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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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Sometimes the question of whether or not we should use unleavened bread in communion arises. Our Session addressed the question recently.

Here are some of the common reasons given for using unleavened bread in communion.

  1. “Unleavened” bread is mentioned 62 times, not exclusively in connection with Passover aka the Feast of Unleavened Bread. No leavened bread was to be used in the Passover.
  2. Jesus and the disciples were celebrating the Passover, using unleavened bread, when the Lord’s Supper was instituted.
  3. Tradition may have overridden God’s Word in permitting leavened bread to be used.
  4. Scripture never says to use leavened bread.
  5. No teacher or pastor promotes partaking of leavened bread.
  6. Leaven has a negative symbolical overtone. Since it seems to symbolize sin how can we use it to celebrate the Lord’s Table.

 

In Response:

  1. Leavened Bread was Only Prohibited During Passover

Leavened bread should not be seen as a symbol of sin. It was permitted to be eaten 51 weeks a year. It is okay for us to sin 51 weeks a year?

The bread of the Presence, set on the table in the Tabernacle (Ex. 25) is not said to be unleavened. If it was a symbol of sin, would such leavened bread be permitted to serve as the bread of the Presence?

In Exodus 29, recounting the ordination of the priests, it is unclear if the bread mentioned in vv. 23 (one loaf of bread and one cake of bread made with oil, and one wafer out of the basket of unleavened bread that is before the Lord) is the same as that mentioned in vv. 2 (unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers smeared with oil). Both include bread, cakes and wafers. But vv. 2 indicates all of them are unleavened. In vv. 23 only the wafers are. Only bread, unqualified, is mentioned in vv. 32 & 34. This is clarified in Leviticus 8:26 which again mentions both.

26 and out of the basket of unleavened bread that was before the Lord he took one unleavened loaf and one loaf of bread with oil and one wafer and placed them on the pieces of fat and on the right thigh.

In Leviticus 7, thanksgiving offerings include unleavened bread, BUT peace offerings include leavened bread (vv. 13).

In Leviticus 23:17 bread baked with leaven is used in during the Feast of Weeks.

17 You shall bring from your dwelling places two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked with leaven, as firstfruits to the Lord.

 

  1. Leaven is Not a Symbol of Evil

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” Matthew 13 c.f. Luke 13:21

In this passage, we see that leaven is used positively in describing the kingdom of heaven. While many of the uses of “leaven” are negative, the overall use is figurative to indicate how a little of the matter at hand spreads to permeate the whole of a body. This is how it is used; sometimes negatively and sometimes positively. Therefore, leaven itself is not to be seen as evil. Its presence would not necessarily make the bread “unclean” for the purposes of the Lord’s Table.

 

  1. We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper, not the Passover.

1 Corinthians 5:6-8 indicates that Christ has fulfilled the Passover for us. It was a type of Christ. The shadow of Passover has been fulfilled and abrogated as part of the ceremonial law which governed worship in the Old Testament. Paul’s use of leaven/unleavened in the context is figurative rather than literal: malice & wickedness vs. sincerity & truth. He speaks not of the bread used, but of our attitudes in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (not Passover).

In 1 Corinthians 10:14ff we see Paul using the general word for “bread”. The flight from idolatry is also the flight from syncretism. His focus is on our unity in Christ as depicted in the Lord’s Supper.

In Luke 22:7 we see there is a word for “unleavened bread”. Paul could very well have used this in his letter to the Corinthians to clarify matters for these Gentile Christians.

In 1 Corinthians 11:23ff the general word for “bread” is used again in reference to their celebration of the Supper. Paul does not clarify this for his largely Gentile audience. Paul may have implicitly intended them to use unleavened bread as in the Jewish festival. However, he has previously told them the Passover was fulfilled in Christ. Paul once again seems less concerned with the elements used than how they celebrated it (the point of the passage is corrupt worship in Corinth).

 

  1. Our Confessional Documents Simply Say “Bread”

WSC Q 96: What is the Lord’s Supper?
A: The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.

 

WLC 168: What is the Lord’s Supper?

A: The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to the appointment of Jesus Christ, his death is showed forth; and they that worthily communicate feed upon his body and blood, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace; have their union and communion with him confirmed; testify and renew their thankfulness, and engagement to God, and their mutual love and fellowship with each other, as members of the same mystical body.

 

WLC Q. 169: How has Christ appointed bread and wine to be given and received in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper?

A: Christ has appointed the ministers of his Word, in the administration of this sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, to set apart the bread and wine from common use, by the word of institution, thanksgiving, and prayer; to take and break the bread, and to give both the bread and the wine to the communicants: who are, by the same appointment, to take and eat the bread, and to drink the wine, in thankful remembrance that the body of Christ was broken and given, and his blood shed, for them.

 

  1. The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed his ministers to declare his word of institution to the people; to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation. WCF, XXIX

 

  1. The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before. WCF, XXIX

 

  1. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ’s body and blood (commonly called transubstantiation) by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; overthrows the nature of the sacrament, and hath been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries. WCF, XXIX

 

It is noteworthy that only one of the commentaries on the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism addresses this issue. Those not mentioning this include A.A. Hodge, Robert Shaw, R.C. Sproul, and Kevin DeYoung. G.I. Williamson does not address it in his volumes on the Shorter Catechism. In his volume on The Westminster Confession of Faith he writes:

“It is our conviction that when the Lord instituted the sacrament he used unleavened bread and fermented wine. … And with this evidence agrees the known practice of the ancient Church, in which unleavened bread and fermented wine were used.

“However, we would not argue that the sacrament cannot be valid without unleavened bread and fermented wine. We can readily envision circumstances under which it might be necessary to use either leavened bread, or grape juice, or even both. Though technically irregular, we would not maintain that the sacrament may not be observe under such conditions. Even those who ordinarily use leavened bread and grape juice out of mere convenience we will not condemn. But if the decision to use grape juice instead of win is based on the influence of the Temperance Movement, we must regard this as seriously unbiblical.” (pp. 222)

 

  1. Response from Church History:

Since church history was mentioned we thought it pertinent to include the views of Martin Luther and John Calvin, two of the most influential Reformers. Their views are not authoritative, but rather helpful for us.

One of Luther’s objections to the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation was that they no longer served bread and wine. Luther held to the view that we should use bread and wine in obedience to Christ’s institution of the Supper. In culture where bread and/or wine are available (like ours, but not some islands in the Pacific for instance) they should be used. We should not celebrate it with pizza (though it includes bread) and Coke. Luther did not specify that unleavened bread should be used.

“According to Luther, the miracle is that Christ, in his human body and blood, becomes present in, under, and through the bread and wine. There is not a change of elements, but an addition to them.” R.C. Sproul[1]

Shifting to Calvin:

“Furthermore, Satan, to deprive the church of this inestimable treasure, has long since spread clouds, and afterward, to obscure this light, has raised quarrels and conflicts to estrange the minds of simple folk from a taste for this sacred food, and also has tried the same trick in our own day.” John Calvin, Institutes IV, XVII, 1.

Calvin, in the above quote, warns about quarrels and conflicts which estrange people from the Table. Satan, he believes, often tries to keep people away due to secondary matters. Calvin affirms that the signs are bread and wine. He does not qualify them at this point. They are bread and wine, not rice cakes and sake or any other combination. (IV, XVII, 1, 3)

“Thus, when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at one grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul.” John Calvin, Institutes, IV, XVII, 3)

Calvin notes that the Supper sends us to the Cross, not to Passover except as much as Christ is the Lamb slain for us. The “thing signified” is of far greater importance for Calvin than the sign. As a result, he did not focus on the type of bread that is to be used.

Another aspect of church history we should consider is the practice of the church. It is not authoritative, but illustrative. Both John Hammett and Robert Letham note that the early church used leavened bread. Eventually the Roman Catholic Church began to shift to unleavened bread. Letham connects this with the development of transubstantiation. Leavened bread would create crumbs, and they did not want the physical body of Jesus to fall on the ground. The Anglican Church is the only Protestant church to continue to use unleavened bread. All of the others used leavened bread like the Eastern Church has for over a thousand years.

 

 

In his book Given for You, Keith Mathison, mentions a controversy involving Baptist theologian Stevens regarding the use of grape juice versus the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. Stevens notes that this is similar to whether to use leavened or unleavened bread. Mathison rightly responds that leavened bread is still bread while grape juice isn’t wine (nor is wine simply juice). The Scriptures and our confessional documents simply say “bread” without any clarification or limitation.

Conclusion:

In light of the above reasons, we believe it is wise to affirm the view expressed by John Calvin.

“But as for the outward ceremony of the action- whether or not the believers take it in their hands, or divide it among themselves, or severally eat what has been given to each; whether they hand the cup back to the deacon or give it to the next person; whether the bread is leavened or unleavened; the wine red or white- it makes no difference. There things are indifferent, and left at the church’s discretion.” Calvin, Institutes, IV, XVII, 43

Our conclusion is that we will continue to use leavened bread but also make an unleavened, gluten-free option available for those whose conscience holds that it should be unleavened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additional Research:

 

Does Scripture Demand Unleavened Bread in the Lord’s Supper? By John S. Hammett

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/does-scripture-demand-unleavened-bread-in-the-lords-supper/

 

“While evidence as to the early church’s practice isn’t abundant, ordinary leavened bread seems to have been the norm. A difference gradually developed between East and West, though, with the East continuing to use leavened bread while the West adopted unleavened bread- a distinction between Orthodox and Roman Catholics that endures today.”

 

Most Protestant churches used leavened bread while the Church of England continued to use unleavened bread.

 

Argues that in places that don’t grow wheat or have bread, a common staple food can be used.

 

This is not a question of novelty, introducing a new sign, but recognizing that bread would be novel for them.

 

Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper by Keith Mathison

“The bread used by Jesus was doubtless the unleavened bread of the Passover meal, as the wine he used was doubtless the fermented juice of the grape. But this does not mean that we must uof necessity use unleavened bread, nor does it mean that we cannot use the unfermented joice of the grape. … To insist on literalism would be tantamount to legalism.” Quoting William Stevens, pp. 306.

 

Response: “Finally, the comparison that Stevens makes between leavened and unleavened bread and wine and grape juice overlooks one big difference between the two. Leavened bread is still bread, but grape juice is not wine.” pp. 306

 

The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread by Robert Letham

“Following this, the evidence (such as we have) indicates the church in the early centuries universally used ordinary leavened bread. By the eighth century, the bread and wine had officially begin. To be identified with the body and blood of Christ. Since leavened breat was mor likely to crumble and so fragment the body of Christ, Rome required the use of unleavened bread. However, the East refused to follow, accusing Rome of Judaizing tendencies, and to this day it continues to use ordinary leavened bread.” pp. 54.

 

“However, the word consistently used in connection with the Lord’s Supper is the wider ranging term artos, meaning a small round loaf of ordinary bread.” pp. 54

 

“A.A. Hodge, in response to the question “What kind of bread is to be used in the sacrament …?” argues that this is not specified, nor rendered essential by the nature of the service.” pp. 54

 

“What is clear is that the elements to be used in the Last Supper are bread and wine (“the fermented juice of the grape … that wine and no other liquid is to be used is clear from the record of the institution”); but as to the exact brand of bread or wine we have no precise requirement.” pp. 55

 

 

[1] Sproul, Vol. 3, pp. 148.

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I really like Matt Chandler’s preaching. He’s a little edgy, and has that Baptist almost screaming things at times. But I benefit from much of what he says. He also experiences similar reactions to the gospel as I did in small city Florida. He just experiences it on a much larger scale in the Big D. His frustrations with people being inoculated for the gospel ring true in my time in Florida.

I’ve read Jared Wilson’s blog for some time now. I like how he tries to keep the gospel central. You have to like a guy who moves to Vermont to pastor a church, especially when he adopts the local sports teams. That’s good missional thinking, right?

Well, they wrote a book together. Matt was the primary author, and Jared helped him out. The book is The Explicit Gospel, and it has blurbs filled with praise from the likes of Rick Warren, D.A. Carson, Mark Driscoll, David Platt, Ed Stetzer and more. A literal hodge-podge of famous (and some might say infamous) pastors. Incidentally, CavCorollary #167 is don’t believe the blurbs.

I am half way through the book, and thought this would be a good time to process it. The first half focuses on “the gospel on the ground.” The second focuses on the “gospel in the air”.  Think trees versus forest. It is the same gospel, but from different perspectives, or angles.

“If the gospel on the ground is the gospel at the micro level, the gospel in the air is the story at the macro level. … One crucial thing that viewing the gospel on the ground helps us do is distinguish between the gospel’s content and the gospel’s implications. … On the ground, the gospel comes to us as individuals.”

The gospel on the ground, according to Chandler, distinguishes between the gospel and its implications. It focuses on the personal aspects of the gospel instead of the cosmic aspects of the gospel. We need both. But we need to distinguish them or we get all messed up. This is one of the problems that he mentions in some “gospel” preaching- they talk as if the implications of the gospel (social justice, good works, community etc.) were the gospel itself. So they distort and obscure the gospel as a result.

But let’s get back to the beginning.

(more…)

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