not. I still find Allender’s work more helpful for me. If you are more like my sister-in-law you may legitimately find this book helpful. If you are more like me, you may not find this book helpful for equally legitimate reasons.

 

Read Full Post »


Another vacation means reading another volume in the “Theologians on the Christian Life” series of books. So far I’ve read the volumes on Newton, Luther, Bavink and Edwards. I enjoy these books tremendously as they interact not just with their theology but also their practice.

This summer I chose Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever written by Michael Horton. I had some hesitancy about this volume. I haven’t read any Horton in years having grown weary of polemical theology, and not finding his expressions of two-kingdom theology all that helpful. I always seemed to be left saying “And?” when he talked about it.

This book was a pleasant surprise. It was a little more weighted toward theology than some of the others, but that theology was a necessary background to understanding how Calvin viewed life in Christ. There was a good progression of thought throughout the book. There were no exceedingly long chapters. There were plenty of quotes from Calvin and others who have produced volumes on his life and thought to make Horton’s points. I found it to be an edifying and encouraging volume in this series.

As he notes, Calvin’s was a very different time. The Reformation had been spreading throughout Europe and nation-states were gaining some measure of independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor. Like today there were many political and religious refugees in Europe, and many of them made their way to Geneva. In the religious reforms they were still in the process of sorting out how to implement what they believed. Calvin was one of the people working to bring the Protestants together as some differences seemed to be driving them apart.

Church was a central part of life with daily services part of many people’s routine or rhythm of life. It was a less distracted time, even if sin still found its way to manifest itself abundantly. As a result of this, some of how Calvin viewed the Christian life is anachronistic, or at least seems to be to us with personal devices, long commutes, mass media and more. Christian living, while personal, was far more public than we see today.

As one of the great figures in the Reformation we tend to think he was a parochial as we can be. There was no “Reformed tradition” or heritage for Calvin to draw upon. He drew upon the larger tradition of the Church, eastern and western. He was influenced, not only by Augustine, but also by Chrysostom, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and Bernard of Clairvoux among others. He interacted with Luther and Melanchthon to find common ground. He was not impressed with Zwingli. He spent time during his exile with Bucer and found that a great benefit. He influenced many of the next generation of leaders, like John Knox. Calvin was not an innovator but a man who lived as part of a theological community that exceeded his geography and time.

Horton begins where the Institutes begins: the knowledge of God and self. We were made to be in relationship with God and to reflect or reveal His glory as His image. So, to know God is to know ourselves in greater measure even if we see what we are not. Calvin was no fan of speculative theology. We cannot know God in the abstract, but know Him in Christ who came in the flesh to exegete the Father. We know God through His works, and so we recognize the divine drama or great Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Glorification. All of Scripture reveals this larger Story. We see some differences between how the Reformers and Roman Catholicism viewed general revelation and common grace. He saw our depravity going deeper so that no one was neutral when examining our world and/or doing theology. The pursuit of truth is distorted by our depravity. General revelation is not simply a “dimmer light but a different light than special revelation” because it does not speak of redemption.

Like Luther, Calvin was a theologian of the cross rather than a theologian of glory. God is known through Christ, and Him crucified. We do not seek to climb “ladders of speculation, merit and mystical experience” to gain union with God. Rather we are united to Christ crucified and resurrected for us to gain knowledge of God.

In this great drama there are actors and a plot. Here Horton explains that for Calvin the solas of the Reformation were a fabic, not independent statements. Similar to TULIP which was formulated long after Calvin’s death, they stand or fall together. Scripture is our final authority because it is God speaking to us about the Son through the inspiration and illumination of the Spirit. The great actor is the Triune God, not merely dogma but “the heart of reality in which we live and move and have our being.” The Incarnation of the Son reminds us that matter is good, not evil. That there is nothing inherently sinful about humanity itself despite its weakness and limitations. Our sinfulness is tied to being “in Adam” not simply being human. So Calvin did not hold to a Spirit-matter dualism as did medieval Rome and early Anabaptists. Rather, God made matter and uses it to His good purposes. One application of this is that the Spirit works thru the Word, contrary to the views of the Anabaptists and other fanatics.

The other actors in this are people, and so Horton moves quickly through Calvin’s anthropology. He is always contrasting this with the views of Rome expressed through the medieval church. This brings us to providence and grace as God works to redeem fallen humanity. Horton contrasts providence with the Stoic notion of fatalism. We see a God at work to redeem us, not a people who seek to redeem themselves. We see people who are lifted up by a Redeemer, not who lift themselves up by their bootstraps. We see people who are sought (and found) by God though they hide in the bushes, not people who seek after a God who hides. When we grasp both providence and grace, our circumstances are not punishment from a Judge but instruction from a Father who seeks to mold and shape us.

“Properly speaking, God is not angry with his elect, whose diseases he cures by afflictions as it were by medicines.”

From here, Horton proceeds to Christ the Mediator who came to us and for us. He uses a phrase that will be used often within the book, here with reference to His two natures: “distinction without separation”. This is a difficult formula to maintain but it was the heart of the Chalcedonian formula which made its way through Calvin’s theology. This formula, and how it is understood, was a key in the disagreements about the Lord’s Table that separated the Protestants. Horton’s comments on this are quite helpful.

As the Mediator, Jesus does not merely provide assistance to us but saves us to the uttermost. Yet, we live in the gap between inauguration and consummation, the already and not yet tension is at the heart of Calvin’s spirituality. Our salvation is received in union with Christ. We don’t receive His benefits so much as Christ Himself. He brings all those benefits with Him. They are distinct but without separation because we don’t have a divided Christ. Horton distinguishes these benefits in another chapter. They include effectual calling, justification, sanctification, and adoption. He always distinguishes the Protestant view from the Roman view, particularly as expressed in the Council of Trent.

With this heavier theology out of the way, Horton moves into life in the Body of Christ. Our Christian living is not a private thing, but one that is lived in the context of the Christian community. This is important for our individualistic society to hear so we can be freed from the shackles of a privatized faith. For Calvin it was corporate worship (Word, sacrament & prayer) that fed our personal worship (Word & prayer), and not the other way around. Corporate worship is where we learn how to read the Word and pray. We apply that in our personal and family worship. Community has precedence over individual. This is a radical statement today. Yet at we look at love and the fruit of the Spirit we see they all require others. The Trinity is an eternal community or fellowship of love. We have been made in God’s image to be a community or fellowship of love, not simply a periodic gathering of saved individuals.

This plays out in seeking grace in public worship, not medieval spirituality. We do not ascend to God, but Christ descended to us. We do not seek seclusion like the monks and nuns, but live in Christ in the midst of the world. Horton speaks of Calvin’s views of the preached Word, baptism, confession of sin (a good thing in worship!) and the Lord’s Table.

“The only way to serve God well is to serve our fellow believers. Since our good deeds cannot reach God anyway, he gives us instead other believers unto whom we can do good deeds. The one who wants to love God can do so by loving the believers.”

Horton continues with worship, discussing visual representations and music. These are some of Calvin’s more controversial views regarding worship today. While I want to keep the images of Christ out of our worship, I don’t want to keep the instruments out. I don’t see how they are part of the shadows and ceremonies. I see instruments in the heavenly visions of Revelation. If they are symbolic, what do they symbolize (it notes the singing, so….)? Music seems circumstantial to me. We don’t have any “authorized” tunes. So we waste our time, energy and breath arguing over such things. I’m sure God is more concerned with whether I strummed my guitar for him or myself, or if you listened to the instruments for his glory or simply your pleasure, than whether or not the corporate worship used instruments or not. But I digress.

Horton then brings us to Calvin’s view of prayer as the chief exercise of faith. Horton notes “true worship consists not in outward rights but in casting ourselves on the Father’s gracious care in Christ and by his Spirit.” He interacts with God’s providence and prayer so that prayer is one of the instrumental means of God’s providence. For Calvin prayer was “to the Father, in the Son and by the Spirit.” Our union with Christ also means that we do not pray alone but that Christ is praying not just for us, but with us. Our prayers are an echo of His prayers for us, we are following His lead because of the work of the Spirit in us resulting from our union.

You can’t talk exhaustively about Christian living without touching upon the Law of God. Horton brings in Calvin’s views in the tenth chapter. Like Luther, Calvin utilized a law and gospel distinction. “Calvin also appropriated Melanchton’s threefold use of the law.” The Law drives us to Jesus as He is presented to us in the Gospel. As justified people, the law shows us the pattern of holiness the Son wants to create in us by the Spirit. Law and gospel are distinct but not separate. Christians hear the law as the words of a Father, not a Judge; wisdom and guidance, not condemnation; and cry out to the same Father to help them walk in this way that pleases Him. Horton then summarizes Calvin’s view of these “house rules” expressed in the Ten Commandments.

Horton then addresses this new society, the church, as a theater of God’s fatherly care. Christian living includes finding a faithful church and making disciples. In church we are fed and guided by pastors and elders. We receive God’s hospitality from the deacons. Horton explains Calvin’s view of elements and circumstances regarding worship and how legalism turns circumstances into binding elements. License turns elements into circumstances. “Thus, the Reformer could see even among elements a ranking order, prizing unity over polity. Here we see a man of principle, to be sure, but among the principles was love. While wanting to obey everything that Christ commanded, he realized that not everything was equally clear or equally important.” And so my comments on music.

“Even when the church lies in ruins, we still love the heap of ruins.”

This new society exists, just as our original parents did, for a mission. For the creation mandate to be fulfilled, the Great Commission must be fulfilled. The church exists to make Christ as He is presented to us in the Gospel known, and to teach people to obey Him. The circumstances of the day meant that the Roman Catholic nations controlled the seas. But Geneva sent missionaries throughout Europe, many of whom died in France. The church brings Christ to the world.

We not only live in the church, but we live in the world. Here Horton explores Calvin’s view of the relationship of church and state, and Calvin’s understanding of the two kingdoms. There is discussion of moral law and its reflection in natural law. Christians don’t retreat from the world, nor do they think they can save the world (or creation) through “social justice”. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t seek justice within our spheres of influence, but we have realistic expectations, goals and agendas. It also makes no sense to focus on race relations in society unless we are addressing them in the church. We don’t focus on sins in one kingdom while ignoring them in God’s kingdom. (My thoughts there)

We offer our gifts and abilities to the world, and the church, in terms of our vocation. The sacred-secular distinction has minimized the value of a layperson’s work in the world. Work that helps others survive or flourish is valuable work, not merely legitimate work. Jobs have value not simply as opportunities for evangelism, but for loving others by providing goods that enrich life. This is a big part of Christian living.

Lastly Horton ends with contemplation of glorification. We are not escaping the material world, but longing for freedom from sin; ours and others against us. We live in the not yet with regard to sin. This is intended to shape our lives in the already.

Horton lays before us a very thorough look at Calvin’s understanding of the Christian life. We exist for God, and to enjoy God. This means we live before the face of God at home, at work and at church. We live before the face of God and experience His grace because of Christ our Mediator in whom we experience all God’s blessings. Christian living is not about trying to attain God’s grace, but receiving it so we can glorify & enjoy Him. This was a great addition to the series.

Read Full Post »


My years working in Ligonier Ministries’ phone room were tumultuous ones for the larger evangelical community. The Promise Keeper’s movement was huge, and divisive among lay people. More importantly, two documents were released: Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) and the subsequent Gift of Salvation (GOS). These caused division among many among evangelical leaders. Some friendships and relationships would never be the same.

“To work toward unity in the gospel is not a matter of ecclesiastical politics: it is a matter that touches the soul of tahe church itself and the souls of all its members.”

This is the old cover.

In response to ECT, R.C. Sproul wrote Faith Alone, a defense of sola fide which interacted with the document. In response to GOS (and subsequent release of The Gospel of Jesus Christ by evangelical leaders) he wrote the recently repackaged Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie that Binds Evangelicals Together.

It is important to keep this context together. In seeking greater dialogue and “unity” with Roman Catholicism, some evangelical leaders were causing conflict and division among Protestants. Here Sproul is once again focusing on the doctrine of sola fide as one that did and should unite Protestants including Evangelicals.

Sproul is clear, and generally irenic. He wants to rebuild bridges, not destroy them. He doesn’t want to forfeit the core of the gospel to gain “unity”.

Part 1 of the book focuses on the context, historically and contemporary respectively, in two chapters. Part 2 of the book is a critical analysis of GOS over the course of 3 chapters. The bulk of the book, 6 chapters, is Part 3 which explains The Gospel of Jesus Christ. The appendix of the book contains GOS and The Gospel of Jesus Christ for reference.

Sproul begins with the historical and theological context of “communion of saints”. As a matter found in the Apostles’ Creed (and for Presbyterians like Sproul and myself in the Westminster Confession) this is an important doctrine to understand. He brings us through the distinctions between the visible and invisible church, the marks of the church, and when it becomes necessary to leave a church that has lost the marks of a true church. He also lays out the shape of unity so we don’t seek the wrong kind of unity.

“When an essential truth of the gospel is condemned, the gospel itself is condemned with it, and without the gospel an institution is not a Christian church.”

He begins the contemporary context with a discussion of how words change meaning. Evangelical is one of those words whose meaning has changed greatly over time. The root of the word pertains to the gospel. Evangelicals were people concerned with believing and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now it means many things, including voting blocs in American politics, which have nothing to do with the gospel. The two defining doctrines of evangelicalism were sola scriptura (including the inspiration of the Scriptures) and sola fide. In the 1970’s the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures were undermined in many historically evangelical circles. In the 1980’s & 90’s it was the latter that was undermined. It became possible to self-identify as an evangelical but not hold to these core doctrines.

He also considers whether or not the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church has changed, thereby making unity possible. The bottom line is that Trent still stands and it condemns both sola scriptura and sola fide. The position of Trent is maintained in the newer catechisms of the Church of Rome. If the Catholics who signed these documents (ECT & GOS) affirm these doctrines they too are condemned by the Church of Rome.

As Sproul notes, there are some understandings of salvation shared by Protestants and Roman Catholics. Sproul has a history of being fair when handling the views of Roman Catholicism. That continues here. He gives credit where credit is due. They do, for instance, affirm grace and faith as necessary for salvation. Here is where distinctions are vastly important and R.C. does continually remind us of them. These distinctions are like the rock on the path you keep tripping over. We cannot ignore these distinctions. Sadly, the evangelicals who signed the documents think they affirm sola fide but it doesn’t. There is fide, or faith, but not the sola. It comes close but never gets there. That last yard is important, vital, necessary as a few Super Bowl teams have discovered. The disagreements over the ground of justification continue (imputation vs. infusion, Christ’s righteousness vs. our personal righteousness, faith alone vs. faith & works, grace received by faith vs. grace received from sacraments, and the list goes on). Similar terms is not to be confused with similar meaning and understanding.

“In summary we believe that imputation is essential to the gospel and that without it you don’t have the gospel or gospel unity. … Evangelicals who signed GOS could still affirm the normativity of a doctrine of justification, but not the normativity of the doctrine of sola fide, which clearly contains the essential ingredient of imputation.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ was written by both evangelicals who signed ECT and GOS, and evangelicals who were critical of the documents, like Sproul. It clarifies many of these issues that were obscured in ECT and GOS using a series of affirmations and denials. What follows is Sproul unpacking the historic Protestant understanding of the gospel.

The document is not perfect. For instance, in denying that the power of the gospel rests on things like the eloquence of the preacher, it does not deny that it depends on the efficacy of the sacraments. But the documents gets to most of the most important issues. Sproul covers plenty of ground in his explanation of the document. He doesn’t go very deep into those matters as a result. But he is clear and continues to make proper distinctions (a seemingly lost art).

Getting the Gospel Right is a good book. It examines important doctrines within the context of a recent theological controversy. For some this may be incredibly helpful. Others, who have not interest in historical theological controversies, may not appreciate how the book is written. R.C. is typically clear and engaging. This is a helpful volume that should not overwhelm the average reading by either its length or depth. I’d recommend it greatly for those trying to sort out the key differences between historic Protestantism and Roman Catholicism on the key matters of salvation.

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »