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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As a former Particular Baptist, as they used to be called, I had an appreciation for Charles Spurgeon. While in seminary I did a paper in one of my history classes examining his sermons during the revival of 1859 to see how the doctrines of grace (aka Calvinism) were prominent and therefore consistent with revival.

I’ve found Michael Reeves’ books, Delighting in the Trinity and Rejoicing in Christ, to be engaging and informative. The former helped (re)shape my grasp of missions (including a critique/weakness of Christopher Wright’s tome, in other words, where is the love?).

So, imagine my pleasure in seeing that Reeves wrote the new book Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ. I decided I would read it during my vacation ritual this summer.

Reeves had no easy task in trying to put this together. The vast majority of Spurgeon’s writing are the transcriptions of his sermons. Not quite something you can easily read and grasp a comprehensive understanding of how he understood the Christian life. He is an unenviable position as he writes this book.

One of the interesting things about this series is that often the volume is written by someone outside of the subject’s tradition. Trueman, a Presbyterian, wrote the volume on Luther. Here Reeves, an Anglican, writes about the Calvinistic Baptist.

The sections cover the themes of Christ the Center, The New Birth and The New Life. As you might imagine, regeneration seems to be the central motif in Spurgeon’s view of the Christian life as understood by Reeves. We must become new people with new passions and all of that happens in Christ. Or thru Christ since the focus is not quite union with Christ. Explicitly, anyway.

He begins with a very brief biography of Spurgeon. He was a man of great passion, who felt greatly. He was known for a great sense of humor. While he used some humor in the pulpit, he was not a comedian as some pastors seem to think of themselves. Like Jonathan Edwards, Spurgeon loved creation and allusions and illustration to trees, flowers, animals and more filled his sermons. Spurgeon also grew up reading the books in his grandfather’s library. Many of these were Puritan books, and he developed a great fondness for Bunyan, particularly Pilgrim’s Progress.

Christ the Center

He viewed the Bible as the Word of Christ about Christ. As a result, the Bible did not compete with Christ for our affections, but is the revelation of Christ for us to know Christ. To not love the Bible is to not love Christ. The Bible is living and active as a result. Jesus changes lives through the Bible.

In terms of translations, he held the KJV in high esteem, but not without criticism. There were times the translation frustrated him (as happens with me concerning other translations at times).

Spurgeon affirmed that not only did the OT point us toward Christ, but that OT saints are our brothers and sisters. We shared the same faith. We just know more of the faith. Christ is the center of our faith, and all doctrines find their proper orbit around Christ.

“A Christless gospel is no gospel and a Christless discourse is the cause of merriment to devils.”

He was fully Trinitarian. But we must remember that Christ alone is the Mediator between God and man. It was Christ who became human, obeyed, died and was raised for our salvation. We come to the Father thru the Son, so Spurgeon preached Christ.

As I mentioned before, he grew up reading Puritans. His theology was Puritan. Aside from the issue of baptism (and the ecclesiology that flowed from that)he was “Reformed”. He had a great appreciation for Calvin and understood Calvinism to be a shorthand for the gospel. He understood them as they were intended to be: Christ-centered.

Though he was a Baptist, he affirmed (and perhaps exceeded) the WCF concerning elect infants dying in infancy being saved by the work of Christ. In one place he extended this to all infants dying in infancy. I’m not sure we have biblical warrant for this extension, though I’d like it to be true.

Spurgeon was not dogmatic about Calvinism however (not a Gnostic Calvinist). He would affirm other preachers as long as they preached Christ. Reeves noted a sermon Spurgeon heard by a priest in Belgium. The priest preached Christ, much to Spurgeon’s delight.

Preaching was more than informing people about Christ. He saw his goal to draw people to Christ. While you have content, the target is the heart. This, in some strange way I’d love to talk to him about, was why he discourage sermon series. I was scratching my head. Sermon series can’t be used by God to transform lives?

The New Birth

Spurgeon was baptized as an infant. Like many new converts today, he read the Bible and believed he should be baptized after he believed. Spurgeon held on to his baptistic convictions despite the fact that many of the theologians he loved and respected practiced infant baptism. Reeves places this within the context of baptismal regeneration and a return to Roman Catholicism. Reformed paedobaptists don’t hold to baptismal regeneration. But it seems the fear of Roman Catholicism was strong in Spurgeon (I once was there too).

We see there the disconnect, or at least I do. He held that we are brothers and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and the rest. The covenantal principle seen in the sign of circumcision is that children receive the sign and seal of “righteousness by faith” (Rom. 4). Abraham had the faith, and the sign called his children to the faith. But Spurgeon breaks faith, so to speak, on this principle. He viewed baptism as a sign of our faith, not God’s promise. At times he warned of the baptismal font being a rival of Christ’s for paedobaptists. The same could be said for many of the credobaptists I’ve heard. So there seems to be another inconsistency.

I mentioned about the covenantal principle of visible and invisible church in the OT (and NT). Rather, he holds to the impossible prospect of the “pure church”. Credobaptism doesn’t create a regenerate church, as the rolls of many baptist churches indicate. Baptism doesn’t mean one possesses the reality to which the sign points, whether one holds to paedobaptism or credobaptism. The promise of the new covenant is isolated from how the NT actually speaks about the church (wheat & tares, for instance).

The new birth is necessitated by human sinfulness. We are not merely weakened by sin, but dead in sin and trespasses. We are hostile to Christ and the law in the unregenerate state. People are not neutral. God must grant new life for people to believe. Regeneration is a grace we receive, not because we’ve met any conditions but in order that we may believe. The Spirit uses the Word to give us this new life. He enlightens our minds; He shines His light into our hearts.

Without the cross, there is no regeneration. There is no salvation apart from atonement, by Christ. His focus on Christ’s death meant that he advocated for weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The message that saves is Christ crucified. It is also about the mortification of our sin in the present. Jesus aims to mortify our sin and give life to graces.

The New Life

The new birth necessarily creates a new life. The Spirit doesn’t give us new life and walk away. We are increasingly drawn to Christ and away from the sin that so easily entangles.

Another aspect of our new life is prayer as an expression of our union with Christ. Our communion with Christ doesn’t pull us out of the world but calls us into the world just as Christ went into the world.

“… nobody mixed with sinners more than our Lord.”

Reeves then returns to sanctification. Spurgeon held to the blood of Christ as the “double cure”: free from sin’s guilt and power. Christ’s blood removes our guilt, but in Christ we also died to sin. Saved by grace thru faith, we also begin to walk in the good works prepared for us. This new life is a gift, but we live it. The Spirit isn’t living for us.

Spurgeon made much of joy. It reveals that we serve a great Savior. It is the strength for our service to Him. Complaining and despondency rob us of joy, strength and vitality. But Spurgeon knew this first hand, as Reeves points out later.

As we grow into Christ, we increasingly hate our sin. And increasingly see our sinfulness. We become more sensitive to sin and recognize our sinful motives and not simply actions.

“As the man loves God more, and becomes more like Christ, he takes greater delight in prayer.”

Reeves then returns to prayer with its own chapter. Spurgeon saw prayer as essential, not only to the Christian life, but to ministry. The Monday Prayer meeting was attended by over a thousand people each week. He saw it as the engine of the ministry. It is the battlefield between faith and unbelief. Spurgeon, who didn’t like planned out sermon series, also didn’t like planned out prayers either. He preferred spontaneity. I think this is a more a matter of preference and personality instead of principle.

Reeves then shifts to Bunyan’s influence. We are pilgrims. But we are not solitary pilgrims. We are a community of pilgrims. But we are engaged in warfare- an army of pilgrims. The warfare motif wasn’t reserved for sermons, but Reeves shows that it influenced his private prayer journals. His was an active faith. Spurgeon oversaw “the Pastor’s College, the Stockwell Orphanage, seventeen almshouses for poor and elderly women, the Colportage Association, and a day school for children.” This was just the tip of the iceberg. He didn’t expect the government to solve his society’s problems. He expected the church engage them, and led the charge.

But life is not all flowers and sunshine. Afflictions come and spirits falter. Depression can come home to roost whether by circumstance or medical conditions. Spurgeon fought with depression. The incident in Surrey Gardens, a “joke” that panicked the crowd resulting in 7 dead and 28 severely injured, resulted in clinical depression. Spurgeon also suffered from “a burning kidney inflammation called Bright’s Disease, as well as gout, rheumatism, and neuritis.” At times he would be unable to preach for extended periods of time.

One reason we suffer is that Jesus suffered. The cross comes before the crown for us too, according to Paul. It is a sign of our adoption and union with Christ. We also learn to depend on Christ rather than ourselves. God also prepares us for greater ministry thru humility and empathy.

He wraps up with the hope of glory. This is not our best life now. Spurgeon likely was a premillenialist, but clearly not a dispensationalist. He was not into speculation. He was into focusing on Christ.

Summing Up

Perhaps it was my high expectations, but I finished the book thinking “That’s it?”. At no point was I stopping to ponder something more fully. This is the first volume in the series that disappointed me. This is not a volume I would be inclined to recommend to anyone (my favorite remains the volume on John Newton). This was more theoretical and geared toward the pastor, in my opinion. It also seemed to skim the surface.

As I mentioned above, the source material is so vast but due to his habit of not systematically preaching through the Scriptures. It is seemingly impossible to sort through and “systemize” the material. This is still unfortunate.

 

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It has been a while since I invested in one of the “dead guys”. When I saw Keeping the Heart: How to Maintain Your Love for God by John Flavel, I thought I should read that. I am glad that I did buy it and read it.

This relatively short book is only comprised of 4 chapters. The great bulk of the book is the 3rd chapter. I read the book “devotionally”, after my daily time in Scripture. In the large chapter on the special seasons in life I would read one of the 12 at a time.

This is a typical Puritan work. This means Flavel looks at the subject from a variety of angles, dissecting it to pieces. If you aren’t used to this, it can feel wearisome but the repetition is important to driving the point home. This particular edition doesn’t give all the Scripture references to his quotes and illusions. That is unfortunate since it isn’t always obvious to the modern reader. This edition does have an introduction by J.I. Packer prior to Flavel’s own introduction.

If you think of the Christian life as one of dependence and discipline, this book focuses on the discipline while assuming the dependence. He does make some comments about our utter dependence upon God but you need to keep this in the forefront of your mind or you’ll take a very man-centered, fleshly approach to what he says. His focus is on our devotion, and at times he could do a better job reminding us of our gospel dependence or the gospel context that he assumes.

He begins with What the Keeping of the Heart Supposes and Imports. Since Adam’s rebellion humanity has been a rebellious creature prone to self-deception. Even the Christian, though regenerate, is still a sinner and prone to wander as the song goes. Keeping the heart presupposes regeneration. You can’t keep a heart of stone. It must be a heart of flesh. “Yet sin often actually discomposes it again; so that even a gracious heart is like a musical instrument” that needs to be tuned. This presupposition of regeneration is why I say he assumes the gospel thru much of the book. It is like the first verse of Exodus 20 which must not be forgotten while you read the rest of Exodus 20. Regeneration sets the gracious framework we are so easy to forget.

Keeping of the heart includes observing the frame of our heart, humbling ourselves for our sins and disorders (including our sinful desires), persistent prayer for purification, the making of vows to walk more faithfully, a constant zeal for the condition of our hearts and knowing that we live before the face of God.

The second chapter deals with some reasons why we should keep our hearts. Such reason include the glory of God (would he be a Puritan without starting here?), the assurance of salvation (tied to the sincerity of our profession of faith), the beauty of our conversation or sanctified living, and a different focus on the assurance of salvation focusing on the witness of the Spirit. God doesn’t assure wayward hearts. Implied here is the distinction between union (unchanging) and communion (changing). Keeping the heart is also essential to the improving of graces in our lives (seeing our need we pray and grow, for instance), and greater stability in times of temptation and testing.

As I said, the bulk of the book is concerned with particular seasons in life when keeping the heart is most difficult and yet necessary. Our circumstances do matter. We live out our faith in changing circumstances. Some of these circumstances require more attention on our part. Each of us is prone to greater weakness in some circumstances than others. Those circumstances include prosperity, adversity, trouble among God’s people, public distraction, outward deprivation, and more. 12 of them to be exact. He also lays out reasons why we should take heart in the midst of these circumstances, as well as the dangers presented by them. We often live like all seasons are the same. They aren’t. Differing seasons uncover different sins in our hearts. We need to engage our hearts in these circumstances to know the graces we need in our times of trouble or ease.

When in the midst of our circumstances, we would benefit from going back to that section of the book to remind ourselves of our great need and danger in those circumstances.

The final, and brief, chapter focuses on “improving and applying” the subject. He laments the weakness of the church of his day (what would he say about ours?), which indicate the great need of this book and its message. He largely focuses on revealing our need for grace so we will seek it from Jesus, the fountain of grace.

Modern writers don’t write books like this. And it is a shame. So it is important to read these older books that do address these spiritual subjects our time neglects (at its peril). This is a book most living Christians should read. They would find it helpful for keeping there heart before God, seeking His gracious Son.

 

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I am loving the fact that Sinclair Ferguson is “retired”. He has been more active in writing, and those books have been excellent so far. Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification is no exception. He previously submitted a chapter on the subject to Christian Spirituality in which a number of authors of different persuasions interacted on the subject of sanctification.

Like The Whole Christ, Devoted to God seems to be the fruit of a lifetime of fruitful ministry. You sense that he has thought long and hard about the Scriptures with regard to this subject. It is not superficial or breezy in its approach. In each chapter, Ferguson focuses on one text of Scripture. Those passages are: 1 Peter 1; Romans 12:1-2; Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 5:16-17; Colossians 3:1-17; Romans 8:13; Matthew 5:17-20; Hebrews 12:1-14; and Romans 8:29. The principles are derived from the texts that Sinclair uses. This is not a “proof-texting” approach, but a very exegetical approach.

His approach focuses on sanctification as devotion. God is devoted to making us devoted to Him and His glory through our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is realistic in its approach, as he notes “Instead of being wholly yielded to Christ we discover instead that a stubborn and sinful resistance movement retains a foothold in our lives.” (pp. 5)

Beginning with 1 Peter, he focuses on our identity in Christ in the face of affliction. We have graciously received a new identity which requires a new life. He notes the distinctions between justification and sanctification, but also notes that both are necessary for salvation tying these in to our union with Christ and the reality of regeneration. In our union we receive what Calvin calls the “double grace” of justification and sanctification. Regeneration which is necessary for justification (we won’t believe until God regenerates us) is also the beginning of our sanctification.

Another focus he begins in the first chapter is the trinitarian nature of our sanctification. The Father foreknew us and chose us, the Spirit sets us apart and we are purified by the Son. Your sanctification, if you are a Christian, is the desire and purpose of the Father, Son and Spirit. In 1 Peter we see that they use, among other things, trials to accomplish this great purpose.

In other chapters he reminds us that the commands (imperatives) flow from the gospel (indicatives). It is all of grace, being produced by the gospel. He reminds us, particularly in Romans 12 that our sanctification “takes place in and through the body.” We are not gnostics. We are a body/soul unity and sanctification includes both the inward devotion and the physical devotion. Sin and sins affect our bodies (weakness, addictions which are spiritual and bio-chemical, disease etc.) and so sanctification does as well. Just as sin affects our minds, so does sanctification.

Ferguson covers plenty of ground in this volume, and he covers it well. Some of these are difficult texts with difficult concepts, especially Romans 6, and he is very helpful in understanding them better as well as applying them to the subject at hand. As I preach through 1 Peter I find himself looking back to the material here on that letter. I anticipate returning to this book whenever I preach on any of these texts. I anticipate pointing others to this book and walking with others through this book for years to come.

Sinclair Ferguson has again written on the best and most helpful books I’ve read. His retirement has been very, very good to me. If you read his books, you will discover it was very good for you too.

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One of my new study leave traditions is to read one of the volumes in Crossways’ series on theologians on the Christian life. Each volume looks at one man’s thought and tries to identify their contributions and understanding of how we are to live in Christ and in the world. So far I’ve read the volumes on John Newton (whom Sinclair Ferguson repeatedly called “perhaps the wisest pastor of the Church of England” in his series on Romans) and Herman Bavinck. This study leave it was Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards has long been a favorite of mine, in part because he was a favorite of R.C. Sproul’s. In seminary I took a class, The Theology of Edwards’ Sermons, with R.C.. We read so much of Edwards it may have ruined me for a spell. I haven’t read many of his sermons since then, but have gone back to volumes life The Religious Affections and Charity and Its Fruits.

Dane Ortund’s volume Edwards on the Christian Life boils Edwards down to being live to the beauty of God. He begins with the beauty of God, moves to regeneration as to how we become alive to God’s beauty and then focuses on its affects on us (love, joy, gentleness, obedience) as well as how we grow in our knowledge and experience of that beauty in Scripture, prayer and pilgrimage until finally our fullest experience of beauty in heaven.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series which is ironic when we consider the great length of Edwards’ sermons and how complex his thought can be at times (The Freedom of the Will is a challenge).  In many ways this serves as an excellent primer on Edwards’ and is much shorter than Gerstner’s Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards.

In many ways Ortlund paints an attractive (beautiful?) portrait of the Christian life from Edwards’ view. Who can argue with love, joy and gentleness? What Christian doesn’t want to be loving, joyful and gentle? Yet we cannot separate these fruit of the Spirit from the Word of God, nor the growth in obedience as we live as pilgrims in this world. Yet, missing here is explicit reference to work and marriage. One of Ortlund’s critiques of Edwards was a neglect of the doctrine of creation in favor of redemption. This is one evidence of that neglect. Our life can’t be abstracted out of work and marriage for those are the places we most need the fruit of the Spirit (as well as church life).

One of the ironies that Ortlund points out is that while Edwards’ sermon series on justification was the means for the Northampton revival prior to the Great Awakening, Edwards’ focus seemed to be on sanctification, God’s work in us (subjective), rather than justification, Christ’s work for us (objective). Perhaps this is one reason why the sacraments aren’t mentioned much here or in Edwards’ sermons. This leads to another of Ortlund’s criticisms- that Edwards was overly introspective and more frequently called us to examine ourselves than to look to Christ. Assurance was focused more on Christ’s work in us than for us. He flipped the emphasis. His work for us is the primary source of assurance, with His work in us as the secondary source.

One thing that Edwards focused on that the church tends to neglect is regeneration in which God makes us alive to His beauty. He takes a Reformed position of regeneration preceding, indeed producing, faith rather than the common evangelical view of faith producing regeneration as if that is God’s response to our faith. We need to recapture this more biblical understanding that reflects God’s sovereign grace.

In his criticisms at the end of the book, Ortlund notes that Edwards did have some imbalance in even this. He failed to emphasize that unregenerate people are still made in God’s image, and are not as bad as they can be. They are still capable of civil righteousness even though they are morally incapable of delighting in Christ and the gospel. Additionally, he seems to give “too much” to regeneration this side of glorification. There is a great tension in the Scriptures. It is a total change (every aspect of our being is affected by regeneration) but the change is not total. As regenerate people we want to obey and we grow in obedience but we also feel more acutely our failures to obey. We still, or rather have begun to, struggle with sin. There seems to be a hint of over-realized eschatology in Edwards on this point. But I understand, I think, why. At times I’ve preached like that to get that point across that we have been changed and Christ is at work in us by the Spirit (see Titus 2). Too often we can minimize our need for obedience as a fruit of salvation, and our ability to obey. We live in this tension and it can be easy for us to err on one side or the other. At other times in ministry I note the admission by the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism that our progress in this life is meager. This is because some people so beat themselves up over their sin. This person needs to hear of Christ’s perfect imputed righteousness and to have more realistic expectations. The lazy and slothful Christian needs to hear the call to obedience. Edwards presumably thought he was preaching to the latter and not the former.

Ortlund puts together a very good volume. He sees Edwards as one worth imitating in many areas. He points out some of his imperfections in the final chapter. One was missing, and that one is particularly pertinent in our particular day. Despite his theological convictions, Edwards (like many in his day) owned slaves. Perhaps the reason why Ortlund doesn’t mention this is because Edwards doesn’t address this in his sermons or writings (at least what I’ve read). Edwards didn’t defend slavery, but did practice it. This should humble us because while we don’t explicitly defend sinful practices, we can certainly practice them (often without realizing their sinfulness). This is one big bone for us to spit out as we consider his life, and it would be great if Ortlund mentioned it.

All in all this is another solid contribution to the series. It should enrich not only my life but my preaching. I am reminded of the need to integrate them more fully.

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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.

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In Calvin’s Institutes, the Essentials Edition, we’ve seen how the knowledge of God gives us a truer knowledge of ourselves. While made in His image, we have fallen into sin and unrighteousness. Instead of glorifying Him, we seek to glorify ourselves (make a name for ourselves) which typically means taking advantage of others and bringing shame to ourselves.

Knowledge of ourselves should humble us. We are not what we were intended to be, but a rather tawdry sham instead. We over-estimate our abilities and good deeds, while we minimize our faults, weakness and wrong-doing.

“However, the person who carefully measures himself by God’s standard finds nothing to give him inner confidence, and the more closely he studies himself, the more dejected he becomes until, bereft of hope, he has nothing to help him lead a well-ordered life.”

We have fallen so far from our created glory as the imago dei. The great endowments of Adam and Eve testified to the “Creator’s extraordinary generosity.” They had done nothing to receive these great gifts from His hand. Their disobedience stripped them of much this glory. “The heavenly image he bore was therefore erased; being estranged from God by sin he was likewise deprived of his share in the blessings which can only be had in him.”

This brings us to total, or radical, depravity. From the womb we are prone to sin. We are not born innocent and then personally fall when we sin for the first time. Calvin argues against Pelagianism briefly. We are not “basically good” and only in need of a good example but better ourselves. Calvin affirms original sin, “a hereditary corruption and perversion of our nature which in the first place renders us guilty of God’s wrath, and in the second produces in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’.”

I wish Calvin added “covenantal” to the hereditary. Adam was not just our father, but our covenant head. In this sense, we are also held accountable for his disobedience.

From here, Calvin moves into his discussion of the freedom of the will. Definitions matter greatly in this discussion, and often they are not laid out appropriately. Calvin notes two dangers: indifference and excessive boldness. When we stress our depravity, people can lapse into indifference or fatalism. They see themselves as unrecoverable, even by the God of grace. When we stress the imago dei, people can have a view of themselves that is unreasonably high, a sense of entitlement.

“To avoid both of these pitfalls, we will follow a middle course. Man must learn that there is no good in him, and that misery and want are all around him. But he must also understand how he may aim at the goodness he lacks and at the freedom which is denied him.”

He then moves to some philosophic theories of the mind and will. “The role of the will is to choose and follow whatever our mind judges to be good, and conversely to reject and shun what it reproves.” So, the will works with the mind, not independently of the mind. “All we need to know, without entangling ourselves in superfluous issues, is that the mind is like the helmsman and captain of the soul, and that the will depends on its good pleasure…”

In fallen man, the mind is not fully functioning and flooded with divine light. Romans 1 shows us that the mind is darkened and futile because it has exchanged the truth for the lie. It is no longer able to distinguish between good and evil, the very thing Eve wanted when she disobeyed.

Calvin notes that the Church Fathers are uncertain guides in this matter. He saw them as capitulating to philosophy on this matter at times. Chrysostom, for instance, notes,”The wicked man can become good, if he chooses, and the good man may change into a wicked one.” Calvin sums up, “We see from these statement that the Fathers credited man with greater power than was proper…”

He interacts with the 3 A’s: Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. He finds Aquinas’ definition sound: “Free will is an elective power which, intermediate intellect and will, inclines, however more toward will.” So, how free is the will?

Calvin wants to generally avoid the term “free will”. The Schoolmen note that “man cannot be said to have free will because he is free to choose both good and evil, but because he does what he does voluntarily and not out of compulsion.” He argues that this term has been wrenched from this definition as a “justification for self-pride.” In other words, people use it not for the voluntariness of our our decisions, but to freely choose between good and evil.

Augustine is presented as a trustworthy guide. He affirmed the enslavement of the will. It is grace, and grace alone, that frees it from bondage to our appetites. Augustine moves us toward humility by seeing our natural powers as “impaired, demolished, scattered, destroyed.”

“For the human mind, because of its ignorance, cannot follow a sure path in its search for truth, but blunders into various errors. Just as a blind man stumbles about in the darkness until he quite loses his way; so the mind, pursuing the truth, shows how ill-suited and ill-equipped it is to seek and find it…”

Calvin then differentiates between stuff of earth and stuff of heaven. The bondage of the will, the depravity of the mind does not mean we are stupid intellectually, but stupid morally. We are able to structure societies reasonably well (though the current state of American politics may indicate otherwise), and most citizens are reasonably law-abiding. People are able to master mechanical and liberal arts. We do have a capacity for rational perception. This would be an example of common grace. God gives us the ability to improve our earthly state. This is undeserved, and therefore gracious.

Calvin notes that these natural endowments are gifts of the Spirit, “who distributes them as he pleases, for the common good of humankind.” Our corrupt minds are not as corrupt as they possibly could be. Although the Spirit only dwells in Christians, He is infinite and “does not fail to fill, move and quicken by the power of that same Spirit all creatures, according to the nature with which he endowed each of them at creation.”

Heavenly things (knowing God, his will and living accordingly) are a different story. We are spiritually blind apart from grace. Part of people’s blindness is their inability or unwillingness to accept this. People fall for all kinds of superstitions and foolishness (including deviations from Christianity). This blindness is taught in Jeremiah 24, John, Ephesians, 1 Cor. 2 and Colossians as well as Romans 1.

Calvin affirms the reality of natural law, arguing that its purpose is to make us without excuse. He points us to Romans 2 for this purpose. He defines natural law as: “an operation of conscience by which it is able to tell good from bad, with sufficient clarity that man cannot plead ignorance as an excuse, being rebuked by his own testimony.” For instance, as a teenager I had the capacity to recognize certain things as wrong. But I did them anyway.

Our moral reasoning and judgments are often (always?) clouded by our self-interest and passions/desires. We can talk ourselves into almost anything. We fail to grasp how evil our appetites often are.

After about 30 pages (and there are 40 more) he gets to Paul, who is obviously more authoritative than the schoolmen. It is also very different. We see the inner conflict of Christians in Romans 7 and Galatians 5. We have the Spirit by regeneration, how much worse the condition of those outside of Christ. Believers do strive after good, but don’t do it as often as desired due to this inner struggle. It is the Spirit that leads us toward righteousness. Apart from the Spirit, apart from Christ, people do not seek good (Rom. 3). They do not experience such inner conflict (though there is often the outer conflict of consequences- fear of man).

“Now we are all sinners by nature, so it follows that we are under sin’s yoke. Furthermore, if everyone is held fast by slavery to sin, the will, which is the chief agency of sin, must be tightly restrained and shackled by sin’s bonds.”

As we see in Romans 8, the unregenerate mind is hostile to God and His law. This indicates the bondage of the will to sin. It is in bondage to its inclinations. What people want to do is wrong, but that is what they do.

Thankfully, God, in His grace, limits our capacity for evil. He restrains our sin. While our corruption is changed, and ultimately cured, in the elect, it is merely curbed in the non-elect and non-converted. People are not as bad as they could be. But people sin because they want to, not because God makes them sin. They live within the bondage to sin, so there is an element of necessity. But it is also a joyful necessity. The sinner has not been “stripped of his will but of the soundness of will.” Calvin also brings us back to the character of God, to understand freedom and necessity.

“So if nothing stops God’s will from being free when he does good, even though he does good of necessity, and if the devil always sins voluntarily, even though evil is all he can do, who will argue that man does not sin voluntarily simply because he is subject to the necessity of sinning?”

Here is how Calvin sums it up: “This, then, is the distinction we must observe: man, corrupted by his fall, sins willingly, not despite himself or by compulsion. He sins, I say again, through inclination and not because he is forcibly constrained; he sins because he is prompted by his own appetites, not by external force.”

I’ll resume Calvin’s discussion of this matter in the near future.

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