Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘providence’


Image of the works of John newtonThe second volume in The Works of John Newton is even a little more varied than the first volume. The first had a biography, then his memoirs in letter form followed by more letters. This volume begins with the remaining letters of Cardiphoia, followed by some collections of sermons, then his ecclesiastical history and then the Olney Hymnbook. There is clearly plenty of material here.

In one of his books Jerry Bridges talks about the pool hall, and that his parents warned him to not go to the pool hall. He thought there was something wrong with playing pool. As it turned out, the concern was the gambling and unsavory characters associated with that pool hall (and some others).

I wonder if something similar happened with Newton and the playhouse. The first series of letters is to a Miss TH***, and they include his rebuke about her attendance at a playhouse. “I am well satisfied, that if there is any practice in this land sinful, attendance on the play-house is properly and eminently so. The theatres are fountains and means of vice…”.

I agree that the gospel is “a source of purer, sweeter, and more substantial pleasures.” We are invited into communion with God, but does that preclude our viewing stories told on TV, movies and stage? He is helping her wrestle with the impact of holiness on entertainment. Like most I’m probably quick to point out the shows I choose not to watch on account of their content but overlook the ones I do. In seminary one professor recommended I watch Seinfeld and another lamented the horrible choices students were making by watching such shows.

These letter grapple with living one’s faith in their circumstances and choices. They point us to Christ, not just for holiness but also for pardon. “Our sins are many, but his mercies are more; our sins are great, but his righteousness is greater.” He helps people wrestle with God’s providence in light of God’s character. This includes his famous paraphrase of Romans 8:28- “All shall work together for good; everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds.” He’s also very aware of the weakness of the flesh and that hard circumstances draw forth our corruptions.

He also interacts with men in ministry or considering ministry. At times they are men of different opinions than Newton. He tries to gently instruct, and provides a model for such discourses (rather than polemics). Polemics is for books, though even there winsomeness can help, not for personal relationships. He also covers topics like the length and volume of sermons, when to leave a church and more.

He writes about assurance of salvation to William Wilberforce’s aunt. There are letters on “backsliding”. He speaks of the pain of friendship and placing our hope in God alone. He also notes “it is merciful in the Lord to disappoint our plans and to cross our wishes.”

There are also some odd events, adding to the personal character. He writes of a lion they had in town and a discussion with its keeper. He writes of his own frustrations in some of the doctrinal debates, how he doesn’t fit perfectly in any one camp: “I am sort of a speckled bird among my Calvinist brethren … the Dissenters (many of them I mean) think me defective … neither do my dimensions fit exactly with them (Methodists).” So, one will find sorts of things of interest and help.

The sermons begin with a series of discourses that he intended to preach but apparently did not. They cover the deceitfulness of the human heart, Jesus and salvation, the name “Christians”, all things being given to us with Christ, and searching the Scriptures. In some ways they are an introduction to the Christian life. There is much that is very good in these discourses. In the last discourse he seems to discourage the expositional preaching through books. One finds subjects or themes to preach upon. So John and I could possibly have a lengthy discussion on this topic.

“None are so bad but the gospel affords them a ground of hope: none so good as to have any just ground for hope with it.”

Next are 20 sermons preached in Olney. He begins a series of sermons on Matt. 11:25 on the lack of success the gospel ministry may meet due to the mysteries of the gospel being hid from many. He preaches 4 sermons on that text before moving on to verse 26. There he begins to assert the sovereignty of divine grace. In the 6th sermon he moves to the person of Christ in vv. 27. That includes authority. This means that the glory and grace of God are revealed in Christ. After these 3 sermons on vv. 27, he moves to vv. 28 to discuss our labor and heavy load what it means to come to Christ and the rest he provides. Yes, 3 sermons on that before addressing vv. 30. This may be why he didn’t generally preach thru books- he would have died before he finished one with so many sermons on individual verses.

This is, in my opinion, one of the weaknesses of Puritan preaching which he seems to emulate here. The themes can be subtly removed from the context of the larger passage and book if one is not careful. We can be so focused on a word or phrase that we miss the overall meaning of a text.

Newton then moves to Romans 14 to discuss liberty and misconduct. The next sermon offered concerns the 3rd commandment out of Exodus 20. These sermons and those which follow are all disconnected from one another. He then jumps to 1 Cor. 9:24 and running the race. Then he jumps back to Micah 6:6-8 and James 2. You get the point. These were not preached, I imagine, sequentially.

They are good sermons and there are plenty of helpful statements in them. There is often encouragement to be found in them.

His Review of Ecclesiastical History is not quite what I expected. Generally such works begin after the time of the Apostles. His pretty much ends there. He’d hoped to write more volumes, but that is all he got to write. He was a busy many, as his many apologies for delays litter his letters.

“The history of all ages and countries uniformly confirms the Scriptural doctrine, that man is a depraved and fallen creature, and that some selfish temper, ambition, avarice, pride, revenge, and the like, are, in effect, the main-springs and motives of his conduct, unless so far, and in such instances, as they are corrected and subdued by Divine grace.”

His introduction focuses on the resistance of the human heart to the truth and the spread of persecution. He was thankful that the law of England limited the persecution of the church. He begins with the ministry of Jesus.

“We may describe the gospel to be- A divine revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, discovering the misery of fallen man by sin, and the means of his complete recovery by the free grace of God, through faith, unto holiness and happiness.”

He breaks this definition down, phrase by phrase. Then he returns to the subject of opposition, in particular by the religious leaders in Israel. The particular groups represent the basic types of resistance: legalism/self-righteousness, liberals or the self-wise, the worldly-wise or compromising. Newton then contrasts the disciples before and after Christ’s resurrection and ascension. He focuses on the influences of grace, however imperfect.

The second period of Christianity was the work of the Apostles. He retraces much of the Acts of the Apostles. This section is almost like a little commentary with some helpful words on the biblical book. He tries to focus on the needs of his time as he edits the vast history. As he goes he gives the supposed date of the events and the emperor at the time.

As he reports the advice of Gamaliel, I wonder how often we should heed that. Many fads in theology have come and gone, but each time we act like this one is the end of the church as we know it, only for the controversy to die down and the movement or false doctrine to die out (like the emergent church, open theism etc.).

Newton shifts his attention to Paul’s character as an example for ministers. He was a self-righteous and moral man who’s need for a Savior was revealed. Paul was concerned for doctrinal purity as relates to the great doctrines of the faith. He was discerning about which deviations were deadly to the gospel and which weren’t.

“Self is too prevalent in the best men, and the tendency of self is, to exact submission, to hurry to extremes, to exaggerate trifles into points of great consequence, and to render us averse to the healing expedients of peace.”

Paul derived the circumstantials and essentials of religion from the same source- the Scriptures. Newton explains the differences between them. Paul’s zeal was matched by his humility.

Newton moves on to the irregularities and offenses of the Apostles’ days. He brings us to the letters of the Apostles’ (and Acts) to see some of the most important problems they experienced. He addresses the public worship of Corinth, for instance. He still doesn’t give an answer to the supposed contradiction between chapters 11 and 14 on women speaking i the service. One persistent problem was the attachment some Jewish converts had to the law of Moses. We also see early forms of Antinomianism.

The hymnbook contains only titles and lyrics. It provides the text that influenced particular hymns. At times we can see how the form we have now is much different- verses missing or added (particularly with Amazing Grace). There are many hymns whose words should prove of interest to those who update the music of hymns.

I’m finding The Works of John Newton to be worth the investment of my time this year. They would likely be worth your investment too.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set)John Newton has long been one of my favorite ‘dead guys’. A few years ago Banner of Truth reformatted his Works into 4 volumes (from the previous 6 volume set) and I picked up a set. Last year I read a church history set over the course of the year. This year I decided I’ll read a volume of Newton each quarter.

Well, the first quarter is done. One of the idiosyncrasies of the first volume in the pagination. If you look at the back it is just over 600 pages. But … it begins with Memoirs of Rev. John Newton from page xvii-cxlvi so the volume is nearly 750 pages long. I did have to adapt my reading schedule from 10 pages/day to 10-15/day and some times adding some Saturday reading.

After the Memoirs of Rev. John Newton we find An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton, in Fourteen Letters. In other words, Newton’s autobiography over the course of 14 letters. Then we have Forty-One Letters on Religious Subjects, by Omnicron and Vigil (a pseudonym) and Cardiphonia; or, the Utterance of the Heart, in the Course of a Real Correspondence.

The theme of volume one is two-fold: his life and his letters. We will find more of his letters in volume two (as they complete Cardiphonia). It did seem strange to have both the Memoirs and the Narrative at the beginning of his works. In one sense it makes sense thematically. From the perspective of the reader I would have preferred some space between the two accounts of his life.

JohnNewtonColour.jpgHis life, however, is an amazing testimony to the patience, persistence and providence of God. And the amazing grace of God. It is easy to lose track of how many times Newton nearly died, or should have died. For instance, one time the captain told him to stay on the ship one night after dinner. It was his custom to sleep ashore. The captain had no identifiable reason. That night the boat sank before reaching shore meaning Newton, who could not swim, would have drowned. Another time he took ill days before a voyage and could not go. That ship sank and Newton would have been lost. There are many of these stories which should remind you of how often we may be spared without knowing it.

Behind the seemingly random chaos of life, Newton saw God’s providence. He didn’t necessarily understand, or claim to understand, why God would do such things, but accepted that He did. And so should we. We don’t have to understand why. We do need to simply trust that God has His good reasons (a subject to which he will return often in his letters).

We fail to accept the fragility of life in our day. Due to technology we think we can prevent accidents from occurring. In his day, they were accepted as par for the course. For Newton, at least, the god-complex of thinking we should be able to control life didn’t exist. Both evil and calamity existed. We, on the other hand, seem to pretend evil doesn’t exist except in rare cases, and think we can prevent all calamity.

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott.jpg

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott

Mental illness shows up as well, both in the life of William Cowper and in some of Newton’s letters. This, obviously, was before the use of medications to treat them. People could be institutionalized for years. Cowper would die in an institution. Newton’s adopted daughter would also spend time in one. In a letter he alludes to visiting a person in an institution for the mentally ill, and it was a great struggle for him. It reminded me of the visits I’ve done to prison: there’s something about hearing that door slam shut and lock behind you. It feels oppressive.

This is not hagiography, which is refreshing. You do get a picture of a flawed man, a trophy of grace. You get a taste of life’s hardship. You also get a taste of societal sins: class and race struggles that marked his day. But also the people who worked to end the legalize prejudice. Today Newton might be called a Social Justice Warrior, but I think that would be quite the misnomer. He did fight to end some injustices which he saw as implications of the gospel. He was haunted by past sins of his regarding the slave trade. He kept the gospel central, and so can we.

As Newton moved into pastoral ministry, there was seemingly controversy on every side. Divisions filled England and its churches. He notes the high Calvinists considered him an Arminian and Arminians recognized him as the Calvinist he claimed to be. There were also Dissenters or Independents. This was a time when declaring oneself as a Methodist or Enthusiast closed many doors for service. Newton grew weary of such debate and dissension in Christ’s church. He wrote often enough about how to conduct ourselves in controversy. He also interacted with pastors who were younger and needing a mentor, and pastors of different minds on the secondary issues.

He provides some sound pastoral advice to pastors about subjects like when to seek a new call in addition to engaging in controversy. For me these have often been timely words of advice.

Sinclair Ferguson notes that the details of our conversion often shape the concerns of our Christian life. He notes Paul’s envy of Stephen’s gifts, as well as Isaiah’s subsequent focus on the holiness of God. In Newton’s case, he focused on the sinfulness of the human heart and God’s purposes in providence. They fill his letters. This is part of why I love Newton.

Newton doesn’t paint a picture of experiential religion that places us above and beyond sin. Rather, he struggles with his own heart, recognizing the temptations that arise both in private and public. In a number of places he wonders how a Christian can survive in London with all its temptations. This was before he was called to serve a church in London later in life. No pastors are called to serve in paradise. And neither is anyone else.

Newton is not excusing sin, but honest about the effects of indwelling sin, the world and the devil. He is critical of Christian Perfectionism that was found among some including some Methodists. Our pilgrimage is thru a fallen society that pressures us to sin, stirred up to sin and tempt by the Evil One, and possessing a heart that is too often receptive to these temptations.

“So wonderfully does the Lord proportion the discoveries of sin and grace; for he knows our frame, and that if was to put forth the greatness of his power, a poor sinner would be instantly overwhelm, and crushed as a moth.”

In addition to temptation we also experience much in the way of affliction. God reveals our weakness as well as His strength. It is not enough for us to consider this intellectually, but He wants us to “feel” our weakness and experience His sufficient supply. By these afflictions he reveals the idols of our hearts and the sufficiency of Christ for our satisfaction.

His letters address the subjects we struggle with but often don’t talk about. As a result, they are immensely helpful.

There are some topics of historical interest. Some of the letters mention the American Revolution. In that context he refers to the problem of the national debt a few times. He views the colonists as sinning in their rebellion against the king, but also that this is in some way a judgment on the nation.

For the anti-vax crowd, one letter struggles with the advent of the vaccine for small pox. He thinks thru the situation out loud. Does a trust in the God of providence avoid the vaccination leaning solely on Him or see this as God’s providential provision of means.

On subject of puzzlement is his view of the theatre or playhouse. He views it as a venue for sin. He doesn’t specify the content of particular plays. Could it be the sin that took place in the playhouses? In one of Jerry Bridges’ book on grace he mentions he grew up hearing that he should avoid the pool halls. As he grew older, he learned that playing pool itself was not the issue, but the gambling and other sins that took place in the pool hall.

Newton does chastise one person in a letter for attending a play. I need more context as to why in this case. Apart from the context it sounds a bit legalistic.

Volume One has plenty of material worth reading. Most of it is in readable chunks thanks to the fact it is largely letters. You can follow along as some relationships develop over time. Why don’t more people read John Newton?

 

Read Full Post »


At our most recent Presbytery meetings, one of our pastors was handing out some free copies of a little book he’d recently read. That book was Hit by Friendly Fire: What to Do When Fellow Believers Hurt You by Michael Milton.

This is a very short book, which is likely a good thing when you are struggling with betrayal and deep wounds. It is a simple book as well. It is laid out to help you quickly deal with an all to common problem. As I noted in my sermon yesterday, the church is a community of saints AND a community of sinners. We will hurt each other, sometimes deeply. Pastors sometimes not that sheep bite, and they do. The closer you are to that particular sheep, the more it hurts.

In many ways this little book is an explanation of a text in Zechariah 13.

And if one asks him, ‘What are these wounds on your back?’ he will say, ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’

Zechariah’s experience as a prophet was intended to be typical of prophets and typological of Jesus Himself. Those who bring the Word of the Lord will not always be welcome among their people. They will be beaten and battered. Many were even put to death due to their unpopular message (sin and salvation has never been very popular). Jesus was rejected by His own people, cursed and reviled, given over to death at the hands of the Romans.

Leaders, particularly pastors, can draw the ire of church members because they have to say unpopular things. At times our friends, while not harming us physically, can inflict damage that hampers our ministry.

“After conversion we need bruising so that reeds may know themselves to be reeds, not oaks.” Richard Sibbes

Milton notes 3 counseling sessions that had 1 thing in common; betrayal. When we are hurt, we can often respond by hurting others. We have to be wise and careful. It reveals our great need for Jesus.

“Without drinking from the divine draught of Christ’s very person, we become dry and graceless in our souls, and therefore we have no reserves to draw upon when conflict arises.”

It can be difficult for us to move on, as he notes with the metaphor of the stopped clock. We get stuck. Milton brings us to Joseph who connected his pain to God. His suffering was not accidental (nihilistic or chaos). This is not to blame God to be recognize God has good purposes in bringing difficulty into our lives, including the difficulty of betrayal.

Seeing the connection with God, we can then pick up our cross. Jesus’ suffering is a pattern for our lives, as well as His saving work. The Christian life is one of self-denial, and this is one of the key times that self-denial is necessary. First the cross and then the crown. Christ’s crown came in the context of betrayal. Ours too. It is not an excuse for self-pity and a victim’s mentality. It is the realization that I am called to die to self and follow Jesus. Like Jesus, I’m to entrust myself to the Father and continue to do good even as others line me up in their sights.

He then advises us to take off our crown. We are not in control. God is the Sovereign. It is not ours to avenge, not ours to repay. We then go to our own Gethsemene. It does sound a bit backwards since Jesus was in Gethsemene before taking up His cross. The key part of Gethsemene is “not my will but Thine be done.”

“Note carefully: if there is to be resurrection- a new life to emerge from the pain, the betrayal, the hurtful words- there must be a crucifixion; and if there is to be a crucifixion- by the Father for the good of many- then there must be a Gethsemene moment when you say, ‘Not my will but yours.'”

Just as the Father didn’t abandon His Son to the grave, He will not abandon us in our suffering either. We will be raised up, renewed. He will transform us by the pain.

He ends with an encouragement to not give up on the church. He notes a personal experience as a newer Christian when he walked into a church fight without realizing it. The pastor’s adult daughter encouraged him to not give up on God’s people. We are not all we long to be, nor do all we wish we’d do. We still live in Romans 7, and so does everyone else in the Church.

This is a helpful little book. He says enough, and doesn’t drown us with words. He gets to the point.

Read Full Post »


Who wouldn’t want to read John Calvin on The Secret Providence of God? Well, it depends what kind of book you are looking to read.

The subject is certainly an interesting one. The caveat is that the book is polemical in nature. He’s not simply asserting what he believes on this subject so you and I can be edified. He’s responding to “charges” made by a former student/associate of his, Sebastian Castellio. The editor’s (Paul Helm) indicates some of their prior relationship. But in the final pages of the  book Calvin gives us more information about their relationship. This book reeks of betrayal. Polemics and betrayal make for some bombastic language at times. It may also explain why this book is not as clear as I’d hoped at times (but perhaps this was me having been online too much, rotting my brain, or too focused on the good cigars I’d often smoke while reading this). I read this book intermittently over the course of a few months. Far too long for a book of its size (122 pages), but I’ve been busy with other matters.

All this to say, I’d be careful to whom I recommend this book. I would recommend this for more mature Christians who have an interest in Calvin because they’ve already read his more popular works. It would be of interest to students of the Reformation and theological methods. I would not recommend this to someone struggling with the doctrine of providence or unfamiliar with how to do theology.

Helm’s introduction informs us that this was, in fact, Calvin’s third response to his fellow Frenchman on the subject. I suspect his frustrating was mounting as would mine. They met in Strasbourg. Castellio’s strength seemed to be languages, and Calvin appears to have taken a liking to the man. For a time Castellio was rector of the College of Geneva. It didn’t last long. First, Castellio denied the canonicity of the Song of Songs, calling it a lewd book. Then Calvin worked with him on a translation of the Bible into French. They differed greatly, and argued, about their approaches to translation. As the relationship soured, Castellio resigned from the college. He seems to have accepted at least some of Servetus’ writings, for later in this volume Calvin calls Servetus his master (this could be figuratively since Calvin did consider him a heretic in the body of his response). But the execution of Servetus by the Genevan authorities led to Castellio’s personal campaign against them, and Calvin. He was not open about this, often using a pen name instead of his own.

“The work provides us with a small window onto the boisterous, argumentative years of the Reformation, not in this case to the main conflicts but to the skirmishes initiated by some of its lesser characters, such as Pighius and Servetus and, of course, Castellio.” (pp. 18)

Helm notes that Calvin was generally gentle and accommodating to those he considered open or friendly to his views. “But he is pitiless and unflattering toward those such as Castellio who openly crossed him.” Castellio, on the other hand, seems less concerned with clear theological thinking as to ridicule and misrepresent Calvin. His goal seems to be to repeatedly jab his finger in Calvin’s eye. If they lived next to each other in Bowling Green, one thinks he’s blindside Calvin and stomp him when Calvin got off his lawn mower.

“To Calvin’s intense irritation, here is a man, once a friend and follower, who is not impatient of the carefully crafted subtleties that Calvin sometimes uses to advance his position, and above all contemptuous of the God whose interests Calvin sought to advance. Even their Protestantism provides them with little common ground.” (pp. 19-20)

Helm then moves into some theological analysis of the book. He critiques Castellio’s method. The antagonist blurs theological distinctions so that he accuses Calvin of equal ultimacy regarding God’s decrees of salvation and sin/reprobation. Calvin follows a typical medieval view of the two wills of God: his secret will (decrees) and his revealed will (declarations & commands). Calvin depends heavily on Augustine in this volume, the only other author he quotes. Castellio’s method also relies heavily on reason while Calvin’s on revelation. Castellio sets reason above revelation. While Calvin obviously uses reason, he understands it to be bound to revelation. There are limits to the powers of reason as well as things not revealed to us. He invokes Deut. 29:29 (as any student of Calvin’s would guess). His introduction is helpful in understanding how each participant will engage in this disputation. Helm also notes, at the end, how Arminius’ own formulations are dependent upon Castellio’s. He built, as Muller calls it, a theology of creation, far more popular than Castellio’s. But both rejected Calvin’s theology of grace.

The book proper begins with a series of Articles, 14, Castellio generates (better, fabricates) from Calvin’s writings. He presents as series of strawmen arguments since they bear little to no resemblance to what Calvin actually wrote. He misrepresents Calvin. What is unclear is how much of this he actually believed and how much he purposely twisted just to tick Calvin off. As he explains these articles you do find instances of confusing logic, conflation of ideas, failure to make distinctions and more really bad theological method. Here are some example of him tying himself in knots (as I noted in the margins of my copy):

“If God wills sin, then the Devil does not will sin. That is to say, the idea that the Devil is God is a complete contradiction. If God wills sin, he loves sin’ and if he loves sin, he hates righteousness.” (pp. 45)

“… if the (secret) will of God often contends with his command, how can it be known when he wills or when he does not will what he commands? … For instance, if God commands me not to commit adultery and yet wills that I commit adultery, and yet I ought not to commit adultery, then I ought to do what is contrary to his will.” (pp. 45)

“Your false God is slow to mercy and quick to wrath. He created the largest part of the world for perdition.” (pp. 52)

“But the God of Calvin is the father of lies who evidently governs sometimes by what he says and at other times by his secret promptings.” (pp. 53)

He’s trying to make Calvin’s understanding of God appear to be a moral monster, and the Christian life not practicable because he can’t make simple distinctions. How you think matters. And this is some seriously stinking thinking. He also appears to operate from a denial of depravity. This is an unstated presupposition of his that seems to infect his reasoning leading to a number of faulty conclusions.

“… if God prompts perverse affections and then he flies into a rage, he hates the same people before the perverse affections arise, for to prompt perverse affections is the work of hatred. Therefore, he hates the innocent. For men are innocent before the perverse affections arise.” (pp. 50)

Castellio also attacks Calvin’s “students” as contentious and sinful. He puts all his arguments into the mouths of Calvin’s opponents while affirming them as personally unanswerable. There is one more claim that his “disciples” depend more upon Calvin “than upon reason.” Here he affirms his view of reason over and above Scripture, and denies that Calvin’s doctrines arise from Scripture.

The main body of the book is Calvin’s point by point response to Castellio. He works through the articles. This divides the book into readable chunks for busy people. Much of Calvin’s argument is that his doctrines are in fact derived for Scripture. He places Scripture above (not against) reason. Castellio argues for common sense, common sense, common sense => theology from below, subject to our judgment. Man is the arbiter of truth.

“But if you allow no other form of reasoning except what an earthly man recognizes, then by such arrogance and disdain you deny yourself access to the very doctrine of knowledge of which is only possible to someone with a reverential spirit. … Everything loses its authority and grace if it does not satisfy your reason.” (pp. 61)

Calvin also notes that he has already answered these objections three or four times thus far. He notes that these articles falsely represent his views. He notes his dependence on Augustine who also faced similar stubborn objections. Castellio frequently didn’t cite Calvin’s works. When he quotes Calvin, he takes him out of context. Some of the accusations he makes are similar to those that Paul faced and answered in places like Romans 9-11. Calvin’s point? “You aren’t arguing against me, but the Scriptures when we examine the tensions in Scripture” is what he’d say. In terms of those tensions and distinctions Calvin asks:

“Truly God invites all men to repentance; therefore, all might return to the road where he offers pardon. Now, what we must here consider is whether the conversion that God requires is according to man’s free choice or is a truly unique gift from God. Therefore, insofar as all men are exhorted to repent, the prophet rightly denies that God wills the death of the sinner. Why does God not convert everyone to himself equally? The reason is in the hands of God’s secret will.” (pp. 71)

He notes that Castellio also has to answer these great questions.

“This knot is also for you to untie. Since no one comes near to God unless the secret influence of the Spirit draws him, why are not all men without discrimination drawn, if God wills all to salvation? For from his discrimination it certainly is to be concluded that God has a particular secret way in which many are excluded from salvation.” (pp .73)

Calvin also unearths some of his other presuppositions: “Nor will you accept that the causes of wrath are in man himself” (pp. 74). Castellio rejects the depravity of men as the root of God’s judgment and man’s temptation to sin. He espouses a weak view of foreknowledge, separating God’s “power and his prescience” (pp. 75). He is judging God by feeble sense, to quote Cowper’s hymn on the subject. Calvin warns Castellio of dualism.  He reminds him that God uses primary and secondary causes (pp. 191). He schools him in the doctrine of concurrence- two or more persons willing the same action but for different reasons (God’s being good and Satan’s and men’s being evil).

There are moments you have to stop and think (especially if you’ve been distracted by your children) to sort out the argument. He will trace out Castellio’s argument at times so keeping the train of thought is essential.

He responds to the questioning of Calvin and disciples’ character with observations about Castellio’s.

“When I fed you in my home, no man had ever appeared to be more proud and more deceitful or more destitute than yo. Whoever does not perceive you to be an imposter and a cynic devoted to shamelessness, and a buffoon barking against piety, they are absolutely without judgment.” (pp. 118)

“But it must certainly be that you were too dull, because you were not able to understand what I have taught you, both in the familiarity of my own home and also what you heard when I so often preached in the public assembly.” (pp. 119)

“… you boast among your followers that study is empty and frivolous (the same study that is employed in philosophy, logic, and even theology) in order that you might gain more disciples for yourself. … You, on the other hand, request that untutored men who despise all learning and are inflated only with the breath of arrogance appear in public so that they may audaciously make judgments concerning the mysteries of heaven.” (pp. 120-121)

You see here the sense of betrayal that drives his harsh words. Still, these words are mild by some of today’s standards. We see a picture of Castellio as something of a fundamentalist Arminian. He was anti-intellectual; anti-scholarship in addition to exalting human reason. He was also, in Calvin’s estimation, a heretic. He didn’t just disagree, but held to views that Calvin put him outside the bounds of the Church. And so he ends:

“May God restrain you, Satan. Amen.” (pp. 122)

There is much here that is important to learn in terms of doing theology. There is some here that we should likely avoid in terms of doing polemics. We should continue to speak the truth in love. Lay out presuppositions to the light of day for evaluation. Clearly make proper distinctions. Reconcile the tensions found in Scripture instead of just proof-texting. Bur resist the temptation to denigrate the other person. Truth in the face of lies (even half-truths), and love in the face of animosity. I believe Calvin did the former but at times failed in the latter. May God have mercy on us all.

 

 

Read Full Post »


I’ve been studying the subjects of introverts and evangelism. How introverts evangelize to be precise. I want to help the introverts in our congregation to bear witness. This quest led me to Evangelism for the Rest of Us: Sharing Christ withing Your Personality Style by Mike Bechtle. So, if you are tired of reading about introversion, read no more. But I invite you anyway so perhaps you’ll recognize their faithfulness that went unnoticed by you before.

Bechtle begins with his own relationship with the Great Commission. Some of the stories are funny (I’d probably enjoy having lunch with him). Like many of us, he went to evangelism training seminars, had to do evangelism at Bible College, participated in campaigns to evangelize etc. It all didn’t “feel right” or seemed so very unproductive. He experienced increasing dissonance.

“But something didn’t make sense. I knew God wanted me to witness- but I always dreaded it. I knew God was supposed to give us power and boldness if we asked for it, but it never seemed to help.”

So, much of his evangelism was motivated by guilt. Been there? Most of us have.

He didn’t “relish the idea of an impending conversation with complete strangers.” Some people feel that way. Some people love those conversations. If we think THAT is evangelism, well ….

He also thought about those moments when Christians came to share their faith with him. He wondered if non-Christians felt that way when we shared our faith with them (some do, some don’t). He didn’t want others to feel the way he felt (a thought that often comes to me as an application of the Golden Rule). Maybe we should evangelize in the way we’d want to be evangelized (which doesn’t include anger-filled debates for most of us). But I get ahead of myself, and Bechtle.

“I wondered how many other people put up thicker emotional walls against Christians because of the evangelism encounters they’d endured.”

So he wondered. For himself, and for many other people.

“The seed was a simple thought: What if the problem isn’t obedience? What if the things I’ve always been taught about evangelism aren’t the full picture? What if there’s more to it than I’ve been told? What if God has a variety of ways we can share our faith- ways that are different from the traditional methods we’ve been taught?

His goal isn’t to dismiss the methods he’d been taught. His goal is to say there are other effective means too. That effectiveness is rooted in being appropriate for each of us based on who we are as the evangelist. Faithful effectiveness will look differently since each of us is different. There is no one-size-fits-all method of evangelism. He wants each of us to discover ways in which we can engage in evangelism in a way that honors who we are and the people we evangelize so we do see people coming to Christ.

His second chapter focuses on how function follows form. We are not talking about inventing something to fulfill a function. We want to be faithful in light of who God made us (and His work of sanctification in renewing us in His image- Belchte overlooked that part). Life goes better when all works as it should. When we use the right tools to do what they were designed to do. God makes us like snowflakes. Not to melt under heat, but uniquely.

There are moral absolutes. And there are differing methods to fulfill many commands. We are to sing in worship. We can sing in many styles, keys, notes etc. We can sing accompanied by a variety of instruments, or not. How your church worships is not how every faithful church worships. How you evangelize is not how every faithful Christian has to evangelize.

“We’ll find our greatest fulfillment and joy in doing the things God designed us to do and the greatest frustration when we work outside our unique, God-given design.”

Part of our creation is being introverts and extroverts. These parts of who we are affect how we evangelize. This book explores that. This chapter notes common themes he encountered as he talked with Christians.

  1. I really want to evangelize.” The problem is that method they learned, or what they think it means to evangelize is intimidating or poorly suited for who they are.
  2. It would be easier if I were more outgoing.” Like Adam McHugh, he notes that western civilization seems to be structured around extroversion. When it comes to evangelism, many introverts feel like square pegs being forced into a round hold.
  3. I’ve tried, but I don’t see any results.” While he doesn’t include God’s providence, there is that factor. But it can also be that we are using a method that is not the best method for us.
  4. I don’t know how to lead someone to Christ.” Some people have never experienced training. They don’t know how.
  5. There has to be a better way.” This is what drives the book, finding better ways for each of us to bear witness to Christ, His sufferings and subsequent glories.

Let us consider ways to share our faith that may feel more “natural” to us, and be more effective.

Read Full Post »


If our wills are in bondage to our desires, which are corrupt, if there any hope for us?

This is the question we resume with from Calvin’s Institutes, the Essentials Edition. There is no hope in ourselves. Our hope has to be with God. The remedy is grace.

“Thus the Lord begins his work in us, inspiring in our hearts a love, desire and eagerness for what is good and righteous- or, more properly, inclining, training and directing our hearts to righteousness; he completes his work by giving us strength to persevere.”

This is not the same as a general removal of our depravity that leaves us in a state of neutrality that we find in some forms of Arminianism. This is the fulfillment of the promise of the new covenant (Ez. 36:26-27). This must precede faith, or we wouldn’t believe. The “human will must be wholly remade and renewed.” He aligns himself with Augustine that ‘grace precedes every good work.’ Grace is not a response to our will, but our will works in response to grace.

Calvin shifts back to Scripture, noting Jer. 32:39-40; Ez. 11:19; 1 Kings 8:58. These all address the stubbornness of our hearts, and the grace that overcomes that stubbornness. In other words, this is no ‘philosophical’ matter but one of life & death; salvation. This is not an Old Testament idea, but we see Paul also teaching this. We see this in Phil. 2:13 and 1 Cor. 12:6; 15:10. Jesus affirms this in passages like John 6:45.

“We must indeed teach that God’s kindness is open to all, without exception, who seek it. But because no one begins to seek it until he is inspired from heaven, nothing here should be allowed to diminish God’s grace in any way.”

He goes back to Augustine. “In yet another place he states that grace does not destroy the will, but changes it from bad to good, and that once it has been made good it receives help. By this he means only that God does not push man by outward force, unfeeling, as if he were a stone, but that he is impelled in such a way that he willingly obeys.” And again, “the human will does not obtain grace through its own freedom, but that it obtains freedom through God’s grace.”

Calvin shifts to the problem of continuing sin in the believer. Calvin, following Paul (Peter, John, James …), notes that our deliverance “is never so complete that no part of us remains under sin’s yoke”. Regeneration does not end conflict in our hearts, but initiates it (Rom. 7 & Gal. 5). There is a new principle moving us toward love and righteousness, and a retention of the natural inclination toward apathy and unrighteousness.

“This produces a conflict which sorely tries the believer throughout his life, because he is raised high by the Spirit but brought low by the flesh. In the Spirit he yearns fervently for immorality; in the flesh he turns aside into the path of death. In the Spirit he purposes to live uprightly; in the flesh he is goaded to do evil. In the Spirit he is led to God; in the flesh he is beaten back. In the Spirit he despises the world; in the flesh he longs for worldly pleasures.”

Our heart and will become a battle ground. The regenerate person mourns their sin, which pains him or her. They affirm and delight in God’s law as we see in Psalm 119.

Even in his day, there were people claiming a form of Christian perfectionism. Some of the Anabaptists advocated this position. They think that regeneration is complete, and we have no more fleshly appetites.

He returns to the idea of man as sinner in bondage to Satan. He mentions Augustine’s analogy (also utilized by Luther in Bondage of the Will)of the will as a horse subject to the rider’s control. Calvin finds it sufficient in the  absence of a better analogy. “What is meant is that the will, being deceived by the devil’s tricks, must of necessity submit to his good pleasure, although it does so without compulsion.”

He then discusses the doctrine of concurrence with reference to the story of Job. In concurrence, more than one person wills the same action but for different reasons or goals. God, Satan and the Chaldeans all willed the theft of Job’s herds, but for very different reasons. We see this as well in the story of Joseph. God’s intention was very different from his brothers’ even though both willed Joseph’s servitude in Egypt.

“Accordingly, it is not improper to attribute the same deed to God, the devil and man. But the disparity in both intention and means ensures that God’s righteousness always appears blameless, while the wickedness of the devil and of man is revealed in all its shame.”

The bottom line for Calvin is fidelity to Scripture, for the Scriptures reveal the sovereignty of God over events big and small. He brings up a number of passages to illustrate his point. Satan, much like Assyria and Babylon in the prophets, is His agent to unwittingly accomplish His purpose. They serve His righteous purposes, even as they pursue their unrighteous purposes. Calvin notes God’s sovereignty over the “mundane acts of life.” He held to a meticulous providence, as God brings about “whatever he knows is needful, but also to bend men’s wills toward that same end.”

Calvin then addresses a series of common objections. First, necessary sin is no longer sin. While they “necessarily” have to do it, since God ordained it, it is still voluntarily chosen by them. He does not force them to sin, but they want to commit that particular sin at that particular time. Second, reward and punishment no longer apply. God is so kind that he rewards the graces which he bestows on people. The voluntary nature of sin makes punishment just. Third, good and bad are no longer distinguishable. If this were so, it would be so for God who does good “by necessity” or in keeping with his immutable nature. Fourth, exhortation and reproof become superfluous. They are, rather, the means God uses to help shape our choices. He not only ordains what will happen, but how and why.

“God is active in us in two way: within, by his Spirit, and without, by his word. With his Spirit enlightening the mind and training the heart to love righteousness and innocence, he makes man a new creature by regeneration. Through his word he moves and encourages man to desire and to look for this renewal.”

Calvin then notes a variety of Scriptural evidences including, the law and its commands, the command to repent, God’s promises & reproofs, his punishments and more. In many ways Calvin rightfully goes back to Philippians 2:13- For God works in us to will and work according to His righteous purpose. We are to believe that we are dependent upon God, but also that being gracious and powerful he consistently works in us to accomplish his purposes, which are good. This is an important doctrine which humbles us, and grants us confidence.

Read Full Post »


The subtitle to Bavinck on the Christian Life is Following Jesus in Faithful Service. In part 1 John Bolt laid the foundations of creation, law and union with Christ. In part 2 he framed it with imitation of Christ and worldview. In the third and final section of this book, The Practice of Christian Discipleship, Bolt gets to the areas where we follow Jesus in light of a Christian worldview.

For lack of a better term, I’ll use spheres. They could be called vocations, the places were are called. As Christians Bavinck stresses that our faith is not simply lived out in prayer closets and on Sunday mornings. We are to follow Jesus in our marriage, family, work, culture, education and civil service (politics).

In the historical context, Bavinck was often dealing with “the revolution.” It was a time of incredible instability in Europe. The impact of Rousseau and Marx were shaking the foundations of Europe. There were challenges and changes looming  in nearly every arena, sphere or vocation. As a result he was not writing in an Edenic setting or ivory tower. He was not only a theologian and churchman, but also a statesman. In many ways it is a situation that reflects our contemporary situation. Faith does not retreat from cultural challenges, but seeks to imitate Jesus by serving in the midst of such changes. But it always seeks to follow Jesus, not simply embracing change or preserving human tradition. For instance, women’s suffrage was a good thing, a good change reflecting their equal status as made in God’s image in civil society.

As Bavinck wrestled with these changes he doesn’t simply analyze the proposed solution, he brings them back to the real problem. For instance, “inequality” was looked at as the great cultural sin (sounds familiar, right?). He brings us to God’s providence to recognize that inequality is not intrinsically wrong. For instance, God has not distributed resources equally. Some geographic locations are rich in natural resources, and others lack. God has placed each of us in a particular place, to a particular family (with its own resources, or lack thereof).

But this is not the only, final word on inequality. We have to see it in light of the creation mandate as well. We are not to sit fatalistically with our lot in life. If we believe we are called to “subdue and rule” we will seek to maximize the resources and opportunities that do exist. (Either Bavinck or Bolt does not spell this out as clearly as I would have liked.)

Bavinck also brings inequality to sin. Some are motivated by self-love rather than love for God and neighbor. Therefore they oppress, exploit and steal. Some are lazy and refuse to maximize anything at their disposal but live for the present, not the future. There is no eschatalogical pull for them, no deferred gratification for something far greater.

Therefore, the pull toward socialism or the massive re-distribution of wealth doesn’t fix the problem. It fails to address sin (note the gross inequalities in every Communist country we’ve seen). Rather, ways must be found to eliminate oppression, exploitation, theft, laziness and entitlement not “inequality”. Inequality isn’t the problem.

Bolt applies Bavinck’s creational norm to the question of sexuality as well. Marriage is meant to be a reflection of the trinity- unity in diversity. One of the creational realities that must remain in marriage is procreation, unless providentially hindered. In other words, many of our supreme court justices, as well as citizens, don’t really understand the meaning of marriage. The gospel “restores” nature rather than overthrowing nature. It is sin which seeks to corrupt, destroy and overthrow nature.

Because our fundamental problem is sin, Bavinck focused not on social solutions to our problems, but brought us back to the gospel first (not only). People need to be restored to fellowship with God before they can see the real problems in society and apply God’s law to create an increasingly just society (as defined by God’s law which reflects His character). As a result, we must humbly accept the fact that there will be no perfectly just society until the return of Jesus because sin remains. Again, this does not mean fatalism but realistic expectations. It does mean we seek to address the real issues, not just the symptoms.

Bolt ends the book with Bavinck’s only printed sermon “The World Conquering Power of Faith”. This sermon ties a number of these things together. We cannot fix the world with the world’s means precisely because they are part of the world which is in rebellion against God. By faith we are able to “conquer” the world, but only because our faith is in the One who has overcome the world and is currently at work to make His enemies His footstool.

As a result, the Christian life of following Jesus in faithful service often looks foolish to the world. It often feels foolish. It seems so powerless, and the needs presented by the world seem so great: oppression, slavery (sexual & economic), mental illness, terrorism and violence, government corruption, sexual abuse, domestic violence …

People must be united to Christ by faith, seeking to walk in light of the law (justice) and the creation mandate (subdue & rule). This is how Bavinck views the Christian life.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »