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Posts Tagged ‘Puritans’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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At the beginning of his book, Calvin and the Sabbath, Richard Gaffin notes that everyone seems to make use of a quote from Calvin to support their view of the Sabbath. The subtitle helps us understand the quandary: The Controversy of Applying the Fourth Commandment.

This volume is a re-working of Gaffin’s Master of Theology thesis under John Murray at Westminster Seminary many years ago. This means it is not written at a popular level. Most of us will have to concentrate to track with Gaffin at times, and there will not be any interesting stories to help us understand a point. It is still an academic work.

Gaffin’s procedure is pretty simply. He begins with some background to the controversy before examining Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and some catechisms. Gaffin compares different editions of the Institutes as well. He then examines exegetical writings (his commentaries) and sermons. He then includes other Reformers and some of the Reformation Creeds to show a similarity of thought on the issue.

“First, widespread disagreement as persisted about what Calvin meant where he has expressed himself concerning the Sabbath.”

As you read you can see how it is that people can latch on one aspect of what Calvin says to support so many views of the Sabbath and its application to our corporate and personal lives.

In the background material Gaffin summarizes the main theories regarding the Sabbath or Lord’s Day.

1. The Antinomian View. This began with the Anabaptist movement during the Reformation which had a sharp antithesis between law and gospel. It argues that Christ fulfilled the law for us and we no longer have an obligation to keep the ten commandments. To fulfill this command would be to contradict the NT teaching regarding there being no distinction of days and seasons (Rom. 14 & Col. 2).

2. The Seventh-Day Sabbatarian View. Gaffin notes that this view also appears among 16th century Anabaptists. While Christ fulfilled the law for us, Jesus didn’t abolish the law and we keep it out of faith, love and gratitude.

3. The Ecclesiastical or Dominical View. This cluster of views hold that the Sabbath  has its origin in the Mosaic covenant and therefore was strictly for the Jews, not for Christians. The end result is the same as the Antinomian view, but the rationale is quite different. This has been the dominant view in Anglican churches.

4. The Sabbatarian View. This focuses on the Sabbath as a creation ordinance from Genesis 2. The Mosaic regulation of the Sabbath is not binding on us but was for Israel, yet the creation ordinance remains. This view was argued by many of the English Puritans.

On the eve of the Reformation the western church was overloaded with feast and fast days which were required to be celebrated as part of the sacramental system essential for salvation. The Reformers were not only dealing with the Scriptures but also their own historical context. We do best to keep this in mind. At times Calvin is arguing against the view of Rome. At other times he is arguing against the Antinomian Anabaptists. When we forget this we tend to see him as contradicting himself instead of addressing a different series of errors. This, in part, is why Gaffin wants to look at all of Calvin’s writings to get a more comprehensive understanding of Calvin’s view.

We could summarize Calvin’s view as Gaffin does in a number of places.

1. The weekly day of rest which Israel was ordered to keep by the fourth commandment fulfilled three distinct functions.

a) It was a promissory sign, typical of the spiritual rest from sin which God would one day give to his people.

b) It provided a day for public assembly, a stated time for hearing the law and offering sacrifices.

c) It provided a day of rest from toil for slaves and servants.

2. At the first advent of Christ, culminating in his death and resurrection, the Sabbath ceased to function as a type. The spiritual rest promised to Israel by the weekly day of rest, has become a full reality. Christians now enjoy that rest on every day of their lives. In this sense, as a type of spiritual rest, the Sabbath has been abrogated and should no longer be observed.

3. Although the typical character of the Sabbath no longer exists, the other two functions of the Sabbath given to Israel are still in force.

a) The fourth commandment requires the public assembly of the church … Which day of the week is set aside for this assembly, whether one or more, is a matter of indifference.

b) The fourth commandment requires that rest be given to those who in their labors are subject to the authority of others.

4. The fourth commandment must always be seen in its context, that is, as part of the Decalogue, which applies to all people in every age.

There, you got that? The commandment is still binding, but the typological function of the command has been fulfilled in Christ. What remains, basically is a spiritual rest from sin, the need for public worship and the provision of rest for those under authority. This view would be different from the way the Westminster Divines expressed our responsibility in a way very similar to its Mosaic expression. This presents a tension in denominations like my own which holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith and yet holds Calvin in high esteem with many pastors embracing his view (as they understand it).

“Here Calvin shows himself, despite undeniable and decided differences in theological rationale for observing the Lord’s Day, to be remarkably close, in practice, to later Puritan views, like those given confessional status in the Westminster Confession of Faith.”

Calvin’s view would not appear to undermine the system of doctrine in the Westminster Confession. He upholds it as part of the moral law which still abides, but differs on how to apply it.

Yet, I still experience some cognitive dissonance with Calvin’s view. I also experience some with regard to the view of the Confession (I did take an exception). In other words, neither view completely expresses my own view which even I struggle to express. This is because in some ways my views are still “cooking” or developing. I think of it like a stew that needs time for everything to come together.

Gaffin, in his evaluation of Calvin’s view, puts his finger on some of the areas of dissonance for me. First, his understanding of the Sabbath as spiritual rest for everyday seems deprive it of it’s place in the Decalogue. He quotes Edwards as one who recognized this: “And if it stands in force now only as signifying a spiritual, Christian rest, and holy behavior at all times, it doth not remain as one of the ten commandments, but as a summary of all the commands.” In other words it no longer stands alone and doesn’t really command anything in particular. It “merely” summarizes the many other commands to flee sin and pursue godliness.

Second, Calvin does not seem to fully appreciate the Sabbath as creation ordinance. Calvin sees the Sabbath within the context of sin. As a creation ordinance it has bearing on man as man, not only as sinner. He doesn’t seem to do justice to the concept that as made in the image of God I not only work, but rest as God does. I need rest as man, not only as sinner. “The meaning of the Sabbath institution prior to the fall seems not to have crossed his mind.” This is a big weakness in Calvin’s view. This also affects how he views work, or at least how he expresses his view of work. Work is good! But we cannot only work, even if we recognize work as worship.

Gaffin also notes that we lose the full eschatlogical significance of the Sabbath when we do this. Typology, Gaffin argues, is present in every aspect of creation. It points us to the new heavens and earth. We cannot enter into the rest that awaits unless we are in Christ, but also until we have completed the tasks appointed to us like Adam. We are only able to complete those tasks because we have been redeemed by Christ, and those works have been prepared for us beforehand (Eph. 2:10 for instance).

Sabbath as creation ordinance also reminds us that this regular rest, which prefigures our ultimate rest in Christ, is for all people everywhere. They suffer when they do not rest. As Gaffin, and one of my professors notes, they do deserve to suffer so since they are in rebellion. Yet, we should offer them rest as a common grace for the benefit of society.

“Faithful and joyful Sabbath-keeping, we should not forget, is among the most concrete ways for the church to witness to a world full of turmoil and unrest, as never before or at least as much as ever, that there does indeed “remain a rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9).”

This is an important book to read, but not always an easy book to read. Anyone wrestling with the Sabbath should include this volume as part of their study. It will be worth the investment of time and mental energy.

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Publishing is an odd thing. Some topics are flooded with titles and other topics are almost impossible to find. When a book like Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is published you have to take notice because books on this subject are exceedingly rare in this day and age. Think perhaps for any other title on this subject published in the last 50 years? You can think of plenty on the subject of legalism, but its mirror image antinomianism is quite rare.

Mark Jones doesn’t quite lay out the book as some people might hope. That can breed some minor frustration. For instance, he really doesn’t try to define antinomianism, or better the types of antinomianism until the end of the book.

“Antinomianism must not be confused with the etymological meaning of antinomian (i.e., “against the law”). There is some overlap, of course, but the historical debates focused on more specific areas of the Christian life.”

This is not a systematic theology, but a volume on  historical theology. The primary focus on his research is the antinomian movements in Puritan England and in 1640’s New England. The reason is two-fold. First, these were disputes among people laying claim to the Reformed heritage. Second, there is a revived dispute among those laying claim to the Reformed heritage in our day. Most people I would consider to have an antinomian theology deny having such a view, usually based on the etymological meaning of the term. But when you look at the strains of antinomianism you can begin to see more clearly that some who claim they aren’t really are.

Jones works through a variety of topics in which historically antinomians have departed from mainline Reformed thinking and formulations. Jones’ main point though is not that antinomians’ error comes primarily with regard to the law but their Christology. This is similar to how Sinclair Ferguson addressed these twin errors of legalism & antinomianism in lecturing on the Marrow Controversy. The answer to both errors is the gospel in its fulness.

“Discussions and writings on holiness often lack a strong Christological basis and center.”

Part of me is tempted to expand more fully on some of the topics that Jones works through. I may “think” through a few here. But for now I will be content to lay them out very briefly.

Jones begins with the imitation of Christ. Peter notes that Christ, in addition to being our Savior, is an example to us. Much of what is written in the gospels is there for our imitation. Jesus models for us how to live by faith as fully human. Jesus lived in the power of the Spirit as an example to us as well (here Jones is similar to Sinclair Ferguson in his series Who is the Holy Spirit?). The way of holiness, Jones notes, is that is pursued by faith and in the power of the Spirit. Many of the antinomians, as Jones and Packer in his brief but excellent forward assert, limited our activity in sanctification. They essentially make sanctification monergistic like justification is. As a result they talk about Christ not only obeying for us, but in us. They sound like some hyper-Calvinists I’ve talked with who limit the use of our will. Both groups don’t have much room for Philippians 2:12-13 in their theology. There we see God works so I will will and work resulting in obedience. Both God and I will and work: synergism! In other words, Christ does not act immediately but mediately. Jones is careful to guard the difference between Christ’s impretration (redemption accomplished) and impartation (redemption applied). We see here, and elsewhere that antinomians tend to conflate justification and sanctification.

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In the first chapter of The Creedal Imperative, Carl Trueman looked at the forces in society that are making it more difficult for Christians to use creeds and confessions to summarize and make their faith known. In his second chapter Trueman goes on the offensive and builds the case for creedalism and confessionalism.

He does not refute all the challenges in this chapter. He more clearly and expansively builds the case for the assumptions that he made to begin the book. These assumptions provide the foundation for seeing creeds and confessions as helpful and authoritative summaries of the faith for communities of faith.

He begins with the adequacy of words. Seems strange to have to do this since we read all the time: blogs, books, recipes, novels, school books etc. Words, oddly enough, reflect back to a biblical understanding of God’s nature: He is the God who speaks. We see this in Genesis 1 and that continues through the rest of the Scriptures. God speaks, and what he speaks are obviously words. He speaks to make himself known. He speaks to have communion within the Trinity and with creation. The use of language therefore is not incidental, but how God defines and sustains his relationship with humanity before and after the fall. It is “a means of his presence.”

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I have a growing number of books on humility. I have already read Mahaney’s Humility: True Greatness, Mack’s Humility: the forgotten virtue, and Henry’s The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit. But like books on love, I feel compelled to have more books on the subject. That is probably a reflection of my weakness and sin- I struggle with pride and loving others well. They pretty much go together. Humility is no small thing, according to Jonathan Edwards.

In Charity and Its Fruits he usually points to pride as the root cause of the sin we commit that is contrary to love. Love, he says, promotes humility which moves us to love others well.

“Humility disposes men to be of a yielding spirit to others, ready, for the sake of peace, and to gratify others, to comply in many things with their inclinations, and to yield to their judgments wherein they are not inconsistent with truth and holiness. A truly humble man is inflexible in nothing but the cause of his Lord and Master, which is the cause of truth and virtue.”

So, the latest book I’ve read on humility is William Farley’s Gospel-Powered Humility. His book is different from Mack and Mahaney’s books. He notices our society’s aversion to humility. He notices the lack of humility producing messages in our churches. His conviction is that the gospel produces humility in those who hear in faith.

“When we assume the gospel and pursue its fruits, the fruits eventually displace the gospel and all that remains is ‘moralism.'”

I agree with him. We have no hope for humility apart from the gospel. He is essentially seeking to correct an imbalance in contemporary preaching which tends to avoid the ugly truth about our sinfulness and God’s judgment. These, he says, should be part of what humbles us.

“Humility is the fertilizer that nourishes our soul and makes us fruitful.”

Since it is a counter-balance it does seem to err on the opposite end. Keep in mind I’ll be preaching on Colossians 1:21-23 this Sunday which points to our utterly sinful condition which necessitated Christ’s atonement. I’m not saying we don’t preach the hard and ugly truths (though I would say that God’s justice is beautiful to a redeemed and sanctified mind). Farley focuses on those hard truths with chapters on the wrath of God, the final judgment and the sinfulness of sin. His chapter on the history of preaching also focuses on how these hard truths helped break up the hard soil of the heart so gospel seed could grow.

“Here is the great paradox: the proud man thinks he is humble, but the humble man thinks he is proud.”

I wanted to read more chapters like his chapter on faith alone. I wanted to see how the positive aspects of the gospel also humble us. That’s because I believe they do. So, what Farley presents us is not wrong. I’d just say it was a bit incomplete.

“Jesus received the humbling that our constant and unremitting self-exaltation merits.”

He does include chapters on the fear of man and the power of a humble leader. Those help round out the book, showing some of the practical results of pride and humility.

“God designed salvation to deeply humble me, to crush my pride, and to transfer my grounds for positive self-image from self to God.”

Farley is highly dependent upon the Puritans (not a bad thing). His theology is solid. I just found it hard reading at times because of the emphasis on wrath, judgement and our sinfulness. Let me explain.

While not yet a pastor, I heard a sermon on Romans 3. The pastor was seeking to “reform” the church and was making his way through Romans. I had high anticipations as he’d lay out total, or radical, depravity to the people. It was about 1/3 our sinfulness and it seemed to me like he rushed to the good news too quickly. The people needed to wrestle with the reality of the bad news. He seemed to move too quickly.

“Sin shrouds our thoughts in mental darkness, rendering true belief in God humanly impossible.”

It can sound like Farley is wanting us to move too slowly. I admit that is completely subjective. But when I see the 4 main chapters and 3 of them are on the “bad news” …. Like I said, I wish there was a greater focus on how the doctrine of sanctification, in addition to justification, continues to humble us.

But Farley is right- too often this part of the gospel is greatly neglected today. Many “pastors” on TV completely ignore this. It is the result of the fear of man, liberalism, bad theology and a host of other reasons (though Farley argues that liberal theology is the result of the fear of man). Most people don’t need more self-esteem. They need a good dose of gospel humility. As I tell my kids & congregation:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5

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In the 3rd chapter of his little book, The Work of the Pastor, William Still expands on the topic of feeding the sheep from chapter 1.  He is wrestling with a somewhat different set of problems through the majority of the chapter.  The main point he tries to make, though he declares two, is “the eternal Word of God is ever contemporary.”

He starts by returning to some familiar ground of chapter 1.  We are to preach the whole Word of God, not just a few particular doctrines some call “the gospel”.  Don’t misunderstand, he’s not condemning groups like The Gospel Coalition.  He’s arguing against people who think all they can do is preach justification week in and week out.  He’s talking about avoiding the difficult things of Scripture, and avoiding the reality of sanctification.  We must preach through all of the Bible, even the seemingly difficult, ugly or boring passages precisely because they are the Word of God and He has something to say through them.

The Spirit does not just a small number of passages to evangelize people.  For instance, Augustine was converted by a passage of Scripture having to do with sanctification.  We need to forsake our pet subject, or subjects that make people happy (never-ending conferences on prophecy or healing for instance).

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While preparing for the Maundy Thursday service, I went digging for a quote from Sinclair Ferguson in his book By Grace Alone.  I found quite a bit more appropriate for an addictions group I meet with.

I thought of 3 different things: Unrealistic Expectations, The Agenda of the Enemy and the Agenda of the Father.  I’ll cover these in 3 different posts.  So let’s start with the first of these.

Unrealistic Expectations

“When a person is delivered from an addiction, the effects remain and the ‘pull’ of the old life lingers on.  Constant vigilance is essential.  It is exactly the same with ‘addiction’ to sin (and we are all by nature addicts to sin in one form or another).  The addiction is broken so that its energy no longer dominates our lives.  We no longer want the old way, it is not part of the family life we now enjoy.  But while we no longer want the old way, we are not finally delivered from its ongoing influence.  Increasingly sanctified we may be, but we are not yet glorified.  We are free from sin’s cruel dominion, but we are not yet free from its seductive presence.  So we battle against its influence for the rest of our lives.”

We often suffer from unrealistic expectations with regard to our sin, especially when we are repenting of an addiction.  Jesus has delivered us from the penalty of sin and the power of sin.  But not from the practice of sin, yet.

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