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With the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dordt, there have been a number of books about this important 17th century document of the Dutch Reformed Church (though there were a few members from other nations present).

Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400-Year-Old Confession Teaches Us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God Kevin DeYoung cover imageAt the recent RTS alumni and friends lunch at General Assembly, I was given a free copy of Kevin DeYoung’s book Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400 Year-old Confession Teaches Us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God. This was fortuitous since I had considered buying a copy but didn’t get around to it. I actually cut back on my book buying for the first part of this year. I didn’t just get free books at General Assembly, but did actually buy some.

Over the last two afternoons in upstate NY, I read the book. This means that it is not a very big book, and it was very interesting. At least to me.

Since I am a Presbyterian as opposed to Continental Reformed, I’m much more familiar with the Westminster Standards than the Canons of Dordt. I’ve referred to it at points but haven’t spent much time studying it. I thought this was a great opportunity to begin wading into this important document.

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Day 1 view

DeYoung’s book is an excellent place to start. He is succinct in his approach so it is quite accessible to lay people but interesting to pastors. DeYoung is generally not overly-wordy. I would rather be left wanting a bit more than finding a book tedious (I have to remember this as I edit my own manuscript). As I noted above, it does not require a huge time investment. Over the course of those afternoons I enjoyed two cigars, so it will take about 3 hours.

The book has 4 chapters and 4 appendices. The text of the articles of the Canons of Dordt are in the text of the 4 chapters. He lays out a few articles and then comments on them, majoring on the majors. The appendices include the Rejection of the Errors By Which the Dutch Churches Have for Some Time Been Disturbed, which summarizes the errors they believe the Remonstrance (Arminians) had fallen into; the Rejection of False Accusations; the Opinions of the Remonstrance given in response to the initial presentation of the Articles; and the Scripture Proofs of the Canons of Dordt (DeYoung uses the alternate spelling of Dort throughout the book, but I’m used to Dordt and will use it with apologies to Kevin). He makes these original sources readily available for ease of use and to provide a proper context. He states a few times that you can’t always understand what they are arguing against apart from the Rejections and the Opinions. We can sometimes misinterpret them. One example is the use of “common grace” which in this context refers to the “light of nature”.

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Day 2

His introduction is called In Praise of Precision. He refers to the common notion that all opinions are equal. Due to changes in culture including the internet, we can think we know more than those who have studied a subject for years or decades. We often prefer passion over precision. Theological debate should not simply generate heat, but also light (all thanks to Jonathan Edwards). The shedding of theological light requires precision. I have been frustrated in recent debates in our denomination over the lack of precision. I should have asked more people for clarification when I thought precision was lacking.

Often we refer to the acronym TULIP as shorthand for Reformed Theology. While we embrace TULIP, Reformed Theology is more expansive than these views on salvation. The Canons of Dordt are therefore more precise than an often misunderstood acronym.

He very briefly outlines the history of the debate in the universities, churches and nation. It was more than a theological argument, but not less than one. Other forces were at work as well. The liberation of the Netherlands from Spain is in the background. Some saw the Remonstrance as favorable toward a friendly relationship with Spain (many of the merchants concerned about trade). The political class, clergy and lower classes tended to be critical of the Remonstrance as a result. This doesn’t mean there weren’t real and important theological issues at play, but just some non-theological reasons people may have had to embrace or reject theological positions. We are not always logical or driven by truth.

Arminius was a “Calvinist” and studied under Theodore Beza who was asked to refute the divergent theology of Dirk Volkertszoon Coornhert. He ended up embracing his theology and was so popular in articulating them that these views were named after him instead (Arminianism is easier to say than Coornhertism).

After he became a professor at the University of Leiden, his colleague Gomarus opposed his views. While both espoused a doctrine of predestination, they differed greatly in what they meant by it. After Arminius’ death, a number of his followers met in Gouda and produced a document called the Remonstrance, outlining their protest against the official doctrine of the Reformed Church. This was in 1610, and they expressed these in the Five Arminian Articles. The distinctions were often vague, but would become more clear as time went on.

After some political controversy, a national synod was called by Prince Maurice. Some might think the government should not be involved but this was a state church and they had a vested interest in the debate being resolved. As noted above, not all the members were Dutch. 26 were from Britain, Switzerland and Germany. The synod met in 1618 and 1619. This means that the controversy was nearly 20 years old- far longer than many of the tempests in teapots that I’ve seen in the last 30 years of ministry.

The Arminians were given an opportunity to respond to “first drafts”. The canons were adopted on April 22, 1619. They responded to the 5 points of Arminianism, with 5 points of their own (subsequently expressed in TULIP by English speaking people).

The first chapter concerns the first main point of doctrine, God’s Purpose and Good Pleasure in Predestination. The heart of the controversy revolves around the question of whether God chose the elect so they would believe or because they believed (foreseen faith). The Reformed held to the former, and the Arminians the latter. The Reformed began with the reality of original sin. Our fallen condition required God’s election of some to salvation, the sending of the Son to live, die and be raised for sinners, and the sending of messengers with the gospel message.

Contrary to many accusations I have heard, the Canons are clear that we are chosen in Christ, our redemption is through Christ and we trust in Christ. This is a Christ-centered document for a Christ-centered theology.

They also upheld a single decree of election, while the Arminians held to two. For Arminians, the first is unconditional, that God wills the salvation of all sinners. The second is conditional, that only those who believe receive that salvation. We see the beginnings of neo-nomianism in Arminianism. Not only did they have a different view of predestination, but a different view of justification. They held that faith is righteousness rather than the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who believe.

DeYoung also quickly discusses the issue of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. The Canons assume an infralapsarian position, that God elects to save sinners from destruction. It is not election apart from our sinful condition. People aren’t condemned because they are “reprobate” but because they are sinners who have sinned and refused to believe in Christ (another sin).

In many places DeYoung notes the pastoral concerns raised in the Canons. They sought to help struggling Christians. This is not intended to be dry theology, but also to meet pastoral needs. This is a good example for denominational study committees. This was one of my complaints about the Nashville Statement. As one of my preaching professors would say, “Where’s the gospel?”. Part of this is the articles regarding how to properly teach and respond to these doctrines. Another aspect was the salvation of the infants of believers. The Arminian opinions connect that to the age of reason, such that children are innocent. The Canons connect it to the gracious covenant and promises of God. This is because people are fallen, even infants.

The second chapter moves to the 2nd point of doctrine, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. This is the doctrine of limited or particular or definite atonement. Commonly this is conceived of as the extent of the atonement. It is that, and the nature of the atonement. DeYoung notes that the emphasis in the Canons of Dordt is “about how God’s justice can be satisfied.” Scripture connects the cross with both God’s love and justice. If we are sinners, and we are, justice must be satisfied.

His atonement is of infinite value. It could sufficiently atone for the sins of the whole world. But Dordt argues that this was not God’s eternal intention. They did not believe a universal atonement  was necessary for universal gospel proclamation. To understand Dordt’s position, he backs up to explain the Arminian position. The Arminian view is rooted in God’s “will of intent” to save all, and neo-nomianism. They hold that Jesus made people saveable. The Reformed view is that Jesus actually saved people. God’s will, not man’s, is what makes the atonement efficient or efficacious.

DeYoung then moves in to a (too) brief discussion of the meaning of “world”. It can mean “the world as the sum total of all created things”, “the dwelling place of man, earth” and “fallen creation in subjection to the evil one.” Jesus died for all kinds of people, not every single person.

“Most often, world refer to badness instead of bigness, and when it refers to bigness, world means everyone without distinction, not everyone without exception.”

These distinctions were taken seriously. Gomarus challenged another delegate to a duel for expressing a divergent view. That would make presbytery meetings a little too interesting.

Also entering his discussion was Davenport’s “hypothetical  or conditional universalism”, an attempt to find an acceptable middle ground between Lutheranism and Anglicanism. The particular atonement of Dordt is meant to magnify Christ as the Savior of sinners.

DeYoung addresses the 3rd and 4th points of doctrine in his 3rd chapter, Human Corruption, Divine Conversion. The reality of our corruption necessitates divine conversion. They reject any Pelagian notions of imitation. We inherit corruption from our first parents. We have “an inherited guilt and an inherited depravity.”  We need more than a little help and assistance. We need God to convert us.

Dordt distinguishes between the general earnest call of the gospel, and a saving effectual call. The preaching of the gospel is not restricted, but it is not effective apart from the sovereign, irresistible, call by the Spirit. This despite the frequent drumbeat of human responsibility by Dordt. We are to blame for rejecting the gospel. The Spirit does more than persuade us. Regeneration precedes and produces faith rather than following faith. Arminian loses sight of this because they lose sight of the distinction between union and communion. They lean on the passages speaking of communion to “prove” faith precedes regeneration as a result.

The last point of doctrine is found in the 4th chapter which covers the perseverance of the saints. It affirms that the saints struggle with sin in this life. They can fall into serious sin, being “carried away by the flesh, the world and Satan.” We are in need of God’s help to stand firm in the faith.

“The doctrine of perseverance does not negate repentance; it leads to repentance.”

DeYoung and Dordt goes into the doctrine of assurance. We can truly be saved but not be assured of our salvation because while we are positionally holy (having Christ’s righteousness) we are not personally holy yet. A holy life helps assurance. Some of the means for salvation and assurance are Word and sacraments.

“We need a God who does the unconditional electing, a God who does the effectual dying, a God who does the supernatural resurrecting, a God who does the unilateral gifting, and a God who does the unbreakable preserving.”

DeYoung has produced a great little and helpful book. It is worth the investment of time to understand the controversy and how the Reformed Church responded to it. It is well-worth reading.

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Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ By Matthew Barrett, Michael A. G. Haykin cover imageFor years now I’ve been reading a volume in the Crossway series “On the Christian Life” while on vacation. That means I read two a year. This summer I decided to read Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ in light of the many references to him at General Assembly, particularly in discussions of sexual sin.

Ironically, in Carl Trueman’s foreward he references the pastoral problems that we share with Owen and his time, including sex (a perennial problem though with different manifestations at times). These problems require the making of fine distinctions, which, Trueman asserts, are difficult to do when we are emotional. Debate ignores these distinctions, and I’ve seen much of this in my denomination in recent days. Trueman continues:

“Owen distinguishes between external temptations and internal. Thus one might pass a suggestive poster outside a shop that tempts one to have a lustful thought and yet resist temptation and not sin. Or one may be sitting at home daydreaming and start to have inappropriate thoughts about a neighbor’s wife. The one represents an external temptation; the other, internal.”

Both temptations involve our sinful nature, but in different ways. External temptation often hooks us because of our sinful nature and our particular weaknesses. But to be tempted in this way is not necessarily a transgression (entertain it, and you do). But if the temptation arises from inside, the source is our sinful nature. We are responsible for that temptation and have transgressed.

These distinctions have been flattened and ignored, even by people who bring up John Owen to prove their point. Yes, Owen was used on both sides of the Nashville Statement debate, for instance. It is like Calvin on the sabbath, you can likely find a passage (often without context) to defend your point of view.

John Owen on the Christian LifeI am neither a novice nor an expert on John Owen. Previously I’ve read Sinclair Ferguson’s book John Owen on the Christian Life (which I regret selling) for a seminary class taught by Jerry Bridges. I’ve read most of volumes 6 and 10 in his works. In particular his books on Sin and Temptation, and the Mortification of Sin, I’ve read more than once. In some discussions I’ve resisted the temptation to snarkily respond to those who suggest I read them as though I were utterly ignorant. I experience an external temptation that my pride has interest in pursuing but the grace of God taught me to say ‘no’.

This is a dense book filled with Owen’s distinctions and working through his treatises. It is highly theological. I have no problem with that at all. But this is a series “On the Christian Life”.

At the end of the book the authors refer to Of the Mortification of Sin.

“This small work encapsulates Owen’s vision of the Christian life as lifelong warfare with indwelling sin and how the indwelling Holy Spirit is the believer’s great strength in this war.”

That is the book I wanted to read! I wanted a book focused on how we live as Christians. This necessarily involves theology, and this was much of Owen’s focus. But I felt like they generally settled for the theological controversies and how Owen responded to them instead of how that theology was intended to play out in our personal experience- something Owen thought was the essence of the Christian life.

Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin are the authors. Here is the chapter listing:

  1. Being John Owen (23)
  2. Living by the Scriptures (35)
  3. Communing with the Trinity (53)
  4. Beholding the Glory of Christ (89)
  5. Crushed for Our Iniquities (121)
  6. Salvation Belongs to the Lord (145)
  7. Justification by Faith Alone and Christian Assurance (185)
  8. The Indwelling Spirit, the Mortification of Sin, and the Power of Prayer (219)
  9. Living the Christian Life as the Church under the State (237)
  10. The Legacy of John Owen (253)
  11. Owen as Pastor to Pilgrims (261)

The latter chapters which are more focused on how we live as Christians as the shorter chapters. Those focused on the theological controversies are the longest chapters. At different times Owen found himself engaging Roman Catholics, Quakers (primarily regarding the Scriptures), Socinians, and Arminians. These controversies were the impetus for many of his treatises. In some of the chapters, like Justification, the authors cover the divergent views of the Roman Catholic Church, Arminians and Socinians and offer Owen’s refutations of each. The problem is that those refutations are often very similar or even identical. You find yourself reading the same thing repeatedly. This makes for a longer book. A more thorough book, but a longer book.

We can see that the Christian life should be rooted in the Scriptures, pursuing communion with the Trinity, meditating on the glory of Christ, being assured of our justification because of Christ’s substitutionary atonement so that we mortify indwelling sin by the power of the Holy Spirit. But they don’t seem to cut to the chase and say that. I felt like I was lead to the water, but not helped to drink from it. I can make those connections, but the people most needing to read this may not be able to.

I guess this left me think this was a book for people like me- theologically oriented elders and pastors. Other volumes in this series, I thought, were more accessible and practical. Don’t misread me. I like the book, but didn’t think it was what it needed to be in light of past experience with the series. Make sense?

In the preface, however they say “while we do not pass over or ignore the weightiness of Owen’s theology, nevertheless, the book is written with a very practical and pastoral focus in mind.” I would beg to differ. I think it was lost in the weightiness of his theology.

One of the places where it is pastorally helpful is the distinction between union and communion (or fellowship). Our union is accomplished monergristically and does not change. Our communion is rooted in this union, but calls us to action so we enjoy this communion. It grows or diminishes along with our obedience as a result. We can lose our sense of communion, but we don’t lose our union with Christ. In union we receive the fulness of Christ with a particular focus on the “double grace” of justification and sanctification. In communion we return His love and delight in God.

One problem with losing sight of this distinction is a faulty understanding of faith and regeneration. Union is part of our effectual call. Deny that and you are left with conflating union and communion so faith precedes regeneration instead of fellowship.

The following chapter on meditating on the glory of Christ is one of the more helpful. They show us the role in turning to Jesus in affliction and temptation, as well as gratitude feeding our desire to obey. Here the main opponent was Socinianism since that alone denied the deity of Jesus which ultimately, as they say, unravels all of Christianity.

In the chapter Salvation Belongs to the Lord they focus on the relationship between predestination and the Christian life. Here is the distinction between decrees and commands, his secret will and his revealed will. Lose sight of this and you confuse providence with your moral duty. They balance divine sovereignty and human responsibility. This includes the distinction between duty and ability. Pelagianism and Arminianism generally conflate them so that our salvation ultimately rests on ourselves and not the Lord. Owen reminds us that ” the command directs our duty, but the promise gives strength for the performance of it.”

In this chapter we also see the distinction between regeneration and sanctification. Socianians conflated the two so that regeneration was an “ongoing process of moral transformation.” The Christian should rest in God’s work for and in him/her as the basis for our efforts in sanctification. We labor as new creations, men and women made new.

“To abandon the doctrine of perseverance is to unleash havoc on the Christian life. Without the doctrine of perseverance, there can be no assurance that the God who began this work of salvation will bring it to completion.”

Justification brings us to the distinctions of between the active and passive obedience of Christ. The active obedience was denied by the Socinians, Catholics and Arminians though in different ways. For the Arminians, there was an embrace of neo-nomianism. Faith was not the instrument of imputed righteousness but was imputed as righteousness. The new law was faith, so Christ didn’t obey on our behalf. The distinction between imputation and impartion is important as the first is connected to justification and the latter to sanctification. Positionally righteous in justification thru the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we become personally righteous as Christ imparts righteousness to us in sanctification until we become like Him in glorification.

There is much to understand regarding justification so we can live a healthy, God-honoring life as a Christian. But to err here is disastrous for the Christian life. More space could have been spent unpacking that. It is important to get this down before moving to indwelling sin, temptation and the mortification of sin. That chapter could have been longer, with more discussion of the process of temptation and the distinctions Trueman noted so that it would be easier to unpack the Westminster Standards regarding the movements of the corrupted nature as sin: condition or transgression? This plays into the discussion of “sexual orientation” and transgression. Clearly SSA is a lack of conformity to the law of God, but at what point does it also become a transgression of the law of God (temptation ==> lust including dwelling on it in our thoughts ==> commission or act)? We don’t hold to the Roman doctrine, yet …. I don’t want to digress too far. This is not simply about that particular sin. We all experience temptation, and that temptation must be mortified. That desire does not conform to the law of God and is “sinful”. But have I transgressed the law or sinned because I experienced a temptation? I see an important distinction there that others seem not to see.

“It is in the death of Christ that we find the death of sin.” Sinclair Ferguson

So, this is a theologically weighty book rooted in the controversies that Owen addressed. Those controversies remain important today. They do affect how we view the Christian life. Yet, they aren’t the Christian life. Do you get that distinction? In my opinion this book could have focused less on theology in some spots (more in others) and explicitly drawn out those pastoral implications for the Christian life. This book could have been more for the average person in the pews that the pastors in the pulpits.

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A Christian's Pocket Guide to Growing in Holiness: Understanding SanctificationThis year at GA I went to the RTS Alumni and Friends luncheon. They gave those who attended a gift box that included some books by professors at the various campuses. One book was by J.V. Fesko, Growing in Holiness: Understanding Sanctification, which is part of the Christian’s Pocket Guide series by Christian Focus.

This is the first installment of the series I’ve read, and I’m encouraged to read more. This is a succinct volume on the subject of sanctification that should appeal to those in our congregations who aren’t big readers. It is a mere 3 chapters and 64 small pages. I read it in 3 sittings of less than an hour each.

Fesko does a good job in laying out the material. The 3 chapters are Sanctification Defined, Sanctification Applied and Sanctification Undermined. At the beginning of each chapter he charts the course for the chapter. He interacts with Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The one thing lacking is the use of illustrations from everyday life. This results in a more abstract book than some may be comfortable reading.

But what he does is provide a theologically rich summary of the Reformed understanding of sanctification.

Fesko begins with, and often returns to, union with Christ. This is the distinctive view of Reformed Theology. This is rooted in Paul’s theology, not just Calvin. He does explain the “double grace” of justification and sanctification that we receive in union with Christ. We actually receive all spiritual blessings in union with Christ, but these two in particular complement each other and were the focus on the dispute of the Reformation.

Fesko defines each and distinguishes them from one another. But we can’t one without the other. Logically, justification comes first and is the foundation for our sanctification (wherein He make those He has declared positionally righteous personally righteous as well).

Image result for justification and sanctification

(chart source)

Union with Christ is the ultimate basis of sanctification as Christ works in us by the Spirit to make us like He is. This means that like justification, sanctification is by grace alone through faith alone. In Christ we have a new identity that we begin to live out.

In living out that new identity, Fesko discusses the two parts of sanctification: mortification and vivification. Big terms he defines. We put to death that which is associated with Adam our old covenant head because it is corrupt. Sanctification is more than putting sin to death, it is also giving life to virtues or godly character. Both putting the old man to death and bringing then new man to life done in the power of the Spirit. It is a work of God’s free grace, not man’s ceaseless effort.

In Sanctification Applied he goes more fully into the “nuts and bolts” of how this happens. He lays out the means of grace, and therefore the centrality of the body of Christ. Prominence is given to God’s Word: read, preached and in the sacraments. In other words, the church offers us the Word spoken and sacramental. He discusses how we are to pray for God to work so we will understand, believe and obey the Word as revealed in the worship of the church.

In temptation we flee to Jesus in prayer, recalling the Word in its promises and warnings pertaining to our particular need. We are active, not passive, in sanctification. But it is always God who works first: for us and then in us.

In Sanctification Undermined, Fesko identifies the predominant false views of sanctification. He does this briefly, indicating how each of them leads us in the wrong direction. He begins with self-renewal which is rooted in Pelagianism but popularized by Charles Finney as one of his many errors. Sins are habits and we can just stop through the power of our will. It is rooted in self, not grace through faith and our union with Christ. Sanctification without Christ is no sanctification at all.

He then highlights imitation of Christ, particularly the mystical form of Thomas a Kempis. This looks in, not out to Christ. Meditation seems to be separated from the Word of God. (I’m not sure he’s entirely fair to a Kempis, but it has been a number of years since I’ve read him.)

He then outlines Roman Catholicism which has a very different understanding of grace and how that grace is received in the sacraments. Grace is mystical and magical, received through the simple receiving of the sacraments rather than the Reformed understanding of received by faith in the promises of the sacraments.

He then moves to legalism which rightly sees a place for the law, but wrongly depends on the law. This is his opportunity to begin introducing the proper place of the law. But he also shows the weakness of the law. While it reveals, it contains no power in itself. It reveals my sinfulness but cannot change it. I need to be united to Christ!

It’s evil twin is antinomianism which in its various forms indicates that the law has no significant place in our lives after conversion. It is a neglect of the law’s role in revealing righteousness to God’s children. It provides guard rails for us as we grow in Christ. How we lives does matter. The Holy One is making us holy ones.

He includes some book recommendations for further reading. He’s includes some important ones including Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Walter Marshall The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification and Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity. I also recommend these great books for better understanding how the gospel is at work in our sanctification.

Fesko provides us with a clear, succinct volume to help us understand sanctification. This could be a useful book to share with new(er) Christians and to aid conversation about this great work of God in us.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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