Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Particular Atonement’


One of my congregants was born in another country, and another branch of the family of faith. When they moved to America and joined our congregation there was much that was new to her. One thing in particular was Covenant Theology.

Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God's Unfolding Promises to His PeopleShe and her husband were listening to Ligon Duncan’s lectures on the subject but was wondering if there was a book I could recommend. Months earlier I had picked up Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God’s Unfolding Promises to His People on sale. It came highly recommended by others. I hadn’t read it yet but lent them my copy. It turned out to be one of her favorite books of the year. As a result, I read it (at the time we were thinking of writing a middle school curriculum on Covenant Theology).

The book is appropriately named. To be fair I’ve read many of the key books on the subject, but Rhodes does keep it simple. He doesn’t duck controversies, but neither does he get bogged down in them. He doesn’t use technical language because this is intended to be for the average person in the pews. He succeeds, as indicated by the many recommendations I’ve seen online. The book includes a number of helpful diagrams (not charts!) to illustrate his point in a given chapter. These visual aids supplement the text nicely.

Covenants are often misunderstood. They are about relationships. One of the more famous definitions is O. Palmer Robertson’s “bond in blood”. The problem with that is it doesn’t work for the first covenant in Scripture. Nor the eternal covenant between the Father and Son if you hold to that (I do). Jonty Rhodes seeks to get at covenants through a series of questions (good questions) that bring us to the ultimate questions of how can I know God’s promises are reliable.

He begins in the Garden with what is commonly called The Covenant of Works. But he begins that chapter in the Upper Room and Jesus’ mention of the blood of the covenant. We can’t really understand Jesus’ death if we don’t understand covenants. Covenants are throughout Scripture, and Rhodes rightly notes “Covenant is the theme that links the different books of the Bible to make them one united story.” But, you might say, the Bible is about Jesus. Yes, and He reveals what He’s going to do through those covenants.

The word occurs more than 300 times. While it is connected to the word “to cut” we see from its use and context that “a covenant is a conditional promise.” Or to flesh it out some more, he says “A covenant is an agreement between God and human beings, where God promises blessings if the conditions are kept and threatens curses if the conditions are broken.” This doesn’t mean there aren’t covenants between nations or individuals (David and Jonathan made a covenant of friendship) but our focus is on the biggies that shape the Scripture.

Now Rhodes goes back to the Garden. God has created, separated and filled creation. He made Adam and Eve in His image to fill, subdue and rule it. These creation mandates involve marriage & family, work and study, arts and sciences. In addition to these positive commands about how they are to spend their time, we see the provision of food to sustain them. There was one negative command, that one tree whose fruit they couldn’t eat. Keep the commands and this Garden temple will grow to fill the earth to God’s glory, but break them and they ruin everything. The Bible never mentions that this comprises a covenant but we see commands, prohibitions and sanctions anyway (as well as the historical prologue of creation). We also see, Rhodes notes, the reality of Adam as a covenant or federal head in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. How can we properly understand how all humanity fell in Adam apart from a covenant? If we rule that out, we rule out the means of salvation with Jesus as the head of the new covenant.

As Rhodes notes, plenty of people don’t like the term covenant of works. Other terms used are covenant of life or covenant of creation. There doesn’t seem to be any grace in works. Adam did receive all kinds of benefits in creation without initially earning them. Continuing in them was a different story. But this intramural debate doesn’t interest him much.

The greatness of the Garden didn’t last long. Adam ruined it for himself, and all of us. His actions have affected every single human being who has lived, is living and will live. He is literally the most (or 2nd most) influential person ever. The second chapter engages us in Satan’s assault on God through His image, Adam. When he sins, the curse breaks out. God is applying the sanctions of the covenant, not having a conniption of divine proportions. The curses affect the creation mandates: our filling, subduing and ruling. Each is not attended with futility and failure, pain and problems.

Yet we see mercy as well. God did not simply execute these traitors, he let the live. But He also have them a promise that someone would come to set things right again. Rhodes also gets to the more “theological” aspects of the curse that need to be dealt with: guilt, grime (internal corruption) and the grave.

His third chapter brings us back to the reality of covenant conflict, or rather the conflict in the OT seen through the lens of the covenant. Satan continues his war on God’s people in an attempt to thwart the seed of the woman. The conflict is frequently one of words, with the false messages of the Evil One continuing. Here he address the covenant with Noah. He slips in a little about common grace since this covenant is not specifically about salvation but provides the stage for redemption. It also mirrors the creation mandates and promises. Like Adam, this “second” Adam sins and fails to bring comfort to God’s people.

This brings Rhodes, and us, to the covenant with Abraham (his new name by virtue of the covenant). The seed of the woman will come through Abraham’s line. God promises a great name (unlike Babel which sought to make a great name for itself), great people and to bring a great blessing to the nations. God will repair the damage done by Adam, but through Abraham’s promised seed. The covenants progressively reveal God’s promises to His people. They are rightly seen as building upon one another rather than disconnected from one another.

The Mosaic covenant is one that continues to perplex people today. Is it reflective of the covenant of grace, the covenant of works or does it have elements of both?

It arises because God has been keeping His promises to Abraham about a great nation, and is about to fulfill His promise about the land. Their redemption from slavery helps form a gracious background to this covenant. Yet, like the covenant of creation it seems very much about how to remain in the land, or be removed from the land for prolonged & persistent disobedience. We should see the sacrifices as provisional until the Seed comes. This covenant doesn’t lay aside the promise, and like Abraham they were accounted righteous by faith. Like Abraham they were also to walk uprightly before Him (Gen. 17). To think that conditions, or holiness, reflect back upon the covenant of worship seems to be mistaken. Rhodes puts it this way, the covenants with Abraham and Moses are the same girl in a different dress. To put it another way: while obedience doesn’t produce salvation, salvation produces obedience.

The next development is the covenant with David. God narrows down the line for the seed further. The skull crusher will come from David. We see here, as well, God’s conditionality. If a particular son disobeys, he will be disciplined. But there is the son who will set all things right. Just as David disobeyed at times, Solomon gets distracted by girls, gods and gold. David’s line is more failure than faithfulness until the Babylonian exile.

In the chapter of the New Covenant, Rhodes addresses the newness of the covenant. He also draws out the consistency of the New Covenant with the previous ones. It has the same promises, not different promises. He also develops and already-not yet approach to this covenant. We see forgiveness as well as holiness. We see the promise of a new heart and the Spirit. We see the familiar promise that “they will by My people and I will be their God.” Like the earlier covenants, they are all about salvation, not simply forming a nation with land. Those served the purposes of redemption and the boundaries are about to be expanded. The Gentiles doesn’t replace the Jews, but are grafted onto the vine (or more properly, Vine). We are admitted into the true Israel.

It is here that he finally addresses the question of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son. This is alluded to in many Scriptures, particularly in John’s Gospel. The Father makes a conditional promise to the Son: He will give Him a people for His pain. Jesus fulfills the covenant of works for their salvation. It will not be wasted work based on the promise of people given to Him. This brings us to the doctrine of election. It also brings us to double imputation and union with Christ. The covenants are not an isolated doctrine but inform a number of doctrines.

He further explores these in covenant salvation which explores the role of each member of the Trinity in salvation, previously agreed upon. The Father chooses, the Son dies & intercedes, and the Spirit applies that salvation to the people chosen by the Father at the appointed time. This brings us to the doctrine of limited or particular atonement. It is best understood with the framework of the covenant. He brings this forward to the question of assurances. Aside from this covenantal understanding of salvation we lose the grounds of assurance.

Rhodes then explores the covenant people further with a view toward church government. He provides an interesting approach. Congregationalism is like a bunch of self-governing circles, lots of churches but seemingly no Church. The Presbyterian form of government sees a chain, self-governing congregations that are joined to for a Church. The Episcopal form is a pyramid with all under the authority of one head on earth who mediates that power through bishops to pastors and congregations. From here he moves into the visible and invisible churches and then into the question of infant baptism. The covenant is essential for understanding the church and sacraments properly.

The last chapter returns to covenant life, how the covenant informs our experience of life in the Church and the church. We receive the promised Holy Spirit (promised explicitly in the New Covenant but discussed by Paul in terms of the Abrahamic covenant in Galatians) who produces obedience in us. This is because the Spirit unites us to Jesus. He briefly touches upon the law and gospel distinction.

We discover that this book about covenants brings us to consider much of theology. They are not isolated but form the structure of Scripture and therefore theology. This is a book well-worth studying. It is worthy of recommendation to your people. It may not dig as deep into some controversies as someone may like, we see the breadth of issues that may interest people. This is not a plunge into the deep end but like wading into the pool while inviting people to swim in the deep end when they choose.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »


I’m currently preaching thru Colossians 3, addressing matters of sanctification. I’ve been hitting the “vice list”. But there is another type of sin hidden there.

11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV)

The church there was in danger of splitting along ethnic, socio-economic and other lines. This tendency has not been extinguished. It is part of our fallen condition that stubbornly refuses to die despite redemption. Racism in the church is NOT a new thing, and not just a “white thing”.

“We humans have never had the resources in ourselves to love each other well across ethnic lines. There is too much selfishness in all of us.”

I’ve had more conversations about race and socio-economic issues (those 2, I find, are often confused). I’m trying to read more about this, and have far more to read (perhaps Perkins, Ellis, Bradley, Noll and others). I long for our congregation to reflect biblical realities (the good ones), and for our denomination to make concrete, meaningful strides in this area. It is not easy. I’m often frustrated: by myself and others. I also have adopted an Asian child and 2 African children so now they have the hyphen. So this is both a personal and professional issue for me.

As a result, I decided to read John Piper’s recent book Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian. This book is essentially an exposition of the gospel that is applied to the issue of racism (though I find that term less than accurate, thinking we are all of one race, descended from Adam via Noah).

Piper starts with his own story of growing up in Greenville, SC. He admits to his racism, and rejoices in Christ’s redemption that includes the putting to death of that racism. He is not blind to the on-going issues within the evangelical church that mirror the world in this regard. That is why he wrote the book to reveal what the gospel says about all this.

If we start with the bloodlines, we see that we all have a common ancestry. It may not be 7 degrees of separation, but if you go back far enough we are connected. I recently saw a question about the table of nations in Genesis 10. Why are they there? I believe they anticipate the promise given to Abram in Genesis 12. Those nations still mattered to God and He would bless them through Abram’s seed. The distinctiveness of Israel was temporary! God’s people will come from all the nations, as we see in Revelation 5.

What we see in Revelation 5 is that the cross purchased people from every nation, tribe, tongue and language. Redemption from bondage. Purchased to set free, not purchased to enslave. Christ, as the seed of Abram, fulfills that promise. This fulfillment brings us all into one body, a new man as Paul says in Ephesians 2.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


It has been a few months since I’ve gotten into one of those discussions about the intent and extent of the atonement. But in Sunday School we are studying Revelation this year. We are currently in Revelation 5. Part of it reads like this:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

NOT this:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your bloodyou ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

If Jesus had died for everyone, we would expect the latter there. We’d expect to see that Jesus purchased every tribe and people and nation instead of just people from every tribe and language and people and nation. There is a universal aspect in that there is someone from every group of people imaginable. But it is not universal in that it does not include everyone indiscriminately.

So, instead of finding any form of universal intent we find a passage that supports the Reformed idea of particular or limited atonement. Those for whom Christ died receive the benefits of that death. Purchased by Christ they are a kingdom of priests and reign on earth with Him.

I need to remember this the next time I interact with an advocate of unlimited atonement.

Read Full Post »


Lately I’ve been interacting with a number of people who call themselves “moderate Calvinists”. I’ll be honest, it has been frustrating (for both sides, I’m sure). One reason is a body of literature they have read, that I haven’t, and they point to as authoritative. They usually despise John Owen, and (from my perspective) take comments by scholars (Owen and otherwise) out of context for their arguments.

Moses Amyraut- the original 4-Pointer

They hold to a “hypothetical atonement” instead of a particular atonement. They are similar to the Amyraldian position (they resist this label) in that the atonement is universal in extent, even if only efficient for the elect. They recognize the reality of the elect. So they’ve got that going for them.

One claim I’ve heard from them is that the Canons of Dort do not support the doctrine of limited or particular atonement as espoused by 5-Point Calvinists. (If I’ve misunderstood in the flood of verbiage, I’ll recant.) They see the 5-Points as a modern formulation (yeah, so?), that has no basis in the work of Calvin and the Canons.  I thought I’d look at the Canons (it has been awhile) and see what I find. It is kind of hard to re-read all of Calvin on this topic.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


Still working through the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Here are the sections on the Covenant and Christ our Mediator.

Chapter VII: Of God’s Covenant with Man

80. What is a covenant (in terms of God’s relationship with man)?  It is a bond sealed in blood by which God has redeemed His people, and outlines how we are to live as His people.

81. What is meant by the “covenant of works” (or, “of life”)? Does it have a present validity?  It was the covenant under which Adam lived in the Garden.  It is the covenant under which we all fell into sin with him.  All who are in Adam remain in the covenant of works and shall experience the just condemnation due them.

82. What is meant by the “covenant of grace”?  It is covenant in which Jesus is offered as our Redeemer who perfectly obeyed in our place  that we might receive covenant blessings, and died in our place suffering the penalty for our sins committed under the covenant of works.

83. Explain the statement that there is one unified covenant of grace with various administrations. Distinguish from dispensations. The revelation of that covenant was progressive and expansive.  Each successive covenant provided greater clarity and blessing rather than replace previous covenants.  In dispensationalism, each successive dispensation replaces the previous dispensation.

84. What are the signs and seals of the covenant? Circumcision and Passover in the OT; Baptism & the Lord’s Table in the NT

85. Are you personally committed to covenant theology? Yes.

 

Chapter VIII: Of Christ the Mediator

86. Why is the office of Christ as Mediator necessary for the salvation of God’s elect?  Apart from the work of a Mediator, we perish in our sins.  God is just and he can’t just wipe the slate clean.  Someone must be punished for our sins, and we need real obedience to receive covenant blessings.

87. Could God have pardoned sin without Christ’s sacrifice?  No, for no mere man is able to perfectly obey God but sin each day in thought, word and deed.  God is just and must punish sin.  No other substitute was available.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


Scottish pastor-theologian Eric Alexander has said this about Our Sovereign Saviour: The Essence of the Reformed Faith by Roger Nicole: “I could not speak too highly of this book.”  That is an apt summary of my sentiments as well.

All the more reason for me to wonder why this delightful little book is so unavailable.  It seems downright difficult to find in the places it should be easy to find.  Dr. Nicole is one of the pre-eminent theologians of the 20th century.  In the words of ‘King Arthur’, “You make me sad.”  But to the book!

In 184 pages Dr. Nicole summarizes and explains the distinctives of the Reformed Faith, and its implications on other doctrines.  Here is a chapter outline:

  1. The Meaning of the Trinity.  He establishes the 3 truths we hold in balance, and how the various heresies exalt one truth at the expense of the others.
  2. Soli Deo Gloria– or to God Alone be the glory.  This is a chapter on the glorious extent of God’s sovereignty, including individuals and the Church.
  3. Predestination and the Divine Decrees.  He explores what is meant, and not meant, by God’s sovereignty.  It does not mean we are puppets, for as the Westminster Confession notes, “nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures (III, 1).”  God ordains all things in keeping with our nature/character and how he plans to work to change our character.  He also briefly explains & critiques supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.
  4. Calvinism: the Five Points.  He briefly explains the 5 main ideas of Calvinism, and dispells some common misunderstandings based on poor terminology.
  5. Particular Redemption.  He explains and defends the doctine of definite atonement, summarizing John Owen’s arguments from The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
  6. The Doctrines of Grace in the Teachings of Jesus.  He shows that these are not doctrines of John Calvin, or Paul but taught by Jesus Himself, particularly in the Gospel According to John.
  7. Reconciliation and Propitiation.  He explores the use of these terms in Scripture and how they fit best with an understanding of definite atonement.
  8. Justification: Standing by God’s Grace.  He explores the 3 main illustrations of justification in Scripture to understand it fully.  In this chapter he mentions students who ‘made a virtue of being poorly attired’ hoping they learned to dress better before candidating for a position.  Sadly, I was one of these immature slobs who thought so little of themselves.
  9. Sanctification: Growing unto God.  He explains what it means negatively (mortification) and positively (vivefication).  Whereas justification is something done for us, sanctification is something done in us.
  10. Predestination and the Great Commission.  He shows, primarily through the example of William Carey, that election and evangelism are not at odds with one another if properly understood.  He defends the free offer of the gospel from misunderstandings.
  11. When God Calls.  Shows from God’s call of Paul and Barnabas that God is mission-minded in a way that ought to challenge us all to become engaged.  Without using the term, he builds a quick case for missional living.
  12. Freedom and Law.  He addresses the issue of what freedom really is, against some silly misconceptions, and how the Law fits into freedom.
  13. Prayer: the Prelude to Revival.  He addresses prayer as an established means for revival.  He also talks about some fundamentals of prayer in relation to sovereignty.
  14. The Final Judgment.  He defends the doctrine of the final judgment.

In these chapters you find typical Dr. Nicole.  Though humble and irenic, you find him quite knowledgable and more than capable of dispelling any misunderstandings or strawmen opposed against the truth.  He is brief, not laboring his points.  He uses illustrations from everyday life, and history.  I’m not sure if he’s ever seen a movie.  But this means that the book is not bound in time unnecessarily.  How I wish he wrote more!  This is a book that often moved me to prayer- gratitude and petition.  That is what good theology does.  This is a book that can encourage those who understand the distinctives of the Reformed Faith.  It is also a great, winsome book for those who do not yet understand and embrace them. 

Here are a few choice quotes:

“Thus, the sovereignty of God immediately crushes man as sinner into the very just of the ground, for he is unable to rise in God’s presence but must be the object of his fearful condemnation. … When we talk about the sovereignty of God we emphasize the sovereignty of God the Holy Spirit who works in the lives of men and does not await some consent that would be coming fron unregenerate sinners but who himself transforms at the very depths of their personality lives that are disrupted, distorted and destroyed by sin.”

“There is no circumstance of life that should be totally disconcerting, because God has ordained it and is at the back of it.  His loving and gracious purpose is fulfilled even in the events which may appear quite contrary to our wishes.”

“The grace of God does not function against our wills but is rather a grace which subdues the resistance of our wills.  God the Holy Spirit is able to accomplish this.”

“Authentic Calvinism has always confessed particular redemption and at the same time insisted on the universal offer of the gospel.”

“God cannot punish a sin twice.  He cannot punish it once in the person of the Redeemer and then punish it again later in the person of the perpetrator.”

“The Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  He is not going to allow his sheep to wander away.  That, in fact, is expressly stated.  He gives them eternal life.  They shall never perish.”

“It is only when we consider how grievous a thing sin is and how greatly displeased God is with it, that we are in a position to understand what it means to be reconciled to him.”

“The very fact that you know this person- the very fact that you are in contact with this person, the very fact that there is a burden upon your heart for this person- ought to be an indication that quite possibly, even probably, he or she has been picked by God.”

“There is no Christian who can say, ‘I am not a missionary.’  There are places that you can reach that nobody else can reach.  There  are people for whom you can work that nobody else can invite in the same way in God’s name.  We have a task to accomplish.”

“What people fail to understand is that the spiritual laws that God has established are equally binding. … They think they can violate the moral laws that God has established at the root of the universe and not bear the consequences. … To disregard the laws of God is not to achieve freedom; it is to sink into futility.  It is to break oneself against the structure of the world in which we live.”

Read Full Post »


To be fair, I thought I’d put down how God brought me to embrace Reformed Theology as the most consistent understanding of biblical theology.

  1. What was the first book you read that introduced you to Reformed Theology?   That would be Packer’s Knowing God, though I didn’t know it at the time.  I had been a Christian for less than a year when I bought it.  It remains one of my favorites.  After I “got” Reformed Theology, I re-read Knowing God, and saw all the seeds had been sown there.  Sproul’s Chosen By God was the one that gave me words to express what I had come to believe.
  2. Besides the Bible, list the five most influential books in your Reformed theological journey.  In addition to the 2 already mentioned, Martin Luther- Bondage of the Will; John Piper- Desiring God; J.I. Packer- Keep in Step with the Spirit; Jerry Bridges- Trusting God; R.C. Sproul- The Holiness of God.
  3. List three preachers and/or teachers who were most influential in your journey? Prior to seminary, R.C. Sproul.  I devoured his books and audio tapes prior to going to seminary.  J.I. Packer, who joined Sproul in introducing me to the Puritans, the Reformers and Jonathan Edwards.  In seminary, I spent lots of time reading Edwards and the Puritans (particularly Burroughs, Owen & Boston).  Post-seminary it would be John Frame, Sinclair Ferguson, Tim Keller and Jack Miller.  Yes, I cheated.  But I affirm grace, baby.
  4. If you could give one book to someone interested in Reformed theology, what book would you give them?  Probably Sproul’s Grace Unknown (I think it is now called What is Reformed Theology?) or Ferguson’s In Christ Alone.
  5. What doctrine would you say distinguishes Reformed Theology?  Particular Atonement.  Packer’s intro to Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is must reading to understand how essential this doctrine is to grasping biblical Christianity, and how other theologies offer a different gospel.  This is a much understood doctrine thanks to the many straw men those opposed to it put up.  This is usually the hardest distinctive doctrine for people to accept.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »